Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness: A Lesson From Donald J. Trump

Observing the political or cinematic stage is so fascinating because it provides a common framework for us to discover insights into our shared humanity.   The current political theater that is delighting the pundits also illustrates how we use our strengths for success or failure.

Many psychologists, real and armchair, have analyzed Trump’s psychological profile and fitness for the highest office. As an applied positive psychology practitioner, I observe Trump through the lens of his strengths. Two of his most obvious Gallup strengths are Competition (self-explanatory) and Significance (needing to be seen as important in the eyes of others). Trump loves to win.  He also loves the accolades and applause of his followers. When we are using our strengths well, it’s exhilarating and satisfying. The degree to which these strengths fuel his motivation to run for the country’s highest office could only be known by Trump himself.

Like all strengths, Competition and/or Significance can bring individuals to unimaginable success. The desire to win and to be better than a competitor can help one raise their game, or their team’s game, to the next level. The need to be seen as important can motivate achievement and accomplishment. Trump’s stunning successes in the Republican primary is a case study of skillful use of these strengths.

However, strengths can also be overused and misused. Some pundits are hypothesizing that Trump neither expected to win, nor wants the Presidency. If so, Trump may be competing for the sake of competition without consideration for what’s best for the country. He may also be willing to win at all costs, as he ramps up the rhetoric to arguably dangerous levels.    Significance can also be misused if one uses verbal abuse and bullying to feel more important, powerful, and better than others.

The rise and fall of Trump’s popularity is a lesson to us all. We develop our world-view and strategies based on early lessons and information. We often use those lessons as a frame of reference going forward as we create strategies for the future. Early successes with our strengths may teach us that using our favorite strengths is a good strategy. More is always better, right? Failure to re-evaluate our strategies combined with poor self-awareness can result in overuse and misuse; our strengths become our liabilities. Trump’s troubles are not the result of misfortune or a stellar opponent, as Clinton is as flawed in her own way as he is. Rather, he’s his own worst enemy.

Trump’s political tale beautifully reflects our shared human journey to find wisdom in our changing world and circumstances. The strategies that worked in one job, in another decade, with other people, may not work now. Trump’s opportunity now is go inside to understand his internal stage, as it is for us all.   Failure to do so will likely result in a tragic downfall.

Morality: Relative or Absolute?

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethics debacle may be more than an embarrassment.  His actions may be criminal and he could be facing jail time.

The once vice-presidential contender has gone from popular opinion riches to rags as the extent of his lucrative relationship with Star Scientific president Jonnie Williams has come to light over the last few months.  The issue is whether McDonnell broke any ethical rules or laws by trading promotion of Star Scientific ‘s new product for lavish gifts and “loans”.

The response from the public predictably fell along party lines.   Liberals have used this incident to point out the unapologetic greed of the top 2% and corruption of our elected officials.  Conservatives claim this is trumped up indignation – after all, McDonnell broke no laws.    How can there be such polar opposite reaction from a group of relatively homogeneous (mostly white, Christian, American, east coast-living) constituents?  Does one group lack a moral compass?  Is the other in denial?

According to Pinker (2008) , different cultural groups have approximately the same set of moral values:  harm, fairness, community/group loyalty, authority and purity.  Differences in morality tend to result from variation in interpretation and priority of these values.  Therefore, in this example, liberals may have priorities of moral fairness and perhaps an overriding belief in loyalty to the public (community) over business (group).  In contrast, a conservative’s moral compass may prioritize loyalty to the business community over the public.  Further, conservatives may argue that the Governor is a special person (authority) and deserves special privileges within limits (which were not violated here, according to them).  Both groups likely believe that their respective moral rules are universal and rule-breakers should be punished (Bloom, 2011).

Virginian, like everyone else, arrive at moral decisions based on unconscious moral principles, an intuition that guides our moral reasoning (Bloom, 2011).  But we pretty much have opinions based on our gut reactions, which are influenced by our belief systems,  and then back-justify them with “logic.”   We also tend to only pay attention to things that are value to us – in this case, perhaps justifying our gut feelings.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Both groups are basing their opinions based on their own interpretation of their moral priorities.  Pointing out each other’s hypocrisy just highlights our own.  Perhaps understanding this premise can improve the quality of much-needed discourse.   Viva la difference!

 

References

Bloom, P. (2011).  Family, community, trolley problems, and the crisis in moral psychology.  Yale Review, 99(2), 26-43.

Pinker, S. (2008).  The moral instinct.  New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?pagewanted=print