• Ryan O'Connell

Why Can't Trump Control Himself?

July 21, 2019

So once again the leader of the free world fires off an early-morning tweet that creates a political firestorm. In this case, the tweet is blatantly racist, as President Trump rants that four duly elected American congresswomen should “go back" to where they came from.

The Base loves it, of course, but most Americans cringe. Republican Congressional leaders duck the press, while “unidentified” White House officials complain to reporters that they have been caught off-guard…yet another time.

Some observers conclude that Trump has brilliantly found another way to appeal to white nationalists as he launches his re-election campaign. His approach may be ugly, but hey, it’s an effective strategy. Once again Trump busts political norms to his advantage.


But perhaps Trump simply can’t control himself.

The President’s advisers have pleaded with him to focus on the strong economy and avoid the divisive tactics, so the Administration can win back the moderate Republican voters who defected en masse in the 2018 midterms. A rational leader would follow their advice, but Trump can’t stick to the script.


There are many possible reasons, but one key factor may be that Trump doesn’t get enough sleep. Trump has boasted for years that he sleeps only three to four hours a night. His habit of tweeting in the early morning hours indicates that this particular claim, at least, may be true.

Our Species Needs Eight Hours of Sleep

However, clinical studies have shown that virtually all human beings should get eight hours of sleep a night. If we sleep less than seven hours a night, the long-term impact on our performance and health (mental and physical) can become significant.

For people who sleep less than five hours a day, like Trump, the consequences are usually severe. They display a pattern of bad-decision making and impulsive behavior, because their brain functions have been dramatically impaired by lack of sleep. That’s according to Why We Sleep, a brilliant and alarming book by Dr. Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lack of Sleep Impairs Our Brains

In fact, sleep-deprived adults suffer the same degree of mental impairment as people who are legally drunk, in terms of their cognitive ability, based on Prof. Walker’s research.

Most sleep-deprived adults suffer from:

  • An inability to focus and maintain concentration

  • Difficulty in absorbing new information

  • Weak memory formation

Sound familiar? Trump has a notoriously short attention span. His aides have reduced his briefing memos to one page, but it’s not clear that he reads even that. Trump frequently rambles during his speeches and during high-level meetings.

Trump often makes statements that are not based on facts, even after numerous commentators have pointed that his assertions are not correct. Sometimes this may suit his purposes--Trump seems to have little regard for telling the truth—but at times he has subjected himself to ridicule. At the beginning of his presidency, for example, he insisted on repeating that he had the largest crowd for any inauguration, even though pictures showed that this was clearly not the case.

Similarly, Trump has continued to assert that the U.S. is making “billions of dollars” on tariffs. Most of his economic advisers have tried repeatedly to educate him that U.S. consumers, not Chinese companies, pay for the tariffs. But the message doesn’t get through, and Trump wages his trade wars based on false assumptions.

The President also frequently refers inaccurately to very recent events. In June, he mentioned Robert Mueller’s “testimony in Congress”. But Bill Barr, his Attorney General, was the one who had appeared before Congress. Lack of sleep may reduce Trump’s ability to store and access memories. While we sleep and dream, the brain is organizing and filing important memories and jettisoning those we don’t need.

A Very Stable Genius...or Badly Sleep-Deprived?

Throwing Our Psyche Off Balance

Trump displays other traits associated with a lack of sleep: bullying, a lack of empathy for others, a penchant for risk-taking, and even a craving for sweet and high-calorie foods.

When we sleep, we are not just getting our beauty rest. When the lights go out, our brain remains active as it cleans up the results of a hard day of mental work. Prof. Walker describes a night-time “power cleanse,” in which chemical reactions whisk away metabolic contaminants that have accumulated in the brain.

This takes time, and if we don’t get enough sleep, we short-circuit the process. That has several important ramifications, including a reduction in self-control.

Bullies Don’t Get Enough Sleep

The prefrontal cortex, which is located on the left and right sides of our heads, next to our eyes, governs our “thoughtful judgments and controlled decisions”, according to Dr. Walker. The amygdala, another brain structure, is the key hot spot for triggering strong emotions like anger or rage.

If we get enough sleep, the prefrontal cortex runs the show and keeps the amygdala in check. However, insufficient sleep upsets this balance. Lack of sleep weakens the prefrontal cortex, and the brain “reverts to a primitive pattern of uncontrolled reactivity”, Dr. Walker says. That leads to bullying, aggression and inappropriate outbursts…like outrageous tweets.

Walker describes this deterioration with a colorful analogy:

“With a full night of plentiful sleep, we have a balanced mix between our emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and brake (prefrontal cortex). Without sleep, however, the strong coupling between these two brain regions is lost. We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses—too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). “

Well, Trump certainly loves to step on the gas pedal. He’s always careening around the curve in fourth gear.

Sleep-deprived adults also tend to favor unhealthy, high-calorie and sweet foods. Lack of sleep leads to gaining weight. Ever wonder why Trump has raved so much about the chocolate cake he had with President Xi Jinping of China?

No One Is Superman Where Sleep Is Concerned

Trump is in good company in claiming that he doesn’t need much sleep. Bill Clinton used to brag about that, too, until he developed serious heart problems. Clinton is another good example of how insufficient sleep can lead to problems with self-control.

Barack Obama also clocked about five hours of sleep a night, as President. However, Obama is much younger than Trump, and it’s not clear that Obama followed that regimen before entering the White House.

Unfortunately, sleep-deprived people adjust to their impaired level of functioning. They think that they are performing just fine. But they are fooling themselves, according to Dr. Walker, in thinking they aren’t subject to the laws of nature. Very, very few people—a fraction of 1% of the population-- can function well on less than five hours of sleep.

I should point out that Dr. Walker mentions Trump only once in his book. The professor notes that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who also boasted that they did not need much sleep, developed Alzheimer’s at a relatively early age and he suggests that Trump take notice. I, not Prof. Walker, have drawn the possible inferences between lack of sleep and Trump’s behavior.

The Lowest Blow of All

So lack of sleep has very serious, indeed dangerous ramifications, particularly for a man who has access to the nuclear codes. There is one other side effect that is a big problem.

Sleep-deprived men often have smaller testicles, Dr. Walker has discovered.

Now that could make any fellow ornery and ready to lash out at the world. Especially a guy with small hands.

The Wall Street Democrat

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