Dealing with the Trump Presidency: High-Conflict on Steroids
Guest By Don Saposnek, Ph.D.
Trump is president. That is our current reality. While nobody would doubt that this presidential election process was extraordinary, the polarization of the political parties and of citizens has been magnified to such a degree that many family members and friends have stopped talking to each other—at least about politics. And, with the news completely saturated with the latest daily bold actions, tweets, and fall-outs of the president’s moves, it is hard to not be exposed to the ensuing conflict.
Trump’s supporters have begun to divide into its own two camps—those that are pleased that he is carrying out his campaign promises just like he said he would, and those that may be having second thoughts about having voted for him, as they watch the domestic fall-out and world-wide alarm to his actions during his first weeks in office.
Trump’s opponents have expressed profound fear, anger, dread and dismay about what may be in store, given the calamities and polarized conflict surrounding just the beginning of his presidency. Moreover, his supporters and his opponents (both politicians and regular citizens) have cut off contact, or are yelling and cursing at each other or sending nasty emails and tweets back and forth.
And, until he begins to behave in a more acceptable, traditionally “presidential” manner (highly unlikely, given his personality structure), or effectively burns his own presidency and is forced out, or elected out of office, we are left having to deal with him. So, how are we to move on, within this reality?
Moving on…within a Trump Presidency
There are several stages that one must go through in coming to terms with such a high-conflict situation, when the stakes are so high for each person.
Stage 1. Deal with the feelings of fear, anger, sadness and disappointment with the election outcome:
When a person is confronted with a powerful life event that overall feels traumatic, and in the moment, feels surreal, it is important to first get in touch with the feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and disappointment that may arise. Such feelings are common during a political upset, and are parallel to the feelings of spouses in high-conflict divorces (In our book, Splitting America, Bill Eddy and I detail the extraordinary parallels between high-conflict politics and high-conflict divorce).
Before a divorcing couple can effectively participate in divorce mediation, they may each need to first vent their negative feelings. Once these feelings have been expressed (to friends, family, neighbors, therapists, lawyers, and frequently, to the mediator), the parties are in a better position to shift into a more rational mode and effectively negotiate a resolution to their conflicts. Similarly, in dealing with the election outcome, we must first be able to vent our intense feelings in some constructive way; ideally this is done with like-minded partners, to minimize the rift with people on the “other side.”
Stage 2. Understand the personal dynamics of the President:
Much has been observed and written about Donald Trump and his tendencies for generating high conflict that result from his narcissistic behaviors, self-centeredness, simplistic black or white thinking, impulsivity, and extreme defensiveness, with instant aggressive retaliation whenever he perceives a personal slight. The public display of the many elements of his personal style of behavior has caused such alarm for a large number of psychotherapists that they were willing to break the “Goldwater Rule”;
a professional ethic which discourages therapists from diagnosing a public figure without having treated him or her.
It has been suggested that Trump is “ethically challenged,” and that he lacks a moral compass. He appears to be motivated more by “power over others” than by “power over self “(self-control). He also appears to lack an “internal locus of control” (using an internal barometer for assessing one’s self-esteem), but rather operates largely through an “external locus of control” (relying on other people to assure himself of his worthiness). His compulsive need for continually validating himself through public displays of self-aggrandizement suggests great personal insecurity. He also has a life-time tendency for being vindictive and vengeful, a classic characteristic of a high-conflict person; for such individuals, there are only two kinds of people in his world—those supporting him, and those against him—the latter are viewed as “enemies.” As he has said countless times during his campaign and throughout his business career, “If somebody hits you, you should hit them back 5 or 10 times more!” Taking no responsibility for his own behaviors, the high-conflict person always blames others (often accusing them with exactly what he himself did), and seeks revenge for the mortal wound to his fragile self-esteem.
While his supporters had hoped that once in office he would shake up the political process and “Drain the Swamp” of political insiders, it may not be playing out exactly like that. Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor of The Nation magazine, in a CNN interview, said of Trump: “He’s disruptive but not transformational.” And, it is just this confusing pattern of disruptive words, tweets, and behaviors that is creating the cloud of anxiety hanging over the heads of Americans and world leaders. Trump tweets out phrases that sound like policy statements, but lack detail and clarity. Lack of information breeds anxiety. Anxiety is reduced by grabbing and holding on to a narrative—any narrative—that gives a sense of cognitive security, even if it is a false sense that is based in the new concepts of “Alternative Facts” and “Fake News”.
