By Daniel Brumberg | (Informed Comment) | – –
Is Donald Trump rational? Is he sane? Often posed before his election, this question is now a matter of urgent debate among commentators, pundits and political leaders—even from his own party. As Trump upends US immigration policy, and as his chief White House strategist projects the president’s anger by telling the press to “keep its mouth shut,” we must ask two questions: first, is the man at the helm of the strongest country on earth more than a little unhinged? Second, are his closest advisors essentially his emotional enablers?
These are vital questions: to address them seriously, I suggest starting with a basic refresher course in the Psychology of Political Leadership 101. Probing the psychic forces that make Trump tick reveals that for him, the first purpose of politics is to manage a severe psychological pathology. This fact alone should disqualify him from any leading position in national or international politics, much less the seat of power in the Oval Office.
The study of political psychology addresses psychological pathologies that are found in the general population. But such pathologies assume a much larger significance when they are endured by political leaders in positions of power and authority. Under these conditions, instead of serving public interests, politics serves as self-therapy. Thus to look for a basic rationality behind Trump’s actions–for example, to argue that he lies because it’s a way of throwing his opponents off base—is completely off point. He lies because lying is a defense mechanism nearly as critical to Trump’s existence as is breathing air. This is how he functions.
The most useful theories of political psychological draw from studies of “narcissistic personality disorder”(NPD). While it can come from various sources, this disorder is often rooted in the parent-child relationship. At some critical point one or both parents fails to provide their child with the intense emotional engagement that all children need to build a core sense of “Self” or ego. When this bond is not forged, or when the individual’s sense of Self is dismissed or threatened, this searing experience provokes rage. Subsequent efforts to contain this fury in ways that make life bearable–and sometimes even productive—produce the disorder, the key elements of which are as follows:
1) Incessant feelings of rage. These feelings lurk beneath the surface but can erupt suddenly and violently. Thus the narcissist is usually unhappy and often depressed.
2) An enormously vulnerable ego and incessant feelings of low self esteem, combined with an inflated sense of importance or “grandiosity.” The latter feelings must be protected so they do not succumb to sentiments of Self-worthlessness.
3) A constant emotional protection and rescue effort that obstructs empathizing with the feelings of even close friends and family. This rescue effort also makes it hard for the narcissist to listen to others or to engage in meaningful conversation.
4) A parallel struggle to shield a fragile ego either by seeking adulation, or by punishing behavior that denies adulation–or worse, that is construed as a deliberate and hurtful effort to undermine that ego. Paranoia and narcissism are often closely aligned.
5) Uncontrolled lashing out. Because all criticism is experienced as threatening to the entire defense mechanism, the narcissist must silence both the criticism and its human source. The latter must pay in ways that deter further criticism of any kind.
6) Constant manipulation. Having no firm sense of Self and needing praise, the narcissist invents whatever statement, excuse or demeanor that most effectively elicits praise–or deflects criticism–from whoever happens to be present. In this sense, every encounter with another person is a stage.
Human relations that would normally provide the closest emotional and physical bonds are the usual arenas for controlling narcissism and spreading its pain. Parents, children and lovers are the narcissist’s first targets. But as Harold Lasswell noted in his seminal work, some fields –such as the military, business and especially politics–offer especially wide and thus useful arenas for sustaining coping mechanisms–providing that the person rapidly rises up the chain of command and thus can wield and feel power. To rest in a subordinate position denies precisely the arena of manipulation that public narcissists requires and thrives on.
I can only guess as to what experiences forged Donald Trump’s narcissism. Perhaps, as various accounts including his own suggest, it was his controlling and sometimes violent father. But whatever its sources, Trump presents a textbook case of NPD. Indeed, his actions, statements and tweets on and since January 20, 2017 indicate that that his narcissism is reaching unprecedented heights. After all, he is no longer limited to the arenas of business or acting. Now, as president, he can seek adulation from nothing less than the “American people.” When Trump promises to “make America great again,” he signals that this project is fatefully bound up over with making him feel great.
Still, you can’t make things great again unless things are already terrible or are made to seem so. A savior must have people to save to earn their love. Hence, in his Inaugural Address Trump did not rest with the claim that “wealth…has dissipated over the horizon.” Defying the facts, he invented a national catastrophe by announcing that the entire country was sinking into “carnage.” His speech, shaped by him but apparently written by White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, had the feel and sweep of the Gettysburg Address. But if Lincolesque, his words displayed none of the charity displayed by the humble leader who had tried to heal the wounds of the Civil War. On the contrary, while Trump promised that “your voice, your hopes, and your dreams will define our American destiny,” he made it clear that his election and his presidency herald the decisive moment for the American people to rekindle its “national pride.”
