Trump as Narcissist


Editor’s note: The article below by MIchael Brenner, cleverly presenting an argument for why Trump should be analyzed as a clinical narcissist,* is not atypical of the kinds of analyses that have been floating around on the internet. Brenner is obviously a talented thinker and  his reasoning at many points is solid.     Nevertheless, I believe the direction of this and other similar responses to Trump is deeply misguided, even if 1000% accurate, for the following reasons:

1. . I strongly oppose attempts by people to use psychiatric diagnoses to stigmatize the public actions of public figures. In my own work as a psychotherapist I’ve frequently concluded that one never knows what is happening in the inner lives of clients till one has been working with them for months, or sometimes years. I have witnessed some of the most respected psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, family counselors and others make hugely mistaken diagnoses based on the evidence of public behavior, only to later have to retract their initial diagnoses on the basis of deeper interactions.

2. I have witnessed colleagues in psychiatry and psychology use their socially sanctioned power with diagnoses to commit to psychiatric facilities people who deserved empathy and care but who instead received snap judgments made on the basis of public behavior that ended in their incarceration.

3. I have watched this same type of assessments from afar reasoning used by various establishment psychiatrists to provide belittling psychiatric diagnoses to people on the Left who challenge the norms of capitalist society.

4. I believe that making these kind of diagnoses without the benefit of having a carefully constructed private relationship with the public political  personality being analyzed leads many of the tens of millions of supporters of the political character who has been labeled in this way to believe that implicitly they too are being judged and dissed. This plays into a central problem facing us in the liberal and progressive world: the fact that capitalist society already and systematically fosters self-blaming on the part of a large swath of people. That self-blaming is rooted in the central self-justification of capitalist inequality: the notion that we live in a meritocracy and therefore those who are not happy with their lot, whether that be in terms of economic insecurity or frayed or failing or painful or unfulfilling human relationships, is really one’s own fault because, as the capitalist mantra (now enthusiastically embraced by many in the worlds of pop-psychology and pop-spirituality) “you make your own reality, so you should just learn to take responsibility for whatever you have created.” Tens of millions of people are already involved in this self-blaming. When we use the kind of psychiatric labeling suggested by those who insist that Trump is a clinical narcissist, that is heard by many who support him as just a continuation of the way the liberal and progressive forces continually dismiss everyone who is not already on our side as being racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti- Semitic, or stupid.  This makes many of these people feel terrible, intensifies their self-blaming, but then often generates huge amounts of anger at those who have made those judgments without ever actually knowing the lives and details of the people that are thus being dissed. And this contributes to the ability of right-wing demagogues like Trump (not a psychiatric term, but a political judgment) to win support by telling a deep truth to  many Americans: “many on the Left know nothing about your lives, but they have contempt for you, think that if you are white or if you are a male you are specially privileged and should spend your energies learning how to renounce your privilege.” This is turn leads many to be open to the counter analysis that, no, it is not them who are privileged, but what the Right calls “the special interests” who are privileged: namely all the groups whom the Left (correctly) has been identifying as victims of past oppression who now need to have that oppression ended and in some cases, compensation given for past imposed suffering and inequality.  I support these reparations, but I also believe that the Left should be calling for reparations for the entire working class of Western societies, or at least those in the 80% of the population that have a tiny fraction of the wealth of this society.

5. Christopher Lasch has analyzed the pervasive narcissism in Western societies. I have deeply appreciated his analyses of the ways that our society fosters in people hurtful and self-destructive behaviors. But Lasch, who was a member of Tikkun Magazine’s editorial board for years before he died, never claimed to be making a clinical diagnosis of a particular person, but rather to comment on how certain personality characteristics get fostered by the normal workings of capitalist society.

6. When one starts with the kinds of analysis made by Brenner and others, there is a slippery slope toward the same labeling to be used against other politicians, for example Hillary Clinton and particularly Barack Obama. I will not try to do that in this article, except to point out how neither of them have made the slightest effort to acknowledge their own role in participating in creating the conditions in which a large section of the American population felt lied to and manipulated by both of them. As someone who was described by the Washington Post as “Hillary Clinton’s guru” in the early days of the Clinton presidency, and as someone who was systematically lied to by Obama in my encounters with him, I can testify that neither of these political leaders seem to have the capacity to overcome their own self-aggrandizing bubble within which they live and through which they mistakenly interpret the criticisms made of them by others on the left. I do not mean to suggest that either of these people are as evil and unethical as Trump, but only to say that if I believed in using psychiatric categories in the way that some are using them against Trump, it would not be difficult to do so, and would be mistaken, I believe.

