Psychological Profiles: The Hubris Syndrome of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump
Right now two world leaders are trying to decide if they will be allies or enemies. One seems to be very difficult to read, and the other’s vulnerabilities are an open book. They run two of the most powerful countries in the world – Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, and Donald Trump, president of the United States.
The Oxford University Press has written about the hubris syndrome of Donald Trump, while Psychology Today has written about the hubris syndrome of Vladimir Putin. Jessica Tracy, author of “Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success,” said people with hubristic pride use aggressive strategies to get power and dominate others, but the power they wield is not from respect but born of fear.
What is the hubris syndrome?
The Hubris Syndrome is a mental illness that psychiatrist Lord David Owens says tends to occur among people in power, particularly politicians. The ‘hubris syndrome’, may impair the behavior and decision-making of afflicted politicians, Owens says. He adds that the syndrome is oftentimes acquired when the person holds a very powerful position with few to no restraints. The dictionary defines hubris as “excessive pride, self-confidence, or arrogance.” Syndrome is defined as “a group of symptoms that together are characteristic of a specific disorder, disease, or the like.”
Owens says that people with the hubris syndrome probably had other mental illnesses before they acquired power and developed the hubris syndrome. All of these mental illnesses may overlap upon attaining great power. The following mental illnesses that tend to overlap with the hubris syndrome are:
Mental illnesses that overlap with the hubris syndrome
- Narcissistic personality disorder. This refers to an inflated sense of self-importance, a craving for admiration, and a lack compassion for others. The leader wears a mask of ultra-confidence, but in reality suffers from low self-esteem and keen vulnerability to even the slightest criticism.
- Antisocial personality disorder. A mental condition of a person with a pattern of manipulating, using, or encroaching on the rights of others. Oftentimes this behavior is criminal.
- Histrionic personality disorder. The American Psychiatric Association says HPD is manifest by a pattern of excessive attention-seeking emotions, usually beginning in early adulthood, including inappropriately seductive behavior, and an excessive need for approval.
- Bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. In its manic phase, grandiosity is a symptom of bipolar disorder. One feels superior, and “larger-than-life”.
When a person who has some or all of the above characteristics comes into a position of power, he or she is vulnerable to the hubris syndrome. At a certain level, hubris can lead to a shift in the leader’s behavior, rendering him or her unable to be fully functional on the powerful job he or she holds.
Hubris Syndrome Symptoms
Symptoms of the hubris syndrome are:
- World view. The leader considers the world to be a place for self-glorification, and he uses power to achieve this.
- Messianic mission. The leader shows messianic zeal and personal praise in his or her speech, and may merge his or her identity with that of the nation or the organization he or she represents.
- Accountability. The leader feels he or she is only accountable to a higher court, such as the court of history, or the court of God. He or she also believes that this higher court will vindicate the leader.
- Manner of speech. The leader may speak in third person, or use “we” in conversation, just as the royals do.
- Contempt for others. Ordinarily one feels anger toward an equal. But the leader with hubris syndrome often feels contempt, which is reserved for people he or she believes is his or her inferior, especially when the person criticizes or tries to advise the leader. People with the hubris syndrome know that they are important and powerful, and they thrive in this and may even elevate it to grandiose proportions.
- Image is all. This leader tends to do things or actions mainly to enhance his or her personal image. In fact, concern for outward appearance and presentation is disproportionate in terms of priorities.
- Impetuosity. People with hubris syndrome can be very charming, persuasive, inspiring, and bold. But if they are also impetuous, i.e., they refuse to listen to or take advice, all of the above is useless. If this person has achieved a position of power and acquired the hubris syndrome, he will negate the good qualities he or she has and may behave recklessly and impulsively.
- Thin skin. This person cannot withstand public scrutiny, back stabbing, and attacks by opponents. He or she will need a form of self-exultation and may do this by adopting a grand feeling of mission and importance.
- Loses touch with reality. The leader is no longer in touch with the real world. He or she will permit moral rectitude to preclude practicality, regardless of cost or outcome. This often results in the leader’s progressive isolation
- Unaffected by bad outcomes. The leader is not affected by his or her failures and bad outcomes. Instead, he or she always sees his or her outcomes as successful.
- Exaggerated pride. The person feels overwhelmingly self-confident, bordering on self-omnipotence, and belief in what he or she can achieve. He may abuse his power to the point of damaging the lives of others. He may decide that this is an occupational hazard that comes with power and leadership.
