Narcissism and Trump: The Long Story
With the White House in his pocket, Trump believes he is able to command whatever it is he wants.
February 21, 2017
Self-effacement, restraint and empathy normally do not mix with high ambition. Ambition – in one form or another, for self or cause– is a requisite for accessing the corridors of power.
The narcissist is different. The true narcissist is a readily identifiable personality type, one of the most clearly etched in clinical psychology. Fairly common in the general population, they have been extremely rare in the political realm.
Breaking the pattern
The constant and intense scrutiny that the holders of public offices receive, along with the built-in structural constraints, reduce the latitude for inner-driven behavior that is characteristic for a narcissist.
Today, things have changed. A full-blown narcissist is found at the apex of authority. U.S. political culture, or so it seems, is becoming progressively more congenial to the conduct associated with narcissism.
What/who is a narcissist?
In analytical terms, a narcissistic personality is typified by a core self that is overwhelmingly self-referential — rather than being defined through contact with the world around it.
The narcissistic self is engaged in a constant struggle for self-confirmation. That becomes the compelling, overriding goal of life whatever pursuits the narcissist undertakes, whatever prosaic gratifications he seeks, whatever the social circumstances in which he finds itself.
With a grandiose sense of self-importance, he feels a powerful entitlement to admiration and special treatment.
Incapable of critical self-reflection
The narcissist is incapable of critical self-reflection. The only errors admitted are tactical ones, things that fell short in failing to bring the outer world into conformity to demands of the self.
Above all, there is the demand that the individual be allowed to do whatever he pleases at all times, without restraint or criticism or punishment. Everything is interpreted, judged and explained on that basis.
Unaccommodating persons are punished, places and circumstances that do not readily give approval are to be avoided. Avoidance behavior is companion to a total lack of self-understanding.
Please adore me!
Narcissists live their lives to the pulse of their constant inner beat: I need, I want, I need, I want. Empathy is foreign to narcissists. They have neither the capacity nor the inclination to relate to others except at a very superficial level.
Attentiveness to the feelings and emotions of others risks subordinating the imperial self to someone else.
The narcissist’s need for praise is insatiable. The outside world’s continual confirmation of the narcissistic self’s uniqueness is vital.
That leads to compulsive testing to reassure oneself that others will approve. And it drives the narcissist to bestow favors and praise even where there is no compensation.
Moreover, hyper-sensitivity to criticism places premiums on the narcissist’s surrounding himself with sycophants. No wonder the narcissist needs courtiers around him.
Persons with an independent bent and/or strong views are a direct threat to defensive strategies of “self”-protection. Those types are also unlikely to provide the routine adulation and approval that the narcissistic-leader needs.
Constantly fishing for compliments
Narcissists fish for compliments. They need people who offer them such compliments, especially without solicitation. They often do so with great charm. Money and power substitute the power of coercion, intimidation and implicit threat.
Narcissists seek out the rich and other celebrities. A billionaire like Trump seeks out the company of other billionaires, for they are the sole persons qualified to respect fully his success and to applaud it.
Money is the ultimate measure of self. Riches and celebrity status are intensely craved because they provide what is most keenly wanted – prestige and, above all, control.
With the White House in his pocket, Trump believes he is able to command whatever it is he wants, including evading anything unwelcome – the narcissist’s Shangri-La.
Temper tantrums are another symptomatic trait of the narcissistic personality. They may be uninhibitedly public, as in the case of Bill Clinton, or reserved for private occasions where there is active fear of turning the outside world hostile.
They stem from frustration created by the tension between the ever-vigilant self and an environment that, even for public figures, is not always fully accommodating.
The precipitating factor might be utterly banal. Just recall the fight over the estimates of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.
Fury at being thwarted bespeaks an ingrained sense of entitlement. In inter-personal encounters, a narcissist normally benefits from emotional “escalation dominance.”
That is to say, as the storm of conflict intensifies, he is less sensitive to either the indecency of what is being said or its consequences.
That these outbursts never happen in delicate diplomatic encounters or on formal occasions attests to the narcissist’s ability to exercise a modicum of control over his emotions and conduct. It could be that there is an element of self-selection at work.
A narcissist who finds it impossible to impose that measure of constraint on himself will not go far in a public career.
As has been observed, “though overweening ambition and confidence lead to high achievement, performance may be disrupted due to intolerance of criticism.”
The narcissist dreads situations where his supreme self is challenged or threatened – or its vulnerability exposed. That leads him to steer clear of persons who may do any of these things.
That is not easy when coping with other heads of government. It does suggest prudence in avoiding face-to-face meetings wherever possible. Dread also can motivate the narcissist to maintain distance by downplaying the other person’s importance.
