“Grandiosity is often associated with narcissism. Think about Donald Trump,” said visiting lecturer Norman Sandridge of Howard University at UTSA March 4-5. While the focus of Sandridge’s lecture series for the weekend was about leadership in the ancient world, his opening comments that Friday afternoon highlighted a greater concern about Trump’s presidential candidacy.
Initially, Sandridge set to use Alcibiades, an ancient 5th century Athenian military statesman, as a platform to examine modern notorious leaders.
“He was a dashing figure,” said Associate Professor of Classics Joel Christensen. “But he put his ego front and center.” His departure from Athens during the Peloponnesian War and subsequent presence in other cities often resulted in calamity. Though a real historic figure, Alcibiades is most familiar to well-versed readers for his role in The Symposium by Plato.
Alcibiades is considered to be a possible early example of what we define as a psychopath: a mentally ill individual who is often irresponsible and aggressive. His lawlessness, instrumental aggression, lack of remorse and grandiosity provided a comparison for whom Sandridge theorized exhibited psychopathic tendencies today, notably Trump.
However, Sandridge emphasized that he himself is not a psychiatrist and, therefore, unable to properly diagnose individuals.
“I’m not saying they’re actual psychopaths,” claimed Sandridge, “but their behaviors are psychopathic.” There is no way to diagnose the ancient Alcibiades; his mental state is a speculative topic for debate.
Senior Philosophy major Eric Price attended the March 4 lecture.
He found relevancy in Sandridge’s conclusion but also noted, “psychopathy is a cultural construct,” and could, thus, be subjectively applied.
“Trying to identify these sort of things in political leaders is a difficult thing to do,” said Political Psychology Professor Bryan Gervais. “Everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Joseph Stalin has been written about. But how are you sure (they’re psychotic)? And are these theories also falsifiable?
And falsifiability is sort of the bedrock of science. If you can’t falsify a hypothesis, then it’s not really science.” Essentially, Gervais felt more data was needed to support the claim that Trump is a psychopath (or exhibits psychopathic tendencies).
While Gervais abstained from analyzing Trump’s behavior, he noted that the subject matter of psychopathy in leadership is both complex and fascinating.
Several historical figures have exercised morally questionable actions, from the brutality of Stalin in the U.S.S.R. to Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
“It’s natural for us to want to search for something and say, ‘Well, the only reason someone would do this is if they had some sort of disorder, right? Maybe that’s what drew them to power,’” said Gervais.
“It’s really tempting to think in those terms. What’s tougher is to prove it or show it’s actually the case. It’s really easy for our imagination to get away from us and to see patterns in their behavior based on some sort of personality disorder that might not actually be there.” Just as complex as these leaders are the citizenry who elect them to power.
In Jan 2016, Politico Magazine claimed the one common trait among Trump supporters is something called the authoritarian personality.
“Authoritarians obey,” wrote Matthew MacWilliams. “They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
He cited Trump’s promise to “make America great again” by building a wall along the Mexican border and his plans to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. following the Paris terrorist attacks as examples of authoritarianism.
Gervais cited the authoritarian personality as a contributing factor to the rise of Fascism in the 20th century. When considering the cultural context surrounding fascist, authoritarian leaders, it is important to consider the state in which the citizenry live, he explained.
“It’s not that they themselves were authoritarians,” said Gervais, “but they were sort of submissive. They liked conventional wisdom, traditional wisdom. They were aggressive in nature toward ‘out’ groups, so people who weren’t part of their in-group.” Some consider the base of Trump’s support to be desperation for strong leadership tied in with fear of the unfamiliar.
Not everyone agrees that Trump personifies the new rise of authoritarianism in America. Senior Psychology major Johnny Park voted for Trump in the 2016 primary election and intends to vote for him again in the general election.
“He’s been such a (large) figure his whole life,” said Park. “He’s a multi-billionaire, he’s been on reality TV, he’s been in the media. Yeah he talks about himself, but so do the other politicians.”
Park felt the glossing of Trump’s personality as psychopathic to be erroneous. Like Gervais, Park claimed that behavioral analysis can be incredibly subjective.
Park said that diagnosing someone without tests or a clinical setting is unreliable and biased.
“It’s definitely all subjective to look at someone’s personality and say that it relates to some kind of disorder,” said Park. And as for Trump’s Joker-esque ability to woo the masses?
“I just don’t think it’s possible that he’s that manipulative,” asserted Park. “After the (cancelled) rally in Chicago, the media was saying Trump manipulated the situation because he wanted people to get into an argument and he wanted it to be in the news.
And I just think, is he really that smart? I mean, I think he’s smart, but (they’re) making him seem like this mastermind!” What concerns Park more is not the expression of opinion, but how and where such expression takes place.
For Park, college ought to foster discussions and opinions of all kinds, but lately he feels like professors have used their positions as platforms of influence. This can be problematic at times, he believes.
“The goal should be to allow people to make their own decisions,” said Park. “I don’t agree with (Sandridge’s) opinion, but I can make the choice whether or not to go listen to him. It doesn’t bother me, but what I can get into is when my teachers share their political opinions in class. They’ll give their beliefs more than they should rather than educating us on the facts.”
As for the University of Illinois faculty who petitioned against the Trump rally, or the Harvard professor who wrote a Washington Post op-ed beckoning Americans to mobilize against Trump’s momentum, Park finds those exercises of free speech to be acceptable because they occur outside the classroom and campus.
“Most professors have a view on what they believe, and so when the opportunity comes they want to share,” he said. “And that’s understandable: it’s human nature.”
Though Ted Cruz won the primary election in Texas, Bloomberg’s most recent delegate calculations put Trump at 739 delegates compared to Cruz’s 465.