Predicting Donald Trump’s Presidency

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Posted in: Politics

The late political scientist and presidential scholar James David Barber believed that character determined how the occupant of the American presidency would perform in the job, and that psychology provided a predictive tool regarding performance in that high office. The Duke University professor developed his classification system for presidents based on their world views and personal interaction with their work.

I became aware of Barber’s work because of his startlingly prescient analysis of Richard Nixon, who he predicted would have great difficulty by his second term as president. Starting with George W. Bush’s second term, in a column I wrote dated May 24, 2004, I began looking at presidents through Barber’s cataloging of presidents, with stunning results. I applied Barber’s system again with Barack Obama for a November 14, 2008 column with similar revealing results. Now that Donald Trump has passed the one-hundred-day mark in his presidency, there is a solid basis of information upon which to employ Barber’s type-analysis to predict his performance during his presidency.

Professor Barber first published his system in 1972 in The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, updating it in 1977, 1985 and 1992. The study addresses presidents through George H. W. Bush. The book was written to give voters tools to examine presidential candidates for insights about how they would perform if elected. But understanding how candidates might do in the Oval Office has only interested most voters after they have made their decision.

The Presidential Character shows that based on history presidents can be grouped in four psychological categories, which Barber labeled as “active/positive,” “active/negative,” “passive/positive,” and “passive/negative.” More specifically, and as I have explained in the prior columns, broad explanations only provide a crude understanding of Barber’s designation while his work provides historical explanations. Barber groups presidents based on the similarity of their personalities and character traits.

His first baseline is to describe them as either “active” or “passive” regarding their work. This he determines by looking at how much energy they invest in the work of the presidency. For example, Lyndon Johnson was a human dynamo; Calvin Coolidge slept eleven hours every night and took naps during the day. The second baseline is how presidents react toward their work: “positively” or “negatively.” Generally, he determines whether their political experiences are satisfying. To quote Barber, “The idea is this: is he someone who, on the surfaces we can see, gives forth the feeling that he has fun in political life?” To draw (quote and paraphrase) from my prior summaries, but not in the same order:

Active/Positive types not only dive into politics and government with gusto, becoming whirlwinds of activity, but they truly enjoy doing it. As Barber explains these are people with relatively high-esteem who have enjoyed success in their political careers before arriving in the White House. They are people who see productiveness as a value, and adopt styles that are flexible, adaptive, and “suiting the dance to the music.”

Barber reports that Thomas Jefferson was our first active/positive president. “A child of the Enlightenment,” he applied his reasoning skills to organizing the new government accordingly. He was a man of wide interests, “delightful humor,” and astute political judgment, Barber notes. Barber says surprisingly little about Abraham Lincoln, but he appears to be the first of several great presidents who were active/positive types. Other active/positive presidents Barber names are Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and, by my analysis, Barack Obama.

Active/Negative. I will return to active/negative presidents, but they often take bold moves – and this group includes presidents like John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush. Those in this group have in the end proven themselves to be disasters of varying degrees.

Passive/Positive. Barber describes passive/positive presidents as “receptive, compliant, other-directed” personalities “whose life is a search for affection as a reward for being agreeable and cooperative rather than personally assertive.” They have “superficially optimistic and hopeful attitudes that help dispel doubts and lift spirits.” They are able to “soften the harsh edge of politics.” Barber places the following presidents in this category: James Madison, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Ronald Reagan. These are all presidents Americans have loved when they have been in office, and they get by, but at the end of the day, they cannot boast great accomplishments arising out of their presidencies.

Passive/Negative. The category of passive/negative presidents is very odd, for one might ask why such a personality would even become involved in politics in the first place, when they don’t like it, and do little when in office. Barber explains that “passive/negative types are in politics because they think they ought to be.” And once in the political spotlight, they are not great leaders, for they tend to withdraw, and avoid conflict. Barber’s classic example of this type of president is George Washington, who took the job because he felt he should. Washington was not an innovator; rather he sought to create stability, and he had to be persuaded to stay for a second term, when, in truth, he would have preferred to retire to Mt. Vernon. Others whom Barber places among the passive/negative type are Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower.