Stage 3. Understand the current political context.
When facts aren’t facts: What could a public figure who speaks for the president possibly mean by uttering “Facts are not facts,” as when Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, tried to reconcile reality with what the president said? Possibly, she could mean that all of truth is relative; that, in the bigger scheme of things, facts are in the eye of the beholder. Was this utterance just relativity on steroids, sophomoric ontology, or great wisdom? Rational conversations in a society require a common acceptance of facts vs. fiction. When this line is too blurred, conversations are frustrating, at best, or not possible, at worst.
Just as consensual agreement about laws is necessary for a society to function well, agreement about basic facts is essential. A society without basic laws is a society in chaos. But at times, even laws are broken. When this occurs at the highest level of society (i.e. by leaders, politicians and professionals with the highest levels of power and authority), reality becomes centralized in the powerful, and weakened in the masses. As power (of facts/knowledge/reality) leaves the masses, doubt arises, and good sociopathic leaders seize the opportunity to gain more power, by defining and thus controlling the new “facts.” When our leaders’ perspectives become “truth,” the masses are then effectively disempowered and lay down their beliefs/guard/weapons to the power of those who “really know.” Essentially, this is giving over Truth to Power. The net result is Fascism, Authoritarianism, or, at least, Plutocracy/Oligarchy, or some other sort of very centralized power and control.
Other influences on the President:
Advice Givers. There is a very significant concern about Donald Trump regarding from whom he gets advice. Because he has populated his inner circle with only two kinds of people—family and loyalists—any outside input about actions he should take as president comes only from people who already explicitly agree with him. Personally, he cannot tolerate input from those unfriendly to him or his ideas. Thus, the bigger context of his governing decisions is heavily influenced by one-sided ideologues—and fierce ones at that. Consistent with his personal dynamics, he has placed his adult children in positions of power and influence on him; they are strident loyalists of their father/father in-law, and, whether formally, or just informally working in the White House, they will doubtless have “family conversations” with him; this adds another layer of private influence, in spite of his declarations that they will not be involved in his decision-making.
Perhaps the person that appears closest to the president’s ear is Steve Bannon, chief strategist and senior counselor to the President, whose colorful political history is well-known (See, for example: Steve Bannon Will Lead Trump’s White House, and Bannon’s Blueprint – Read It For Yourself).
There are some striking parallels between Steve Bannon and Shakespeare’s character, “Honest Iago,” in Othello.
Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, often considered such because of the unique trust that Othello places in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication…Iago is a Machiavellian schemer and manipulator, as he is often referred to as “honest Iago”, displaying his skill at deceiving other characters so that not only do they not suspect him, but they count on him as the person most likely to be truthful…Shakespearean critic A. C. Bradley said that “evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago”, and also states that he “stands supreme among Shakespeare’s evil characters because the greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination have gone into his making.” The mystery surrounding Iago’s actual motives continues to intrigue readers and fuel scholarly debate. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iago
Additionally, the cabinet which Trump selected consists of extremely wealthy business people with extremist ideas, who largely have little to no experience in performing the tasks they will be charged with, and a group of Generals, who know about war! They will each be re-inventing the wheel of government, and in mostly radical, non-mainstream ways. Surely, that is exactly what Trump voters wanted but, as the wise saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it!” And what you get with a high-conflict person in charge is more high-conflict…and, likely, a war or two, and coming very soon.
The Media. Another huge influence on fueling conflict in our nation’s politics has been the media. The subtitle for the first edition of Splitting America is “How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High-Conflict Divorce.” In the book, we discussed the significant influence that the 24/7 cycle of cable and print news reports has had. We noted their driving adage, “If it bleeds, it leads” for selecting the “Breaking News” feature on every TV station, and for picking the headlines for top newspapers and magazines. The net result of this is that conflict is encouraged in our society, via the media. This is good news for our new President, since his high-conflict personality thrives on these reports. Subsequently, every tweet of his is turned into a new cycle of reporting that keeps the attention on him and reminds everyone around the world of his “power,” while it distracts from the more important, substantive issues of the day.
