During the early years of Donald Trump’s presidency, I became obsessed with reading articles that probed the mental state of the then-new leader of the free world. While the term narcissistic personality disorder was bandied around often, many psychiatrists were reluctant to ‘officially diagnose’ the president as they had neither had him as a patient nor conducted individual assessments of his mental state.
On the eve of the president’s departure for what many of us hope will be the last time, I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here, and — in spite of not being any kind of mental-health practitioner, or of having ever met the president in person— I’m going to just call it: I think it’s safe to say President Trump meets the text-book criteria for narcissism, and I’m confident I’m probably not on my own island here with that opinion.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)is a personality disorder characterized by a long-term pattern of exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive craving for admiration, and struggles with empathy. — Wikipedia citing the DSM-V Manual of Mental Health Dissorders.
I mean I’m good with that. I think most of us can agree that when browsing through the classic symptoms of NPDwe are quickly reminded of a powerful public figure who we have all come to know fairly intimately. An exaggerated sense of self-importance? Check. A need to be recognized as superior without accompanying achievements? Check. Expects unquestioning loyalty and compliance? Yep. An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others? Ok, you get the picture.
I think as he makes his exit it’s important to reflect on his time in office in the context of his narcissism and the effects that has had on both his ardent supporters and his detractors. The citizens of the USA and its allies have not been in anything like a normal relationship with their president and confronting the reality that the state of mind of the king has a profound effect on the state of the nation may well form an important component to the healing process.
Over the course of his presidency, many of Trump’s behaviours appeared positively perplexing when gauged against his apparent political objectives or ambitions. Even when measured against the kinds of hardened tyrants for whom he often openly expressed admiration, there appeared an ineffectiveness in some of his actions that appeared to be born of something more than simple incompetence. He clearly wanted a form of kingship, but even by his own accounts didn’t much fancy the day-to-day job of being a king.
If the need for power is a motivator for Trump, I would guess it pales in comparison to the desperate need for admiration, attention and adoration. Every narcissist requires a steady and constant external supply of these things. It’s like oxygen.
Every person finds themself within the social sphere of a narcissist falls into one of two camps: they are either of value in providing them with the things they require, or they are nothing. Someone to be dismissed or destroyed.
Being in a relationship with a narcissist hurts. Ask anyone you know who has spent time in one, whether it was a spouse, parent, work superior or any form of important or authoritative figure in their lives. Narcissists do not tend to be happy people, and the side-effects for those unfortunate enough to be caught in relationships with them can be severe.
These are people who are pathologically incapable of seeing other people as anything but pawns. They are renowned for being insanely jealous and controlling. They are hypersensitive to even the most minor criticisms or perceived slights; masters at manipulation who will go to staggering lengths to maintain utter devotion while it serves their interests. They can also be prone to fits of rage and violent mood swings when they don’t get what they feel they are entitled to. Not surprisingly, they will always, always blame someone else for their failures and transgressions.
In other words, in relationship terms, the classic form of an abuser.
Early on during his term, many of us were bewildered as Trump continued to hold large-scale rallies, generating an almost religious devotion among his followers. Surely he had the job of the president already? It’s not like he had to campaign again so early; history has shown that provided the economy is in a strong place it’s remarkably easy to hold onto the job for the maximum term once you get to sit in the big leather chair.
It makes more sense when you realize that the motivator wasn’t power, or change, or some grand vision. The motivator was singular: to be the precise centre point of attention for as many people as possible, to feed the insatiable need for narcissistic supply. Measured by this yardstick, the Trump presidency was remarkable indeed.
With every outrageous proclamation or shameless media stunt, with every act of political theatre or charlatanism, with every unconscionable or antagonistic policy, Trump kept himself front-and-centre in everyone’s mind.
We watched an endless string of bizarre and increasingly irrational behaviours and lamented at how with each new wrong turn the loyalty of his core followers only grew deeper. In for a penny, in for a pound. In the beginning, I was confused, then later I was angry. I started demonizing his supporters in my mind. But now, for the most part, I just feel sorry for most of them.
It’s another strange aspect of an abusive relationship, one that can be hard to grasp while watching from the outside. ‘Why doesn’t he or she just leave them?’ It is a common refrain that most of us have said at some point about someone that we care about who has been caught up in a toxic relationship. We have looked on in dismay as they endured one more bout of outrageous abuse, which instead of causing them to leave simply paved the way for another down the line. Each new step sets a new benchmark for ‘normal’ until the abused person finds the ground shifting so much beneath their feet they no longer have a clear sense of what is even real. They become further and further pulled into the lies, the drama and the chaos until it’s impossible to even imagine getting out — how can you gather your thoughts to swim for the shore while someone is repeatedly pushing your head just below the surface of the water with one hand while appearing to offer you a lifeline with the other?
