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English review - US Politics: a Battle Between Personality and Power

A week before the 2020 US elections, political scientists Peter van der Heiden and Bertjan Verbeek from Radboud University and moderator Lema Salah came together to discuss the various residents of the White House in the past and present and their power and personality traits. Questions were raised about the ways in which personality traits of different US presidents impact the way these men practice their politics and the extent to which the United States are democratic in its decision- and policy-making.

Personality Traits in Politics: is Trump Unique?

In the beginning of the discussion, Van der Heiden showed how the US elections are not only a conflict between candidates, but also between personalities. Thus, the characteristics of Donald Trump played a significant role in the way he practiced politics. Van der Heiden focused on Trump’s narcissism, his tendencies towards bully-behavior and his sexist comments. The audience was introduced to a heated discussion as Van der Heiden described the controversial (personal) choices which Trump has made. His infamous accounts with women and the highly unpresidential language he used in these circumstances disclose his misogynistic views. Furthermore, Trump has offended many fellow politicians, and intimidated the press, thereby displaying bully-behaviour. Finally, Trump’s narcissistic tendencies have been demonstrated throughout the news and social media where he declared himself as a “stable genius” with one of the best memories of all time and as “the Chosen One” with infinite power.

Van der Heiden suggested that those with bigger ego’s also seem more incisive and decisive. Thus, he claimed that there is a strong correlation between narcissism and effective leadership: Trump not only knows and can steer the ins and outs of American policy-making, but is also able to manipulate and coax  Congress as well as the people of America. After hearing such accounts, many of us may questioned how a man with such opinions and characteristics could be elected as president. However, Van der Heiden argued that Trump is not unique in showing such behaviour. Rather, many of his predecessors, such as Jefferson, Kennedy and Johnson, elicited similar dubious behaviour. It almost seems as if such personality traits are essential, rather than exceptional in presidential candidates. Van der Heiden concluded that Trump is certainly not unique in his rude behaviour and characteristics. Thus, in what ways do Trump’s personality traits influence and direct the way in which he practices his politics?

Presidential Power

After thoroughly discussing the residents of the White House, Verbeek continued by questioning the roles of its neighbours. He posited that the American president, compared to other nations’ presidencies and to its Congress, has a relatively large amount of power and a strong ability to influence and change policy. This raised the question whether the USA really is as democratic as it claims to be. For example, theoretically, the president cannot submit laws or form policies without Congress. However, in practice, Trump is Commander-in-Chief and may issue executive orders without Congress interfering. Verbeek argued that this was proven during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the federal government could not pursue a coherent policy, which disclosed the need for unity and communication between president and Congress in policy-making.

Moreover, in Congress during Trump’s presidency, major social groups are either under-represented in discussion, or not represented at all. Evidently, Congress holds very few millennials, women, non-White, non-Christian or LGBT+ members, meaning that not all voices are represented, let alone heard. Verbeek then suggested that such lack of inclusion may be the result of Trump’s choices and leadership because many decisions have been ideologically motivated, thereby implying the president’s capability and authority over the direction of Congress.Furthermore, Verbeek argued that there is dispute over the relationship between the president and the importance and continuity of foreign policy, affairs and bonds. Whereas some believe that the personality type of the president is insignificant for the course international politics takes, others affirm that the type of president is crucial for decision-making because each differs in their approach to collaboration, risk-taking and vision. Verbeek has shown how difficult it is to define the limits of the president’s power, suggesting that the specific president’s personality, perspective and role are essential to determine their degree of influence and power in Congress.

Trump’s Past Four Years and the Future

During the conversation after the lectures, one of the viewers asked how Van der Heiden and Verbeek look back at the past four years of Trump’s presidency, to which both admitted their bewilderment. While Verbeek expected that international affairs and policy would continue steadily and reasonably, Trump has instead failed to keep sustainable relations with US allies.

Furthermore, when asked why American voters elected a candidate with dubious personality traits and behaviour, Van der Heiden answered that his opponent (Hillary Clinton) was so hated by large parts of the American society, that many voted for Trump not because of his (questionable) merits but to ensure a Clinton presidency would not happen.

The question came up about how Trump would react if he were to lose the 2020 elections. Trump has often claimed that he shall not leave the White House and that his militia would rebel if he will not be chosen. Thus, according to Van der Heiden, the danger lies not in whether Trump’s actions (i.e. refusing to leave) will be illicit, but how the American population would react to this.

All in all, the inspiring discussion between Van der Heiden and Verbeek has proven to show a relationship between the American president’s personality traits and power over the course of state and society. Both political scientists agreed that the way in which many American presidents practice their politics is heavily influenced by their values, interests and personality and pondered on the questions what implies for the level of inclusion in American politics and the state of American democracy.

This report was written by Julée Al-Bayaty de Ridder, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.