Donald Trump is a narcissist with a capital “N.” Many psychological labels have entered the vernacular, which is good and bad; good because more people are being educated about what’s driving our individual and collective behavior, and bad because as we continue to use ever-more-hyperbole to describe mundane events, the meaning of these labels gets watered down. But a Narcissist is not a narcissist.
Narcissists are driven by a deep, unconscious belief that they are worthless. They spend their lives attempting, in vain, to fill up the black hole of emptiness (not to be confused with the Buddhist “Emptiness,” which is full of no-things, as in oneness-over-many-discreet-things-ness). The cousins of Narcissism are Borderline personality disorder and Sociopathy. Some people refer to all three as simply “psychopathy,” the psychopath. But that gets a little confusing, because not all psychopaths have the interpersonal fixation of the unholy trinity of personality disorders – Narcissism, Borderline, and Sociopathy.
All three are “bothered” in different ways by other people. The Narcissist needs other people to reflect their greatness (everything and anything to fill the un-fillable hole). The Borderline is labile, switching at breakneck speed from deifying spouses, children, and others in one minute, to vilifying them in the next. This is captured in the title of a popular book on this personality disorder, I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me. For the Sociopath, the bothersome aspects of other people mainly revolve around the fact that they so often do not let the sociopath use them as a means to an end. They are mere friction or noise in their selfish need seeking system.
As a developmental psychologist (who spent two years working in locked psychiatric wards), I believe that the unholy trinity arises from trauma during a particular phase in our development. From around 2 until about 7, we are fully engaged in the wonder of powerful emotional connections with our primary caregivers. The good and bad neurologically-based emotional attachments that we form before the age of 2 find fertile soil in this stage of development, often called the “Impulsive” stage of development.
The term “impulsive” applies as much to any child in that age range as it does to any adult whose development has been partially arrested at the 2 to 7 age range. And it is the second characteristic that cuts across the holy trinity (the first being how bothered they are by other people).
Until now, I would never write about the ways that someone might manipulate the poor souls who suffer from these personality disorders. But one of them was recently elected president, and I think it’s every psychologist’s duty to follow the sane populations in our culture, reaching across the political divide, to broadcast the dangers of having a President who is clinically insane.
If you want to navigate or manipulate someone who has a personality disorder, all you have to do is look at the adult and consider them a child. What would a budding Narcissist be craving during those impulsive years of their life? Attention, first and foremost. And something psychologist’s call “stroking.” In it’s healthy form, stroking is the continuation of the healthy attachments that the infant forms with mom and dad during the first 2 years. In adults whose development has been arrested at this stage, it’s just a way to get what you want.
Our country is at risk for being, on the one hand, open to manipulation by any world leader who knows how to play the Narcissist. Stroke their forever fractured ego and you’ll gain favor; and on the other, closed off in a fit of rage, a kind of Narcissistic isolationism that is an impulsive reaction to not being seen or regarded in the correct manner. A manner that is, of course, dictated by the Narcissist.
(On Narcissistic rage – think about O.J. Simpson’s reaction to discovering that his ex wife was not only actually leaving him, but could not reflect his greatness because she was sleeping with another man. That gives you a good sense of how deep this pathology runs, and how far someone in it’s grip will go to defend their identity. If O.J.’s unconscious mind could speak, it might say, “She had to die in order to make sure I’m not worthless.”)
In the months leading up to the general election, I spoke with several of my psychologist colleagues (I’m now an executive coach, but I maintain fruitful dialogues with practicing psychotherapists). All of us were in agreement that Donald Trump has Narcissistic personality disorder – not just, “oh, he’s a narcissist.” No. Donald Trump doesn’t want to see his name on the top of those buildings, he needsto see his name on those buildings. They serve a psychological function – “I’m still o.k.; I’m not worthless – WOULD A WORTHLESS GUY HAVE HIS NAME ON BUILDINGS? Believe me, I don’t think so….”
When the prime minister of Japan visited with President Trump, he was able to get almost everything he wanted. Perhaps it was because as a Japanese man and leader, he was being humble. Humility brings one attention and social capital in Japan. Or perhaps he was the canary in the coal mine, showing us and the rest of the world how to play the President of the United States like a violin. And consider President Putin, whom many news outlets are saying is having “buyers remorse” about President Trump. What happens when two world leaders of questionable sanity get into a tizzy because they played one another with the wrong strategy? We are again at that point with President Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
One positive about having a president with Narcissistic personality disorder is that they want to please (until they don’t). So popular opinion will likely have a greater effect on this president than on former presidents. Popular opinion may be the one thing that can keep him in line. So in a weird way, the same social media platforms that got him elected can be used to enact a new kind of democracy, one where you needn’t wait four years before throwing our collective weight around. Of course, it’s easy to chalk everything up to “fake news,” so if you do want to join in the populist gutter-rails of this bizarre bowling alley so the orange ball doesn’t take us all down, make sure you keep your voice clear, tight, and unwavering.