Can General Kelly Do the Impossible: Change Donald Trump?

Riding the Bull
Riding the Bull

When my friend's grandson was in kindergarten he was smitten with a classmate, Lindsay. He said he would marry her someday because by then she will stop hitting. Lots of luck, Michael.

Although early behavior patterns are often predictive of behavior and personality later in life, that's not always the case. On reflection, Lindsay has a good chance of changing. At age five she may be going through a developmental phase or she may be subject to stress within her family that is influencing her current "acting out." Future positive experiences could shape her behavior in a more pro-social direction. And Lindsay will have many opportunities to grow and develop emotionally before she reaches adulthood. So we could reasonably join Michael in his optimism, while keeping our fingers crossed.

But what about a seventy-one-year old man named Donald Trump who has been hitting all of his life--hitting in the form of abusing workers, contractors, the disabled, immigrants, women, and anyone else who resists or challenges him.

What are the chances of his changing? Probably zero--since he has no wish to change. From his perspective, why should he, when he believes that he knows more about almost everything than anyone else on the planet? The Washington Post lists "19 things Donald Trump knows better than anyone, according to Donald Trump." Included in the list are Isis, the American system of government, health care, and the military.

In stark contrast, "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough said: "Donald Trump doesn't know anything about anything." Conservative Max Boot, who has advised presidential candidates on foreign policy and is currently a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees. He reported in the New Yorker on August 4, 2017 that "Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did," Others have added their voices, alarmed at Trump's pervasive ignorance.

Significant changes in behavior and personality do not come easily. Just ask those who have struggled for years with change in psychotherapy. Donald Trump offers no indication of an interest in seeking personal change, so why should we expect any change?

In view of his grandiose self-assessment would we even be surprised if he declared: "There but for the grace of I go God."

Yet it's astonishing to hear expectations that he might change from politicians, news anchors and commentators, and the public.

After Donald Trump won the Republican nomination his advisors assured Republican leaders that he would change. Senior advisor Paul Manafort said, "the negatives will come down, the image is going to change." And Ted Cruz , who previously called Trump" a pathological liar" and "utterly amoral," added that Trump's outrageous behavior "was just an act."

When these forecasts of change didn't pan out after he became President, the media touted the view that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump would calm and control Donald. That hasn't worked either. But Trump supporters aren't fazed by what others have called bizarre behavior; they love Donald and that's presidential enough for them. Republicans, though, were worried but then relieved that Trump sounded presidential in reading his scripted speech to a joint session of Congress in February, 2017, as if that signaled a personality change.

Now Republican hopes for reigning in Trump and getting him on a rational course of behavior rest with General John Kelly, the new White House Chief of Staff. Conservative Republican and former Speaker Newt Gingrich predicts that with Kelly cracking his military whip: "the White House will become more orderly and disciplined -- with clear lines of authority, serious planning and strong teamwork."

For those equally under the illusion that Donald Trump will change or be brought under control by someone who is his inferior (remember, Trump knows more than the generals), keep in mind an amusing cartoon that speaks to Donald Trump's lifelong behavior pattern: The cartoon pictures a young child tugging at a woman's skirt with the caption "Mrs Kahn, Ghengis is hitting me again."

Some early patterns stick and intensify.

Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at CUNY (Brooklyn College). He is also a past president of the Brooklyn Psychological Association, and the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”

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