That is difficult to achieve, of course, where encounters are inescapable and/or where the narcissist has staked out a firm position whose abandonment would strike a crushing blow to his exalted sense of self.
No sense of history
Narcissists typically have no sense of history. This is true both in the conventional sense of past events and in the personalized sense of being unmindful to what they did and said earlier.
Remembrance of things past can be an unwelcome restraint. Studied ignorance is an emotional ally. That is why U.S. history, in the eyes of Donald Trump, is divided into two eras – BT and UT, as in Before Trump and Under Trump.
The narcissist is by nature an existentialist. For that approach offers the maximum freedom to do whatever the need of the emotional moment is, and to avoid doing anything that is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
That is also why a narcissist is distinctly uninterested in precedent, in the norms observed by others, in lessons as to what falls within the realm of the impossible, the painful, the costly.
Let’s care about me
Inattentiveness to how one’s behavior registers on others similarly increases freedom. The narcissist just does not care – unless there is a clear utilitarian interest in caring.
Repetition of pet themes – grievances, complaints, judgments, wants – evinces how they are woven into the fabric of the narcissistic personality. The impulse to express them follows.
The past, understood as a huge void, removes any inhibition on reiteration. The only past that matters is not the nation’s, but one’s own inventory of slights and grievances received.
That “history” is kept readily available, to provide fuel to the ever-burning fire of narcissistic self-glorification.
Why all the frenetic movements?
Frenetic movement is a feature of the narcissistic personality. He is always in motion, unable to stay long in one place – mentally or physically. This can lead to unplanned movement that works against the reaching of self-declared ends.
Indeed, the impulse not to be held to account adds to the tendency toward pseudo-kaleidoscopic or free associative thinking and speaking, and vice versa.
Restless shifts from one topic to another in the midst of a conversation or action is a related trait of the narcissist.
They tend to be hyperactive physically and to find it hard to sustain concentration mentally. Whatever passes to the forefront of their mind presumably has claim to immediate expression.
That impererious self never accepts “no” or “not now” – not even from the conscious mind. Hence, narcissists tend to be at the same time disorganized and controlling.
A prime example was provided by Trump’s visit to the CIA on the day after his Inauguration.
Standing before the votive memorial to agency martyrs, he began a salute to them – and to the CIA – only to break off in mid-sentence to vent again his obsession about the size of the crowd on the Mall. He never returned to his abruptly halted eulogy.
That is why policy-making in the Trump White House these days resembles an octopus struggling to put on a pair of mismatched socks (to use Chas Freeman’s metaphor).
Trump’s “character” traits
- “He is forever impatient…he eats and drinks quickly. He is in perpetual motion, for him immobility is death.
- He oscillates between discipline and diabolical energy.” The author of his autobiography has revealed that he has an attention span of 2 – 3 minutes
- “He sees life as a competition with time”
- “He has no close friends; displays the least possible rapport” with others.
- “He abhors monotony and constancy, equating them, in his mind, with death.”
- “He seeks upheaval, drama, and change – but only when they conform to his plans, designs and views of the world and of himself.”
Trump also does not encourage growth in his nearest and dearest. By monopolizing their lives, he also reduces them to mere objects, props in the exciting drama of his life.
He seeks to animate others with his demented energy, grandiose plans and megalomaniacal projects. An adrenaline junkie, his world is a whirlwind of comings and goings, reunions and separations, loves and hates, vocations adopted and discarded, schemes erected and dismantled, enemies turned friends and vice versa.
Love? What love?
The narcissist’s “love” is hate and fear disguised – fear of losing control and hatred of the very people his precariously balanced personality so depends on. The narcissist is egotistically committed only to his own well-being. To him, the objects of his “love” are interchangeable and inferior.
Trump as Superman
The narcissist who enters public life has something of a superman in him.
Perhaps that is why such a large segment of the American public still adores him. They love having a Joe Six-pack character serving in the White House – someone who amplifies to the whole world what they tell each other at the bar and around the dinner table. That, too, is a form of the American Dream.
How long will he last?
As for Trump, a reasonable forecast is that he will not stay the course. As the failures and retaliatory insults mount, he may bail out – quit and pass the baton to Mike Pence. That conforms to the survival instinct kicking in to protect that Holy of Holies – the narcissistic self.
U.S. political culture is becoming progressively more congenial to the conduct associated with narcissism.
U.S. history, in the eyes of Trump, is divided into two eras – BT and UT, as in Before Trump and Under Trump.
Policy-making in the Trump White House resembles an octopus struggling to put on a pair of mismatched socks.
Michael J. Brenner
Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh [Texas, United States] Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is […]