The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States represented the triumph of the extrovert ideal. As Susan Cain, a former attorney and negotiator, described in her book, Quiet, the extrovert ideal is “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight” (4). Borrowing from the cultural historian Warren Susman, Cain outlined how the extrovert ideal emerged around the turn of the twentieth century as the result of “a perfect storm of big business, urbanization, and mass immigration blew the population into cities” (21-22). As the population shifted from agrarian to urban settings, the way individuals presented themselves and related to one another changed as well. A culture of personality replaced a culture of character. As Cain explained, in the culture of character “the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honorable” (21). By embracing a culture of personality, “Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining” (21). Promoted by leading public figures, like Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, the virtues of this extrovert ideal become synonymous with success.
So far, Trump’s presidency embodies the extrovert ideal. As Cain explained, “The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong” (4). Trump favors signing executive orders and actions that give the appearance of leadership, but are limited in their impact. The writing, enactment, and abandonment of his first Muslim travel ban typifies this pattern of behavior. He prefers action over critical analysis. This is a man who has bragged about how reading gets in the way of doing things: “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.” Rather than engage in the slow, but necessary work of negotiating with Congress, coordinating with experts and interest groups on health care reform, Trump wanted to get the issue out of the way quickly so he could move on to other priorities. He simply agreed to Paul Ryan’s health care plan without bothering to learn its details. In doing so, Trump helped doom the bill to failure, but until the final hours insisted on taking a vote so he could be certain as to where Republican congressmen stood on him and the bill.
The attributes of the extrovert ideal, however, do not necessarily correlate to good leadership (a prerequisite for being president—at least we hope). As Cain points out, “Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends” (4). Trump certainly is talkative. Take, for example, this question on his tweeting in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson:
CARLSON: Do you talk to anyone before you tweet? And is there anyone in the White House who can say to you, Mr. President, please don’t tweet that, who you would listen to?
TRUMP: Well, let me tell you about Twitter. I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter, because I get such a fake press, such a dishonest press. I mean, if you look at — and I’m not including Fox, because I think Fox has been fair to me, but if you look at CNN and if you look at these other networks, NBC — I made a fortune for NBC with ‘The Apprentice.’ I had a top show where they were doing horribly, and I had one of the most successful reality shows of all time. I made — and I was on 14 seasons. And you see what happened when I’m not on. You saw what happened to the show was a disaster. I was on — I was very good to NBC, and I — they are despicable. They’re despicable in their coverage.
CBS, ABC, you take a look at what’s going on — I call it the fake press, the fake media. It is a disgrace what’s happening. So, let me just tell you…”
Did you get all that? I have a PhD and I can’t figure out what the hell he’s talking about here. Even his rambling incoherent answers aren’t necessarily a problem, if you fully accept the extrovert ideal. As Cain explains, “Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likeable than slow ones” (4-5). Talking first or fastest, however, doesn’t necessarily lead to the best ideas.
The characteristics of extroverts, like being sociable, charismatic, and friendly, are valuable and worthy of emulation and praise. But as Cain points out that “Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform” (4). And when we’re not careful about checking the excesses of the extrovert ideal, we wind up with a bloviating buffoon in the White House.
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Random House, 2012).