The consequences of Trump consistently watching the TV news.
The negatives of Trump’s TV watching might include the following:
- It continually reinforces his relentless seeking of attention and his “power” for intimidating others.
- If he feels too offended by what is said in the TV news reports, he might use his power to censor the news media, as did Putin in Russia. If this happens, we should all be afraid, since the repression of opposing voices can incrementally escalate beyond a tipping point of no return; it is this possibility that scares the public and the media, and threatens the freedom and very principles of our democracy.
But, there may be some positives in Trump watching TV:
- He is being taught daily how to think and act like a President. Since he won’t accept any direct input from perceived opponents (which include everyone who does not support him), he might be able to learn from TV—an anonymous source of information.
- Trump appears to have no sense or knowledge of history; his “America First” perspective is economically, not historically-based, with no perspective on all the other complex dimensions of human functioning and international relationships that are systemically related. While he is watching TV, he may be able to cobble together some semblance of broader perspectives, although it certainly is not the best way for him to accomplish this.
There is an important distinction between “calculated duplicity” (more like Bannon) and “ignorant narcissism” (perhaps more like Trump). As Trump tweets out his assertive policy-looking utterances, it is easy to attribute thoughtful planning that would suggest a well-designed strategy is behind it, when it could, and more likely is, impulsive, unplanned, innocent assertions, with little to no thought behind it at all.
There is a bit of Trump behaving like the Peter Sellers’ character, Chance, in the movie “Being There”: “He is simple-minded, and his knowledge is derived entirely from television. When his benefactor dies, Chance is forced to discover the outside world for the first time.” His simple words are repeatedly misunderstood as profound; “…in particular, his statements about gardens and the weather are interpreted as allegorical statements about business and the economy…The President interprets Chauncey’s remarks about the ‘garden’ as economic and political advice. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence and soon rises to the top of Washington society. He remains very mysterious, as the Secret Service is unable to find any background information about him. Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his ‘simple brand of wisdom’ resonates with the jaded American public.”
Stage 4. Consider an action plan to process this new reality.
There are several ways for a viewer of the current political scene to deal with it:
- Just accept that there is an irreparable rift between the parties and their respective polarized positions on issues and on truth, and that whatever views the current administration proffers, regardless of their apparent validity, veracity, or value, they will soon become “normalized” and no longer so alarming. This, essentially, is a “do nothing” strategy to just “wait it out.” The problem with such a strategy in these times is that pretty much everybody is affected by this new administration and the conflict that results from it. It seems to touch every American in some way, whether it is income, healthcare, discrimination and persecution, physical safety, or travel. Unless one can completely refrain from exposure to current events, each of us will experience stress, either directly or indirectly, as the fall-out from the political conflict all around us.
- Try to competently argue your side against the “other” person’s side of each specific political issue, in attempts to persuade the “other” of your rightness, and try to “win.” This strategy might work in a rational discussion within a rational context, with two reasonable people from two reasonable sides. However, the current environment is so polarized with extreme thought and action, at least on one side, that it seems beyond rational discussion. Hence, the rules of regular discourse do not seem to apply to our current dilemma.
- Try to find common ground between you and your “arguing partner.” Again, this seems like a rational approach, but the rift is so great that there seems to be little to no common ground on so many issues.
- Give up on trying to persuade individuals by argument, and get involved in political activism to attempt to influence or oust your opponent’s leaders. Many groups of protesters formed in the first week of the new administration. The first and largest of such protest groups was the Women’s March on Washington, along with the numerous other supportive Women’s Marches in local cities and towns throughout the country. Certainly, the spirit and intentions of such marches were well-meaning and did capture the attention of the media, and the need for push-back against a world-leader with a high-conflict personality is very important; people with narcissistic tendencies respect and respond well to strength in others and to structure. However, there is real potential for these protests to further polarize the political scene, because of this particular president to whom these protests are addressed. We also know that people with narcissistic tendencies get very defensive when allegations are made against them. This president is unlikely to show empathy with the protesters, and is most likely to deny the causes of their protests, and/or attack the groups and individuals promoting them, with blaming and demeaning words. Protecting his ego is paramount to his psychological survival. Any slight against him is met with fear and immediate rage and retaliation.