- Extreme hubristic behavior. This occurs when a cluster of symptoms are triggered off by power. This is why hubris syndrome is considered an acquired condition. It only comes to light when the person comes to possess great power and overwhelming success for a period of years, with minimal to no constraints.
- Hubris Syndrome/personality change. The change may occur after a trauma, due to a psychiatric illness, as a result of chronic pain, or due to an unspecified type of incident.
- Incompetence. The result is incompetence. The person often does not pay attention to details and finds it hard to make rational decisions. Some may say he or she has “lost it” or become “mad”. The behavior change has actually occurred due to the hubris syndrome.
- Deflects illness. The leader will not want to admit illness, seeing it as a sign of weakness. For this reason, he or she cannot be treated or medicated, even if he or she may experience anxiety, neuroticism, and impulsivity.
- Drugs. The leader may take drugs, usually unsupervised by a doctor. For this reason, the drug becomes more dangerous because there is no prescription in terms of dosage, and it may be taken in combination with other substances.
Scale of Hubris Syndrome
There is a scale on the hubris syndrome. On one side it can be a good, productive thing. But on the extreme end it is very bad. Sometimes the hubris syndrome is transient, oftentimes it is not. External events influence how intense a leader’s hubris is, and when it will begin. It is usually acquired over time, and if the leader has kept his powerful office for a very long period of time unchecked, hubris can be at its worst. Examples of leaders in history who had hubris are:
- Josef Stalin. Although he had hubris, he came to learn from his mistakes.
- Adolf Hitler. He had extreme hubris which, during defeat, led him deeper into a fantasy world. Hitler became more autocratic with his generals. Eventually, he and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide together.
- Benito Mussolini. He had both bipolar disorder and hubris.
- Mao Tse Tung. He also had both hubris and bipolar disorder.
If you want to know more about the hubris syndrome, you may want to consider the book below. You would be surprised how many leaders are considered to have had this syndrome.
Vladimir Putin’s Childhood
Let us now compare the hubris syndrome of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. We will begin by talking about their childhoods.
Vladimir Putin has done a good job of hiding his secrets well, to the point that no one really knows who the real Vladimir Putin is. Throughout his 12 years in Russian politics, no new information about his background has come to light. There are a few early biographies, but they too provide very little information about him. Putin can make himself seem to be anything to anyone.
Avidan Milevsky Ph.D., wrote in Psychology Today what is known and confirmed about Putin’s childhood. Milevsky said, “Putin is dealing with a complex childhood dynamic.” Born on October 7th 1952 in Leningrad, Russia, Putin’s father, also named Vladimir, worked for the Soviet Navy and later, during World War II, for the NKVD, the infamous law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union. His mother, Maria, worked in a factory and sometimes did janitorial work.
Putin said he came from an ordinary family
Vladimir Putin was raised as an only child
Before Vladimir’s birth, his parents had lost two children. One, Albert, died in infancy. The other, Viktor, age one, died during the diphtheria plague, in the midst of the German 872-day siege of Leningrad in World War II. Viktor’s body was laid in a mass grave.
Vladimir’s mother was traumatized by the siege, and almost died from starvation.
Putin visits the mass grave in St. Petersburg, but his official biography from the Kremlin website does not mention his siblings. The repression of this part of his early family narrative implies that he has struggled internally with these memories.
Born to parents with previous children, Vladimir was raised an only child. Typically, parents of only children are overprotective. But Putin’s parents, more than parenting one child, had also lost two others. Milevsky says it is likely that Putin was highly overprotected growing up. His mother disliked judo, his favorite sport. Milevsky calls this the “classic response from an overprotective parent.”
Only children experience difficulty developing social relationships, and tend to be loners. They prefer to work alone. Putin was a recluse. Milevsky notes, “Put together the unspoken, tragic loss of his two siblings, being an only child, and his overprotective parents and we may have some glimpse into the complicated psyche of this recluse, with an inflated ego, and something to prove.”
If you want to know more about Vladimir Putin, you can read this book. Information about him is not plentiful, so the more you can get, the better.
Putin: A Recluse With Secrets
What influenced Putin’s world view
- A Marxist-Leninist world. In this world Putin learned to view anything that was a product of capitalism and bourgeois oppression with contempt.
