Sunday, July 19, 2015

Citizen Vain: or, Trump the Narcisissist

Why did Donald Trump say in public that John McCain is ""not a war hero" because he got "captured?" Is Trump insane? Not quite, but close. Trump most likely has a major personality disorder. That's not a medical diagnosis, which I can't give; I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist, and I haven't met Trump. But Trump's long, continuing history of weird and sometimes toxic behavior makes a lot more sense if we think of Trump as a narcissist. His attack on McCain definitely fits the profile.

Narcissism, one of the few ideas from classical Freudian psychoanalysis that turns out to be reliably testable, is a deep investment in an idealized, better-than-real version of yourself: a dream self who is incredibly great, who always wins and never loses. That super-self is, by its nature, an illusion, and reality constantly threatens it, but the narcissist invests everything in it. Narcissists organize their whole psychology around projecting and defending that delusional image of themselves.

This is a "personality disorder" rather than a "mental illness," because it's not really amenable to treatment and because the patient doesn't want to be cured. They're not sick; they're just jerks on a clinical scale. There is no pill that cures narcissism, and if there were narcissists wouldn't take it. People who are mentally ill suffer from their illness. People with personality disorders inflict suffering on people around them.

It's not just that narcissists bend, distort, and deny reality in order to promote their fantasies of greatness. Many, perhaps most, also build themselves up by actively tearing down other people. Contempt for others is part of the typical clinical profile. I am a winner and you are a loser is the narcissist's motto, unless they need to recruit you as a true believer in their greatness. Then you're a winner by association until they don't need you anymore. After that you're a loser again. You're fired!

But worst of all is a narcissist who feels that his or her self-image is under attack. They will go on attack themselves against anyone whom they perceive as threatening their vision of themselves. Those attacks can be incredibly toxic: ruthless, and no holds barred, because the narcissist will perceive an attack on their false self as more or less an attack on their lives.

For a long time I've wondered, idly, about what was going on with Trump. I've understood his appeal to others: he's a perfect foil for comedy, exactly the kind of egotistical buffoon for whom the ancient Greeks invented irony. (Ancient Greek comedy had two characters called an alazon and an eiron. The alazon was a dimwitted blowhard who boasted about himself and the eiron was a smarter character who ironically pretended to go along so the blowhard would embarrass himself. Trump is a born alazon. If he did not exist, Will Ferrell would have had to invent him.) And I understand his appeal to non-ironic fans; Trump is like a blue collar fantasy of being a billionaire, an enormously rich person with mostly working-class tastes. He does what poor people think they would do with millions of dollars, which makes a more satisfying fantasy than what most rich people really do with millions of dollars.

What I've never understood is what Trump got out of letting people like David Letterman (the eiron's eiron), mock him in public. Did Trump not get the joke? Was he being a good sport about it? Was he simply, and wonderfully, too dim to get that he was being mocked? I couldn't tell.

Today, the answer seems to be that Trump refuses to get the joke. His commitment to his own grandiosity may run so deep that Trump simply refuses to take the fact he's being mocked on board. His ability to edit or distort incoming information to suit the needs of his ego are apparently so formidable that he can be mocked on TV every week and take it as evidence that he's a big, big star. I find that unsettling.

Trump's campaign speeches so far have been extremely simply repetitions of the Narcissist's Mantra: I am a winner, and the others are losers. No petty details like actual policy ideas clutter up the purity of his core message. "America used to have victories. We don't have victories any more," so Trump, through his personal greatness, will lead America back to the top. Trump will be "the greatest jobs president God ever created." He will drive much better trade deals with foreign countries than the losers who have been negotiating those deals for years. How will he do these things? By being himself, baby. Or rather, by being the imaginary version of himself he holds dear, the invincible SuperTrump. SuperTrump always wins and never loses (because Trump cannot bear to face his fallibility or the basic reality of the world), so by that logic President SuperTrump will always win everything. Trump's campaign speeches could be illustrations in intro psych textbooks.

He's traded in racism because that's what gets certain voters excited, but also because contempt comes naturally to him. He can only keep believing in SuperTrump while he's putting other people down. So, he puts down Mexican immigrants with the deep, scathing contempt that his narcissism makes possible. He puts down John McCain, because if McCain disagrees with Trump about anything (I mean anything) then one of them has to be wrong, and Trump cannot tolerate the idea that SuperTrump is ever, ever wrong. So John McCain has to be a loser, too. Got shot down by the North Vietnamese while serving the country Trump didn't serve, like a loser.

No, Trump does not recognize the sacrifice that McCain made all those years as prisoner of war. It is incomprehensible to Trump that McCain learned any wisdom, that he matured or grew, through that suffering. Trump has no room for understanding that because narcissists refuse to accept or acknowledge failure. They don't want to learn from their mistakes and setbacks, because they can't allow themselves to accept that failure is possible. If Trump lets go of his conviction that SuperTrump is invincible and infallible, for even a second, he can't even begin to cope with his fears.

A lot of Trump's nine-day-wonder appeal on the campaign trail has been the appeal of vicarious narcissism; he allows his fans to identify with his fantasy self, to be winners by association with SuperTrump, and to share the toxic thrill of his contempt for others. Trump's pitch is I am strong and everyone else is weak; I can make you strong; everyone else is a loser. It's an ugly appeal, but there are always weak, scared people willing to buy it.

Now, I've been more or less practicing psychiatry without a license for this whole post. And it may be that Trump isn't an actual narcissist. Maybe he just plays one on TV. But if I'm offering a hypothesis to explain his behavior, that hypothesis should predict future behavior. So let me make three predictions about Candidate Trump.

First, Trump is not going to apologize for ANYTHING he does on the campaign trail. As I wrote this post, the news came that he was refusing to apologize for insulting McCain. But let me say that I don't expect him to back down on that, or to apologize for anything, no matter what future awful  things he says or does. Trump is not capable of apologizing in any remotely convincing way, because Trump is not capable of accepting that he has ever been in the wrong. If he admits to himself that he is not perfect in every way, his whole world falls apart. He might rather die.

Second, if Trump stays in the race another three weeks, he WILL do and say something else appalling and self-destructive. He has to. Contempt for others is one of his basic tools for propping himself up and getting through the day. This a man who made, "You're fired!" his TV catchphrase. Trump cannot continue to speak in public without dumping on people who actually deserve far more respect than Trump does.

Third, as I suggested in my post about Trump in the polls, Trump will not expose himself to any public defeat or embarrassment. This one is complicated by Trump's incredible ability to distort his own perception of reality and deny any reality that does not fit the SuperTrump image. But we should also remember that a serious narcissist defines "embarrassment" much more broadly than the rest of us do. Trump will either 1) never release a standard FEC financial disclosure, 2) file an inaccurate disclosure, or 3) release a disclosure as the price of staying in the race but deny that his own filing is accurate. Trump will not, cannot admit that he is not as rich as he pretends. he will not back down from his ludicrous claim that he has a net worth of $10 billion assets after liabilities. And by standard accounting, he might not even be a billionaire at all, If he is forced to submit an accurate reckoning of his net worth to the FEC, he will turn around and claim that he is actually much, much richer than his campaign claims. Yes, that would be absurd. But we're talking about Donald Trump.

Just as importantly, Trump will do his best to avoid any situation where he risks losing or has to admit losing. Remember, Trump's core belief is that he never loses, and he takes anything that threatens that as a threat to his core identity. He may not run in a single primary, because if you run in a primary you can lose. Trump cannot deal with that. He might continue running if he has a built-in excuse for not winning. Trump would probably enjoy a Ross-Perot-style third-party candidacy, where he isn't expected to win even 3 electoral votes but gets treated like a serious candidate on national TV. And whatever happens, Donald J. Trump will never admit that he lost the Presidency. He will go to his grave saying, over and over again, that he could have been President. Most likely Trump will pretend that he chose not to continue his candidacy, but would have won if he did. If he persists long enough to be handed a clear defeat, he will claim to have been robbed and to be the rightful winner. You heard it here first.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

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