What having an extreme narcissist as president is going to entail


Alfie Kohn* is a writer whom I have long admired for his passionate advocacy for public schools and for providing good and meaningful education for students and his condemnation of rampant standardized testing and the grade-driven, fact-driven, dehumanizing system that passes for much of schooling in the US. His background is in psychology and he has a post titled Narcissist-in-Chief: A Psychological Take on a Political Reality where he looks at what the consequences for the nation of having a person like Trump as president.

There has been a whole lot of pop psychology written about Donald Trump. It is not hard to see why. He displays a remarkable set of characteristics that would attract any analyst. But if he had not been so successful politically, he would have been just another celebrity egotist, consigned to the lifestyle sections of magazines and that most of us could safely ignore. But Trump is going to be president. We cannot ignore him and Kohn looks at the possible consequences of having someone with his warped psychological makeup in charge of running the world’s largest military and economy.

After listing all the negative policies that Trump is likely to advocate for that will harm large numbers of people, including those who voted for him, Kohn then turns to the man himself, and focuses on one thing that stands out: his narcissism.

Donald Trump has distinguished himself as someone who is:

  • given to boasting, preening, and swaggering to the point of self-parody;
  • not merely thin-skinned and petulant but vindictive when crossed or even criticized;
  • restless, with the attention span of a toddler;
  • desperately competitive, driven to sort the world into winners and losers, and to regard other people (or countries) primarily as rivals to be bested;
  • astonishingly lacking not only in knowledge but in curiosity;
  • not merely given to uttering blatant falsehoods on a more or less constant basis but apparently unaware of the extent of his dishonesty, as if the fact that he believes or has said something makes it true; and
  • possessed of a sense of absolute entitlement — such that if he wants to kiss or grab an attractive woman, for example, he should of course be free to do so — along with a lack of shame, humility, empathy, or capacity for reflection and self-scrutiny.

Even if you set out to consider different sorts of deficits, you’re pulled back to the psychological issues. It’s not just that he’s ignorant or even incurious; it’s that he seems incapable of acknowledging that there’s something he doesn’t know. It’s not just that he lacks the cognitive wherewithal to view himself as others view him (or to reflect on his failings) but that his psychological makeup is such that he can’t bear to stop and think about who he is; he’s like a shark, a blind eating machine that must always move forward or die. Similarly, while his speech rarely ventures beyond elementary-school vocabulary or grammar, what’s more alarming than his cognitive limitations is his egocentrism. One careful analysis found that he inclines not only to the monosyllabic but to the megalomaniacal: The single word he uses more than any other is “I” — and his fourth-favorite word is his own name.

Donald Trump seems to me a textbook illustration of how a lifelong campaign of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement (acquiring as much as possible and then pasting his name on everything he owns) represents an attempt to compensate for deeply rooted insecurity. He fears being insignificant, worthless. In fact, his quest to humiliate and conquer, to possess and flaunt, may be strategies to prove to himself that he really exists, reflecting a condition that R.D. Laing called “ontological insecurity” (in a chapter of that name in his classic book The Divided Self). He doesn’t even bother — or maybe just lacks the sophistication — to conceal how desperate is his craving for attention and approval, how precarious is his mental state.

Why did Trump praise Putin? Well, he explained, it was simply because Putin “has said nice things about” him. And the entire spectacle of his party’s convention was a $60 million attempt to prove that he personally was well-liked. If you watch the man carefully, before he lashes out at a critic, before the outpouring of blind rage, insults, and threats, there seems to be a moment of genuine perplexity and hurt that anyone could say something about him that isn’t complimentary. The vulnerability, the naked need, would almost occasion our pity were it not for the potentially catastrophic consequences when someone with this profile is in a position of power.

This is not someone who is merely narcissistic in the colloquial, casual sense of the term, meaning that he’s selfish or self-centered. This is someone with a psychiatric disorder in all its flagrant, florid particulars. To grasp its seriousness is to be staggered that someone too disordered and rancid to be a trustee of your condo association will be running our country. How is it possible that almost half the voters, even those who like his values and disliked his (conventional politician of an) opponent, could have listened to him taunt and lie and bully his way through a campaign and then said, “Yep. That’s who should be in charge of the country”?

The implications going forward are nothing short of chilling. It’s not just how little he knows but how little that fact bothers him — the overweening arrogance that leads him to believe he has nothing to learn, that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do.” It’s not just that he’s an extreme risk-taker, but that he takes those risks purely in the service of his own wealth and glory. It’s not clear that he has any principles, as such; what he has is an overwhelming need to be the center of attention, to be liked, feared, admired. Apart from considerations of personal profit, his foreign policy is likely to be determined at least in part by which individuals on the world stage stroke his ego and which ones criticize him — never mind that despicable leaders may do the former and reasonable leaders the latter (which is actually more likely than the reverse, if you think about it).

It is a long article but, as with all Kohn’s work, it is well-written and persuasive. Also disturbing.

(*Note: In the spirit of disclosure I should mention that I met Kohn once a long time ago when our teaching center invited him to give a talk to our faculty on student motivation, a topic of great interest to both him and me. He has since written nice things about some of my own work.)

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    Trump is going to be president. We cannot ignore him

    False. You absolutely can ignore him. In fact, it’s probably the healthiest thing you can do, especially if you’re one of the people clutching their pearls at this Failure Of Democracy.

