Why Donald Trump scares you so much — and why it matters

It's not just you — we were born to fear predators, and Donald Trump fits the profile of a psychopath

Published November 6, 2016 11:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump    (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

For many people, this presidential election is triggering a visceral fear response hard to put into words. Here are the words you might have been looking for: We are born to fear predators.

There are many tangible or visible indicators of why people have every right to be scared about a potential Donald Trump presidency. These include Trump's pattern of misogynistic and overtly racist behavior. One cannot look at how Trump has treated women and not feel deep qualms about how his decision-making as the most powerful leader in the world would impact women and girls and those who love them. One cannot look at how Trump has discriminated against black people or encouraged hatred of immigrants and fear of Muslims without understanding that his policies would almost certainly be discriminatory on a scale we haven't seen in the United States since Jim Crow. One cannot look at how he encourages violence and targets freedom of the press without getting chills about how, were he to gain power, Trump would institutionalize those tendencies.

But awareness of potential increases in systemic ills like misogyny and racism alone – which would be significant in ways I won't attempt to address here – do not fully explain what many people are experiencing: a sense of foreboding and feeling of imminent danger unlike any we have known in our previous political lives.

Some people have used a historical lens through which to try to explain this fear, citing Trump's evident similarities to leaders of the past like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Making the conscious connection between Trump and fear, others have written about how Trump himself leverages fear in his approach to campaigning. Still others have documented what one author called "Trump-induced anxiety," or suggested that Trump has suppressed our national sex drive. All of these are valid and even important perspectives, but none fully explains the uniqueness of the phenomenon many are experiencing – personally and viscerally experiencing – with regard to their reactions to Trump.

For many people, Trump's candidacy is evoking not just politically justified anxiety but rather true primal, survival-related fear.

As Gavin de Becker explores in his exceptional book, "The Gift of Fear," fear is a gift passed down from our ancestors that enables us to assess potential threats to our survival. Many people misunderstand fear and misuse the word. Fear is not a mood like happiness or sadness, nor is it a lasting physiological state like anxiety. True fear is an often fleeting yet vitally important message from the most primitive parts of our brains, which developed long before our capacity for language did. The fact that fear is produced at such a primitive level is what makes putting it into words so hard. It is, literally, a nonverbal experience.

Some describe these types of nonverbal messages as intuition. In his book, de Becker enumerates the following as "messengers of intuition," in approximate order of the immediacy of their importance: nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, humor (in particular dark humor, such as jokes about a Trump presidency bringing about Armageddon), wondering, anxiety, curiosity, hunches, gut feelings, doubt, hesitation, suspicion, apprehension and, finally, fear itself. Consider how many of these messengers of intuition you've experienced within the past year with regard to Trump and the possibility he might become president. Consider how they've increased in severity and frequency as the election approaches. Have you wondered about these experiences? Have you tried to minimize them or even told yourself, "Don't be silly"? Have you asked yourself why this is happening? You are not alone.

We often think of ourselves as above or separate from the animal world, but the reality is we are animals ourselves. The times we do recognize our connections with beings in the natural world, it's often to imagine ourselves as being in danger from them. Consider our vastly disproportionate fear of sharks, for instance. There is an entire week of television programming dedicated to stimulating our perhaps innate fear of this particular apex predator. We often fail to make the link, however, to the fact that even as we are prey, human beings are also predators. Armed with intellect and weapon-making skills, we are arguably the apex predator of the natural world.

Just as most human beings have the gift of fear (not all – there are certain neurological conditions that strip people of the capacity for fear) to protect us in our capacity as prey, some human beings have traits that make them more effective as predators than the rest of us. The most commonly used term for such human predators is "psychopath." It's not a diagnosis you will find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Being psychopathic is not technically a mental illness. Historically, what we consider to be a psychopath was not considered a form of mental insanity but rather a form of moral insanity. Psychopaths are people unconstrained by empathy or conscience.

Some people mistakenly equate the description of a person being a "sociopath" or having been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder with being a psychopath. Others mistakenly equate the description of a person being a "narcissist," or meeting criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, with being a psychopath. Neither is correct. Rather, "psychopath" is a descriptive term used to identify a relatively small subset of people who manifest many traits found in other so-called Cluster B personality disorders, yet whose destructive impact on the world around them is often far more severe than that of others who meet diagnostic criteria for various character disorders.

While this might sound and feel a bit fuzzy, remember that we are discussing a phenomenon that doesn't lend itself to words. In earlier societies, we might have addressed this phenomenon using religiously laden terms like good and evil. Or we might have used mythological imagery such as vampires and demons to convey the dangers beyond words that some humans present to other humans. In 1964, social psychologist Erich Fromm created the highly descriptive term "malignant narcissist" to attempt to capture the nature of such individuals in his book "The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil." In later years, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg further developed the framework for understanding how people like this think and act, using the terms "malignant narcissist" and "psychopath" interchangeably in his works.

Just as many people mistakenly think of the term "psychopath" as being a diagnosis of mental disorder, many also mistakenly think of psychopaths as necessarily being literal, physical predators, such as serial killers. Despite the public fascination with serial killers, the reality is most psychopaths function within the society and communities in which we all live and work. In his seminal book on the subject, "Without Conscience: the Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us," researcher Robert Hare refers to psychopaths who appear to function reasonably well as businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, police officers, performers, etc., and who are able thereby to avoid prison as "subcriminal psychopaths." In their book, "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work," Hare and his colleague Paul Babiak found that about 4 percent of high-level corporate professionals scored high enough on a screening tool, the PCL-R or Hare Psychopathy Checklist, to qualify for this potential description.