Donald Trump is an active/negative. In fact, he is a stronger version of this category than all whom Barber collected during his analysis, and more so than George W. Bush, whom I found fell into this group.

There can be no doubt about Trump’s being active. He literally is on the job 24/7; when not in his office or making an official trip, he is on the telephone or tweeting, related to his work as president. He is a workaholic. (See, e.g., Time magazine’s account “Trump After Hours.” Nor is there any question of his being negative under Barber’s test. Trump can force a smile for the camera, but he never laughs, particularly at himself. His Twitter account reveals a man constantly complaining or whining about most everything. His only enjoyment in the job is that it feeds his insatiable narcissistic appetite for attention, which is not the type of positive reinforcement and emotional reward Barber describes to be an active/positive. Listen to Barber’s description of the active/negative:

The active/negative type is, in the first place, much taken up with self-concern. His attention keeps returning to himself, his problems, how is he doing, as if he were forever watching himself. The character of that attention is primarily evaluative with respect to power. Am I winning or losing, gaining or falling.

Barber adds,

The active/negative lives in a dangerous world—a world not only threatening in a definite way but also highly uncertain, a world one can cope with only by maintaining a tense, wary readiness for danger. The prime threat is other people; he tends to divide humanity into the weak and the grasping, although he may also, with no feeling of inconsistency, idealize “the people” in a romantic way. In struggling to understand social causality, he restricts the explanations to conspiracy or chaos, fluctuating between images of tight, secret control and images of utter disorder. He strives to resolve decisional conflicts by invoking abstract principles in order to render manageable a too complex reality.

Trump as an active/negative forewarns of trouble. First, look at his predecessors active/negatives: Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and Bush II. These are failed presidencies. If there is one lesson from Barber’s work it is do not put active/negatives in the White House. Since that has happened, the next lesson is prepare for trouble.

Interestingly, the American people understand we have a disaster in the White House with Trump. His approval ratings have been in the tank since his first day in office. At the one-hundred-day mark in the presidency of Donald Trump, the Quinnipiac poll asked Americans for the one word they felt best described the new president. The four leading words (ranked in order) are as stunning as they are accurate: “idiot,” “incompetent,” “liar,” and “unqualified.” Most Americans and most of the world have figured out the Trump presidency, and they are braced for the worst. May it end with the 2020 election, if not sooner. Barber did not have to deal with a lying, unqualified, and incompetent idiot who was an active/negative. But he would surely find we are in a dangerous place.

Posted in: Politics

Tags: Politics

  • Victor Grunden

    We are supposed to heed the advice of a person who thinks George Washington and Dwight David Eisenhower didn’t do much as President? Both were Army Generals that led in wars that changed the world. President Washington became President after refusing to become a King. It was also after the first attempt at self-governance as a Confederacy failed. President Eisenhower’s Presidency only entailed the Korean War, French-Indochinese War, Suez Canal, Hungarian Uprising of 1956, Kuwait-Iraq dispute of 1958 and other assorted Communist incursions in a an atmosphere of nuclear weapons development that the Soviet Union expressed a willingness to use. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a game changer. The continuing peaceful resolution of WWII and a strong economy are credible accomplishments, also. If approval ratings are the measure of success it should be refined with an algorithm of negative/positive news stories by various medium with a coefficient of correlation to President’s approval ratings. Madison Avenue wouldn’t be happy but approval ratings would be more realistic.

  • Frank Willa

    Mr. Dean, thank you so much for these observations. I had not seen your prior columns and was not aware of this analysis. It seems to be on point. I have wondered where the community of social scientists have been in the past decades. It seems that their skills and observations should be a part of the public discourse that the media provides in the course of presidential races. Knowledge is power, and insight into leaders, not just presidents, and those advising them, but House and Senate also, could improve the quality of debate, policies, and outcomes that produce steady improvement in the standard of living for everyone.

  • Insightful and distressing analysis, but you [John Dean] left out some key terms that are crucial to assessing the performance of #PresidentTweety. For example “ignorant”, “naive”, and “puppet”, where the first two lead to the third. The crucial question now is who are the primary puppeteers? It seemed clear that Bannon was pulling most of the strings at first, but he seems to be in the doghouse now, hopefully on his way out, but someone is still coming up with terrible ideas for Trump to endorse.