6. Trump is a television personality and actor. It is impossible to know what part of what he says or does is  done as part of the act he has adopted in order to win public office and what part is a reflection of his deep inner self. This is another reason to stop using psychiatric terms to diss him, and instead to focus on opposing his public actions and pronouncements in a way that is far more appropriate–namely by critiquing the ethical values that underlie his public actions, statements, inconsistencies, lies, etc. and showing why they are leading in ways that increase hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, and put in danger the planet Earth and the well-being of the American people and indeed all people on the planet. The deep problem with psychiatry, psychology and many other forms of psychological and spiritual counseling is that they systematically avoid the obligation that they have to help people learn how to make appropriate ethical judgments, and instead hide their own ethical prejudices behind the language of supposedly neutral psychiatric or psychological diagnoses. My own work as executive director of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health has given me the opportunity to watch this dynamic play out in many different ways, and watched as many therapists build a wall of denial around themselves about their own ethical obligations to challenge the destructive behaviors generated by this society and by its leaders. I recognize that Michael Brenner and others are actually trying to stop that denial, and wish to challenge the evil that is being perpetrated on our society by the political Right of which Trump is only one of many perpetrators. I want to honor the intentions of Brenner and others, and yet I believe that the path that they have chosen is the wrong one. To get the right path, please read my book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.  

Psychological analyses are useful when trying to treat the victims of this society, and useful also in developing strategies to counter the growth of hate-oriented movements. Tikkun has a strategy to counter Trump that uses psychological analyses in an appropriate way (please read it at http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/overcoming-trump-ism-a-new-strategy-for-progressives ). Our strategy is deeply informed by the psychological research we have done about the psychodynamics of American society. If you know psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists or counselors who want to contribute their skills to building a movement to overcome Trumpism, please urge them to contact me after reading that strategy we propose, because we could use their help in building this kind of a movement. RabbiLerner.Tikkun@gmail.com    If you yourself want to be part of such a movement, read that strategy article, and then  take the training being offered by Cat Zavis (on line–so you can take it any place in the world) which will help you develop the skills necessary to be part of implementing the strategy we call for.  For more information about the next set of trainings, go to
www.tikkun.org/training  And if any reader of this knows anyone in the world of foundations that support good causes, or individuals with resources to make contributions to a tax-deductible nonprofit (of which we are one), please encourage them to consider funding the strategy we are promoting by funding organizers who can help us carry out that strategy.  And please circulate this analysis on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and put this on your own website!  And do read the powerful if misguided analysis by Michael Brenner below, and send me your criticisms of my analysis (because I’m always open to learning about ways that I can correct my own mistakes).

Many blessings,

Rabbi Michael Lerner  Ph.D. in Psychology  (1977)  Ph.D. in Philosophy (1972)

rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com

 

 

Trump the Narcissist


by  Brenner, Michael <mbren@pitt.edu> Sun, Feb 19, 2017 at 7:34 AM
To: “mbrenner@list.pitt.edu” <mbrenner@list.pitt.edu>

Friends & Colleagues


 

Many persist in the belief that Donald Trump will evolve into a “normal” President. The heavy responsibilities of the highest office in the land will sober him. The weighty consequences of missteps will subdue his rashness. Experience will bring forth the more tolerant and generous spirits of his being. So hope the faithful – the testimony of their eyes and ears notwithstanding.

None of this is realistic. For Donald Trump is a sick man. He suffers from a crippling mental illness – clinical narcissism. It is inborn; it has no cure; remedial treatment of its symptoms is ineffectual. That makes him a dangerous Chief of State and Commander in Chief. It does not mean that everything that he does is ipso facto wrong-headed. There is a persuasive case to be made that torpedoing the TPP draft treaty protected the United States government from an assault on its authority that was of questionable constitutionality. Too, directing the country away from an unjustified confrontation with Putin’s Russia accords with the dictates for foreign policy prudence.

These welcome acts do not obviate the fundamental truth that the man in the Oval Office is mentally unhinged. This commentary aims to delineate the psychological ingredients of a narcissistic personality and its characteristic behavioral traits. It derives from a longer essay which some of you have read. This essay addresses only Trump.


P.S. I just have read a letter to The New York Times titled “An Eminent Psychiatrist Demurs on Trump” (Wednesday February 15) from Dr. Allen Frances. Frances indeed deserves the accolade of being called “distinguished.” He was Chairman of the task force that compiled definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental; Disorders IV. (D.S.M. – IV). He also has been a diligent and incisive critic of its successor, D.S.M. – V. I have read his extensive writings on its shortcomings and on general topics in psychiatry. Frances’ work is notable for its scholarly rigor guided by uncommon sense in the interpretation and application of findings.

Frances sharply criticizes those, with or without professional credentials, who have diagnosed Donald Trump as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. In his words, Trump “does not meet the criteria that define the disorder. He “is not mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder. Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it.”

This argument is less than persuasive – with all due respect. In fact, its logic is flawed.  Here is how.

 

1.     By any reasonable standard, Trump’s behavior is a near perfect fit to the profile of narcissistic personality disorder as formed from the explicit criteria in D.S.M. –IV and other authoritative sources. I detail that in this commentary.

 

2.    Suffering from distress and impairment is NOT a requirement for a diagnosis of mental disorder. This adamant claim is not accepted as a psychiatric truth. I have consulted with two other distinguished clinical psychiatrists who express bafflement as to where Frances has come up with this.

 


3.    There is, admittedly, a tendency in the delineation of serious mental disorders to emphasize the pain and discomfort of those afflicted by them. It derives from the dedication of psychiatrists/psychologists to removing the stigma from mental illness by promoting the view that the afflicted are victims of an illness – rather than “bad” or morally flawed. Those connotations were taken to be obstacles to humane treatment. Some have turned this into a categorical imperative, i.e. the mentally ill do no harm. This, of course, is absurd and contrary to empirical evidence.

 

Oddly, the opposite tack is taken in regard to criminality. In that

domain, the psychiatry profession leans heavily toward the view that the behavior of an alleged perpetrator may well be driven by impulses that cannot be controlled. In other words, to see “bad’ behavior as evidence of emotional problems rather than the opposite: “the mentally ill are mostly well behaved and well meaning….Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness.” This is a fundamental contradiction that reflects the confusion that continues to reign in the world of psychiatry.

 

4.    It is a feature of many mental disorders that the persons involved express their illness through behavior that imposes pain and suffering on others. Most of us have encountered individuals who were emotionally disturbed who do exactly that. As to public figures, consider Hitler. He was neither functionally impaired nor did he experience great distress until the last months of his life. He mobilized and organized a movement that seized power in a major country. He built an effective apparatus of control. He marshalled the resources for a great war – and, directed it, whatever his flaws of judgment. Moreover, the considerable evidence in the form of testimony of associates and videos is that he had no greater personal distress than did any other leader in his position. Roosevelt probably experienced more distress – emotional and physical – than Hitler did. Yet, it is hard to avoid the judgment that he had a serious mental disorder.


5.Of all mental disorders, narcissism is the one whose sufferers   most clearly and impulsively exhibit behavioral traits whereby the narcissist develops elaborate mechanisms for self-protection while causing acute, persistent distress for those (s)he deals with on a regular basis. DSM – V: Narcissistic individuals use various strategies to protect the self at the expense of others.”

6.Frances goes on to say that “the mentally ill are mostly well behaved and well meaning….Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness.” Except for serial killers, mass murders, sadistic torturers, pedophiles, repeat rapists and a variety of other types. As a matter of simple logic, this last quote contradicts the earlier assertion that the mentally ill experience distress and impairment -as evinced in their conduct as well as their emotional state.

The common denominator, obviously, is to secure for the mentally impaired the status of ill persons deserving attentive, sympathetic care. It is a laudable goal to protect them from the abuse and maltreatment that so many received in the past. However, that overriding concern can lead to distortion and a twisting of behavioral realities in ways that serve neither the afflicted individual nor society – for example, Donald trump the clinical narcissist.

The Morale: never trust without question the assertions of anyone – whatever the credentials or good intention.

Cheers

Michael Brenner

mbren@pitt.edu


 

NARCISSISM & TRUMP

Self-regarding public figures have always been with us.  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.[1]  Fairly common in the general population, they have been extremely rare in the political realm.  The constant, intense scrutiny that office holders receive, along with the built-in structural constraints, reduce the latitude for inner driven behavior that is compulsive for a narcissist.