Stage 5. Take action.
So, how does one decide which of the above approaches to take? Can one take multiple approaches simultaneously?
It is likely the case that different people will take different approaches for dealing with this great schism within our country. Some will do nothing and hope it just goes away. While that approach certainly can protect those too sensitive to conflict (which might be necessary for them), it will not contribute to help resolve the national rift. Some will choose to argue their side, using logic. However, logic rarely trumps (pun unintended here) an unreasonable position argued by an unreasonable person.
Some may choose a softer approach, by attempting to reach conciliation or common ground with a person of the other persuasion. These discussions may result in understanding of each other’s feelings and common values, but they rarely lead to larger change in the narrative of the national politics.
Last are those who may choose to by-pass discussion and go directly to public protest. Again, while this certainly has a place in a democracy, and, with enough protesters with enough endurance, it can sometimes force changes in the nature of specific political issues or positions taken by the Washington leadership. However, the major rift still remains.
Polarity Management: Trying to reconcile the disparate political positions on so many core issues is likely to be arduous and frustrating. Our country and its issues are very complex, and simple solutions to any of its problems are likely not forthcoming. However, an approach that Bill Eddy and I suggest in our book, Splitting America, is to consider the approach of “Polarity Management,” first described by Barry Johnson in his 1992 book of the same name. This approach is based on the premise that many conflicts are not “problems to solve,” but “polarities to manage.” With any ongoing conflict in which the two poles are interdependent, there is not a problem to solve but a balance to maintain between the sides.
In our political system, the pendulum regularly swings back and forth over some extended period of time between control by a Democratic ideology and control by a Republican ideology. The political problems that arise will not be resolved by eliminating one side, but by continually re-calibrating the balance, as best as possible. The presence of a leader with a high-conflict personality in one of the parties simply tips the balance more extremely to one side, for some period of time. Rather than try to eliminate that leader, we must seek to bring the balance more to a moderate position—where our system operates most optimally.
Citizens having rational, but respectful discussions with family members and friends, with the goal of persuading each other, understanding each other, or attempting to reach common ground regarding areas of concern can contribute to managing the polarities. Protesters can also highlight the need for re-balancing, if the protests are strategically organized to make public the consequences of certain governmental decisions, in a respectful and non-demeaning way. And, change can also come from the top down, as the delegates from the Executive, Congressional, and Judicial branches of government work hard to keep their checks and balances in place. This, in effect, serves to re-balance and manage the polarities. However, it is very important to underscore the need for all of these interactions to take place over time, with a level of respect and self-restraint that minimizes personal attacks.
Even Trump needs to manage polarities, between his base and everyone else. He still is talking in ways and taking actions primarily to satisfy his base supporters, by trying to prove to them that he literally is carrying out his campaign promises. But, as most of us know, the President needs to eject his “campaigning mode;” all candidates promise things that sound good to their base, but cannot really be delivered literally, because of the great complexity and inter-connectedness of the country’s problems. As he continues rushing ahead, thoughtlessly and impulsively, to literally keep his campaign promises, he just leaves chaos in his wake. This is also a sure path of failure for a person who needs continual adoration by masses of people, because his followers will eventually turn on him, as they find that their needs were not really met in the ways he promised during the campaign.
Instead, he must slow down, think out his plans and values (i.e. revamp health care; create more jobs; and protect the country against terrorists), take consultation from others who actually have expertise in each subject matter, and begin to speak to and address the concerns of all the citizens of the country, not just his base supporters.
With the shared efforts of all, utilizing diverse methodologies, we can create a model for polarity management that can serve to keep the country from sliding into uncharted, dangerous territory. Without thoughtful participation of its citizens and leaders, the political pendulum might just swing in a direction from which there will be no come-back.
Don Saposnek, PhD, is the co-author of Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce with Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Dr. Saposnek is also a psychologist and family mediator, and the author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes.