Countless articles have been written about Donald Trump’s narcissism, some even going so far as to diagnose him with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The truth is he may or may not have a personality disorder, but it’s not our place to diagnose someone we’ve never met or personally assessed. However, there’s no question Donald Trump has observable narcissistic traits—extreme self-promotion, arrogance and boastfulness, low empathy, a willingness to take advantage of others for personal gain, and constant attention-seeking. There is little dispute about those traits and you don’t need to be a mental health professional to observe them. Whether these congeal into a diagnosable condition or whether they truly interfere with his life functioning is unknowable to us and not the point.
The push to diagnose Donald Trump from afar has a clear political angle. If he’s diagnosed with a mental disorder, the reasoning goes, he is unstable and crazy, therefore unfit to lead. Unfortunately, this is erroneous reasoning. There are plenty of people with narcissistic personality disorders who are strong leaders. They are CEO’s and thought leaders in their fields. They are entertainers and athletes who operate their own million dollar companies. They are politicians who push past resistance and get results. Yes, they may be insufferable to work with and nearly impossible to be in a relationship with, but they can be effective leaders. This is not to say that Donald Trump would be an effective president, but rather to make the point that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder by itself does not exclude someone from being an effective leader. The Donald may be unstable and unfit to serve as president, but not simply because he might have a personality disorder.
A DEEPER DIG
It’s less interesting and helpful to talk in diagnostic terms than it is to talk in descriptive terms. A diagnosis by itself tells you very little about the person. To really understand Donald Trump’s apparent narcissism, we have to dig into it a little deeper.
Like most psychological characteristics, narcissism exists on a continuum, ranging from practically none (think Mother Teresa) to extreme (think of…lots of famous people). All of us fit somewhere along that continuum. Some narcissists cover it better than others, feigning humility, while others flaunt it proudly. Donald Trump is a curious example of narcissism. He appears so lacking in self-awareness that he has no idea how narcissistic he appears. Consider this exchange with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes:
Lesley Stahl: You’re not known to be a humble man, but I wonder—
Donald Trump: I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.
So there you have it: Donald Trump bragging about being humble. Also, don’t miss the tag at the end: “I’m much more humble than you would understand.” This sense that one is special and can only be understood by other special people is a hallmark of narcissism. The issue, as Trump appears to see it, is not that he isn’t humble. No, it’s that poor Lesley Stahl can’t possibly understand how deeply humble he is.
Let’s see if we can understand a little better.
TYPES OF NARCISSISM
To understand Donald Trump, we should try to get a handle on his unique variation of narcissism. Not all narcissists are the same, even if their behavior looks similar. In layman’s terms, you could say there are three types of narcissists:
- Privileged Narcissists – these are people who are supremely rich or famous or beautiful or talented—and they know it. They’ve been told this their whole lives. They’ve been treated as special. You see this kind of narcissism among trust fund babies and professional athletes and entertainers and amazingly good-looking people. These little princes and princesses are set apart from others and, as a result, believe they are deserving of the special treatment they get.
- Wounded Narcissists – these are people who, through early experiences of mistreatment or neglect, are made to feel small, inadequate, and inferior. But who wants to feel inferior? So instead, they construct a false sense of self that is the opposite—larger than life, highly competent, superior. They brag and boast and seek admiration. Because they are so damaged, they are also notoriously thin-skinned and easily offended. They are quick to go on the attack. Their entire life revolves around trying to overcompensate for the deep wounds of the past.
- Privileged-Wounded Narcissists – It’s exactly like what it sounds like. These are people who have some specialness about them—they’re beautiful or rich or famous or talented or otherwise extraordinary—but they’ve also been treated badly through early abuse, harshness, or neglect. As you might guess, this is usually the most malignant form of narcissism. They believe they are special and deserving of special treatment, but their mistreatment has left them utterly lacking in empathy and the ability to take perspective. They can be extraordinarily warm and charismatic when they want to be, then incredibly cold and cutting when they feel slighted.