 

Today, things have changed.  Full blown narcissists are found at the apex of authority.  Marginal cases are even more numerous. That observed phenomenon is our point of reference.  My thesis, in this essay, is that there exist singular features of contemporary society in the ‘West’ that are permissive of the narcissistic leader.  Indeed, there is a certain affinity.  An ancillary proposition is that their conduct in office strengthens those social attributes.  In so doing, the political culture becomes progressively more congenial to the attitudes and conduct associated with narcissism.[2]

 

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.  Consequently, the superego is weak and experienced as illegitimate. It may have some abstract claim on behavior, thanks to natural conditioning, but it is felt as something to be manipulated to serve the endless need for enhancement of self-esteem.  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.

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 ‘punitive,’ places and circumstances that do not give approval are to be avoided.  The burden of remedying these intolerable things is placed on any person bound to the narcissist – political aide, subordinate, or an uncritically adoring public – as well as family members.  When they fail to do so, they are the target of angry frustration, at times rage attacks.

Narcissists live their lives to the pulse of any 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.  Lights flash and bugles sound whenever that threat looms. Avoidance behavior is companion to a total lack of self-understanding.   Consequently, that results in a constant tension as the narcissistic self, always on guard, struggles to protect the sanctuary while carrying on social discourse.

The narcissist’s need for praise is insatiable.  While others are not looked to for legitimation, the outside world’s continualconfirmation of the narcissistic self’s uniqueness is vital.  That leads to compulsive testing to reassure oneself that others will approve, bestow favors and praise even where there is no compensation. Indeed, some persons are cultivated as ‘suppliers’ for that very reason. Spouses especially. Some others are kept at a distance because they expect compensation or emotional reciprocation.  Thus, an entourage of some sort becomes important not just for the standard flattery but for their repeated testimony that they will be there however they are treated.

Courtiers perform this function better than strong willed persons. Moreover, hyper-sensitivity to criticism places premiums on the narcissist’s surrounding himself with sycophants.  Persons of an independent bent and/orstrong 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. Too, they will be less sensitive to the premiums he places on the psychological mediating of relations with the outside world.  The loyalty demanded is not just to the person’s policies and politics but to a demanding narcissistic self in itself.

Narcissists fish for compliments.  They need people who offer them, 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.  Those persons represent the success they have striven for.  Its achievement now creates the opportunity not only to socialize with them but to receive deference from them.

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. The world that counts is the world of celebrity in its many variations.  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.  Now Trump 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: estimations of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Here’s an account:

 Trump had just returned to the White House on Saturday from his final inauguration event, a tranquil interfaith prayer service, when the flashes of anger began to build. He turned on the television to see a jarring juxtaposition — massive demonstrations around the globe protesting his day-old presidency and footage of the sparser crowd at his inauguration, with large patches of white empty space on the Mall. Trump grew increasingly and visibly enraged.

Pundits were dissing his turnout. The National Park Service had retweeted a photo unfavorably comparing the size of his inauguration crowd with the one that attended Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony in 2009. Trump’s advisers suggested that he could push back in a simple tweet. But Trump was adamant, aides said. Over the objections of his aides and advisers — who urged him to focus on policy and the broader goals of his presidency — the new president issued a decree: He wanted a fiery public response, and he wanted it to come from his press secretary.”

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 places the onus on the interlocutor to exercise restraint for fear of the very things to which an enraged narcissist has become oblivious.

Of course, this is not always possible when acting in an official capacity.  Therefore, the suppressed grievance, or the attenuated reaction to it, may be stored up for displacement onto others who are more vulnerable. We should be clear that these individuals are not simply bad tempered.[3]  That is fairly common.  It is the rage, an intense emotional outburst disproportionate to its catalyst, that fits the profile of the narcissist.  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.  That is to say, 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.”

This raises the intriguing question of how a narcissist deals with another narcissist of roughly equal standing – or simply a garden variety ego-maniac with a reckless streak. Such an encounter in more likely to occur internationally than domestically. The Middle East is populated by quite a number of reckless ego-maniacs: Erdogan, Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed – not to mention Bakr al-Baghdadi. Will the Orangutan enjoy psychological escalation dominance in encounters with this lot? There is no clear answer.

What can be said is the following. 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.

Maniacs do often have a sensitive awareness of each other. Remember the Hitler-Stalin relationship. Both were psychotic – the one a butcher (probably a schizophrenic with sadistic tendencies), the other a classic paranoid. Yet, Stalin had great respect for Hitler and even expected him to keep his word on implementation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – as Stalin himself meticulously did. That led the master of the Kremlin to make the near fatal mistake of discounting multiple reports of an imminent German attack in June 1941.