- USSR culture. This culture believed that the ends justified the means. This made it easy for Putin to rip apart an international treaty made with the Ukraine, guaranteeing the latter its independence in return for giving up its nuclear weapons.
- Superiority complex. Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, and was reelected in 2004. In 2008 he was appointed Prime Minister, and became president again in 2012. He treated his cabinet with such contempt that during a meeting in 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised him to treat his cabinet with more respect.
- Western contempt. Putin also holds in contempt all Western leadership including Cameron and Obama. We have yet to see how the relationship with Trump will work out.
- Invasion. Putin invaded oil-rich Crimea and swiftly abrogated the country. This generated nationalist fervor, which Putin needed, as Russia’s economy was decaying amid corruption and an aging workforce.
- Oneness with Russia. Milevsky predicts that Putin will remain in power until 2024 or beyond. He says Putin likely believes that Russia is doomed without him.
- Overall superiority. Putin likely feels contempt for political leaders who might succeed him, for the Ukrainians who thwart him, and for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who tried to advise him.
- Out of touch with reality. Merkel once told Obama that Putin lives “in another world”.
- Contempt is the core of his psychology. Ian H. Robertson, Ph.D. wrote in the article, “The Danger That Lurks Inside Vladimir Putin's Brain”, published in Psychology Today, that 15 years of power has resulted in contempt playing an important role in Putin’s psychology. He adds, “Absolute power for long periods makes you blind to risk, highly egocentric, narcissistic, and utterly devoid of self-awareness.”
- Fear. Putin is also driven by fear that loss of power makes him and his regime vulnerable to prosecution.
- Ideology. The ideology that drives him, as mentioned in his biography, is, “I consider it to be my sacred duty to unify the people of Russia, to rally citizens around clear aims and tasks, and to remember every day and every minute that we have one Motherland, one people and one future.”
The childhood of Donald Trump
Donald Trump's grandfather Friedrich
In 1885 Friedrich Trump, 16, picked up his only suitcase, and stepped off a boat that had taken him from Germany to lower Manhattan. The young boy mastered English, changed the spelling of his name to Frederick, and became a naturalized US citizen. He then went to Seattle and saw the restaurant, Poodle Dog in a red light district. He leased it and advertised it as a place with “private rooms for ladies”.
Friederich then married and had children. He moved with his family to Queens, New York. He bought some properties, but died in a Spanish flu plague in 1918. His 12-year-old son, Fred, inherited the business. Fred, (the father of Donald Trump), pretended that he was a rich estate agent executive. In this way, he built his empire in property development. By the late 1920s Fred sold houses in Queens at $4,000 each. After work he would walk through construction sites and pick up nails that would be re-used. Friederich was Donald Trump’s grandfather, and Fred was his father.
Fred claimed to be of Swedish, not German descent. This myth continued until 1990, especially when Donald Trump wrote his 1987 best-seller, “The Art of the Deal”. The younger Trump claimed he was Swedish, despite the fact that his German grandmother lived across the street from the family home until she died. This intergenerational white lie sheds light on Trump’s life and “career of truthiness”, David Smith wrote in The Guardian.
Donald Trump as a little boy
Other facts of Trump’s childhood
- He was born in 1946, the fourth of five siblings born by Frederick C. and Mary MacLeod Trump.
- He lived in Jamaica Estates, Queens, New York. His family had the biggest house in the neighborhood with 23 rooms, and a colonial style façade with six dorico columns that the neighbors called the “Gone with the Wind mansion”.
- His mother Mary, a Scottish immigrant, loved being the focus of attention, and loved the good life.
- His father encouraged Donald to “be a killer”. The first chapter of Donald Trump’s book, “Crippled America,” is imbued with the feeling of danger and a need to be tough. He feels the world cannot be trusted.
- In the book, Trump recalls his father “would drag me around with him while he collected small rents in tough sections of Brooklyn…It’s not fun being a landlord. You have to be tough.”
- Donald once asked his father why he had to always stand to the side after ringing the bell of a tenant’s house. His father replied, “Because sometimes they shoot right through the door.”
- Mark Golding, a childhood friend from ages 6-13, said the Trumps had a swimming pool, but not many books.
- In grade school Donald was known for his wild shenanigans. He always refused to admit to his mistakes. Even then, he would say anything that came to mind. Some children felt he was a bully. Neither did he get along with most of his teachers, Golding told The Guardian.
