Friday, October 5, 2018

How Trump's Dark Triad Traits Have Helped Him Succeed in Politics

Since the 2016 presidential election, much controversy has circulated about Donald Trump’s perceived fitness, or lack thereof, for the highest office. Contentions have especially focused on his temperament and personality traits such as his perceived emotional instability, lack of thoughtfulness, and narcissism, mostly coming from one side of the political spectrum. Most observers would agree that president Trump has a knack for swaying crowds, conveying powerful emotions, and keeping himself in the spotlight. During his candidacy, his blunt off the cuff style of oratory generated strong emotional reactions, both positive and negative. Many don’t agree with his policies; in fact, in the latest Gallup polls, Trump sat at a thirty-eight percent approval rating (Gallup Inc, 2018). But there is one thing that is consistently clear; Donald Trump has mastered the art of self-promotion, and that requires a particular set of traits that not everyone possess. Regardless of whether one believes he is a good leader or a bad leader, he is undeniably a leader who possesses certain qualities and characteristics that his followers do not. The purpose of this paper is to elucidate what is theorized to be Donald Trump’s personality profile and how it effects his use of power and success as a leader

Regardless of political affiliation, most expert and non-expert observers alike can agree where Donald Trump stands on some personality dimensions. For instance, on the Big Five Personality inventory most agree that Donald Trump is very high in extroversion and very low in agreeableness (Nai & Maier, 2018; Visser, Book & Volk, 2017; Wright & Tomlinson, 2018). Extroversion is characterized by the four facets of social self-esteem, social boldness, sociability, and liveliness (Visser, et al., 2017). These characteristics are obvious from his decades long status as a real estate mogul celebrity turned U.S. president. Agreeableness corresponds to a person’s tendency to forgive, be tolerant of others, and compromise or cooperate with others (Visser et al., 2017). A high score on agreeableness describes a strong inclination towards these behaviors while a low score on agreeableness describes an inclination to be vengeful, stubborn, and angered by provocation (Visser et al., 2017). His low agreeableness is evident from the way he reacts to threats from others (Visser et al., 2017) and his reliance on anti-elitist rhetoric and character attacks during his campaign (Nai & Maier, 2018). Other Big Five traits that could be attributed to Donald Trump, but which are hotly contested across the political divide, include low conscientiousness, low openness to experience, and high neuroticism (Visser et al., 2017; Nai & Maier, 2018). Conscientiousness, which is characterized by organized, disciplined and thoughtful decision making (Visser et al, 2017), tends to be lacking in Trump’s impulsive Twitter screeds and reactive policy prescriptions (e.g. when he called for the extra-judicial killing of the family members of suspected terrorists during his campaign). Openness to experience, which is characterized by intellectual curiosity as well as interest in new and novel ideas (Visser et al., 2017), could be perceived as low because of Trump’s reliance on old political tactics (e.g. his very motto ‘Make America Great Again’ was borrowed from a previous Republican president). Trump’s supposed high neuroticism, like his low agreeableness, was reflected in his reliance on strong negativity and character attacks during the primaries and general election (Nai & Maier, 2018).