This oddity may derive from the experience of living outside the norm – leading to an uncommonly acute awareness of aberrant others. An instinctive sensitivity to threat posed by a similarly unmoored personality could heighten that instinctive reaction.

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. 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 makes a narcissist 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.  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 as void removes any inhibition on reiteration, the past as inventory of slights and grievances is kept readily available to add fuel to the ever burning fire of narcissistic self glorification. 

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 kaleidoscopic or free associative thinking and speaking, and vice-versa.  Restless shifts from one topic to another in 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 the mind presumptively has claim to immediate expression. That imperative self never accepts ‘no’ or ‘not now’ – not even from the conscious mind.  Hence, narcissists tend to be at once disorganized and controlling.  The former holds except where cultural background has so strongly devalued disorder as to make them compulsive about formal arrangement of things, schedules and the logical articulation of ideas.

A prime example was provided by the O’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 White House these days resembles an octopus struggling to put on a pair of mismatched socks (to use Chas Freeman’s metaphor).

Here we witness the extreme reluctance to rein in the narcissistic impulse so as to be free to say whatever comes to mind and to follow through with some sort of action – however brief its half-life. This pattern has the further virtue of

tolerating its rejection.  For the extinguished initiative can be written off merely as the child of impetuousness whose meaning was momentary and subjective – however intense feelings about it were at that moment. As to the O:

  • “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 og 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. The narcissist’s instinctive tendency to avoid fixity is reinforced by the practical interest in not being pinned down.
  • Thus, he 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.  A variant of the basic narcissist type likewise rages at any sign of rebellion and disagreement – whether from opponents, the media, or foreign leaders.

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. His Universe is equally a theatre, but a more ferocious and chaotic one.[4]

A narcissist is like a child in his frenetic restlessness.  It is a form of ‘primitivization,’ as Eric Hoffer has called it.[5]  “By plunging into ceaseless action and hustling,” the person never matures.  “People in a hurry can neither grow nor decay; they are preserved in a state of perpetual puerility.”[6]  Narcissists neither want nor expect ever to grow up.

Where is love in all this? Where is the commitment to the loved one’s welfare, the discipline, the extension of oneself to incorporate the beloved, the mutual emotional development? Nowhere to be seen. 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.

‘Do-overs.’  Life and the world are experienced and understood episodically by the narcissist.  Connections over time are sloughed over.  Even trying to do so carries constraints insofar as you are bound to a process, mental or political, that by its nature imposes behavioral constraints.  Better to stick to short term actions that are more accommodating to impulse and half-backed ideas.  Better convenient half-measures than more deliberative full measures.  This is the reification of Husserl’s phenomenological universe.[7]  Each thought, each act is felt as being discrete.  Moreover, it is the subjective experience of each episode that predominates in awareness.  Nothing has high value or meaning in itself – it must be assigned by the sovereign self.  Society is little more than a myriad of kaleidoscopic occurrences as portrayed in post-modern literature.  There is no coherent composition or narrative, reality is depicted as jagged shards.

The narcissist who enters public life has something of the obermensch, superman, in him.  Callousness toward the fate of others, associates or constituents, keeps enervating emotions under control.  There may be a cost to such callousness. An up to date public relations machine can go a long ways toward offsetting the cost as evinced time after time during the 18 month campaign..  The obermensch syndrome also reveals itself in actions that proclaim the narcissist is above and unconstrained by convention.  Getting away with it surely provided at least as much satisfaction as the illicit act itself.

LIES

Lying comes as naturally to a narcissist as eating or sleeping.

O: Our immigration policy has favored Muslims at the expense of Christians.

He is aware that there is more than one way to lie; and that there are a thousand ways to be untruthful.  The narcissist is ready to employ them all, without shying away from the bald faced lie. Comprehending how the narcissist relates to truth and falsity begins with the cardinal factor that the distinction is of marginal concern to him.  It is not a primary guide for orienting either thinking or behavior.  Beyond the basic recognition of incontrovertible realities that all must observe in order to survive, it is the plasticity of reality that is at once principle and goal.  Life’s imperative is to find ways of making others pliable or, if necessary insulating oneself from them and their influence.  Each narcissist is the self-appointed gatekeeper to reality; deciding what is, what happened, what did not happen, how it happened, whether important or not, who is who.

That attitude now has been codified by the White House in the doctrine of Alternative Facts.

The O makes not the slightest concession to the truth on these matters either while in office or since leaving it. Thereby, the narcissistic liar meets the truth challenged, and memory challenged political culture.  Being a narcissist means that you never have to say ‘I’m sorry.’

Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love is another feature of the narcissistic personality.  He believes that fulfilled dreams are not only realizable, but due him.  Narcissists experience life as a continual internal dialogue with a sole theme: how is the self faring in its encounter with the world.  The self is engaged in an endless campaign of coping to secure the primacy and protection of the self.  In any thought, in any expression, the only operative word is ‘I.’ Talk is exclusively of and about themselves – whatever the nominal topic of discourse.

It is pointless to speak of conviction in reference to a narcissist.  A narcissist has opinions, attitudes, dispositions.  He cannot have enduring convictions since that would mean locking himself into a fixed position.

One last point. Narcissists rarely crack up. They have an uncanny instinct for pulling back at the brink to which their reckless behavior has brought them. That same survival instinct probably explains why they are in no sense suicidal. Just when you think of telephoning for the men in the white coats, they resume a measure of ‘normal’ behavior. One would expect that some of the crazy things they do would provoke a punch in the face (literal or figurative). Indeed, such an encounter would produce a salutary effect on both the narcissistic and those he encounters. In the case of a President, though, that also could be quite dangerous.

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 Pence. That conforms to the survival instinct kicking in to protect that Holy of Holies – the narcissistic Self.

 To identify Trump as a clinical narcissist is to open two bigger questions. One, why is it that Americans selected him as their ruler when it was manifest that they were putting their crazy Uncle Harry in the Oval Office? Two, why do so many (including critics) continue to treat his as ‘ordinary’ despite his erratic behavior and surrounding himself with people who resemble the troupe of weirdos with whom Uncle Harry hung out on the park benches on sunny days?

 

That leads us to a consideration of exactly what it is about contemporary political culture that makes it so amenable to the narcissist.    

 

The Virtual & The Actual

The public narcissist’s ability to be a viable figure is crucially dependent on blurring actual reality and virtual reality.  It is indispensable for the narcissist’s incessant adjustment of the lens through which the self perceives the world around it.  A hard reality resistant to manipulation does not easily accommodate that demanding self’s needs for praise and approval.   A malleable reality does. Malleability has plural meanings: primarily, a society’s susceptibility to having its perceptions of all matters social, including its collective self, shaped and reshaped by manipulated stimuli.  Those stimuli are less significant as events in themselves than the way those events are packaged and interpreted, i.e. thereby, the meanings that are given them.  Some of that packaging, interpretation and ascription of meaning is done calculatingly.  That was egregiously the case in regard to the Bush administration’s masterful exploitation of 9/11.  At other times, the agent can be the media that herd-like adopt and transmit a conception of reality that fits certain myths, imagery, plots, and symbols.

Some of the collective response to stimulus can be self-generated as uniform social personalities, who share a world-view, respond in similar ways to an event.  The event can be a ‘soft’ event associated with the arrival of a new, or relatively new personality on the scene.  The manner by which a reaction to such   is formed approximates the response to any other celebrity, especially entertainment celebrities.   The reaction to the new products Barack Obama or Sarah Palin surely is better understood in these terms than in terms of considered appraisal of what they have to say about the issues of the day.

Egoism is not a peculiar feature of our times, of course. The narcissistic public personality does not have a monopoly on egoism. The same holds for rampant ambition.  Vanity is a natural accompaniment.  Think of Jefferson, Reagan, Custer, Teddy Roosevelt, Disraeli, de Gaulle.  None was a narcissist.  Their inflated egos were not part of a pathological personality.  Reflection on who they were and how they behaved leads to another instructive contrast: their grip on reality and how they related to the world differs from that of many of today’s public figures.  Whatever their misperceptions, some quite pronounced, one does not observe the routine blurring of the virtual and the actual that is the hallmark of contemporary life.  To live in a fictive world, or perhaps we should call it ‘actual-fiction,’ is natural and normal for the clinical narcissist.  It unnaturally has become a more generalizable trait currently.

 

 

Every one rushes everywhere and into the future, because no one wants to face one’s own inner self” - Montaigne

 

Narcissists are not cognizant of the basic distinction between motion and action.  The same can be said for the political culture generally.  It is a feature of public life nowadays. A permissive factor is the weakening of consequences from baneful behavior.  The less we fear chastisement and retribution, the more self-indulgent we are.  Systemic forgiveness for mistakes and failures makes us cavalier about how we conduct ourselves.  Motion is easier than directed action.  It also is easier for the casual observer to respond to motion than to make a critical analysis of action.  Actor and observer are complicit in this sense.  So it is for public figures and commentators.  This is one reason why politics increasingly resembles the world of entertainment and fashion.  It is the culture of celebrity that prevails.

