During President Donald Trump’s sprawling press conference on Thursday, he performed at least seven separate, unflattering mimicries of his detractors.
Toward the beginning of his statement, for example, Trump referred to public outrage to his immigration ban. “They’re so surprised: ‘Oh he’s having strong borders.’” He stuck out his hands, feigning shock. It was less an impression of a real person than an impression of the way he sees his critics: clueless, frightened, and ill-informed. Psychologists say his behavior illustrates classic signs of narcissism and paranoia. “You see this petulant person who demands that everyone acknowledge he’s right,” says Dr. Joe Plaud, a clinical and forensic psychologist. “Those who don’t acknowledge that he’s right are either liars or cowards, and they’re out to get him.”
To Plaud, this behavior embodies elements of narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder, though he stops short of diagnosing Trump. “The way he structures everything is centered around himself,” Plaud notes. From this narcissism and paranoia comes a need for control. Plaud suggests that the president’s performance was all about creating control out of what’s become an increasingly chaotic situation. “People like him are raised in an environment in which they are used to being in control of the situation,” he says.
It’s not the first time Trump has gotten theatrical with his face, nor is it the first time people have noticed. Alec Baldwin’s impression of Trump on Saturday Night Live even explored the psychological pressure that occurs when a person’s secrets start coming out inadvertently.
Mimicry is actually often connected with empathy in psychology: By trying on facial expressions, we trigger emotional responses in ourselves and get a better idea of another person’s emotional state. But copying someone’s behavior or speech can also create a dominating dynamic where a person establishes control and power in an argument, especially when they’re out of options — like when a child mimics an adult’s speech when they’ve run out of arguments.
A presidential press conference creates a situation in which Trump is under public pressure, put on the spot in front of the nation. In his position of power, he can mock his critics and make them look foolish. This tactic sticks out during his press conference appearances; most politicians aren’t known for their impressions.
Trump has never claimed to be a conventional leader, though.
Trump’s use of mimicry to control has been honed over years in the entertainment business, an environment in which he has gotten used to firing back — hard — at anyone who disagrees with him and his administration, every time. “There was hardly any challenge he did not try to meet,” says Plaud, who’s observed more of this behavior since the president was inaugurated.
“When one person starts laughing in a group, what happens?” asks Dr. Jodi De Luca, a clinical psychologist who specializes in emotion and behavior. According to social psychology, we instinctively know the answer to this question. “The way social conformity works is that everyone, to be accepted, will assimilate the same social climate. … When he sneers at somebody he doesn’t agree with, the crowd joins in.” Trump employs his charisma to bring the audience along with him. “That system of communication is used to monopolize the audience,” says De Luca.
Both Plaud and De Luca are cautious about speculating on a mental health diagnosis since that would be irresponsible and unethical. But Plaud is not optimistic that the president will stop acting this way any time soon, especially since it was precisely this type of behavior that propelled him into the Oval Office. “There’s no pivot,” Plaud says. “There’s never gonna be a pivot. … He’s 70 years old. He’s been in the spotlight since the eighties. His whole approach is dominant.”
Plaud points out that people usually change because of negative consequences in their lives. But Trump has only been rewarded for his combative nature. “He’s still operating as if he’s fighting with Rosie O’Donnell.”