Grappling with Evolutionary Destiny: Reflections on Coronavirus, Trump and ADHD

When coping with a pandemic, the last thing society needs is a president who is prone to distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity.  It’s always problematic to diagnose someone from afar, but some have speculated that Donald Trump displays classic traits of ADHD, or Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.  ADHD is known as a chronic and progressive neurological condition which typically affects children, though it may also persist into adulthood.  It was previously believed that ADHD was linked to poor parenting, but now the condition is regarded as a genetic phenomenon.  Reportedly, eleven percent of children and between four and five percent of adults, respectively, are ADHD in the U.S.

            Despite the name, ADHD has less to do with any “deficit,” and more to do with the controlling, directing, sustaining and switching of attention.  Though much advanced research has been performed on the brain, there is still no firm agreement as to whether ADHD is a “disorder” or merely falls within the normal spectrum of personality variation.  Within the brain, the controlled-impulsive dimension seems to be associated with the pre-frontal cortex and a neuro-transmitter called dopamine.  Because ADHD individuals display lower levels of dopamine (also known as the “feel good” hormone) and fewer dopamine receptors in the reward center of the brain, they get bored easily while craving stimulation and an adrenaline rush. 

ADHD “Train Wreck”

            In certain stressful or arousing situations, reacting impulsively or emotionally can be an asset.  The opposite of impulsive is inhibited, that is to say stewing constantly over what is the right thing to do, which can be paralyzing.  The trick is to find some middle ground between polar extremes, but ADHD individuals are prone to being high energy, grow impatient and have difficulty following instructions, not to mention regulating emotions.  Children with ADHD are prone to learning impairments, low self-esteem and social dysfunction. 

            ADHD people, moreover, may seemingly talk non-stop while finding it difficult to prioritize and organize tasks.  In other words, because they have difficulty controlling their attention, ADHD individuals may attend to what interests them, rather than what is most important.  As they seek out more and more stimulation, ADHD people may wind up offending others or come off as selfish, not because that is their intention, but rather because they simply cannot focus on what other people are saying. 

            At the very least, ADHD individuals may fall into the pattern of “over-promising,” since they are completely convinced their latest obsession will be a magic bullet which will solve all kinds of problems.  Because they can be enthusiastic and charming, they may wind up winning people over, but this later leads to failure and crushing disappointment.  At worst, life can become an endless pursuit of the next dopamine rush, be it sex, gambling, drugs, cigarettes or whatever.  Not surprisingly, such tendencies can lead to a train wreck and “terror ride through anger, frustration, sadness and unfulfilled promise,” with the disorder causing chaos “not just for those with the condition, but also for those they interact with.  ADHD can destroy relationships, derail careers, and even kill people.”

Trump and ADHD

            Where to begin with the psychological profile of Donald Trump?  As I have written earlier, technically the businessman might be considered either a malignant narcissist or a narcissistic sociopath, though some have pointed to his chaotic, incompetent, impulsive and inattentive personality.  Over the years, scores of articles, not to mention books, have posed the question of whether Trump has ADHD or a short attention span.  The notion of ADHD Trump is bolstered by the president’s initial debate performance with Joe Biden, which was widely hailed as a public relations disaster.  During the encounter, Trump constantly interrupted, blurted out comments and talked excessively.  Even earlier, while debating Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump walked around the stage while appearing restless and fidgety. 

            What is more, Trump reportedly gets bored with his daily security briefings, and his aides must insert catchy graphics in order to grab his attention.  The president’s inattention to detail, meanwhile, has fostered disorganization.  Indeed, Trump is notorious for impulsively firing people during meltdowns and rages, or uncontrollably lashing out at the media.  However, Trump apparently has no self-awareness about his impulsivity, and resists appointing anyone who might rein in his Twitter meltdowns.      While Trump’s political base views the president’s tweets as a sign of authenticity, an alternative explanation is that the Commander-in-Chief is simply incapable of being diplomatic from a neurological perspective.  In sum, Americans may have chosen “a chief executive with an executive function disorder.”

            Meanwhile, though it’s undoubtedly true that Trump spews lies at certain times, in other cases he simply might be uttering whatever happens to randomly pop into his mind, or becomes immersed in conflict because he is incapable of regulating or controlling emotions.  Without excusing mendacity by any means, perhaps the president believes he can actually deliver, or he is unaware that his promises are impossible to achieve, or alternatively he simply loses interest after a certain point.  In light of Trump’s ADHD, his inability to “stay on message” seems all too predictable.  Indeed, to Trump, flailing all over the place makes sense, since he is responding to all of his opponents and this is his normal, default way of processing information. 

