Can Sleep Deprivation Explain Donald Trump's Behavior?

Not that it would be an excuse.
A man sleeps before a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Jan. 23, 2016, in Pella, Iowa.
A man sleeps before a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Jan. 23, 2016, in Pella, Iowa.
Joshua Lott via Getty Images

Donald Trump has a troubled relationship with facts. But long before he became the Republican front-runner, he had a troubled relationship with sleep.

Trump’s sleep deprivation isn’t some dark secret that opposition researchers have had to surface. He’s been bragging about it for years.

He boasted about getting by on just three or four hours of sleep a night last fall -- about half the amount recommended for most adults.

"You know, I'm not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what's going on," Trump said at a November rally in Springfield, Illinois.

In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Timothy Egan suggested a "unified theory" to explain the candidate's behavior by way of his chronic fatigue.

Against the backdrop of Trump’s poor judgment, mood swings, occasional amnesia and rabble-rousing, fatigue may seem to be the least of Trump's problems. But as Egan noted, a lack of sleep negatively impacts many aspects of health and behavior that are important for anyone -- especially someone in a position of power. Sleep deprivation has been linked to memory problems, cognitive dysfunction, moodiness, compromised decision-making, impulsive behavior and paranoia.

"The negative consequences of sleep deprivation in humans are well established," Dr. Patrick Fuller, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School, told The Huffington Post, "with features like vigilance, attention, working memory, and higher cognitive abilities being compromised first."

Trump's campaign did not respond to a request for comment on his current sleep habits, or whether he finds just a few hours a night to be sufficient.

The real estate mogul is history's latest example of a prominent man flaunting his lack of shuteye. Labor historian Alan Derickson places Trump in a long tradition of macho sleeplessness that includes Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill. Edison even once wrote that "there is really no reason why men should go to bed at all."

In his book Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness, Derickson explains how starting with the Industrial Revolution, the realities of worker exhaustion took a back seat to economic success. "Resisting sleep became a challenge of masculine strength," he writes.

No one embodies the "highly masculine executive style" of the last century more than Donald Trump, suggests Derickson. And ever since he first appeared on the national scene in the 1980s, the "flamboyant self-promoter cultivated an image of superhuman energy and drive."

In his 2004 book Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, Trump claimed to sleep only from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., in order to gain a competitive advantage in his dealings. He advised readers, “Don’t sleep any more than you have to. ... No matter how brilliant you are, there’s not enough time in the day."

But the idea of "overcoming" sleep is a bit of throwback nonsense that is, incidentally, typical of Trump's presentation at large. His sleep-deprivation brags go hand-in-hand with his nativism and xenophobia -- all are artifacts of American intellectual history.

Politicians on the other side admittedly are not getting a full night's sleep either. Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama both concede that they'd like to get more. But at least they agree that a lack of sleep is not helping.

One major caveat of Fuller's "sleep-deprived Trump" hypothesis is that self-reports of any health behavior are notoriously unreliable. Coming from such a well-documented liar as Trump, who's to say he's telling the truth this time? Reuters reported that Trump prefers to sleep in his own bed in his "marble-and-gold-furnished Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan" almost every night.

Is someone so particular about sleep really scraping by on four hours a night? Perhaps Trump's sleep debt is as much spin as other parts of his campaign.

But if it is true that Trump consistently sleeps less than his body needs, Fuller says, "it is probably fair to say that he is not operating at his peak cognitive levels."

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

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