Battered by crises that require hard decisions, the president becomes a more cartoonish version of himself.
If Donald Trump loses reelection, it will be because the country changed and he did not. Over the past several months, the United States has witnessed a once-in-a-century pandemic, the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, and some of the largest protests since the 1960s. Public opinion has swung hard in favor of scientific expertise, a functioning welfare state, and greater racial justice. Yet Donald Trump has responded by becoming an even more cartoonish version of himself.
On Tuesday in The New York Times, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin puzzled over Trump’s refusal to adapt to the moment. In the face of polling showing that a majority of “somewhat conservative” voters approve of the Black Lives Matter movement, the two Times journalists wrote, Trump has become even more “inflammatory on race.” They added, “No matter how much his advisers and lawmakers nudge him to project unity and bigness, he keeps bingeing on the political equivalent of comfort food.” In trying to explain Trump’s behavior, Haberman and Martin rhetorically throw up their hands. “As political strategy goes,” they write, “it’s confounding.”
As political strategy, perhaps, but not as human psychology. Everything that the public knows about Trump suggests that the prospect of being humiliated by events outside his control is causing him enormous stress. And everything that scientists know about stress suggests that it leads people to fall back into old habits. Stress makes it hard for people to change, even when they need to most.
Scientifically measuring Donald Trump’s stress level is impossible. As Peter Sokol-Hessner, an assistant professor of cognitive psychology and neuroscience at the University of Denver, explained to me, researchers generally induce stress in subjects either by dunking their arm in cold water or making them give a speech on short notice, and then monitoring the way their hormones respond. As far as we know, no one has performed those tests on Trump. But, from afar, people who study stress have made informed guesses about what provokes it in the president.
During the 2016 presidential debates, a company called Sharecare used data algorithms to gauge when each candidate’s voice seemed to manifest the greatest stress. Trump, noted Jayne O’Donnell in a USA Today story about Sharecare’s findings, exhibited low levels of stress when making personal attacks on other candidates and higher levels when discussing the substance of public policy. (By way of comparison, Hillary Clinton showed the opposite pattern.) Sharecare is a for-profit health-care company, not an academic institution. So its findings merit some caution. But two psychologists whom I interviewed came to similar conclusions. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and violence expert at the Yale School of Medicine and the editor of the book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, told me, “On the debate stage, Trump is in his element when he can be not a debater but a fighter. His goal is twofold: to divert away from rational discussions on public-policy issues, which he cannot do, and to attack his opponents viciously and viscerally, since his idea of being a winner is to make a kill.” Melanie Greenberg, the author of The Stress-Proof Brain, suggested that when Trump is “actively doing something to stay in control, he feels a sense of mastery, that he’s stronger than the other person.” By contrast, she said, “it’s hard for him to tolerate not being in control.”
Given this analysis, the pandemic, the recession, and the protests are exactly the kinds of phenomena likely to drive up Trump’s stress level. Little evidence indicates that seeing others suffer particularly bothers Trump. But he is deeply fearful of being judged a loser, and each of the crises he faces could prove potent enough to help bring about his defeat. What’s more, a pandemic or a recession can’t be deflated with insults in the way a political opponent can. As early as last summer, former Trump advisers told The New York Times that the prospect of the economy turning south was making Trump crazy. Last month, Vanity Fair reported that Trump was growing infuriated by his declining poll numbers—and even threatening to sue his campaign manager—because, as one former West Wing official put it, “he is trying to control the narrative and he can’t.”
But that would require fundamentally changing Trump’s normal mode of operation. And research suggests that the more stressed someone is, the harder that sort of recalibration becomes. “What acute stress does,” Sokol-Hessner told me, “is it shifts you away from more complex ways of evaluating your options into habitual shortcuts.” Stress affects people’s capacity to “take into account new information.” It leads them to revert to familiar behaviors even as evidence mounts that those familiar behaviors are not serving them well.
That’s what Trump has done in recent months. He’s employed racist language to blame the pandemic on China, he’s threatened force against protesters, and he’s doubled down on his defense of Confederate statues. Again and again—through attacks on Barack Obama, Joe Biden, the head of the World Health Organization, and various journalists and local officials—he’s tried to turn the coronavirus, the recession, and the protests into the kind of personalized conflicts in which he feels most comfortable. In retrospect, his decision to hold daily press conferences in the early days of the pandemic can be understood not merely as the result of narcissism but as an attempt to set up the ad hominem showdowns—in this case with reporters—that he vastly prefers over substantive policy making. He has also demanded more presidential debates. As Haberman and Martin report, Trump is “answering to his own instincts.”
But this approach is backfiring. As national events have damaged Trump politically, he has responded to the increased stress by becoming an even more extreme version of himself, which has convinced even more Americans that he’s not the right man for this moment. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s likely to continue until Election Day, if not longer.