Donald Trump’s Abysmal Problem-Solving Skills

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and societal tumult, it is reasonable to expect a president to comfort the nation and suggest a path forward. Instead, faced with nationwide outrage, President Trump reverted to what he knows best—domination through abuse and religious posturing.

Instead of sympathizing, Trump wanted protestors forcefully contained, and told governors they would be weak if they didn’t adopt his authoritarian approach to protestors. Americans should be concerned about the president’s ability to address systemic racism, since his advice was to crush people who believe that Black lives matter. 

As a neuropsychologist, I routinely taught and evaluated problem-solving skills in individuals. My experiences provide perspective on President Trump. His problem-solving skills are shaped by his well-documented narcissism.

Narcissism is more than selfishness. Narcissists typically do not show the depth of emotion that other people experience. Trump’s lack of empathy and persistent anger suggest the restricted emotional range of an antisocial narcissist.

President Trump participates in a roundtable on race relations June 10. (Official White House Photo / Tia Dufour)

Without a full emotional life, Trump struggles to understand the problems faced by Black Americans. In the human mind, the motivation to solve problems is entwined with emotion—you can’t solve problems if you can’t feel them.

In addition to emotional shallowness, narcissists often experience intellectual shallowness. Trump’s narcissistic intellect is illustrated by his decision to skip daily presidential briefings—a decision former Obama advisor Derek Chollet calls presidential “malpractice.” 

Trump believes his judgment is superior to his advisors, so he discounts their opinions, unless they echo his. His superficial exploration of issues contributes to abysmal problem-solving. 

One recent example of many is Trump’s disregard for early coronavirus warnings because of disinterest in security briefings and scientists. His indifference cost tens of thousands of lives and made the U.S. the center of the pandemic. 

President Trump frequently fails to seek information because he is already an expert. Shawna Chen documented some of Trump’s claims for Politico, and Haley Britzky did likewise in Axios. Here’s a sample:

  • “I know tech better than anyone.” (Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg, watch out!)
  • “I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.
  • “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.
  • “I know more about courts than any human being on Earth.” (Sorry, RBG.)

These boasts do not reveal genius, but rather jaw-dropping overconfidence. Around 500 BCE, Confucius articulated what Trump may never understand: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”


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Shallow narcissists can be easily persuaded. Jenna Johnson and Robert Costa report that Trump often repeats the positions of the last person he heard. This is worrisome, considering who he listens to: Trump “fell in love” with Kim Jung-un and admires Vladimir Putin—men who are masters at manipulation and control. 

Narcissists prefer to focus on problems that allow them to showcase themselves. Trump is at his narcissistic peak at rallies, where he rants about low-priority problems like immigrant crime and the sinister news media. He seems unconcerned about real problems—like climate change and race relations—because they provide less opportunity for self-promotion. 

You cannot solve problems you ignore. 

Good problem-solvers understand their core values and beliefs. NBC reported that Trump took 141 positions on 23 issues in the 2016 presidential campaign—suggesting a shallow intellect and weak convictions. 

For example, until May 2011, Trump was pro-choice. It was between his first and second presidential campaigns that his views shifted to anti-choice. During the 2016 campaign, he altered his message to match popular anti-abortionists.

Some narcissists change their mind if doing so brings admiration—raising the possibility that Trump’s switch was induced by expected rewards, rather than a change of conscience. Trump seems to align himself with whoever adores him the most.

Fast and Slow Thinking

Research shows that humans have two modes of thinking—which helps illuminate Trump’s problem-solving deficiencies. (Thinking modes are explained by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in the best-seller, Thinking Fast and Slow.)

Fast thinking is quick and intuitive, but lacks analysis. It requires little effort. Fast thinking works best in comfortable or familiar situations—like choosing an ice cream flavor at Ben and Jerry’s. 

Leaders can sometimes rely on fast thinking to solve familiar problems. Kahneman and Gary Klein suggest you trust the intuition of a fire chief who tells you to evacuate a building. But when problems are new or complicated, fast thinking is prone to mistakes. 

Slow thinking involves evidence and deliberation, and is less prone to mental errors. You did a lot of slow thinking in geometry class. Slow thinking is what you should do in a jury room. The bigger the problem, the greater the need for thinking slowly. 

Trump relies on fast thinking. He announced this approach in November 2018: “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” Among others, journalist Sarah Zhang observes that Trump rejects the idea that gathering facts will improve his comprehension. 

When he was a New York developer, Trump learned enough about commercial real estate that he could apply gut instincts. He gained enough notoriety to reinforce his fast-thinking style. But Donald Trump is new to problems like pandemics and nuclear proliferation: His intuition and limited knowledge won’t solve these problems. 

Mishaps from Trump’s fast thinking are common. Notable was his decision to withdraw troops from Syria, made without consulting advisors or the U.S. commander in Syria. This dangerous decision prompted the resignations of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and ISIS counter-campaign envoy Brett McGurk.

Fast thinking is revealed by Trump’s statement during an April 23 coronavirus briefing: 

I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that. 

It takes a special combination of arrogance and fast-thinking to tell medical experts that injecting Lysol or Clorox might cure coronavirus. It’s hard to imagine Trump—or anyone else—making this statement if he had thought about it for a few seconds. 

President Trump delivers remarks June 5 at Puritan Medical Products in Guilford, Maine. (Official White House Photo / Joyce N. Boghosian)

Mark Bowden interviewed recently retired military generals who worry about Trump’s problem-solving abilities. Bowden’s findings showed Trump does not think through consequences—a fundamental component of problem-solving. The generals viewed Trump’s disdain of experts and reliance on short term solutions as harmful to national security. 

Two of Bowden’s conclusions stand out:

Trump believes that his gut feelings about things are excellent, if not genius. Those around him encourage that belief, or they are fired.

Despite commanding the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus in the world, this president prefers to be briefed by Fox News, and then arrives at decisions without input from others. 

Trump has great scientists and advisors available, yet he hardly uses them, relying instead on skewed information from his favorite broadcasters. He makes decisions from a gut fed by misinformation and governed by narcissism.

President Trump is emotionally shallow and lacks knowledge. He demonstrates astonishing conceit when he substitutes personal hunches for expert assessments. Narcissism keeps him from effectively addressing the nation’s most pressing problems. Failure to confront systemic racism is the latest example of his deficient leadership. 


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About

Thomas Smurthwaite is an Oregon-based psychologist. He served for 20 years as staff psychologist at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, where he specialized in clinical neuropsychology and men’s anger control.