Could We See a Presidential Meltdown? A Psychologist's Perspective

By Bryant Welch, J.D., Ph.D.

After the first week of the Trump Presidency, there is growing concern about his mental stability. Obvious lying, seemingly impulsive behavior, and hypersensitivity in the extreme even have many of his ideological supporters on edge. What can we say about this from a psychological perspective?

I do not think there has ever been a time when the term "gaslighting" has been more in the news than it was this week. Gaslighting is a difficult concept to understand, but we need to learn about it quickly. It is a very apt metaphor for understanding much of the current Presidential behavior.

In 2008, I wrote a book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martin's, 2008) that explained gaslighting and the increasingly destructive role I saw it playing in American politics. Portentously, I wrote, "The American political process is today a gaslighter's paradise." Enter Donald Trump.

In the book I describe the techniques of gaslighting and how it creates and/or exploits apparent confusion in the electorate. This makes them vulnerable to false promises and cheap, unrealistic catharsis offered by a demagogue who appears strong to them and who is willing to use the manipulative tactics of a cunning gaslighter.

It was this we saw play out in the Trump campaign with his powerful defiance of the establishment and his unleashing of our underappreciated resentment of political correctness. As I wrote recently, there was a strong emphasis on the residual sexism that plagues our society in his attacks on Hillary Clinton and in his disdain for the progress women have made over the last four decades.

But in the book I also discussed the personality structure of the gaslighter himself, and that is what is most relevant and frightening about Trump, the President, as opposed to Trump, the candidate. It is this primitive gaslighter personality that has this week so shocked the established media and, at least by rumor, the Republican establishment, including the White House staff itself.

Two relevant parts of Trump's behavior were on display this past week. From a psychological perspective these fit together and raise serious concerns about a person's psychological stability. First, was the ineffective lying. It was so blatant according to reporters, that had it not come from a President and his White House staff it would have been comical. Second, was the excessive self-reference and impulsively-laced hypersensitivity. A man who has just been given all the adulation that adorns the Presidency can only think about the crowd size and the criticisms that come his way is a very needy, impulsive man.

The common element in all of this, as for most gaslighters, is a seriously impaired sense of self, the experience one has about themselves walking around inside their own skin. It is only the person's importance and power that matters. The gaslighter without absolute power and domination over others and his world becomes bereft and deflated. This is central to the danger a gaslighter poses. At his core, the gaslighter is chasing an elusive subjective human experience of sublime spendor he thinks he can derive from being absolutely unassailable and perfect, both in this dominance over others and in all other aspects of his life. That is the experience he craves and around which his entire world revolves.

In contrast, when something interrupts this feeling state, depending on the severity of psychopathology involved, he suffers massive feelings of psychological injury. Lying is fully justified because it is almost always in the service of enhancing the feelings he has about himself and that is the ultimate, indeed, the only "truth" to which he pays allegiance. Anyone who creates a different experience for him is hurting him and in that sense is truly bad. "Crowd, not what I wanted? You are lying, all of you." Similarly, the sensitivity about anything that could remotely influence his feelings about himself requires his utmost attention. Its not the affairs of state, it's the affairs of the President's self-esteem that matters and that is held together only at an enormous price for everyone around him.

But the human mind is not static and even when the gaslighter is successful the good feelings are not long lasting. He must get more and more to placate the throbbing inner hounding of his mind. If he gains money, he must gain more money. If he gains power, he must gain more power. If he is able to arbitrary assert his will on others in some areas, he must be able to do it in all areas. Otherwise, he feels deflated, cheated, and enraged. Thus, when a gaslighter takes the helm we are in all probability in for an all-or-nothing ride with an ever-risky series of attempts at increasing his accumulation of power and the arbitrary irrational behavior necessary to prove to the gaslighter that he has that power.

If he fails at bolstering his own self-esteem, as he inevitably must, we risk a decompensation, a psychological collapse followed by further irrational behavior doing whatever he can to show his dominance over the rest of us who have let him down. It is often forgotten that at the end of the movie Gaslight, the gaslighter comes completely unraveled and mentally dysfunctional, but not before trying to bring everyone down with him. That is where things get really scary with a gaslighter, especially one with his hands on the nuclear trigger.

I, of course, cannot say what is happening in the inner sanctum of the White House as we speak, but I do hope our Congressional leaders can. There's a lot at stake and we cannot wait too long to let it play out. The fact so much of this behavior is showing up in such a primitive fashion so quickly with the Trump Administration deeply concerns me and should concern them.

Bryant Welch is a clinical psychologist and attorney in San Francisco, CA. He is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind. His web page is www.bryantwelch.com and email Bryant@bryantwelch.com.