Imagine, then, how angry and resentful Trump must have felt after discovering that his grandiose bid to channel Lincoln was quickly and widely ridiculed. Indeed, the ritual of mass reverence that he and his advisers had seemingly pulled off was threatened the very next day by hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in Washington DC and other cities to reject his message. Adding salt to Trump’s wounded ego were pictures that showed a gigantic disparity between numbers of people who had come to Washington to celebrate his investiture and those who had jammed the streets to ridicule him. This was intolerable, as it threatened the feelings of exhilaration and public adoration that he had lifted his ego just a day before. Thus Trump did precisely what any sufferer of NPD would do: he repeatedly lied and lashed out at everyone who had felt had helped to create this unexpected calamity.
As is typical of narcissists, those who bore the brunt of Trump’s anger were those closest to him, especially those whose mission is to circle the wagon around his ego. Press reports suggest that Trump was furious with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer for failing to nip the assault on his president in the bud. Spicer’s January 21 Saturday press conference, during which he claimed that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period—both in person and around the globe” was widely panned but actually served its purpose. Deliberately obscuring the difference between those who “witness” something in person and those who watch the same event on TV or the Internet, Spicer made a clever– if spurious–claim that the world itself had been present at the Inauguration. This, along with his tirade against the media (whose reporting, he argued in a revealing moment, was “shameful”) reportedly reassured Trump that his aides would use any argument to defend the president or punish his apparent detractors. The entire White House staff, especially its media experts, are now the President’s great enablers.
Underscoring this narcissistic project, several hours after Spicer’s press conference Trump came to the CIA, where he engaged in a televised exercise in ego projection that shocked all those present. Trump’s assertion that it “looked like…a million and a half people” was revealing. Perhaps he actually imagined that this was the size of the inauguration crowd? To many who were listening this sounded like a lie—or what Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway has called “alternative facts.” But this perception doesn’t hit the nail on the head. The problem with narcissists is that the border between truth and falsehood must be blurred, if only because facts must be bent to shield their fragile Selves. It is this quest to invent reality that impels Trump’s bullying authoritarianism. He believes–and will use the power of the White House to ensure–that the world of politics either conforms to his truths or suffers his wrath and vengeance.
This will to deploy whatever lie or pretext that secures adulation –or enforces obedience– was vividly exhibited by the President’s January 26 executive order on immigration and refugees. As one would expect, Trump tried to justify the order by asserting that the US faces unprecedented peril. “Tens of thousands of people,” he claimed in a Fox News interview, got in even though “we know nothing about them.” Asserting that had they even “been let in without papers,” he painted a perilous situation. Never mind that there was not a shred of evidence to either support the assertion that existing laws and procedures are weak (in fact they are very tough), or to back his claim that immigration is the principle cause of domestic terrorism (
Indeed—the world. As the chaos and global indignation inflamed by his immigration order show, Trump is looking to the international arena as a crucial zone for managing his narcissism. Leaders like Vladimir Putin are glad to oblige. After all, the Russian president has a strategic interest in giving the new American president the pleasuring therapy he needs to contain his emotional problems and sustain equilibrium. But what about those foreign leaders who, rather than go down the adulation route, instead insult and provoke Trump? Will he explode? Will he lash out and if so, how? A president who has his finger on the nuclear button–but who must also contend with similarly narcissistic leaders like North Korea’s “Supreme Leader”–is a clear and present danger. In the movie Dr. Strangelove a paranoid psychotic US general orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union while his eminently sane president struggles (and fails) to prevent a holocaust. But this was just a movie. By contrast, the man who once starred in his own TV reality show, and who now sits in the Oval Office itself, seems to many Americans–and to others around the world– to be just plain nuts. They are not far from wrong.
Alarmist? Perhaps. But if we don’t appreciate the deep emotional pathology that makes Trump tick, if we assume that rational calculation is the principle force motivating him, we will never fully grasp the measures required—particularly from our elected representatives—to limit the further damage that Trump could unleash. While he is busy planning his wall with Mexico, and while the president and his enablers bend facts to justify their efforts to stop hordes of (Muslim) “terrorists” from sneaking through our airports, all those who care about the future of this country must get busy building a firewall between Trump’s maniacal ego and the democratic institutions that define and protect the public interest.
Daniel Brumberg is Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University. This article represents his personal views and not those of any institution.