The HEXACO model of personality provides a different set of insights into Donald Trump’s personal characteristics. Unlike the Big Five Personality inventory, the HEXACO model of personality measures personality along six dimensions instead of five (Visser et al., 2017). The HEXACO model of personality includes four out of the five dimensions of the Big Five Personality inventory (i.e. extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience) and adds two new dimensions of honesty-humility and emotionality (Visser et al., 2017). The HEXACO model of personality has certain advantages over the Big Five Personality inventory such as greater cross-cultural validity and theoretical support (Visser et al., 2017). The dimension of honesty-humility entails the four facets of sincerity, fairness, greed-avoidance, and modesty (Visser et al., 2017). A high score on this dimension entails possession of these four attributes while a low score on this dimension entails a tendency to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain, feelings of entitlement and importance, and a disregard for rules in the pursuit of personal gain (Visser et al., 2017). Given Trump’s history of ethically suspect decisions (e.g. numerous extramarital affairs and Trump University fraud case) and grandiose self-image (e.g. claiming to have one of the highest IQs on Twitter), he would probably score low on the honesty-humility dimension. Visser et al., (2017) cites his low greed-avoidance, which entails disinterest in wealth and indicators of high status, as another general indication of his low honesty-humility. The dimension of emotionality entails the facets of fearfulness, anxiety, sentimentality, and dependence (Visser et al., 2017). Low scores on emotionality correspond to emotional detachment and low empathy (Visser et al., 2017). While this means people who score low on emotionality are less concerned with the effects of their behavior on others, it also means they are less likely to be worried in stressful situations, giving them an advantage in crisis management situations (Visser et al., 2017). This would be a crucial leadership skill to possess, especially in a leadership position as demanding and stressful as president of the United States. Trump’s low score on emotionality could positively relate to his success in business, especially his willingness to take risks (Visser et al., 2017), and could be an important asset in handling the numerous crises presidents have to face (e.g. natural disasters, recessions, wars). However, his low emotionality, along with his low honesty-humility, would also entail a lack of concern for the effects his decisions have on others. Furthermore, low scores on the dimensions of emotionality, honesty-humility, and agreeableness tend to indicate an anti-social personality (Visser et al., 2017). Low scores on emotionality, honesty-humility, agreeableness, and conscientiousness also matches the dark triad: the three anti-social personality traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sub-clinical narcissism (Visser et al., 2017; Nai & Maier, 2018; Jonason, Webster, Schmitt, & Crysel, 2012). This could be problematic for the moral and ethical aspects of president Trump’s leadership decision.

People who possess the dark triad traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism are predisposed to numerous anti-social tendencies. For instance, individuals with these traits tend to believe that the laws and norms of society do not apply to them, tend to have a sense of entitlement and a superiority complex, tend to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain without regret, and tend to use manipulative and coercive tactics in romantic relationships (Jonason et al., 2012). Psychopathy consists of a particular pattern of anti-social behaviors and emotions such as shallow affect, low remorse, low fear, low empathy, ego-centrism, manipulativeness, impulsivity, aggression, and criminality (Jonason et al., 2012). Psychopathy is also thought to have two factors: primary or instrumental psychopathy and secondary or hostile/reactive psychopathy (Jonason et al., 2012). Instrumental psychopathy contains the traits of shallow affect, low empathy, and interpersonal coldness (Jonason et al., 2012). High levels of these traits are associated with emotional stability (Jonason et al., 2012). Hostile/reactive psychopathy contains the manipulative, socially deviant, aggressive, and impulsive traits of psychopathy (Jonason et al., 2012). Psychopathy has been demonstrated to be correlated with a few of the dimensions of the Big Five Personality inventory. For instance, psychopaths tend to score lower than the general population on the dimensions of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, but tend to score higher on measures of extroversion and openness to experience (Jonason et al., 2012). As noted above, Donald Trump also scores very high on extroversion and exceptionally low on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism (Visser et al., 2017; Nai & Maier, 2018; Wright & Tomlinson, 2018). This does not necessarily imply that Donald Trump is a psychopathy, but only that his personality is similar to the profile of one. Narcissism is characterized by a strong sense of entitlement and superiority to others (Jonason et al., 2012). There are generally two types of narcissism: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism (Watts, Lilienfeld, Smith, Miller, Campbell, Waldman, Rubenzer, & Faschingbauer, 2013). Grandiose narcissism tends to be associated with flamboyant and inter-personally dominate behavior patterns while vulnerable narcissism tends to manifest emotionally fragile and socially withdrawn behavior (Watts et al., 2013). Like psychopathy, both types of narcissism are negatively correlated with agreeableness, but diverge in relation to the Big Five dimensions of extroversion and neuroticism (Watts et al., 2013). Grandiose narcissism, the type we would suspect Donald Trump to possess given his high extroversion, is positively associated with inflated social self-esteem, but negatively associated with distress (Watts et al., 2013). Narcissistic individuals also tend to be overconfident in their decision making ability, often resort to deceit, and usually fail to learn from their mistakes (Watts et al., 2013). Machiavellianism is similar to narcissism. It consists of three main components: manipulativeness, cynicism, and the belief that the ends justify the means (Jonason et al., 2012). Machiavellianism is usually associated with leaders given its name origin but is not necessarily attached to a leader. For instance, Machiavellianism can manifest in romantic relationships in the use of deceptive and coercive tactics (Jonason et al., 2012). People high on this trait tend to prioritize competition over cooperation, place low value on their community, are more willing to betray friends and associates when they know they cannot retaliate, and have lower ethical standards compared to the general population (Jonason et al., 2012). Like psychopathy and narcissism, Machiavellianism is also correlated with some of the Big Five traits. For example, Machiavellianism is associated with low scores on agreeableness and conscientiousness (Jonason et al., 2012). Coincidentally, these are also traits that Trump is rated low on, but as previously mentioned for psychopathy, this is not conclusive evidence that Trump possesses Machiavellianism. However, his political tactics might suggest a high measure on this trait. In trust game studies, participants that possess high Machiavellianism tend to follow rational strategies that maximize personal gain more than those with lower scores on Machiavellianism (Jonason et al., 2012). Trump’s use of former White House staff as scapegoats to deflect personal responsibility in the ongoing investigation of collusion (e.g. attacking former national security adviser Michael Flynn after he plead guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with a Russian ambassador among other incidents of turning on former White House staff) mirrors these results. His scapegoating of certain demographics to explain complex social and economic problems (e.g. immigrants to explain a lack of job opportunities and Muslims to explain terrorism) also suggests a high degree of Machiavellianism.

