What Makes Presidents Want to Become President?


This is a guest opinion piece by Nicholas Katsaounis*

In fact, what makes anyone want to become a political leader?
This is the question that psychology of leadership concerns itself with. It is obviously a complicated question, but there seem to be some common traits among aspiring leaders. Ambition (obviously). A sense of public service: nobody so qualified would work such long hours in government when they could make much, much more money working in the private sector. A huge ego. A motivation stemming from fear of failure and some neuroticism.

Indeed some degree of psychopathology is the rule rather than the exception for politicians operating at high levels of government and a lot of it stems from childhood. LBJ was very poor and had a rough upbringing. Nixon’s mother fueled his feelings of inadequacy. Hilary’s father could become very demeaning towards her. This is so common among aspiring office holders that after David Axelrod and David Plouffe met Obama for the first time to discuss running his campaign for the Presidency, Axelrod turned to Plouffe and said “I don’t think he is pathological enough to be President.”

If Obama wasn’t pathological enough, Trump couldn’t be more. PBS Frontline reports that he was raised by a cold workaholic father who taught him that life is a competition and that there are losers and winners. Moreover, this wasn’t just theory. It was put into practice in the family home and if you lost, you were crushed. His father also had a racehorse theory of humans. He thought that if you put two superior human beings together you’d get a superior offspring (I am going to resist making a connection here, I’ll leave it to you to draw your conclusions).

Fast forward to the 2011 correspondents dinner when Obama roasted Donald Trump (bear with me, this all connects). Obama used the occasion to ridicule Trump on his birther claims turning him, quite literally, into a joke. You can see Trump steaming – his face is locked in. He can’t take the joke, he is seething and can’t bear the humiliation. The President of the United States turned him into a piñata in front of the nation’s most important power brokers. It has been speculated that this is the night Donald Trump decided to run for President. PBS Frontline (“The Choice 2016”) confirms that theory. Interviewees – who include some of his advisors – say that he saw it as the ultimate payback. Roger Stone says that Trump thought “maybe I’ll just run, maybe I’ll show them.” Omarosa Manigault, in a comment that made my jaw drop says: “every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump. […] It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” Think about it. This guy is running to make his enemies, real or perceived, bow down before him.

Setting aside the fact that fantasies of “I’ll show them” belong to the kindergarten and not in the country’s highest office, I’m going to state the obvious and say that Donald would be a very, very dangerous President. An angry man cannot unite a country. Revenge in the service of self-affirmation is not a sound basis for any endeavor, let alone leading a nation. At the very least, it will translate in divisive and erratic public policy and egregious abuse of power. His statements and policy positions – to the extent he’s had any – reflect as much.

Trump is not alone in this, but he is the most pathological case I can think of. A distant second in recent history was Richard Nixon and he doesn’t even come close to Trump. Nixon was angry at being an outsider to the east coast elite, he was driven by feelings of inadequacy, and just like Trump he wanted to “show them.” In the end he self-destructed with the Watergate scandal, a spectacular act of self-sabotage common among people with traits like Nixon’s.

Which brings me back to Trump. The man doesn’t have the faintest idea about policy or issues, not because he is indifferent and lazy but because he does not care to know. Donald is running out of ego, his campaign is entirely about himself. What we have been seeing in the last few months is a petulant child wanting more power than he can handle, and definitely more power than he should have. Imagine giving a spoiled 5 year old the nuclear codes. That’s what any area of public policy would look under President Trump.

I just hope that if by some cosmic accident – or joke – this man gets the keys to the White House, he will quickly unravel and self destruct like its his nature to, without taking us all with him.

*Nicolas Katsaounis is a political scientist and commentator working in media. He has previously worked in various political research capacities and holds a Masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University.