Donald Trump’s Real Ambition

July 23, 2016 in Blog


I normally stay clear of psychologically profiling public figures. But when the writing is so clearly on the wall, when the stakes are so high, and when the data is so consistent, I am inclined to comment. With Trump, what I see is so clearly a textbook case of a metaphorical computer program running amok, that I feel its my imperative to reveal the source code. Hopefully by making Trump’s ambition open-source, we can clearly see where it is headed, and we can take action to halt the program before it reaches its ultimate conclusion.

What is this program? There are many ways to frame it. Some therapists prefer to couch it in terms of “narcissism“. “Oh look at that Trump, he’s such a grandiose narcissist!” But I believe this is not a helpful description for several reasons. For one, it perpetuates an us vs. them mentality. After all, we are all narcissists in varying degrees. The computer program that Trump is running is a grossly exaggerated version of a program, but it’s still a variation on a potentiality that lies deep within all of us. The other reason why this is unsatisfactory is that it doesn’t actually explain anything. Trump obviously has extreme narcissistic tendencies (a high sense of superiority and entitlement). To say he is a “narcissist” is merely saying that he consistently displays an abundance of narcissistic behaviors: not all that revealing.

No, I believe we need to look deeper at the underlying motivation behind virtually everything Trump does, from his choice of teammates to his tweets to his private and public statements. In my estimation, Trump is driven by one thing and one thing only: the search for glory. Everything stems from this one simple fact, and everything falls into place in a predicable fashion once we fully understand the operation of this fundamentally human drive.


In the groundbreaking 1950 book “Neurosis and Human Growth“, the influential German psychoanalyst Karen Horney made the critical distinction between self-realization and self-idealization. The person, developing under favorable conditions, tends to develop a drive toward self-realization, or towards growth. Favorable conditions include warmth, realistic praise, compassion, and the encouragement of mature disagreement.

However, there are many reasons why a child may not develop real self-confidence, and does not develop a true sense of belonging. This could be the result of maltreatment from parents, or socioeconomic circumstances, that leave a person feeling insecure and unvalued. “Feeling at bottom– isolated and hostile– he can only develop an urge to need to lift himself above others.”

With increasing “alienation from self”, his real opinions and feelings fall into the background and his stable sense of self begins to evaporate. In its place, he trades his real self for an idealized self that endows him with “unlimited powers and with exalted faculties; he becomes a hero, a genius, a supreme lover, a saint, a god.” If he does not find a way to fulfill the needs that were deeply unmet in childhood, he runs the risk of completely merging his sense of self with this idealized image, “and this idealized self becomes more real to him than his real self, not primarily because it is more appealing but because it answers all his stringent needs… It becomes the perspective from which he looks at himself, the measuring rod with which he measures himself.”

Since this seems like such a good solution to his intolerable feelings of anxiousness, insecurity, and alienation, he compulsively clings on to it for dear life. However, what he gains by avoiding such unpleasant emotions, he loses in his opportunities for growth: “Because the main goal is the attainment of glory, he becomes uninterested in the process of learning, of doing, or of gaining step by step– indeed, tends to scorn it. He does not want to climb a mountain; he wants to be on the peak.”

The difference between the search for self-realization and the search for self-idealization is the difference between spontaneous expression and compulsion, between acknowledging and denying weaknesses, between focusing on the messy process rather than the glorious product, and between reality and appearance. Instead of expressing his true values and goals, his chief concern is expressing to himself and others his idealized self: “It infiltrates his aspirations, his goals, his conduct of life, and his relations to others.”


The search for glory has three main elements: a need for perfection, publicly-recognized ambition, and the need for vindictive triumph. The person in search of glory aims at nothing less than being the idealized self and achieving easily measurable accolades. This requires excelling in everything:

“At school a person may feel it an intolerable disgrace not to have the best marks in class. Later on, he may be just as compulsively driven to have the most dates with the most desirable girls. And again, still later, he may be obsessed with making the most money, or being the most prominent in politics. A person who has at one period been fanatically determined to be the greatest athletic hero, or war hero, may at another period become equally bent on being the greatest saint.”

This is a crucial point: those in the clutches of glory are less interested in the actual content of what they are doing than whether it is excellent. That’s why those whose prime directive is the search for glory typically aspire to positions of power or prestige. However, this ambition inevitably leads to dissatisfaction:

“When they do attain more money, more distinction, more power, they also come to feel the whole impact of the futility of their chase. They do not secure any more peace of mind, inner security, or joy of living. The inner distress, to remedy which they started out on the chase for the phantom of glory, is still as great as ever.”

This continual dissatisfaction can lead to the most destructive element of the search for glory: vindictive triumph. According to Horney, “it’s chief aim is to put others to shame or defeat them through one’s very success; or to attain the power, by rising in prominence, to inflict suffering upon them– mostly of a humiliating kind.”

