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.)