It dawned on me Sunday as I reviewed the latest round of news regarding the presidential candidacy of one Donald John Trump that it is really not possible to explain Trump, as he habitually refers to himself, using classic political terms. He is in a wholly different category. More on that in a moment.
Search online for stories about Trump and you’ll see references to the blow dried real estate developer as “a showman,” or “a celebrity” or “reality television star” or my personal favorite “business leader.” He’s described as “a truth teller” who disdains “political correctness” and refuses to play by the conventional rules or politics. He’s also frequently called “a bore,” and “a bully” and even your local blogger has called The Donald “a clown.”
Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, summarizes the conventional take on the clown who, even after his antics in the recent GOP debate, still leads the Republican field. “Trump is, as always, the gleefully offensive and immensely entertaining high-chair king in the Great American Food Fight.” The pundits are united in their assessment that the heart of Trump’s appeal is his “candor” and “unpredictability.”
Conventional Politics Can’t Explain Trump…
Yet none of this really or adequately explains Trump and its not enough to merely dismiss him as a blowhard with a massive ego. To understand the man and his approach one needs look to science, and not political science. I know I’ve called him a clown, but Trump’s behavior is more complicated. Trump displays, I’ve come to believe as have other observers, the classic symptoms of a person suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD.
NPD is, of course, a mental health condition described by the prestigious Mayo Clinic as a personality state, “in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
Sound like anyone you know?
The American Psychiatric Association only characterized NPD as “mental disorder” in 1980 and the “disorder” and the symptoms used to describe it remain somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, a year ago Time magazine published an online quiz under the headline “Are you a narcissist?,” which seems like it might have been created to describe the current Republican front runner. You might want to take the quiz and share the results with your spouse. It may just explain a lot of things.
Here is a brief sample of the 40 questions (and choices) that help determine your level of narcissism:
“Modesty doesn’t become me” or “I’m essentially a modest person.”
“I can usually talk my way out of anything” or “I try to accept the consequences of my behavior.”
“I’m no better or worse than most people” or “I think I’m a special person.”
“I insist on getting the respect that I am due” or “I usually get the respect that I am due.”
You get the idea. The Mayo Clinic lists the “symptoms” of NPD as:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
Any of that sound like a fellow who might paint his last name on the side of own personal 757 and every piece of real estate he touches? This mash-up of “Trump’s Greatest Hits” looks like a NPD training film.
Conceited, boastful or pretentious…
There’s also this from the Mayo Clinic’s explanation of the condition: “If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement — and when you don’t receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having “the best” of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care.
“At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior. Or you may feel depressed and moody because you fall short of perfection.”
When you consider Trump – he loves to refer to himself in the third person – has a disability as opposed to a political agenda it then becomes obvious that classic, time-honored political responses to his behavior are pointless. He’s a master, for example, of turning the probing question – just ask Megyn Kelly – back on the person asking the question, which is a typical response from a person exhibiting the condition. Nothing is ever about Trump unless he choses to articulate something about his superior talent or success, like “I’ll be phenomenal for women” or “I’m rich – really rich” or “I’m a really smart guy.”
Trump’s NPD symptoms help explain why he has become so combustible to the rest of the Republican field. As the New York Times notes, “If candidates denounce Mr. Trump’s provocations, they ensure that he will attack them, which then forces them to respond to Mr. Trump. And on it goes.”
When Trump was asked, for example, if his comments about women are demeaning and inappropriate he simply articulated his own success – at least the “success” that exists in his own mind – and then he immediately pivots to tee off on Jeb Bush, or John McCain or Lindsay Graham or anyone else who is enough of “a loser” to question him. Kelly, the aggressive Fox New questioner during the recent debate, should apologize to him for asking “stupid” and “dumb” questions Trump now says.
The only woman in the GOP field, Carly Fiorina, who chastised Trump for his response when challenged by Megyn Kelly, got this by now classic Trump put down on Twitter: “I just realized that if you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than ten minutes straight, you develop a massive headache.”
Trump’s personality refuses to allow him to be called to account since, after all, it’s never about him unless he choses to make it about him. Trump is superior, Trump is unbelievably talented, Trump is outrageously wealthy and – perhaps most importantly to the political world – Trump displays an “inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.” He displays none of the usual characteristics that we have come to associate with American politicians – modesty, self-control, empathy, humor, or even reticence because, well, he can’t. He suffers from NPD.
Trump’s condition, amazingly, makes him an unusually effective candidate in the current age of “the selfie” – self obsessed, self important and unwilling, or more likely unable, to understand why anyone would presume to challenge him or his success. While the “beltway gasbags” wring their hands and fret, Trump’s mind churns out lines like my current favorite from his round of weekend interviews. “Of course it’s very hard for [women] to attack me on looks because I’m so good looking,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd. What do you do with that as a reporter, candidate or voter?
The Dark Side…
The old White House hand David Gergen, now a CNN contributor, sees the same thing in Trump that I see, but also points out that there can be “productive narcissists,” people like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, even Gandhi. The corporate world is filled with the type. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs seems to have qualified – a brilliant, driven man who verbally abused many people close to him.
Gergen’s recent piece led me to a particularly revealing Harvard Business Review article by Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist who has counseled governments and corporations. Maccoby notes that Sigmund Freud was among the first to identify that, “People of this type impress others as being ‘personalities.”
But Freud also recognized, Maccoby wrote, “that there is a dark side to narcissism. Narcissists, he pointed out, are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. Perceived threats can trigger rage. Achievements can feed feelings of grandiosity. That’s why Freud thought narcissists were the hardest personality types to analyze. Consider how an executive at Oracle describes his narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison: ‘The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.’ That observation is amusing, but it is also troubling. Not surprisingly, most people think of narcissists in a primarily negative way. After all, Freud named the type after the mythical figure Narcissus, who died because of his pathological preoccupation with himself.”
Looking on the bright side…
Trump is clearly a political phenomenon, but understanding his methods and, yes, even his appeal requires a broader frame than what we think of as “politics.” His race to the top of the Republican field cannot last, but it will nevertheless be commented on for years. His statements will be deconstructed and marveled over when Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson are reduced to answers in a political trivial pursuit game. Eventually the Republicans who are presently enamored with Trump will realize, as David Gergen says, that they aren’t comfortable with a guy who stays up until 3:00 am tweeting insults having his finger anywhere near the nuclear button.
Trump would be the last to recognize it, but ironically his bizarre candidacy and even more bizarre behavior could result – admittedly I’m looking for a silver lining here – in expanding awareness of a real problem – the NPD sufferer and how they might receive help.
Trump is obviously not a poster boy for presidential greatness, but he is, in a weird way, Exhibit A for better understanding the depth and breath of mental illness in our tightly wound society. The clown in the flashy tie with the orange hair might not be crazy, as some have said, but he really needs help, which sadly Trump will be the last to realize.