Although it may be counter-intuitive, dark triad traits tend to be common in leaders or at least a lot more common than in the general population. For examples, U.S. presidents possess higher levels of grandiose narcissism than the U.S. general population (Blais & Pruysers, 2017). Machiavellianism is also associated with positive leadership outcomes. For U.S. presidents, Machiavellianism is positively associated with the number of bills passed, performance ratings and charismatic leadership (Blais & Pruysers, 2017). Some facets of psychopathy, like shallow affect, are positively correlated with important leadership skills such as strategic thinking, creativity, and communication skills (Blais & Pruysers, 2017). Narcissism and Machiavellianism also predict political ambition, perceived qualifications for a career in politics, political success and an overall desire for leadership roles (Blais & Pruysers, 2017). Donald Trump’s close alignment with the Dark Triad suggests that he possess certain qualities that predispose him to become a successful leader. His past success as a business leader is apparent, but less than two years in, his success as a U.S. president remains to be seen.


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Gallup, Inc. (2018). Presidential Approval Ratings -- Donald Trump. Retrieved September 19, 2018, Retrieved from

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Nai, A., & Maier, J. (2018). Perceived personality and campaign style of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Personality and Individual Differences, 121, 80-83. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.09.020

Visser, B. A., Book, A. S., & Volk, A. A. (2017). Is Hillary dishonest and Donald narcissistic? A HEXACO analysis of the presidential candidates' public personas. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 281-286. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.10.053

Watts, A. L., Lilienfeld, S. O., Smith, S. F., Miller, J. D., Campbell, W. K., Waldman, I. D., . . . Faschingbauer, T. J. (2013). The Double-Edged Sword of Grandiose Narcissism: Implications for Successful and Unsuccessful Leadership Among U.S. Presidents. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2379-2389. doi:10.1177/0956797613491970

Wright, J. D., & Tomlinson, M. F. (2018). Personality profiles of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: Fooled by your own politics. Personality and Individual Differences, 128, 21-24. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.02.019