Thursday, August 27, 2015
First two disclaimers: I never met Donald Trump and I am a registered Democrat. Yet, as a psychiatrist and a lifelong student of the human condition, I find the extraordinary response to “The Donald” intriguing and worth understanding, not merely politically but as a psychological phenomenon.
Many explanations for his current political success in the polls have been offered on almost a daily basis. He has been compared to a demagogue who appeals to people’s bitterness and resentments, and who panders to their anger, dogmatic patriotism, and economic fears. However, I have yet to see a psychological explanation of not merely his specific political appeal, but of the more general public fascination with Mr. Trump. He is unquestionably the reason why 24 million people watched the Republican debates In Cleveland Aug. 6.
I would like to offer one word as a partial explanation of his success: Exuberance.
What do I mean by exuberance and why do so many people find it appealing?
Kay Redfield Jamison, distinguished author and professor at John’s Hopkins University, wrote a book titled “Exuberance” in which she spells out this trait of character and this quality of temperament.
Jamison examines the contagious nature of exuberance, which she defines as “a psychological state characterized by high mood and high energy,” and she goes on to add “Exuberant people are lively and engage us. They embrace ideas with delight and, more importantly, They act on them with dispatch.”
“Exuberance,” Jamison says, “is abounding, ebullient, and effervescent.” Exuberance has an infectious quality. It lifts our imagination, invites us to soar and to imagine the seemingly impossible. It inspires us to venture forth.
Exuberance plays an essential role in creativity and leadership. Exuberant people are usually energetic, enthusiastic, optimistic and socially outgoing — traits which also increase their attractiveness. Exuberance has inhabited and been a component of many great leaders throughout history from King David to Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Jamison describes exuberance simply as “the passion for life.” Great scientists and great teachers are exuberant.
Their love of life and sense of adventure is palpable. Exuberance is both pleasurable and powerful. It excites and delights. Ted Turner defined a leader as someone who possesses the ability to create infectious enthusiasm, to create excitement, and to create a passion that spreads. It is not just having ideas but the ability to execute them that distinguishes people who are exuberant.
Exuberant people are not afraid to fail. They are risk-takers who are willing to take chances. They are bold, adventuresome and fearless. One commentator said “That (exuberance) alone makes Donald Trump remarkably unique in an era dominated by increasingly fearful political figures who hire “experts” to tell them what to think, what to say, and how to say it.”
People who are exuberant are exciting, never boring. To be a successful politician one must experience a state of energy, excitement, enthusiasm, and passion which one can convey to the audience. One must be able to convey this electricity to others. This fire must spread from the speaker to the audience. This is exuberance and this is Trump’s gift and talent.
Exuberant people love competition. They possess incredible and boundless energy and belief in their capacity to bring about change. It is so powerful that it almost feels like a form of magic.
One commentator articulated this as: “In the Spanish-speaking world, this type of leader is known as a Caudillo, the man on horseback who takes out the bad guys and leads his people to safety. He’s rough and he may not care about fine things like legal rights, but that very roughness means he can get things done,” Like a force of nature Trump seems unstoppable. That is exuberance. In the most basic sense, Exuberance is a force of nature and exuberant people are on fire, volcanic, explosive larger than life which was recently expressed as: “Last night in Phoenix “The Donald” arrived to thousands of cheering supporters and gave a 70-minute speech that though meandering at times, entertained, informed, and inspired. It was the most non-political, political speech I’ve ever witnessed. A fascinating spectacle generated by the personality force of nature that is Donald Trump.”
Exuberance is highly valued in the American culture. People who came to America were bold pioneers who Manifested courage. They were willing to take risks. They had vast energy, vast optimism and a vast belief in what could be achieved. In many ways Trump reflects hope and vitality and projects these qualities both about himself and about America.
On a more personal and professional note I spend much of my life attempting to help people who lack exuberance. In its extreme form this results in clinical depression where people lack vision, imagination, hope and energy. They have lost the sense of adventure. Purpose and passion have disappeared in their lives. They feel overwhelmed and sometimes find it overwhelming to even get out of bed! They are fearful, inhibited, indecisive, and have low self-esteem and little belief in themselves or in the future. They feel trapped and helpless.
What a contrast to Donald Trump’s exuberance!
If being depressed is being imprisoned, feeling dead and inert and barely alive then exuberance is a prison break. And the exuberant Trump is leading the way. He is saying and demonstrating that anything is possible and you don’t have to wait.
As I watch “the Donald” exit his plane or strut up to the podium or extol his virtues and talents, I wish some of this would rub off on my patients and the other 28 million Americans currently suffering with depression.
Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/Weill School of Medicine.