The symptoms of celebrity politics include: the eclipse of content by form; the associated obsession with process; the transposition of a ‘game’ model on serious matters; the reduction of policy debates to an interplay of personalities; the denigration of experience and/or expertise;  viewing experience as time served rather than as a performance record; a tolerance for murky language.  The last is deserving of greater attention.  There is a direct correlation between clarity of thought and clarity of expression.  The influence works both ways.  Not only cannot I be articulate without a coherent thought pattern, but sloppy speech encourages sloppy thinking. If one receives no cues from one’s listeners, mental self-indulgence is a temptation.  We are losing the grammar of hard thinking.

In public discourse, this has a number of detrimental effects. One is that speech becomes more a mode of self-affirmation than communication.  It is the flow of words, the impression they create, that counts.  Content is secondary.  (We recognize this pattern from the standard American dinner party of six professionals where there habitually are four conversations going on simultaneously). Words are liable to be just another form of motion divorced from action; in this sense, the action of intelligent exchange.  A second effect is that words and phrases acquire great elasticity.  ‘Bipartisanship’ or ‘change’ are examples.  They can be applied and reapplied without seeming as retreads since their initial meaning was obscure. Yet another effect is that the ability to speak articulately in and of itself is interpreted as evidence of deep thinking and acuity.  The Obama phenomenon is the outstanding case in point.

It is this fuzziness of people’s cognitive maps of the world, ever shifting in and out of focus with the new image never quite the same as the old one, that results in malleability.  Ignorance and mental laxity are what underlie it.  The less conscious our understanding of what is, and of how it happened, the blurrier is the cognitive map.  The weaker our grip on how things interact, the less power we have to understand our circumstances.  The more we devalue knowledge and conscious understanding, the less inclined we are to make the effort required inorder to gain intellectual mastery.  Ignorance and superficial understanding, furthermore, leave us bereft of reference points for making sense of events, ideas and persons.  Deliberation thereby becomes difficult – if not impossible. The inability to deliberate, in turn, gives rise to the indulgent sentiment that serious thinking does not make a difference.  It is conveniently claimed that it leads as readily to mistaken conclusions and poor judgment as do ‘gut’ reactions.

The neglect of history serves well this mindset – or, more accurately, feeling-set.  By living in the existential present, one is unencumbered by familiarity of the past.  Logically, an awareness of history can provide mental shortcuts, e.g. reasoning by analogy, to understanding the present.  It is an oddity of contemporary popular democracies, the United States being the outstanding instance, that it is not seen as such by the overwhelming majority. Seemingly, that knowledge is rather felt to be an impediment to the free expression of instinctive or fashionable feelings.

Our public life is rife with self-justifications for studied inattentiveness and a lazy mind.  In politics, people take comfort from the moronic affirmation that “they are all alike, it makes no difference who wins.”  Even the shallowest awareness of what has been happening in the United States should disabuse one of that notion.  Yet it persists because convenience – of time, of energy expended, of attention –overrides all else.  Then there is the precept of popular democracy, especially deep rooted in the United States, that no one is better than anyone else, that ultimate truth resides in the sentiments of the egalitarian mass.  To accept the value of exerting oneself mentally, to invest the necessary time, is to admit that there are things and persons that are not comprehensible through popular effusions.

In America, cognitive dissonance among those with some awareness of the national predicament is handled not by resolution, but rather through coping mechanisms for living with inconsistencies that are kept below a certain pain threshold. That artless strategy has proven viable in part because Americans, beguiled by their leaders and the country’s entire political class, have learned to live in a virtual reality. The actual and the imagined have become fused so that the former has no clear precedence in its hold on the individual and collective mind. The mythic and the real are interchangeable.  This is a hallmark trait of the narcissistic personality.  Corporate narcissistic personalities do not exist.   But widespread predispositions to this type of basic confusion do exist.  They are accentuated by dissonant conditions that make escapism attractive.  Moreover, a collectivity of the self-worshipful militates toward the same outcome. In America today, a vague patriotism, itself an abstracted form of national self-worship, is the only sealant that bonds otherwise separate egoists.  Its effect is made all the more powerful by the common experience of being accessories to the shameful acts of their government at home and abroad.