Historians, of course, are even now debating the long term effects of the president’s tenure. Some obvious themes have already emerged, not the least of which is the profound split driven through the republican party, quite literally dividing families and communities. He has polarized the nation in a way that may take years to reunite, cultivating and emboldening underlying far-right sentiments in America and beyond, and proudly watching white nationalists emerge more vocally and violently than they have for decades. He completely re-wrote the book on appropriate government communication, threw away the rule book on any form of decorum, protocols or diplomacy, and gave us all a lesson in just how effective playing the stupid card could be— who could have guessed that you could pitch the idea of drinking bleach as a cure for a viral disease and not instantly lose 100% of your political support?
Most notably, however, is the fact that he can boast to have almost singlehandedly ushered in the ‘post-truth’ era in which we now live, and which will I believe form his most toxic legacy. The recent attacks on Washington’s Capitol Hill are simply early warning signals of this seismic shift. It is this, arguably more than any specific politics or policy, that may well have the greatest impact.
It’s also the most potent weapon in the narcissist’s arsenal: they mask their own deficiencies in a facade of falsehoods, so adept at lying that they eventually convince not only their victims but themselves. People who live with these forms of coercive relationships soon learn there is one — and only one — source of truth and that is the narcissist.
The notion that the recent US election was riddled with widespread fraud is, of course, a massive historical lie, and one that has been summarily and thoroughly exposed as a lie. But that doesn’t mean Trump doesn’t genuinely believe it. He does believe it, completely, because to accept otherwise would be such an indelible stain on his ego as to be completely psychologically annihilating. The idea that he, the greatest president ever, could have been seen off, after only a single term, by a stammering, doddery 78-year-old man hiding behind a surgical mask would be completely unthinkable and absurd in his mind.
So he did what he has always done: he shifted the objective reality to match a version of a personal reality that made sense to him, thereby restoring balance to his universe. Trump wasn’t lying to maintain a hold on power, he was lying to maintain a hold on the reality he constructed for himself.
In order to complete the lie, to make it truly believable to himself, however, there is a need to convince others as well. Narcissism isn’t about inner confidence and true self-assurance. It’s the opposite; a deep empty hole inside that needs to be constantly covered over with plaster and paper, or in some cases spray tan and an embarrassing comb-over. It needs repeated affirmation.
In this regard, I’m not convinced that Trump even really did seek to overthrow the government, though his incitement of the attempted coup was indisputable. Again, it comes down the motives. What was really important to him fundamentally was keeping the lie intact. He can leave office now with the belief that so many people shared his fantasy about a rigged election and his ego is ultimately protected.
As the dust settles, and the air clears, some of his supporters will remain loyal. Their own psychological cost at facing the reality of who he was and what he really did too grave to face. It will be easier for many to continue to believe in the lies. Others will be waking up to face the nagging doubts and the inevitable self-questioning and reflection.
I wonder, being Canadian born, and living in Europe now, why does all this matter so much to me and many of my contemporaries who will be shortly glued to the screen? Why have we all been so transfixed by this relationship, this social contract between the citizenry of another nation and their leader?
Just like the effects of any form of an abusive relationship can spread beyond the world of the victim… friends, relatives, family members suffering the heartbreak of seeing a loved-one increasingly pulled under the influence of a narcissist, its been a painful four years for us all.
The United States sets the tone for western democracies, and the words of the president form a sort of a litmus test for current state-of-play in the psyche of the free world. Amongst nations allied with the USA, we can scoff about how much we really enjoy the freedom of speech for example, until we read about a civil servant in Thailand recently sentenced to 43 years in prison for criticizing the nation’s monarchy. or a Chinese journalist jailed simply for reporting of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan. Many of us see America democracy as deeply flawed and broken, but still a million miles ahead of the alternative.
And while the tangible effects of policies such as removing the US from the Paris Climate accord may take years to be fully realized, the psychological effects have been immediate and very real, even to those of us on the other side of the ocean.
So today, my feeling as I prepare to saddle up and watch Joe Biden’s inauguration is something like the mix of relief and apprehension. The kind you might feel on the day you find yourself helping an old friend flee a horrific relationship, court-orders in hand, for what you hope will be a quieter, safer place. Seeing them move into a house someone who is maybe a bit boring, but stable and nice. At least not a narcissist.