Would Trump Fail The Turing Test?, Or, The Psychopath in The White House.

In order to fail The Turing Test, something that’s a machine in one or another of the legitimate senses of that term has to manifest verbal behavior that’s literally mindless in an important sense. Let’s grant for the purposes of argument that Trump is a human animal, and that his basic biological processes can be treated by contemporary natural scientists as natural mechanisms: hence he’s a human biological machine in that sense. But would he pass The Turing Test? More specifically, if we presented him with series of questions about moral conduct and human affairs, would we believe that we were interacting with an ordinary adult human person?

I’m going to argue that the current President of the USA, Donald Trump, is literally mindless in an important sense, i.e., that he’s literally out of his mind in an important sense, and that therefore he would fail The Turing Test.

While it is true that some Americans enthusiastically support Trump, many others view this enthusiasm with utter perplexity. How can they possibly believe that Trump “tells it like it is,” we wonder? Hasn’t he lied more consistently and more blatantly than any other politician in history? And haven’t there been numerous moments when it seems as if there is something not quite right about this guy? Remember that time he did the photo op with the baby in El Paso? Or the time he expressed interest in buying Greenland?

My suspicion is that many people’s dissatisfaction with Trump goes well beyond any kind of disagreement with his policies. It’s true that political polarization has increased, and with an impeachment inquiry underway, we could become even more divided as a nation. If we end up with Mike Pence as president, I’m sure I would continue to feel dissatisfied. There is a pretty good chance I would fundamentally disagree with most of his decisions and policy proposals. But at least Pence has principles. And I think it’s about time we didn’t have a psychopath serving as President.

There, I said it fully explicitly. Trump is a psychopath. At this point, while some readers nod their heads in agreement, others probably are rolling their eyes. But before anyone becomes overly frustrated and just dismisses my claim outright: I am well-aware that my claim may seem bold and unfounded. However, it actually doesn’t matter, for the purposes of the discussion that follows, whether or not he qualifies as a full-fledged psychopath. I am not a clinician, after all; but I think that in order to justify many of the important claims I make, it will be enough to show merely that Trump has psychopathic tendencies. That means that if he took the relevant personality tests, his scores would be notably higher than those of non-psychopaths.

Still, I need to explain to you why I think Trump is a psychopath, or at least exhibits striking psychopathic tendencies. After all, the term “psychopath” typically conjures up images of serial killers and horror movie scenes. But the reality is that there are many psychopaths among us who will never go to prison and manage to stay out of trouble for the most part.  These so-called “successful” psychopaths often have tremendous charm and a knack for manipulating people that helps them to excel in their careers—often in business. (However, because they are highly impulsive, this success may not last forever; poor decisions may lead them into bankruptcy, for example, or eventually land them in jail.)

To make sense of the fact that there are “successful” psychopaths, David Shoemaker looks to Robert Hare’s checklist for psychopathy, which is divided into two broad camps of criteria, those concerning personality characteristics (Factor 1) and those concerning anti-social behavior (Factor 2).

Factor 1 traits include superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulativeness, lack of remorse, callousness, lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions. Factor 2 traits include a need for stimulation, proneness to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioral control, lack of realistic long-term goals, and impulsivity. Shoemaker proposes that “successful” psychopaths often have high Factor 1 scores combined with low Factor 2 scores. Despite their apparent success, they are no less narcissistic, manipulative, and callous than their rivals.

Psychopaths are pathological liars and indifferent to whether their beliefs and claims conform to norms of evidence or consistency. They see discourse as nothing more than strategic manipulation and can’t fully understand why justification for their claims matter.  They lack empathy and are unable to feel emotions very deeply. They are unlikely to form close connections with anyone, including family members and “friends.”  Their life strategy is that of a cheater or free rider: they rely on other people’s adherence to moral and social rules while refusing to adhere to them themselves.[i]

There are important questions about how to deal with psychopaths. Available evidence suggests that they are born this way, and there are no known methods of treatment that have proven to be effective. Many end up in prison; some end up with careers in business. But I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s one place where psychopaths don’t belong: the Oval Office.

We see Trump’s impulsivity on display just about every day via his tweeting and press commentary, and via communications with foreign leaders. His constant lying demonstrates an utter lack of concern for the truth. He exhibits clear signs of frustration, sometimes verging on throwing a tantrum, when his desires are frustrated. Indeed, he lashes out at whomever criticizes him or his policy decisions.

It is clear that he often does not understand why people would find some of his comments inappropriate, nor does he care the least bit about offending people so long as it does not cause harm or inconvenience to himself. Cleckley (1976) suggests that because the psychopath cannot fully comprehend what matters to others, he has difficulty seeing himself as other see him, in relation to their values. Trump revealed this limitation of awareness recently by stating his intention to purchase Greenland, and then expressing anger when others deemed this ridiculous.

