The narcissist in office

            “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”

                        Thomas Merton


And indeed, Donald Trump strikes us as strangely artificial, a cartoonish character, a shallow TV sketch of bombastic braggadocio lacking the depth and complexity of a real person.   But we must remind ourselves that if he is elected, the man in the White House will be very real.   In the last post we explored how his narcissism is at the root of who Donald Trump is.  In this post, I argue that his narcissism tells us more than anything else about the sort of president he would be.

The British doctor David Owen, who also served as Foreign Secretary of the UK, has studied narcissism in politicians and coined the term “hubris syndrome.”  Dr. Owen’s research has identified five behaviors we can expect when we elect a narcissist:

·      Disproportionate concern with image, and predisposition to act in a way that enhances their image as opposed to solving problems.  The Art of the Deal ghostwriter, keeping a contemporaneous journal as he interacted with Trump almost daily during the mid-1980s, observed that Trump seems to be driven entirely by a “compulsive” need for public attention.  There is no reason to think this would change.  A Trump presidency would be all about Trump, not the country or even the people who supported him.  Like his new business ventures, the emphasis would be on spectacular announcements with little follow-through or attempt to sustain any particular policy initiative.

·      Tendency to conflate their own interests with those of the country.  The narcissist knows only his own needs, and often redefines the needs of others to fit his purposes.  When he acts to lower his own taxes, increase his own wealth, punish his enemies, stifle his critics, or just generate the adulation on which he thrives, he will be deeply convinced he is acting in the public interest.   

·      Excessive confidence in their own judgment and contempt for the advice and views of others; an incurious nature.  The narcissist can be crippled by his sense of superiority and arrogance, resulting in a gross overestimation of his own abilities (“I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me”).   As he has told us, he plans to take advice from “myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”  Also, he is reported from multiple sources to be supremely incurious about anything other than himself.  Thus as president he would most likely exist in a bubble of sycophants and yes-men, who validate his idiosyncratic and ill-informed decisions.   He would be at near-constant war with the press and all others who challenge his decisions and the misinformation on which they are based.

 ·      Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness.  This is where the narcissist in office can cause the greatest damage, and why so many in the foreign policy community and military say they dread Mr. Trump acquiring actual power.   Why such fear?  According to psychology professor Dan McAdams, angry narcissists act impulsively and “take high-stakes risks.”  When a businessman does that, it leads to repeated bankruptcy and a tattered reputation.  But when a U.S. president acts impulsively and takes high-stakes risks, the whole world trembles.  Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis explains the particular link between narcissism and a propensity for violence:  The narcissist is easily threatened when reality thwarts his desires or contradicts his narrative, and in reaction to these threats often lashes out violently.   Haidt points out that when violent emotion is leavened by a belief (usually false) that the violence is a means to a moral end (for the narcissist, that means satisfaction of his desires), you end up with war and atrocity.

·      All of the above leading, at best, to hubristic incompetence(and, at worst, to disaster).   In the case of Trump, it is unlikely that hubristic incompetence would the limit of his damage as president.  Why expect the worst?  When things go badly for the narcissist they are, explains one of the main students of contemporary narcissism, “quick to resort to anger, aggression, despair, or paranoia.”  Anger, aggression, despair, and paranoia are not qualities that we want in the human being with his finger on the nuclear button.

Dr. Owen’s list is only a generic catalog of the types of behaviors you can expect from a narcissistic politician.   I am saying nothing here about the likely consequences of Mr. Trump’s other personality defects or of his strange beliefs and political views, not to mention the effects on the American spirit of four years of vulgar eruptions and braggadocios bloviations.   But there is one additional consequence of his narcissism that we must consider.

As much as Americans love freedom and individual choice, a strong sense of being in it together is a strain that runs throughout our history.   As much as we may identify as Texans or New Yorkers, or conservatives or progressives, our identity as Americans has been stronger.  That sense of togetherness has been fracturing for decades, and a Trump presidency could prove the last straw.   British philosopher Simon Blackburn explains that “as we have seen again and again, narcissism, vanity, and the arrogance that goes with them are the great enemies of togetherness.  The narcissist set apart, the pouting figure on the catwalk, the plutocrat eaten with envy of others yet more plutocratic, are each of them prey to the worms that destroy ‘we’ in favor of ‘I.’” 

Trump’s America would be an America of “I alone.”  Since Christopher Lasch alerted us to the Culture of Narcissism in 1979, our descent into the atomized abyss of the selfie has accelerated, with devastating effect on our political culture.   Were Trump to become president, the resulting divisions between those who fall in line behind the rule of “I” and those who struggle to protect democracy and decency, would make our previous partisan divides and dysfunctions seem trivial. 

So let us hope (or pray, if you are religiously inclined) that the Book of Proverbs (16:18) has made the right call regarding the results on November 8:  “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”