Often the drive for vindictive triumph stems from an unconscious impulse to take revenge for humiliations suffered in childhood. We are often unaware just how much the drama we play over and over again in our adult lives is the result of an unmet need in childhood. “Yet it is sometimes out in the open, and then it becomes the barely disguised main-spring of life.”

Horney uses Hitler as an example: his early humiliating childhood experiences led to a “fanatic desire to triumph over an ever-increasing mass of people.” Hitler could only think in black-and-white categories: triumphs/defeats, winners/losers. This thinking belied a deep fear of being less than than his idealized self:

“Hence the fear of defeat made further triumphs always necessary. Moreover, the feeling of grandeur, increasing with every triumph, rendered it increasingly intolerable that anybody, or even any nation, should not recognize his grandeur.”


All three of these elements of the drive for glory– a need for perfection, publicly-recognized ambition, and the need for vindictive triumph– have two general characteristics in common: their compulsive nature and their imaginative flavor. 

The compulsiveness stems from the fact that the search for glory is always a temporary solution, a perpetually unattainable goal. “The individual must abide by them regardless of his real wishes, feelings, or interests lest he incur anxiety, feel torn by conflicts, be overwhelmed by guilt feelings, feel rejected by others, etc.”

Although he consciously may think he wants something, he is in actuality driven to attain it. “The need for glory has him in its clutches.” The glory that drives him operates in complete disregard for his best interests, or the best interest of others. His actions aren’t driven by what he truly wants, but by what he must do in order to avoid unpleasant emotions. A central feature of this compulsiveness is its indiscriminateness:

“Since the person’s real interest in a pursuit does not matter, he must be the center of attention, must be the most attractive, the most intelligent, the most original– whether or not the situation calls for it; whether or not, with his given attributes, he can be the first. He must come out victorious in any argument, regardless of where the truth lies.”

As Horney notes, this way of being is in direct contradiction to the search for truth: “The compulsiveness of the neurotic person’s need for indiscriminate supremacy makes him indifferent to truth, whether concerning himself, others, or facts.” Or as Socrates put it, “… for surely we are not now simply contending in order that my view or that of yours may prevail, but I presume that we ought both of us to be fighting for the truth.”

This compulsiveness also has the quality of insatiability. It must operate as long as there is a lack of self-awareness of these patterns and the forces driving them:

“There may be a glow of elation over the favorable reception of some work done, over a victory won, over any sign of recognition or admiration– but it does not last… the relentless chase after more prestige, more money, more women, more victories and conquests keeps going, with hardly any satisfaction or respite.”

Lastly, the compulsive nature of the drive for glory manifests itself in its reactions to failure. In fact, the greater the opportunity for power or prestige, the more intense the reactions. As Horney puts it,

“It can be like a demoniacal obsession, almost like a monster swallowing up the individual who has created it. And so the reactions to frustration must be severe. They are indicated by the terror of doom and disgrace that for many people is spelled in the idea of failure. Reactions of panic, depression, despair, rage at self and others to what is conceived as “failure” are frequent, and entirely out of proportion to the actual importance of the occasion.”


The second common feature of the drive of glory is the use of the neurotic imagination, which is essential for self-idealization. To be sure, the capacity for imagination can be just as much a blessing as it can be a curse. A healthy imagination can allow us to plan for the future, envision multiple possibilities, and make the world a better place. As Horney eloquently puts it, “imagination may be productive or unproductive; it can bring us closer to the truth of ourselves– as it often does in dreams– or carry us far away from it. It can make our actual experience richer or poorer.”

But as Horney also notes (and as I’ve noted elsewhere), there is a critical difference between a healthy, creative imagination and “neurotic imagination”. We can too easily be fooled by the imagination of an individual whose primary drive is glory:

“When thinking of the grandiose plans so many neurotics evolve, or the fantastic nature of their self-glorification and their claims, we may be tempted to believe that they are more richly endowed than others with the royal gift of imagination… But I find no evidence that the neurotic per se is by nature more imaginative than others.”

For the person in search of glory, his imagination is solely in the service of power and prestige. This form of imagination inevitably leads to all sorts of distortion of reality. For self-idealization requires a continual, incessant, falsifying of reality: “He must turn his needs into virtues or into more than justified explanations… And of course his imagination must work overtime to discard all the disturbing evidence to the contrary.”

Therefore, a major feature of the neurotic imagination is that it often enters the realm of unlimited possibilities. The motto of the person in search of glory is: “nothing is impossible to me.” According to Horney, “His willpower should have magic proportions, his reasoning be infallible, his foresight flawless, his knowledge all encompassing.”