We have no way of knowing for sure what category Donald Trump fits into, but it wouldn’t be shocking if it was the third type, the Privileged-Wounded, depending on his formative years. This is speculative, of course. He is notorious tight-lipped about that era of his life and he is also not exactly known for the accuracy of his reporting or perception, so we don’t really know how he was treated. We do know he had behavioral problems as a kid and left the prestigious Kew-Forest School when he was 13 years old, even though his father, Fred, was on the Board of Trustees. He was then enrolled in New York Military Academy. We know something was going on when he was younger; we just don’t know what it was. Nearly all narcissists begin forming these traits from early on. True narcissism rarely starts in adulthood. The seeds of it were nearly always there from childhood or adolescence.
Trump has definitely been privileged from the time of his youth and his behavior suggests someone who has also been made to feel small or inadequate when he was younger, though we can’t know for certain. The intensity of his narcissism and his seeming lack of self-awareness and reflection seems to suggest this isn’t someone who was merely overindulged and made to feel special. We can also see it in what excites him and what angers him.
IT’S GONNA BE HUGE!
Think about what gets Trump cranked up. Big ratings! Big buildings! Things that are HUGE! He wants you to know how ridiculously huge his IQ is. In 2013, he tweeted, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest-and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” This year when he was criticized by George Will and Karl Rove, he said, “I’m much smarter than them. I think I have a much higher IQ. I think I went to a better college—better everything.” According to Trump, he also has “the world’s greatest memory.” Everything of his has to be the best, the biggest. Better EVERYTHING!
Now think about what pushes Trump’s buttons. Any suggestion that his hands—or other parts—are small, that he isn’t as accomplished as he boasts, or that he isn’t worth as much as he claims is what infuriates him. On his Comedy Central Roast, there was apparently only one category of joke that was off-limits. The panel could roast him about his three wives, his affairs, his sex with models, his hair, but they couldn’t suggest he had less money than he said he did. That was the verboten topic. Even coming close to that idea was a sore spot. Comedian Anthony Jeselnik told The New York Daily News, “His kids were fair game. His wife was fair game. And I remember one of my jokes was about his casino business failing, and I could feel that hurt coming off of him,” Jeselnik added. “I called him a douchebag to his face and that wasn’t as harsh as saying, ‘you don’t know how to run a casino.'” In other words, it was okay to joke about him being a bad, immoral person, but not about him being a small or inadequate person.
Why? Because this type of narcissist’s greatest fear is to be seen as small and weak. His or her whole life is spent defending against this, posturing, proving everyone wrong. It’s consuming; it’s in the marrow of the bones.
And this explains why this will never stop for Trump. He’s a 70-year-old man who has had this style for decades. In most ways, it has served him well, especially in the competitive world of New York City business where bragging and grandiosity are near-prerequisites for success, so he has no incentive to change in the past and little motivation to believe this style won’t work now.
No doubt suggestions and encouragements from Republican Party elders for him to soften his approach are met with eye-rolling from the Donald. It’s gotten him this far, hasn’t it? They’re all a bunch of idiots anyway, we can imagine him thinking to himself–or saying out loud. It’s almost comical that Republican leaders seemed SHOCKED that Trump hasn’t changed his tune and “acted more presidential” since the convention. Surely after the bruising primary season, he would settle down and take a more dignified approach when he became the party’s nominee, they murmured to each other. Right?
STOP HURTING ME!
All that magical thinking was out the window as soon as he attacked a Gold Star family who dared criticize him at the DNC. In a shocking display of poor judgment that caused even his Republican supporters to gag on their lattes, Trump decided to go after the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, the Pakistani-American soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, after their pointed and critical speech at the DNC. In the days that followed, he questioned whether they wrote their own speech and whether the Captain’s mother was forbidden from speaking because of her religion. Donald especially took umbrage with the senior Kahn’s assertion that he had not sacrificed much while Kahn’s son sacrificed everything. Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very hard.”
Worse than slapping a baby, a politician (or any reasonable human) would never attack a Gold Star family. It’s so bad it’s the standard you would use for comparison. (“Don’t say that. That’s almost as bad as attacking a family who lost a loved one in military combat.”). Commentators rightly said these kinds of attacks have revealed Trump’s character, but have you questioned why he would say this kind of thing if these comments are such political poison?