- Trump’s father was formal and strict. He supported Barry Goldwater’s presidential run. Trump’s mother was enthralled by the British royalty.
- When Trump was 13, he and some friends sneaked into the subway of Manhattan to buy switchblades, like those in the movie, West Side Story. When his father found out, he sent Donald to military school.
- The family went to church at Marble Collegiate, whose head pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, author of the bestseller, “The Power of Positive Thinking”.
Mark E. Button, in an article published by the Oxford University Press, noted that when Trump calls a critic a “loser”, questions someone’s faith, or refuses to seriously engage the media, “he reveals that he is in politics, but not really of (or passionate about) sustaining democratic politics.”
Some indicators of Trump’s world view are:
- Life Narrative. In a 1982 interview with People Magazine, when asked about the backdrop of his life narrative, he said, “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.”
- Greatness of self. The seminal goal of a narcissist is to promote his or her own greatness to the world. In his 2005 book, TrumpNation, Trump told journalist Timothy O’Brien, “I’m the king of Palm Beach…(celebrities and rich people) all come over (to Mar-a-Lago). They all eat, they all love me, they all kiss my ass. And then they all leave and say, ‘Isn’t he horrible.’ But I’m the king.”
- Money. Trump wrote in one of his books that “Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score.”
- Still the kid in Queens. In Trump’s book, “Crippled America”, he said a first step to victory is to strengthen the armed forces. “Everything begins with a strong military. Everything. There has never been a more dangerous time.” He called ISIS members “medieval barbarians” to be pursued “relentlessly wherever they are, without stopping, until every one of them is dead.”
- Tactics. Jessica Tracy, author of “Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success,” noted that hubristic pride for Donald Trump got him where he is today, in business and politics. His tactics include intimidation, insulting people, calling competitors names, and threatening violence either explicitly or implicitly.
- Not introspective. Mark Singer, who interviewed Trump in the late 1990s for The New Yorker noted that Trump “doesn’t have a sense of irony. He’s a terrible listener but that’s a characteristic of narcissistic people. They’re not engaged with anybody else’s issues…he’s not terribly introspective. He’s more interested in the next fight, the next battle.”
- Self absorbed. Author Gwenda Blair wrote of Trump’s speech during his father’s death in 1999. Trump spoke mainly about himself, saying it was the toughest day of his own life. He then spoke of his father’s greatest achievement -- raising a brilliant, renowned son.
- Big investment in social dominance. Psychologist Dan P. McAdams wrote in The Atlantic that “It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”
- Criticism. Trump once sent Gail Collins of The New York Times a copy of her column with her photo circled, and the words, “The Face of a Dog!”
- Bullying. Trump wrote in his book, “Never Enough” of “some nasty shit” that singer Cher had said about him, and bragged, “I knocked the shit out of her (on Twitter), and she never said a thing about me after that.”
- No mob control. When campaigning, Trump has encouraged supporters to beat up protesters saying, “Get ’em out of here! I’d like to punch him in the face.” He calls his opponents, whether they are journalists or politicians, “disgusting” and “losers.”
- Lies. PolitiFact assessed the truthfulness of statements by the 2016 candidates. Trump’s score:
- 2 percent of Trump’s claims are true.
- 7 percent are mostly true.
- 15 percent are half true.
- 15 percent are mostly false.
- 42 percent are false.
- 18 percent are lies.
- Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, was asked by Vanity Fair what he thought about Donald Trump. His answer, “Remarkably narcissistic.”
- George Simon, clinical psychologist, gives workshops on manipulative behavior. Simon considers Trump “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example (of narcissism).” He adds, “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”
Vladimir Putin and family
How to handle a leader who has the hubris syndrome
In the political context, Vladimir Putin is very powerful. He feels personally humiliated that the USSR fell apart, and he is driven by contempt for the weak, decadent West. He feels personal and national superiority to western powers. Psychologically speaking, appeasement will only fuel Putin’s contempt. When he shows contempt for international law and treaties, strong, early action is needed. It may pose an economic burden, but it would be less than the long term consequence of the cost of appeasement.
In sum, the best way to deal with a person who has hubris syndrome is to remove the person from power, if you can. Otherwise, you must have checks and balances that will keep the person within the realms of reality. That way, there is either less time for the person to do much harm (if he or she is removed from office), or you can control the degree of harm he or she creates.