Coronavirus Response

            While Trump’s ADHD is destructive enough under normal circumstances, it’s been particularly harmful when dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.  During news briefings, Trump does not listen to his own health officials and contradicts their public statements mere moments later.  Trump’s procrastination has also contributed to his remaining ignorant about basic facts pertaining to COVID-19 and the dire threat that it poses.  Because they are hard-wired to overvalue the present, ADHD individuals tend to overlook long-term threats, and in this sense, Trump’s cuts to CDC funding linked to global disease outbreaks, and his shutting down of the global health security unit at the National Security Council, don’t come as much of a surprise. Reportedly, Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration’s COVID-19 response, simply because the latter was standing around and “not doing anything else.”  The president’s move further hints at his neurological condition, since people with ADHD tend to respond to what is immediately in front of them.  Once he did start to act, Trump dealt with the pandemic by focusing on travel restrictions, a short-term goal, while ignoring long-term necessities such as setting up quarantine protocols, developing and producing test kits, bolstering public health infrastructure, and ensuring that adequate supplies were available for a major health crisis.  Trump’s catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led some to suggest that the public needs a much more thorough discussion about ADHD, particularly when it comes to the psychological profile of high-level politicians. 

Silver Lining

            Without diminishing or downplaying Trump’s negative qualities or the disastrous Coronavirus response, ADHD does have certain inbuilt advantages.  To be sure, impulsivity and risk-taking can be quite detrimental and lead to substance abuse, but on the other hand the same qualities can lead ADHD people to “throw themselves in with great passion and gusto,” and thereby become a “potent cocktail of prowess.”  Indeed, ADHD individuals have been hailed as nothing less than “the explorers of the universe” and researchers claim that such people display creativity, grit and perseverance.  Reportedly, ADHD individuals are particularly proficient at so-called “divergent thinking,” that is to say the ability to consider many ideas from a single starting point.  ADHD individuals, furthermore, may be curious, resilient and excel when it comes to hyper-focusing, multi-tasking and performing under pressure. 

            ADHD folk may direct their boundless energy into work, or channel their impulsivity into spontaneity.  In social situations, they may be “the life of the party” or challenge the status quo.  Because they are impatient, ADHD people may not be well-suited to desk jobs, but might find journalism or photography appealing, or alternatively gravitate towards other professions which require frequent travel.  Despite the fact that ADHD can lead to a jail cell, the condition has also provided an advantage for notable entrepreneurs, innovators, entertainers, athletes and inventors.  Again, though it’s problematic to diagnose figures from afar, some claim that Henry Ford, Ted Turner, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Richard Branson, Pablo Picasso and Michael Phelps are, or were, ADHD.  Additionally, it’s possible that both John F. Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt were also ADHD, and, as such, provide a more positive counterpoint to Trump.

Evolutionary Advantage

            In the modern world, ADHD kids are penalized at school, which requires youngsters to concentrate, follow the teacher’s instructions and complete assignments.  Because the educational system doesn’t value bravery, independence, inventiveness or reactivity, ADHD youngsters are regarded as a problem, and their “disorder” must be controlled or medicated.  On the other hand, in our more distant past, ADHD qualities would have been regarded positively or provided an evolutionary advantage.  For example, distractibility may be useful when monitoring changes in the environment or detecting sudden dangers. 

Recent research, in fact, suggests that our nomadic ancestors displayed ADHD characteristics, which would have made them sensitive to approaching predators.  Such clues have given rise to the so-called “hunter vs. farmer hypothesis,” which posits that modern-day ADHD individuals are literally the descendants of hunters.  Perhaps, ADHD provides an advantage in case people are forced to explore new lands and opportunities, or pursue a nomadic lifestyle, but the same traits might not be so beneficial once society settles down.   The fact that ADHD is more prevalent in men lends credence to such theories, since it is likely that within hunter-gatherer societies, it was men who hunted and women who foraged. 

