The New York Times “Weekend Briefing” email today starts by asking: “[H]ow did President Trump’s condolence call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson go so far off the rails? The administration has been swept up into a feud that pits Mr. Trump and his chief of staff, John Kelly, against Frederica Wilson, a Democratic congresswoman who sharply criticized the call as insensitive.”
The answer is, of course, that Trump has a severe failure of character, which I call “Other-Blaming.” Some of my co-authors in “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” are suggesting Trump may have a range of other diagnostics labels, including malignant narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, delusional disorder and paranoia. I believe these labels are merely different “flavors” of the same basic emotional and behavioral dysfunction — poor shame tolerance that results in lack of accountability and in lashing out at others in blame shifting.
And this is exactly what Trump did this week. Trump was accused by three witnesses of saying during a condolence call that Sgt. Johnson “knew what he signed up for,” not exactly a comment loaded with empathy for a grieving widow. (But we also know that sociopaths/Other-Blamers have a severe lack of empathy.)
In “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” I compare Trump to domestic violence perpetrators because they behave in very similar ways. Abusive personalities, no matter the label we put on them, all suffer from a lack of accountability that causes them to stubbornly cling to their beliefs against all evidence. They often refuse to apologize or modulate their opinions, even if it leads to a major argument that escalates far beyond the content. I’ve had couples in therapy describe screaming matches about whether they should use soap on the granite countertop. Why is it so hard for one or both of them to back down? Because to do so triggers overwhelming shame that they do not have the skills to manage.
This incident of Trump’s condolence call got so off the rails just as hundreds of other issues have with Trump. Because he and all Other-Blamers have an inability to be accountable for their actions. This means that nearly all conversations, arguments and incidents escalate, sometimes to the point of becoming absurd.
Having survived a relationship to an emotionally and physically abusive husband, I can confirm this experience occurs with abusers. The most benign comment can cause the abuser to explode into irrational arguing, defensive blame shifting, rage and even violence. The root cause is always because they feel blamed, criticized or rejected. They lack the emotional maturity to tolerate that shaming experience, then attempt to manage it by offloading the blame onto the partner. The partner often, quite naturally, tries to correct the accusations and defend herself, which then only provokes the abuser into additional attacks.
Consider how things could have rolled out differently after that condolence call became public if Trump had not been an Other-Blamer and had exhibited good shame tolerance. He could have apologized for any misunderstanding and the situation would have immediately disappeared from the headlines. A good leader knows when to respond with an apology and remorse, even if he truly did not make a mistake. In true Other-Blamer fashion, Trump denied the accusations. As he often does, he then doubled down in his self-defense, shifting blame and lying about past presidents’ condolence calls, making the situation worse.
This article on Vox correctly notes that presidents must be ready to accept the consequences of their actions, even those that have grave outcomes. “Trump has been very clear that he lacks that psychology, that kind of reverence and appreciation for the gravity of his actions. He cannot hold in his head at the same time the idea that he was right to have troops in Niger and that some of those troops died, and that he owes it to their families and the nation to understand and grieve that loss. He definitely appears incapable of considering that the mission itself might have been a mistake, that he himself may have screwed up.”
It is shocking to those of us with normal moral codes that we now have a president who cannot accept ANY responsibility for ANY of his actions, even those of the smallest magnitude.
What does this say about what Trump’s thought process will be when he is considering perhaps a much larger decision, such as whether to launch nuclear missiles or conduct a first-strike conventional attack. Since he has no ability to accept accountability for his behavior, it seems clear that his decision to instigate a conflict with a deadly outcome will not weigh heavily on his mind. This should frighten all citizens of the world.
Trump’s blame-shifting may also unnecessarily escalate conflicts more consequential than that of a phone call. Imagine a minor diplomatic misstep occurs. Trump will be unable to bring himself to calm the waters or take on any of the blame for the situation, heaping it, perhaps angrily and unfairly, onto another world leader — perhaps one with ill intent and a similar dysfunctional and impulsive character and personality.
We need a president who considers carefully, deliberately and thoughtfully the consequences of every decision, especially those involving possible loss of life. In complete contrast, Trump has consistently throughout his life provided a surfeit of evidence of a cavalier attitude toward his statements, behaviors, and any possible outcomes. (“I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue…” and, of course, the “pussy grabbing” comments come immediately to mind.)
He is shameless — literally without shame, that prosocial emotion essential for healthy moral functioning. Shame informs us that our behaviors may be wrong and may have consequences — except when a person has learned ways to avoid shame by blame-shifting to others. When that type of person is in the White House and is surrounded by enablers in the Republican Party, we are all in a relationship with an abusive, dangerous man.