Simply put, his attacks and reprisals are not calculated strategy. He is simply lashing out because he has been wounded, just like he did earlier in the race when FOX News’ Megyn Kelly asked him a pointed question during a debate about his tendency to insult women. He later said, “You could see blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” For Trump, Kelly wasn’t being a good journalist. No, she was personally attacking him, even though a fair review of the debate clearly shows she had hard questions for most of the candidates. But Donald felt personally wounded and entirely justified in hitting back with a personal insult in the same way he did with nearly all his Republican rivals and many others who challenged him. The New York Times indexed 250 insults he lobbed from the start of his campaign until the end of July. He frequently called people dummies, losers, and clowns. But his favorite Twitter insult of all? “Failing.” Again, the idea of failing or being small or incompetent seems to be at the heart of his narcissism. He must be successful, a winner, and HUGE.
I’M RIGHTER THAN YOU
He also must be recognized for his successes and victories. The most obscene example of this was in the hours after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, a horrific massacre inside a nightclub in Orlando. Trump’s initial impulse was to tweet this:
Appreciate the congrats on being right on radical Islamic terrorism. I don’t want congrats. I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!
For him, it seemed the most important issue of the moment was that he had been right all along and now we can all see for ourselves. The primary issue was that he was the rightest one.
Don’t miss what’s happening here in just under 140 characters. First, he “appreciates the congrats.” Raise your hand if you think people were high-fiving Donald for nailing it on “radical Islamic terrorism” the morning after 50 families were grieving the deaths of their loved ones. For Trump, though, there was no impulse to express empathy. Instead, it was an opportunity to show how right he was. The desire for adulation (“appreciate the congrats”) and the lack of empathy are all wrapped up in that one little tweet.
AREN’T YOU SPECIAL?
We’d all like to think we’re special. Lots of studies tell us that people—including mental health professionals!—consistently rate themselves as smarter or better than they actually are. In one study, a whopping 94% of professors rated themselves as above average compared to their peers. A full 90% of drivers rate themselves as above average compared to other drivers. Most students rate themselves as more intelligent than average. Most therapists rate themselves as more effective than average. The list goes on. The psychological term for this is “illusory superiority” and it needs no further explanation. In this sense, we are all a tad narcissistic.
A true narcissist believes she is really really really (yes, three reallys) special and deserves to be recognized as such. Her ideas are best. Her intelligence is off the chart. Her skill is unparalleled. Because of this, her focus is entirely on herself. She is the one with the answers and the right course of action. The purpose of other humans is to acknowledge this and fall in line. When they do, they are often met with effusive praise; when they don’t, they are usually met with withering criticism.
When people go a step further and actually criticize the narcissist (God forbid), you can expect them to be hit square between the eyes with a barrage of hostility. In psychological terms, we call this a “narcissistic injury.” For the narcissist, a criticism or rebuke is never an occasion for reflection or correction. It is nearly always a bloodbath to fend off the attack. If the criticism is correct, it means she is not the best, smartest, greatest, prettiest, biggest. She is just like everyone else and that…is not…acceptable.
The narcissist is not merely good; he is great. He is not merely better; he is the best. So it would make sense for a narcissist who is supremely unqualified in experience and temperament to seek the presidency. If you believe you are the smartest, the most successful, the best, then you are certain the masses will cheer your ascent to the most powerful position on earth. It’s the gold medal of accomplishments, well-deserved because you’re the best there is. Recall what Trump said in his acceptance speech at the convention after he painted a picture of an impoverished, violence-ridden America: “I alone can fix it.” After he said this, the crowd cheered their approval. They loved him! They ate it up!
It should be no surprise to anyone that we live in a culture that celebrates narcissism. We love it! We eat it up! In some ways, it has been good for us. In other ways, it hasn’t. For many, Donald Trump is a dream come true. For others, he is a nightmare. Where we land on that distinctive says as much about us as it does about him.
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