Because Trump has a deficient understanding of what it means to care about people, he likely would score highly on yet another measure of psychopathy: a lack of intimate relationships—relationships in which the capacity for empathy and emotional engagement is crucial. Consider, for example, his comments about his own daughter, Ivanka Trump:

When Donald Trump was watching his 16-year-old daughter Ivanka host the 1997 Miss Teen USA pageant, he turned to the then-Miss Universe and asked: ‘Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?’…[ii]

In the almost 20 years since, Trump has called his eldest daughter “voluptuous.” He’s also said it’s OK to describe her as “a piece of ass,” though she is a senior executive in his business empire. And he’s said that, if she wasn’t his daughter, “perhaps [he’d] be dating her.”

The fact that his misogyny and objectification of women is not off-limits even with respect to his own daughter struck many people as astounding. But perhaps even more surprising is Trump’s utter lack of recognition that such comments might be hurtful to Ivanka. Observing this man in action, do we have reason to think that he has close emotional connections with Ivanka or any of his children? What about his wife, Melania? Does this man have any close friends? People with a grandiose sense of self-worth, and who just don’t understand, or care to understand, how their behavior hurts others, are not particularly good at sustaining emotionally intimate relationships.

What this example points to more generally, though, is Trump’s general lack of empathy. Indeed, numerous journalists have commented on this:

“Whether it’s the brutal execution of a single individual or the death of thousands in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump does not seem moved unless the victims fit a certain profile. If a tragedy doesn’t involve obvious Trump allies or supporters, then it doesn’t seem to get his sincere attention.”

“After the United Nations released an independent report this week that concluded Saudi officials killed and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump reacted in a way true to his character. He ignored it.”[iii]

“On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, we watched Khizr Khan speak of his son’s death, a hero’s death, in service to his country. The emotional journey Khizr took us on was profound, and raw. He spoke as a man dealing with palpable grief, but with pride and dignity and love. By his side his wife, Ghalaza Khan, stood silent. Her face was difficult to fathom, because even in its stillness it spoke volumes of hurt, desperation, and the weight of losing a child. ‘I’d like to hear his wife say something.’ That’s what Trump added to the conversation.”[iv]  

During a listening session featuring a range of views on how to combat gun violence in schools, Trump made use of a “cheat sheet” consisting of reminders to empathize and assure people that he was interested in their perspectives. Washington Post photographer Ricky Carioti captured the image of Trump’s notes that’s at the top of this essay.[v]

Through tragedy after tragedy, he has failed to respond appropriately. When he should be somber, he jokes. He’s made it clear that sensitivity to other people’s pain and suffering is not his strength—to put it as a massive understatement.

More recently, as Trump posed with a thumbs-up with the baby from El Paso who had just lost both parents during a mass shooting, many people responded with disbelief. But it should be clear to us by now that Trump just doesn’t get it, that he fails to make basic moral observations that for most of us are just obvious.

It is difficult to deny that Trump has some sort of empathy deficit. But at this point, someone might insist that Trump actually is quite good at reading people and understanding their perspectives; otherwise, how could he have conducted such a masterful political campaign? And why would he still have so many followers? It is crucial to acknowledge that there are different forms of empathy.  One type of empathy is cognitive and more detached and involves the capacity for perspective taking. Exercising cognitive empathy enables us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Another type of empathy is engaged and affective. It centrally involves feelings of compassion and some kind of affective resonance.

Cognitive empathy is important for many different endeavors. It is central, for example, for the work that anthropologists do when trying to understand cultures very different from their own, and also when psychologists are trying to understand their clients. But people also can utilize their capacity for cognitive empathy to manipulate people and play with their emotions.

“So Trump supporters get a full dose of cognitive empathy directed sstraight at them from the man at the campaign podium. No one is reading those supporters and playing them better than Trump himself. His instinctive understanding of his fans’ emotional states and his willingness to exploit them drive his success.

And his skill with understanding his loyalists underlies his insouciance about outrage from other quarters: He knows his supporters will see anger targeted at him as attacks on themselves. With his ability to read his followers, he has magnetized them and their loyalty in a way that no amount of pointing out lies or potentially criminal behavior will weaken. Indeed, it just strengthens their bonds.”[vi]

This explanation does go a long way toward explaining the psychology of Trump supporters. Once they identify with him, they see attacks on him as attacks on themselves. Clearly they are capable of empathy, and it’s part of what is driving their loyalty.

