We often hear people say the Donald Trump is a narcissist and we all know in an intuitive sense what that means. It means he’s full of himself, doesn’t care about others, lacks empathy, etc. But, what does it mean in a more technical sense?
I don’t know Donald Trump and I’m not a clinician so I would not want to diagnose him. But it is interesting to note that certain features of clinical narcissism show up in his actions.
Narcissism is a personality disorder. It’s a disorder of self. In Freud’s way of thinking, that makes it pre-Oedipal. Leaving aside problematic aspects of Freud’s understanding of Oedipal stage development, pre-Oedipal implies a two-person, rather than three-person, system. It has to do with our learning to relate to another person, not to two people. Can I retain my sense of self when I am separate from another? Can I retain it when I am in relation to another? These are achievements of the pre-Oedipal stages of development.
But there’s more to pre-Oedipal development than that. Another achievement is sometimes called “good-bad synthesis,” that is, learning that good and bad come yoked together–that the parent who nurtures you is also the one who goes away, that the friend who is fun on outdoor activities is the same one who has annoying driving habits, and so on. Think of a toddler who loves a parent when they play with and soothe him or her but has a crying fit and hates that same nurturer when they go away for a while. After a while, the child learns that the nurturer who goes away is the same one who comes back and, through learning this, achieves a more complex emotional response.
Typical of a narcissist, at least according to some ways of looking at it, is inability to let any bad–anything negative–attach to themself. They cannot accept that they have any bad characteristics or have done anything that is not good. Where does the bad go, then? Because, as we know, there’s plenty that is negative in the world. Narcissism involves a lot of projection. Narcissists attribute the bad that actually is theirs–some fault, mistake or imperfection–to someone or something else. That’s projection. How might some of these traits describe Donald Trump?
I am thinking about these ideas as Trump tries to handle a global health crisis, specifically, a pandemic that affects the U.S. and the rest of the world. First, he seems sure the bad is out there and the good in here. He refers to the virus as a foreign virus with origins in China. The bad is out there, and the good in here, so we solve it by keeping the outside out and the inside in. We block travel from China. We block travel and goods from Europe. But, as soon as Trump announces that we’re doing that, he has to backtrack on keeping goods from Europe out–because we actually need them! There’s some good outside and some bad–or at least need–inside. Also, as various medical spokespersons have pointed out, by the time he blocked Europeans, enough of the virus was already here that such blocking will have little effect in comparison to hygiene practices and immediate physical distancing. There is good out there and bad in here, something hard for Trump to accept.
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A narcissist has difficulty dealing with their own vulnerability–difficulty accepting age or weakness or lack of skill. Trump, as many have noted, has difficulty reading a speech. In his first speech about Coronavirus, he said counting when he meant to say continuing. When he realized this, he added the word and to make counting and continuing. Even when dealing with a crisis that could lead to thousands of deaths of those he serves, he could not admit a mistake. He would rather look good than correct a minor mistake that could lead to confusion. Chris Hayes of MSNBC has commented on this at amusing length.
But this is nothing new. Trump would rather his hair look comical than show that he is bald because baldness is lack, weakness, loss of strength. He fires his appointees one after another when they do something that disappoints him. He wants only good-looking people around him and often comments on how people look. Isn’t that odd? It seems crude and impolite, but it’s also odd. Hasn’t he learned that beauty is only skin deep or that you can’t tell a book by its cover? No, it seems, he hasn’t been able to take that in. One fault, and you’re fired. One visible imperfection, and you can’t be among his associates. No wonder his wife and daughter both have had a lot of work done. No wonder he describes his opponents as failing or incompetent or losers and what he does as tremendous or massive or incredible. There’s no complexity to his judgments and feelings about himself or others.
Aristotle thinks that when we see another person who is like us fall into terrible misfortune–one that is not due to ingrained bad character but instead to a error in judgment or a transient emotional mistake–we feel compassion and learn. We feel pity rather than disgust because the tragic character experiences misfortune far beyond the level of the mistake committed. We feel compassion, too, because–they are like us! I, too, might experience great misfortune for a minor transgression. I, too, am both a good person and one who has imperfections. The other person is not a loser while I am tremendous. We are both a little of each.
This is hard for Donald Trump to accept. Asked by Kristen Welker, NBC News reporter, whether he accepted any responsibility for the lag in U.S. testing of coronavirus, Trump said, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” then attributed the lag to rules from the past and compared his administration’s actions with those of his predecessor, Barack Obama, in handling of swine flu: “They had a very big failure with swine flu. A very big failure.”
That’s projection. There aren’t really any problems but if there are any, they are not mine but his. Fact checkers have shown that Trump’s statements about the handling of swine flu are false. But, why not blame current problems on Obama? I’m the all-good inside, a true American, and he’s the all-bad outside, never clearly an American to start with, since he is from Hawaii and his father from Kenya.
It’s my view that global communications as well as ease of travel and of money flows is creating a panic about identity. It’s on the left and the right, I think, even though those left of center tend to attribute it more to conservatives. On the right, the panic is manifest in a desire to put up boundaries–a wall with Mexico, travel bans for Muslims, etc.–in order to keep the bad outsider from coming in and contaminating good U.S. citizen. On the left, it is manifest in an obsession with the Russians. It must be the Russians. It couldn’t be the Republicans’ use of Cambridge Analytica in micro targeting voters down to the precinct and individual level that led to Clinton’s loss in the election to Trump. It couldn’t be that Hillary Clinton lost the election in part due to her neoliberal politics. It must have been the Russians. Since in here, we are good liberals, the problem must come from somewhere else.
We’re all going to have to face up to the fact, I think, that boundaries do not work the way they used to and that the fundamental nature of identity is changing. We are connected in ways we have never been before and there is no way to alter that–whether it’s the way information easily crosses boundaries, the way cultures and fashions are not bound by national borders or the way terrorists can communicate and travel and viruses can be transmitted. There’s no way to stop this new form of connection. The genie is out of the bottle. But there are and must be ways to shape it and make it more manageable and just. It is going to take a long time to accomplish this–as well as leaders with more complex ways of perceiving themselves in relation to others. We need greater self-critique and greater empathy. Narcissim–whether on the right or the left–is unpleasant and shallow. It also is not in touch with the complex mixtures that today make up the reality of our national, International and global lives.