             “As hunters,” notes the New York Times, “we had to adapt to an ever-changing environment where the dangers were as unpredictable as our next meal.  In such a context, having a rapidly shifting but intense attention span and a taste for novelty would have proved highly advantageous in locating and securing rewards — like a mate and a nice chunk of mastodon.  In short, having the profile of what we now call A.D.H.D. would have made you a Paleolithic success story.”  Moreover, having ADHD children in the community might have been advantageous for the entire group, since the youngsters would have been prone to risky behavior like sticking their hands in the fire, eating poisonous berries or falling out of trees.  Though certainly hazardous, such activities would have provided useful lessons for the majority, and eventually, through trial and error, ADHD kids would have come across useful and valuable insights. 

Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers

            While different branches of hominids have evolved over millions of years, modern homo sapiens have only lived in settled communities during the very recent past.  Agriculture was invented just 10,000 years ago, and this gave rise to a more sedentary life which represented a departure from Paleolithic hunter-gathering.  Though nomadic peoples with short attention spans are better equipped to take on dynamic environments while acquiring enough food to eat, the same traits are not helpful when it comes to sedentary people, who pursue tasks requiring sustained focus. 

            Certain isolated cultures continue to demonstrate the logic behind this underlying thesis.  Take, for example, the Ariaal tribe in Kenya: traditionally, the group pursued a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but more recently a sub-group branched out and began to pursue settled agriculture.  When researchers examined both groups, they found that nomadic men who had the genetic variant of a dopamine-type receptor linked to ADHD were better nourished than those who lacked it.  On the other hand, the reverse was true for the men who had settled, that is to say those who had the receptor were more underweight than those who lacked it. 

The supposition is that impulsivity, unpredictability, and ADHD qualities may help nomads obtain food and resources.  Indeed, unpredictable behavior might have been helpful in protecting our evolutionary ancestors from livestock raiding, robberies and much more, prompting researchers to quip, “after all, would you want to challenge someone if you had no idea what he or she might do?”  On the other hand, ADHD subjects in the settled village had more difficulty in the classroom, leading researchers to surmise that these same traits do not represent an advantage in sedentary society, which relies on other qualities such as practicing agriculture and selling goods at market. 

ADHD and the Power Structure

            In light of our evolutionary past, perhaps the real question is how ADHD individuals should fit into present-day society?  To be sure, Trump’s failed Coronavirus response demonstrates the perils of ADHD, and perhaps society should find a way to vet politicians while holding more public discussions about various neurological conditions.  It’s easy to get bogged down by such discussions, with some arguing that ADHD, let alone depression or other mental health conditions, should not be a “litmus test” for holding high political office.

            Such debates miss the point and need to be focused not on how ADHD individuals ought to fit into the power structure, but rather how they might help to rein it in.  Unfortunately, however, observers prefer to muse about qualities such as impulsivity, which can bestow a competitive “edge” over others, and therefore ADHD individuals should become entrepreneurs.  In this sense, the “neuro-typical” agenda for ADHD people differs little from cynical plans to integrate autistic individuals into corporate America, as I have detailed elsewhere

            ADHD individuals may find a 9-to-5 job quite challenging, notes Forbes, and therefore they may prefer to be self-employed.  “Leverage your ADHD superpowers” advises the publication, adding, “it takes factors like curiosity, the need for risk and uncertainty, as well as aligned interests, to switch the ADHD brain on.  When you can design your own career – coupled with the risk and challenges inherent within entrepreneurship; this is an excellent career fit for people with ADHD.”  Others note that ADHD individuals seem to pick entrepreneurship as a conscious personal choice, which isn’t particularly surprising in light of what we already know about human evolution.  Indeed, “throughout the industrial age, careers and businesses were built on strict hierarchies, where managers groomed — farmed — their employees as they ascended the rather rigid corporate ladder.”  If anything, ADHD people may be particularly suited to the “gig economy,” which is increasingly flexible and creative, as opposed to traditional office jobs. 

            Needless to say, the business press isn’t interested in pushing an alternative agenda for “neuro-minorities” which would utilize their unique talents to challenge the status quo.  While autists may be particularly suited to long-range thinking, ADHD individuals may come in handy when it comes to addressing very immediate and pressing problems.  In an era of escalating climate emergencies and pandemics, human survival is now at stake, and therefore it is easy to see how ADHD individuals, the age-old impulsive explorers with incredible stores of pent-up energy, might, under certain circumstances, find a renewed sense of purpose by confronting real-world and even risky situations, as opposed to being stigmatized, ostracized and medicated for not being able to focus on the deadening, monotonous and humdrum tenor of daily life at school.