    Seriously. Ignore him. You might as well. Think of him as like the weather – there’s a small, non-zero chance it will ruin your life, but in the meantime you might as well just get on with things. I’m doing my best to ignore Brexit, and so far it’s working a treat.

    @Ice Swimmer, 3: You’re making the error common to those who never believed Trump would win. You’re thinking people voted for him because they trust him. Have the imagination to realise that the truth is millions of people know perfectly well that they couldn’t trust him to run a whelk stall… and they voted for him anyway. Reflect on how shitty Clinton must have seemed in comparison, to lose to that.

  2. canadiansteve says

    The fact is that most people ignore is than the vast majority of voters do not consider a candidate’s polices nor likely ability to govern when selecting who they will vote for. There’s a good radio program called Ideas on CBC radio here in Canada. Following the election of Trump they replayed a lecture by a researcher that had looked into the reasons that people actually held when selecting a candidate. He found that 95% of voters did not consider policy, and that the vast majority went off their gut feeling as to whether or not the candidate connected to them in some way. That last one is particularly important here – that feeling of aloofness that Hillary was famous for is exactly the opposite of what gets you elected. Also, people who felt Trump represented them never actually considered what he was actually going to do, just that he was part of their group, as opposed to “the washington insiders.” The truth is irrelevant, it was only about the impression. I’m sure a huge number of people that voted Trump are regretting it now that the election is over, and he’s starting to give some indication of what he will actually do, even though it was pretty clear before the election as well.

  3. Dunc says

    What does this say about people who voted for Mr Trump, people who trust him?

    “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

    I’m doing my best to ignore Brexit, and so far it’s working a treat.

    That might have something to do with the fact that it hasn’t actually happened yet.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    That might have something to do with the fact that it hasn’t actually happened yet.

    Well yes, that certainly helps. Conversely, Trump isn’t the President yet and won’t be for more than a month, but to read some of the liberal media you’d think he’d already personally started herding Jews, gays and Mexicans into ovens.

  5. Mobius says

    I had realized some time ago that Trump is very vulnerable to manipulation by someone willing to heap flattery upon him. This may only be for a short term, until the next flatterer, but for a time the current flatterer will be Trump’s BFF. And on the world stage, that can have grave consequences.

  6. KG says

    but to read some of the liberal media you’d think he’d already personally started herding Jews, gays and Mexicans into ovens. – sonofrojblake

    How typical of you to ignore the people who have already been insulted, threatened and worse because of Trump’s campaign. And to expect the “liberal media” to be as blithely unconcerned as you about the dangers this man poses. For many people – perhaps all of us – the likelihood that Trump will ruin their lives is far from small – but sonofrojblake tells himself he’s not one of them, so that’s OK.

  7. says

    sonofrojblake

    Seriously. Ignore him. You might as well. Think of him as like the weather – there’s a small, non-zero chance it will ruin your life, but in the meantime you might as well just get on with things. I’m doing my best to ignore Brexit, and so far it’s working a treat.

    If you’re a straight, white, cis man who doesn’t rely on a social safety net, you’ll be fine. Once he gets his Supreme Court nominees in a whole lot of people are going to be a whole lot of screwed over. States with Republican governments are already tripping over each other trying to ban abortion, and that’s just the beginning.

    Reflect on how shitty Clinton must have seemed in comparison, to lose to that.

    Only shitty enough to have won the popular vote.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    I’m in the UK, and I’ll admit that to an extent I am worried about the effect of a Trump presidency. And I’m doing my best to ignore it, because, like the weather, there’s precisely fuck all I can do about it. Like the weather, I’ll watch and react to it and make my plans accordingly… but actually get stressed about it? What would be the point?

    @Tabby Lavalamp, 12:

    Only shitty enough to have won the popular vote.

    You’re whistling in the dark. She lost the election. That’s how shitty a candidate she was. Whining about the maths after the event just sounds childish.

  9. multitool says

    And I’m doing my best to ignore it, because, like the weather, there’s precisely fuck all I can do about it.

    Well, that’s not really true here in the US. We are shut out of the government, and it is urgent that we organize to protect ourselves from what it may do to us. We need to expand our numbers, and expand channels of communication among those numbers.

    For example our upcoming local elections will be extremely important in this, and now is the time to start recruiting volunteers to recruit more volunteers to get out that vote. I am a part of this; I am not doing ‘fuck all’.

    Organizing is the Swiss army knife for everything they might throw at us. If you want an underground railway for reproductive medicine, you need a network. If you want to support and disseminate investigative journalism, you need a network. If you want a non-governmental safety net, you need a network.

    If you think there’s nothing you can do, you are being lazy.

  10. M'thew says

    @canadiansteve, #6:

    I’m sure a huge number of people that voted Trump are regretting it now that the election is over, and he’s starting to give some indication of what he will actually do, even though it was pretty clear before the election as well.

    Of course. Although not always because he follows up on what he promised to do – there’s an awful lot of people who want him to do what he’s promised, now that he’s prevaricating on some things.

  11. aziraphale says

    “that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do.”

    I wonder how he (or anyone) can believe that. The generals must spend much of their working life thinking about ISIS, and they have access to all the information he has, and much more.

  12. Mano Singham says

    aziraphale,

    There is a long-standing American tradition of belief in “common sense” and a denigration of expertise. The idea that detailed knowledge is not necessary and that all we need are a few general moral principles to be able to solve anything is deeply ingrained. This lends itself to simplistic slogans and one-line solutions to complex problems. Trump is the very embodiment of that sentiment.

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