    From that perspective I think it is especially relevant to compare Trump with Reagan. He may have been a nicer guy with a positive attitude, but Reagan also became a puppet because “he couldn’t understand stuff” (as the Donald might tweet tomorrow. My perception is that the long-term effects of President Reagan were so disastrous that it’s hard to know where to begin. Division and destruction of public education? Deregulation to create corporate monstrosities that threaten ALL of our personal freedoms? Tax reforms to reward infinite greed and disrupt rational economic policies? Yet whatever Reagan did, Trump has the potential to do much worse. Not the knowledge, but he’ll sign on the dotted line if the right puppeteer shows him where.

    Better to think in terms of solutions, which means how to get Trump out of the White House ASAP. There are many obvious grounds for impeachment. I actually think bribery is the best, and it doesn’t even matter that the Constitution is vague on the direction, because Trump is constantly bribing and being bribed, and is often obvious about the quid pro quos. Wait for the tweet, but you won’t have to wait long. The problem now is that the so-called Republicans put party politics, private profits, and personal power ahead of such trivialities as country and Constitution. What we need now is to get 20 GOP senators and a few more GOP Representatives to put country first, but it sounds like mission impossible as they welcome the latest new so-called Republican after his assault and body slamming of a troublesome reporter.

  • Lisa Kohner

    Yes. Just yes.

  • Robert Leen

    The sad thing is that these are the values that 40% of Americans’ want in a president …. “idiot,” “incompetent,” “liar,” and “unqualified.”

  • Johnny Smoketree

    Ahahahahaha. Always enjoy reading sanctimonious, self-inflating comments from Washington swamp monsters like the master manipulator of the Watergate cover-up, John Dean. Sorry, Johnny. You’ll never escape your felonious past and will forever be known as the person who was more criminal than Nixon.

    • What? A fresh sock puppet? Bye-bye troll.

  • You tailored the cloth according to the conclusion you had before you made the suit.”Interestingly, the American people understand we have a disaster in the White House with Trump. His approval ratings have been in the tank since his first day in office. At the one-hundred-day mark in the presidency of Donald Trump, the Quinnipiac poll asked Americans for the one word they felt best described the new president. The four leading words (ranked in order) are as stunning as they are accurate: “idiot,” “incompetent,” “liar,” and “unqualified.” Most Americans and most of the world have figured out the Trump presidency, and they are braced for the worst. May it end with the 2020 election, if not sooner. Barber did not have to deal with a lying, unqualified, and incompetent idiot who was an active/negative. But he would surely find we are in a dangerous place.” Why spend so much time building a pseudo argument where you make the choice of where a Presdient lies in so as to stick your blunt knife into Trump. You might well as have just written an article called “I HATE TRUMP’S GUTS or TRUMP IS A FAILURE” and then that would have been more intellectually honest. Sad Really. Perhaps you should have focused on which Presidents you liked.

  • JD, you say Thomas Jefferson was our first active/positive President (I agree), but then assert that Abraham Lincoln was the first of several “great” active/positive Presidents… which would mean that in your estimation Jefferson’s presidency was not “great” for this country. Ahem, inter alia: • our first foreign war (and undoubtedly a just war), against the Barbary Pirates, in defense of American shipping? • the founding of West Point? • the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the U.S., according to Frederick Jackson Turner “the most formative event in American history”? • the Lewis and Clark, Red River, and Pike Expeditions?

  • @victorgrunden:disqus: When arguing whether Washington or Eisenhower did or didn’t “do much as President”, it might be best not to lead with what they did before becoming President, e.g.: “Both were Army Generals that led in wars that changed the world. President Washington became President after refusing to become a King.”… nor to cite things they didn’t do at all, e.g.: “The launch of Sputnik [by the Soviets, not by Eisenhower] in 1957 was a game changer.”

    When arguing on Jefferson’s Presidency, I did not mention his role in preparing the Declaration of Independence, or as Minister to France, or as Secretary of State.

  • Matt

    Oof. Active/negative describes Trump to a T.