NEW: About me (my work history, Including vintage photos).
Psychologist Robert Epstein in What's Going On With Donald Trump's Mental State? No Principles, Just Gusts of Wind (published today in USA Today with the title “What's going on with Donald Trump? Psychologist explains the president’s lies, reversals,” republished in a more readable font in with a different title in Common Dreams) has a different perspective on Trump’s mental state than what Bandy X. Lee and Tony Schartz articulated in “Inside the “Mind of Donald Trump,” the Politico Magazine article I wrote about a few days ago.
Epstein references “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” and dismisses their conclusions about his mental state leading to the warning that he is unfit to be president:
Is Trump really mentally deranged, maybe ready for the loony bin? If so, how could he have achieved so much over the course of his life? How could he have functioned so well in business, in media and now even in politics? How could he have raised such loyal and high-functioning offspring? How could he last even a day in the most stressful office in the most stressful building in the most stressful city in the world?
The answer to this question is simple: Many successful people have succeeded in avoiding the so-called “loony bin” or succumbing to severe psychiatric conditions so they can’t function in day to day activities. Sometimes we only learn of their problems until after they died or even committed suicide.
Epstein says that “Trump's lies and reversals are not due to mental illness, rather they are explained by he reacts to people and situations in the moment, with no thought of future or past.” He attributes this to an audience control problem.
Trump's 'audience control' problem
Trump is not mentally ill, and I doubt that he is even “living in his own reality,” as so many have claimed. He is simply fairly unique in a way that is hard for the public to understand. In a nutshell, Trump is highly vulnerable to what can reasonably be called “sympathetic audience control.”
I will leave aside that there's a lot more to why many clinicians and others believe there is much more wrong with Trump than just his lies and reversals. The crucial part of the above quote is the author’s doubt as to whether or not Trump is living in his own reality. If he is living in his own reality he is by definition suffering from some kind of mental illness.
The quote, attributed to playwright Jerome Lawrence comes to mind (I forgot the last part):
A neurotic is a man who builds a castle in the air. A psychotic is the man who lives in it. A psychiatrist is the man who collects the rent.
Epstein proffers his explanation as to some of Trump’s seemingling inexplicable behavior as being vulnerable to audience control.
He goes on to define what he means by sympathetic audience control:
It’s actually a pretty simple concept and, in Trump’s case, it explains a lot — maybe even 90 percent of the behavior that seems so baffling.
All normal people are subject to “audience control” to one degree or another. That means simply that they regulate what they say and do based on who’s around them. They are respectful sitting in a church pew, a bit more daring sitting in a classroom, and somewhat wild sitting in the bleachers. Near a police officer, most people are cautious and deferential; near a best friend, people feel comfortable and speak freely.
Sometimes audience control goes haywire. You might behave one way with your parents and a very different way with your new romantic partner. When you finally bring your new friend home to meet the ‘rents, you might feel awkward and barely know what to do or say.
Except for situations like that, audience control doesn’t usually cause problems, and it also usually doesn’t persist when the audience is gone. But for Trump, audience control works in a special way.
When Trump is in the presence of someone he dislikes or distrusts, he attacks and will continue to lash out for a while, but not necessarily forever. When someone he perceives as a threat becomes deferential (Rocket Man, for example), Trump not only stops attacking, he also becomes highly vulnerable to influence.
Sympathetic audience control doesn’t appear to be a common term in psychology, communications, social psychology, or sociology. In fact, I couldn’t find any references to it in Google Scholar. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a real phenomenon, in fact, I think it is. It merely means that this author has given it a name I’m not familiar with.
Let’s give Trump all of his mental faculties, dismissing as nonexistent or irrelevant the observations of his behaviors made by Bandy X. Lee and Tony Schwartz (right). Let’s say that none add up to significant evidence that he is dangerous (see diary: Eminent forensic psychiatrist and man who may know Trump better than anybody on the "Mind of Trump" from a few days ago).
Let’s say that the only thing wrong with the way Donald Trump thinks is summed up the way Epstein describes him in the conclusion of his article:
If I’m right, and I’m pretty sure I am, Trump is capable of only a minimal level of analytical or critical thinking. Perhaps more alarming, our president — the putative leader of the free world — doesn’t believe in anything and he rarely, if ever, means anything he says. The impulsive tweets, the conservative court appointments, the unfunded tax cuts, the obsession with a wall, the swipes at immigrants — all are byproducts (dross, if you will) of sympathetic audience control operating in small time windows. There are no principles operating here, just gusts of wind.
And if I’m right, Trump will continue to function this way — blindly, erratically and reactively, without principle or direction — for the rest of his life.
The sine qua non of good mental health is having fully functioning reality testing.
Reality testing is the psychotherapeutic function by which the objective or real world and one's relationship to it are reflected on and evaluated by the observer.
Therapists using reality testing techniques typically rely upon the client's mental processes of attention, perception, memory, and judgment in order to help guide them to the formation of logical conclusions about how their internal experiences are related to external reality. Limited reality testing capabilities can sometimes be a function of a mental disorder. People exhibiting limited reality testing might lack the insight and ability to distinguish between the external and internal world as a factor of psychosis. For example, hallucinations and delusions are often taken as signs of a failure of reality testing. Wikipedia
Whether one makes a precise diagnosis, a diagnosis by implication, or no particular diagnosis at all, impaired reality testing is a sign of a less than an optimally functioning mind, whether one wants to call this mental illness or not. A president must be in full control of his mental faculties.
I think Robert Epstein makes a case that Trump’s reasoning and perceptions are so influenced by his audience that he is unable to think rationally.