Of course, such stringent standards necessarily leads to overriding the necessary checks which usually prevent one’s imagination from detaching itself too much from reality. In the words of Søren Kierkegaard, he replaces individual compassion with “abstract sentimentality for humanity” and risks becoming “narrow-minded and mean-spirited”, “floundering in possibilities”. Or as Horney puts it,

“The checks on imagination are malfunctioning in the search for glory… The more his irrational imagination has taken over, the more likely he is to be positively horrified at anything that is real, definite, concrete, or final. He tends to abhor time, because it is something definite; money, because it is concrete; death, because of its finality. But he may also abhor having a definite wish or opinion, and hence avoid making a definite commitment or a decision.”

Such individuals also tend to be repellent to evidence, especially when the evidence isn’t consistent with self-illusions. And as Horney notes, there are many ways one can disregard evidence:

“He forgets; it does not count; it was accidental; it was on account of circumstances, or because others provoked him; he couldn’t help it, because it was “natural.” Like a fraudulent bookkeeper, he goes to any length to maintain the double account; but unlike him, he credits himself only with the favorable one and professes ignorance of the other.”


As you can see, Horney’s descriptions of the search for glory are just as relevant to today’s politics as ever. The reality is that Trump is human. Just like the rest of us, he strives for admiration and respect. However, I genuinely fear that his search for glory is so extreme– compounded and made stronger through many years of having his idealized self reaffirmed by the media– that a presidency would result in a complete disaster. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, the search for glory inevitably leads in one direction: self-idealization. In my view, what this country needs is not further idealization of Trump, but nation-wide growth. I very rarely write about politics, but I hope by making clearer the operation of Trump’s primary motivation, it can help us all more clearly see where this is heading if we don’t vote against it. I’ll leave the last note to Horney:

“We have reason to wonder whether more human lives– literally and figuratively– are not sacrificed on the altar of glory than for any other reason.”

© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Note: This post undoubtedly owes a deep debt of gratitude to Karen Horney, whose ideas are just as pertinent today as ever. In my view, she deserves more credit as a major thinker. In the Foreword to “Neurosis and Human Growth”, Jeffrey Rubin gives a nice little sketch of Horney’s life. Born on September 16, 1885, Karen Horney was one of the few women in her medical school class. She quickly rose to prominence in the Berlin psychoanalytic community in the period surrounding the first world war. A reading of her adolescent diaries makes it clear that her independent spirit, intellectual curiosity, and her capacity for brilliant critical and creative thinking made it inevitable she would become a leading figure. In addition to questioning some of Freud’s most accepted assumptions, her work also contained many disagreements concerning feminine psychology.

4 Responses to “Donald Trump’s Real Ambition”

  1. Howard says:

    To be fair to Freud, Trump may be moved by Oedipal contests with his father the real estate mogul.
    I’d add, that some cognitive impairment, perhaps related to his narcissism and psychopathy, might make it hard to control and sublimate, his urge to glory

  2. Dale Schaefer says:

    I read your article on Trump and for someone that doesn’t write about public figures you put much effort into voicing your opinion that people should vote against him for President. In all fairness you should put as much effort into evaluating his opponent Hillary Clinton and if you honestly look at her psychological profile you will most likely find that we would be better off voting against her as well. No one person is perfect, but you should be fair in your evaluations and targeting one political figure over another is very slanted. The Clinton machine has been in politics for many years and in all honestly many people have died in the wake of their rise to power. With the state of our country and what is happening in the world with ISIS, and illegal immigration being encouraged by the current administration, who is our next President is very important. In my opinion, the current direction of this administration is like a run away train about to go off of a cliff. This country needs a change of course from the CHANGE that put us in our current situation.

  3. Murilo says:

    Specially when we deal in groups, populations and gangs, we SHOULD indeed take care with CHANGES!
    For general we have no means to prevent all consequences of so called CHANGES!
    This so called ‘snake-oil’ man is absolutely irresponsible upon what he says and WHAT his words will provoke.
    From outside USA – a great country – it’s almost impossible to believe such personal human quality under politic focus!
    He’s trained and skilled as a ‘real state salesman’… exactly as an argumentative professional. B(
    Good luck!

  4. Barbara Lorell says:

    Karen Horney is my favorite psychologist to read! I have Neurosis and Human Growth, Self-Analysis, and Our Inner Conflicts. Over the years, I keep going back to them and re-reading, always getting more out of them.
    I loved your article!
    Recently I was reading Our Inner Conflicts – in this book, she talks about the three neurotic trends: moving towards people, moving against people, and moving away from people. When I was reading the chapter AGAINST people, I suddenly realized I was reading about Donald Trump. It described him perfectly! That’s when I did a little research online and came across your article 🙂
    I was curious to know if you have read that, as well?