However, this is only part of the story. To understand another important piece of the explanation, we need to take seriously Heidi Maibom’s recent claim[vii] that we all have more in common with psychopaths than we realize. We all are able to suppress our empathic reactions, turning them on and off depending on the situation, and often experiencing empathy much more intensely when engaging with people we know. Whether we’re Lefty Liberals or Trump supporters, we all have empathy blind spots. That is, while we are generally capable of empathy, we tend not to empathize or engage emotionally with certain groups of people. Trump has been masterful at tapping into his supporters’ blind spots, as well as their fear and anger; and as a result, their enthusiasm about his presidency has not waned.

But these kinds of blind spots are all too common. Indeed, we all suffer from them to some degree. We may very well find it much more difficult to feel empathy for people who live far away, for example, or those from very different cultural or religious backgrounds.  We may find it difficult to empathize with those who are incarcerated, or not able-bodied, or much older than ourselves. Many people find it difficult to empathize with people of a different gender, sexual orientation, race, or socioeconomic background.

Some of us exhibit quite serious empathy blind spots that ultimately contribute to the dehumanization of those with whom we fail to empathize. White supremacists, for example, encounter serious blind spots when it comes to taking seriously the welfare and general humanity of people of color. Xenophobes encounter serious blind spots when it comes to taking seriously the welfare and general humanity of immigrants. It simply fails to register that these other human beings have feelings and interests that ought to be taken into account.

Sometimes these blind spots simply lead us to tolerate that which is intolerable.  For example, if we fail to be horrified by the family separation policy instituted by ICE under the direction of President Trump, we exhibit an empathy blind spot. Likewise, if we fail to be concerned about the death of people of color at the hands of police during routine traffic stops and stubbornly insist that “blue lives matter,” we exhibit an empathy blind spot. On the flip side, if we simply demonize police officers who exhibit bias without acknowledging the extent to which all of us are influenced by racial bias by virtue of living in a racist society, we exhibit an empathy blind spot. When these empathy blind spots contribute to mass shooting sprees, it becomes evident just how dangerous they can be. But all of us have them, to some degree, even if they don’t lead us to commit violent acts.

Understanding that people have these empathy blind spots, and that Trump is a master manipulator, helps to explain why we elected a psychopath as president. He has been very good at gauging these empathy blind spots and utilizing them to his advantage.  Many people support him because he gives voice their perspective, which thereby legitimizes, normalizes, and strengthens their particular empathy gaps. Of course, very few Trump supporters will go out and start killing people, and even those who do probably are not psychopaths. Rather, if they have a serious blind spot with respect to immigrants, they are likely to embrace Trump’s immigration policies with enthusiasm; and if they have a more modest one, they are likely to look the other way and focus on what they think are economic benefits.

Part of what is so fascinating about all this is that Trump himself probably does not bear a grudge against immigrants. It’s probably a mistake to stay that he is a raging racist; in fact, it is altogether possible that he fully believes his claims to the effect that he is the least racist person anybody knows. Because Trump is largely indifferent toward others in general, it’s quite possible that none of his seemingly racist remarks are motivated by racial hatred. Instead, he just doesn’t care about people of color, but then he also doesn’t care about people in general. When it comes to his moral indifference, Trump is indiscriminate. All he truly cares about his own self-gratification and the advancement of his narrowly conceived self-interests at that particular moment in time.

Of course, like most psychopaths, Trump isn’t always particularly good at gauging what is in his best interests. It’s very likely that he simply doesn’t understand why his latest impeachment rants (which include calling for the execution of The Whistleblower’s sources, threatening a civil war, and claiming that Big Pharma is behind the push to impeach him) are bad P.R., and make him seem unhinged. Indeed, as a recent Vanity Fair article[viii] puts it, the “indecipherable nonsense” contained in Trump’s recent tweets and public statements suggest that he has in fact flown over the cuckoo’s nest.

And that’s why I think Mike Pence would be a categorically more suitable president. As Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman) puts it in The Big Lebowski: “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” That is, even if I disagree with Pence’s principles, I appreciate that at least he has some, and that he most certainly would pass The Turing Test. By sharp contrast, however, Trump is literally out of his mind in the important sense that’s he’s a psychopath, and would fail The Test.


[i] See H. Maibom, “The Mad, the Bad, and the Psychopath,” Neuroethics 1 (2008): 167-184 (2008).

[ii] https://www.independent.co.uk/topic/DonaldTrump.

[iii] https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/22/opinions/trumps-selective-displays-of-empathy-dantonio/index.html.

[iv] https://www.scarymommy.com/trump-attacks-parents-of-fallen-soldier/.

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/02/21/this-photo-of-trumps-notes-captures-his-empathy-problem-better-than-anything/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b08c89c4cc84.

[vi] https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2016/11/03/yes-donald-trump-is-a-master-of-empathy/#62ac1f731937.

[vii] https://aeon.co/essays/you-have-more-in-common-with-a-psychopath-than-you-realise

[viii] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/10/donald-trump-impeachment-pharmaceutical-industry

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