Created by Hare as a result of his decades of research, the Hare Checklist is the current gold standard for psychological testing to assess an individual's degree of psychopathic tendencies. In short, if you were testing to see who fit the description as a human predator, you would use the Hare Checklist. For clinical or forensic purposes, the tool can and should only be administered by a qualified and trained professional in a controlled setting.

Nonetheless, it is revealing to examine the traits for which it assesses and compare them to the behavior and traits of the presidential candidate who is eliciting primal fear responses from millions of people. With everything we have seen Trump do and say over the decades, but especially within this past year, it's simple enough to perform your own brief analysis based on his public behavior alone. According to Hare, the key characteristics of a psychopath include both emotional or interpersonal features and socially deviant behaviors:



  • Glibness and superficiality. This characteristic includes in particular a lack of concern about being "found out" when they talk about things about which they have, in fact, minimal knowledge. Think here about Trump's responses to policy questions and his – patently false – assertions that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do;
  • Egocentricity and grandiosity. This goes beyond mere arrogance or confidence necessary to succeed at a high level. It is a belief system in which one perceives oneself to be uniquely capable of all things and qualified for all things. Trump's answers saying he would consult himself about foreign policy because he has a good mind or his pronouncements such as "I alone can fix it" are examples of this characteristic;
  • Lack of remorse or guilt about the impact of their behavior on others. Psychopaths want what they want. Period. The fact that the pursuit of their desires might or does hurt others is irrelevant to them. The pain of others – including people they have victimized or abused – is experienced by them as insignificant, much as the buzzing of a mosquito might be experienced by non-psychopaths;
  • Absence of empathy. This is a core aspect of a psychopathic personality and refers not to occasional deficits of empathy within the context of a particular situation but rather to a general indifference to the sufferings of family members and strangers alike. Family members, including the children, of psychopaths are generally seen and treated as possessions rather than distinct individuals. One only has to think about how Trump has discussed his wives and daughters to understand he has severe deficits in this area;
  • Deceitfulness and manipulativeness. While everyone lies and manipulates at times, psychopaths are pathological liars. Unlike most people, they are usually unfazed when confronted by one of their many untruths, preferring rather to rework the facts to try to make the facts work within the framework of the lie. As a result, their statements are often highly contradictory and leave the listener in a state of confusion.
  • Shallowness of emotions. The emotional world of the psychopath is extremely limited. They often must mimic socially appropriate affect, since they don't actually experience it. This characteristic is linked to their need for constant stimulation, as noted below.

Social Deviance

  • Impulsiveness. Psychopaths rarely consider the potential consequences of their actions. If they feel like doing something, they do it. As adults, their pursuit of immediate rather than deferred gratification is notable.
  • Poor behavior controls and a disregard for social norms. Psychopaths are highly reactive to perceived slights and likely to lash out in ways that are not observant of social behavioral norms. However, it would be wrong to say they're out of control. They know what they are doing and often will express, as a form of justification, that they could have hurt a target of their aggression even worse than they did, for instance.
  • Need for excitement. This feature is related to the shallowness of the emotional experience of their internal world, as touched on above. Psychopaths are often drawn to high-risk situations and behaviors and tend to encourage violence, rather than discourage it as most people do. They seek forms of normal stimulation, such as sexuality, in excess;
  • Lack of responsibility. Contracts, promises, pro-social obligations such as those incumbent in marriage and parenthood – none of these mean anything to a psychopath. While they frequently like to say, "Trust me," psychopaths routinely fail to honor any formal or informal commitments they make to others;
  • Early behavior problems. Behavioral manifestations of the absence of empathy and the lack of conscience generally present early in psychopaths, whether it's persistent lying, cheating and bullying or overt violence and cruelty;
  • Adult anti-social behaviors. While many psychopaths are able to avoid criminal convictions, they nonetheless will take pride in skirting the law in their activities, including blaming external systems of control for their own behavior. Trump's persistent assertions that his failure to pay income taxes is the fault of others because they didn't catch him or close loopholes he exploited are an example of the type of subcriminal behavior exhibited by some psychopaths.

Stop here and take a minute to absorb what you've read here, and what you knew and lived before you read this. It's a lot. It's important.

You might even find yourself experiencing a sense of relief at having a framework that makes sense of some of what you've previously experienced within the past year with regard to this election (or even with regard to some other experience in your personal or professional life). Your fear is justified. Your fear is important. Your reality is validated: This is not a normal presidential election cycle. You are not crazy. You are not alone.

So what do we do?

Well, here's the good news: The fact that we are experiencing fear is a sign the danger is not happening in this exact moment. In other words, as we've explored above, our fear is a signal, a message. Our fear is meant to motivate and to produce a self-protective response from us. Listen to your fear. It's a gift from your ancestors, telling you something very important and urging you to act.

As for what happens after Nov. 8, we'll have to see what the future holds, but Donald Trump and the dangers he represents and serves to exacerbate are not going away, no matter what the results of this election are. What we fear is what we link to fear. What we link to fear is not necessarily what is actually dangerous. Relevant to our current dilemma, many people are socialized not to link fear with seemingly affable white men in well-cut suits, despite the damage they and their policies have done to individuals, communities, the United States and the entire earth for centuries. This dynamic explains why women who are survivors of sexual assault and most people of color do not see Donald Trump the same way that his predominantly white, predominantly male supporters do.

We must keep listening to our fear signals. We must recognize who and what present true dangers to our survival. And we must allow our fear to activate us to create the changes in the world we know are necessary.

By Leah McElrath

Leah McElrath is a writer and psychotherapist. She writes about the intersections of politics, media, human rights, human behavior, and psychology. You can follow her work on Twitter at @leahmcelrath and

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