Most times, I find plenty of merit in the viewpoints expressed by David Brooks, The New York Times columnist and PBS and NPR contributor. But I found myself less on-board recently when I read his comparison of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump: If Reagan’s dominant emotional note was optimism, Trump’s is fear. If Reagan’s optimism was expansive, Trump’s fear propels him to close in. Then after a few of Trump’s foreign policy positions get mentioned, Brooks adds: It’s not a cowering, timid fear; it’s more a dark, resentful porcupine fear.
Like Brooks, I’ve been watching Trump closely for a while now, partly as concerned citizen, partly as a pundit for CNN and Thompson-Reuters during the bizarre 2016 presidential race. Moreover, I’m finishing up my most recent book. This one has involved facial coding numerous photographs to arrive at the emotional profiles of over 150 famous people, including Trump. So I have a comparative benchmark. Emotion by emotion I know when Trump’s amount of emoting is at, above or below the average of my 150+-person sample. In other words, which emotions characterize Trump and which don’t stand out in the mix? To keep it simple, let’s go emotion by emotion through what’s essential to understanding Trump’s personality, starting with where I’m in the most agreement with Brooks.
Anger: If Trump were an animal, resentful porcupine would fit the bill nicely. Anger is about wanting control, and hitting out to ensure it happens. Trump’s provocative tweets become Exhibit A here. But compared to other 150+ famous people analyzed for my latest book, Trump’s volume of emoting devoted to anger is actually no more than average. That’s because other negative emotions define Trump’s personality even more so. What’s unique about Trump is instead that, when angry, he’s very angry. Watch the way his lower lip bulges when he fumes or starts ranting.
Happiness: Just before the Reagan/Trump comparison, Brooks writes of Trump that he seems to suffer from an angry form of anhedonia, the inability to experience happiness. Bingo. Our new president is, indeed, notably lacking in happiness. Compared to the other 150+ famous people I studied, including past presidents, Trump barely registers on the scale at all. Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” appears to be in the Donald’s case a matter entirely of “pursuit” – with little in the way of “happiness” other than pleasure apparently taken in groping women.
Fear: While Brooks qualifies his statement that fear is Trump’s dominant emotional note by saying Trump’s fear isn’t of a cowering, timid nature, I still take issue with that premise. And here’s why. For starters, Trump exhibits only a very average amount of fear compared to the other 150+ famous people I studied. Second, fear means you sense a threat, to which most people’s natural reaction is to freeze. In Trump’s case, however, he’s compulsive and hyper-active. Sweeping executive orders and provocative tweets show Trump so opposite to cowering that the notion of him as predominantly fearful becomes a non-starter, a definite no. Or as they say in Trump’s native New York City, fuhgeddaboudit!
Trump may very well be a fear-mongerer to attract support, but he’s not a fearful guy. You can mock Trump, but a coward he isn’t.
Trump may very well be a fear-mongerer to attract support, but he’s not a fearful guy.
One striking autobiographical detail about Trump is that, as a boy, he would accompany his dad, Fred Trump, when Fred was making the rounds to connect rent from tenants in Brooklyn and Queens. Fred’s advice to the young Donald: always stand to one side of the door, never squarely in the doorway, just in case a bullet comes whistling by. Somebody with a different temperament (perhaps Donald’s own son, Barron), might have responded to Fred’s advice by becoming fearful. But not Trump, who’s notable for showing larger than usual amounts of two other emotions instead: disgust and sadness.
Disgust: Missing from Brooks’ characterization of Trump is another key, negative emotion that brings America’s 45th president into focus. Neither anger, nor fear but, rather, disgust begins to explain Trump better. Trump is both a germaphobe averse to anything “poisonous” (like booze) and “fed up” with most everything in the world. Disgust explains Brooks’ basic misstep here: Trump’s tendency isn’t to close in (fear style); he’s pulling back (disgust style). Trump scores higher than usual for disgust in comparison to the other 150+ famous people I studied. When disgusted, people’s noses wrinkle because they metaphorically can’t stand the smell of, for example, Washington, D.C., and so they want to “drain the swamp.”
Sadness: Finally, to truly understand Trump and his lack of happiness, we need to go to its opposite. Sadness is about the absence or loss of fulfillment, and a Trump specialty way beyond the average amount the 150+ famous people show. Anger has become so common in politics that it’s a commodity. Disgust combined with sadness is unique, and emotionally the combination helps to explain Trump’s victory. Sadness equates to pain, which many despairing citizens feel but they’re fed up with, disgust style, and don’t want to tolerate anymore. Make America Great Again is a cry for hope.
Time in the White House will tell whether Trump’s brand of sadness delivers on a promise of patriotic empathy by lifting the lives of economically-challenged citizens. If so, that goal will have to share air time with what I suspect really most actively drives Trump’s outsized sadness: thin-skinned narcissism involving the disappointment that others don’t applaud you enough.