The episodic man


When Northwestern University psychologist Dan P. McAdams first wrote about Donald Trump’s psyche for “The Atlantic” in 2016, he knew his subject was not your average politician. He just couldn’t nail down why. 

His new book, “The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning” (Oxford University Press, March 2020), provides some surprising answers. Trump, McAdams asserts, may be the rare person who lacks any inner story, something most people develop to give their lives unity, meaning and purpose.

McAdams is something called a “narrative psychologist.”

Trump, McAdams argues, can’t form a meaningful life story because he is the “episodic man” who sees life as a series of battles to be won. There is no connection between the moments, no reflection and no potential for growth when one is compulsively in the present.

It has certainly seemed to me all along that Trump is your classic “just one thing after another” guy. It’s all random, all disjointed, all arbitrary; nothing leads anywhere.

Donald Trump is a “truly authentic fake,” writes McAdams, professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy. “Trump is always acting, always on stage — but that is who he really is, and that is all he really is. He is not introspective, retrospective or prospective. He does not go deep into his mind; he does not travel back to the past; he does not project far into the future. He is always on the surface, always right now.”

Shorter: he doesn’t think.

“Truth for Donald Trump is whatever works to win in the moment,” McAdams writes. “He moves through life episode by episode, from one battle to the next, striving in turn, to win each one. The episodes don’t add up or form a narrative arc.”

It’s no wonder he’s so bored, then; no wonder he does little but watch Fox and blurt tweets.

“The features of Trump’s strange personality — his orientation to love, his proclivity for untruth, his narcissistic goal agenda, his authoritarian sentiments — can be fully appreciated and understood only if we realize that they revolve around the empty narrative core, the hollow inner space where the story should be, but never was,” McAdams says.

“Empty” is one of the best words for him.

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