Living in a state of phasing in and out of two worlds, the virtual and the actual, is made all the easier by leaders who are themselves narcissists, or self- indulgent egoists with related behavioral patterns.  The O will wreak permanent damage on an already debilitated body politic.  In the process, the American peoples’ already shaky hold on the truth has been weakened.  As has been said in another context, “his own grip on truth or falsity is so fluid, so subservient to his desires, that it matters little to him what is true and what is false; so he is able to act as if something is true if that serves his purposes best.  Belief has become a creature of his will: he will treat an unfounded suspicion as if it were a Cartesian certainty.  He has contempt for people who are candid and trusting, who can respect the truth.”   The latter, in any event, were thin on the ground before this act in the American national drama began; now, they are on the point of extinction.

Finally, society-wide egoism in a culture of narcissism makes each of us the only valid point of reference from which to view and interpret anything in the public domain as well as in the private domain.   The prospect of being plucked from these reveries and dipped into a more demanding reality where performance expectations are of a different order is frightening; thus, the interest in perpetuating the present state of acquired narcissism and its pathological leader.

The Narcissist Credo:

“Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow…”.

 

NOTES

1. The American Psychiatric Association’s authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition DSM-IV-IR Classification offers a set of Diagnostic criteria for 301.81 Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  They can be summarized as follows;

Someone with Narcissistic Personality disorder (NPD) exhibits these traits:

  • grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be   recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • requires excessive admiration
  • has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
  • Uses denial mechanism to downplay own inadequacies or failings
  • Uses rationalization mechanism to justify self-centered behavior

See: Psychology Today; A Field Guide to Narcissism.

 

Studies and analyses of narcissism are extensive.  Among the noteworthy works are: Nestor, Paul G. Mental Disorder and Violence: Personality Dimensions and Clinical Features The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2002; 159:1973–1978 ;  Freud, Sigmund, On Narcissism: An Introduction, 1914 ;  Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo, 1913;  Wilhelm Reich Character Analysis (1933) translated by Theodore P. Wolfe; Personality and Personal Growth, edited by

Robert Frager and James Fadiman (Paris: 1998) ; Kohut, Heinz, The Analysis of the Self, 1971;

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kohut, Heinz, Forms and Transformations of Narcissism, 1966 ; Laura Stephens (April 18 2006). “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. Psychology Today’s Diagnosis Dictionary. Psychology Todayhttp://psychologytoday.com/conditions/narcissistic.html, American Handbook of Psychiatry. Two Volumes: Edited by Silvano Arieti, M.D. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1959. 2098. For a Jungian perspective, see Nathan Schwartz-SalantNarcissism and Character Transformation (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1982).

 

2. “Acquired Situational Narcissism is a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on by wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity.” The term was coined by Robert B. Millman, professor of psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

“ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society: fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.’

“In its presentation and symptoms, it is indistinguishable from narcissistic personality disorder, differing only in its late onset and its support by large numbers of others. The person with ASN may suffer from unstable relationships, substance abuse and erratic behaviour.”

3. Kohut, Heinz (1972). Thoughts on narcissism and narcissistic rage. In The search for the self. (International Universities Press, 1972) Vol.2, pp. 615-658.

4. Ibid pg. 177

5.  Eric Hoffer The Temper Of Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1964) pg.14

6. Ibid

7. Edmund Husserl The Idea of Inomonology (London: Springer, 1999).   Films that are broken into short fragments, only vaguely connected and in cloudy sequence, have become commonplace.  Maddening for someone of more conventional mind, they are entertaining to millions of viewers.  In this respect, film for the mass audience is catching up with painting and sculpture in enthroning an aesthetics at once disorderly and shallow.  It allows the viewer free rein to attach to it whatever feelings or thoughts from the wide range permitted by the indistinct object.  This is a general approximation of how the narcissist experiences the world.

 
tags: US Politics   
Tip Jar Email Bookmark and Share RSS Print
Get Tikkun by Email -- FREE

COMMENT POLICY Please read our comments policy. We invite constructive disagreement but do not accept personal attacks and hateful comments. We reserve the right to block hecklers who repost comments that have been deleted. We do have automated spam filters that sometimes miscategorize legitimate comments as spam. If you don't see your comment within ten minutes, please click here to contact us. Due to our small staff it may take up to 48 hours to get your comment posted.

One Response to Trump as Narcissist

  1. William Lutek February 19, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    God Help us , This Man ” Trump ” has his hands on the Nuclear Codes !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*