Trump, Narcissism, and the Swamp
Joseph Szimhart (November, 2016)
Narcissism has taken on monumental proportions in politics since the election of Donald Trump for president of the United States. The Greek myth tells us that Narcissus as a handsome youth had no genuine affection for anyone. All the wood nymphs, including the impetuous and gabby Echo, were attracted to him. Narcissus became enthralled with his image reflected in a pristine mountain pond, an image that he did not realize was his own and an image that he could not grasp to hold. When he reached into the water disturbing the surface serenity, it would disappear. Unable to tear himself away from staring, he stopped eating, withered, and died. A flower grew in his place. That flower we call the narcissus, a simple monument to unrequited self-love. Today narcissism requires larger monuments, like a 50-foot-tall statue of Mao Zedong in China or Trump Tower in Manhattan. Does it mean anything to label Trump as a narcissist? Is this an example of one man pursuing the American dream? Or is it something else?
Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory by Jerrold M. Post (2015) does not mention Trump, but it does examine many current and dead authoritarian leaders including Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin, Saddam Hussein, M. Qaddafi, and Joe Kennedy Sr. as examples of narcissistic political behavior. The essays in this compilation were written before Trump entered the race as a Republican.
At this writing, an enormous amount of ink and air time has been spent critiquing Trump’s narcissism, so much so that audiences have numbed out the weight of this accusation. He’s never been properly diagnosed by a professional shrink, so the label means nothing medically. Others have floated labels of psychopathology and malignant narcissism Trump’s way, but nothing sticks because nothing exists in a legal medical record.
Post’s book is interesting and reads well. We can easily agree that his subjects fit the narcissistic mold in some way, but in the end the book is merely an exercise in medical journalism: Who knows what a psychiatrist might produce after interviewing any of these men or women highlighted in the book as exhibiting a narcissistic character? Certainly, anti-social traits find homes in stories about M. Qaddafi and S. Hussein. I imagine Trump may appear in future editions of this volume, but for now he escapes notice.
Added to this problem of diagnosis, we have studies in American culture showing an increase in narcissistic behavior, especially among young adults if not among the aging baby boomers. Per a few observers, narcissism has become the new normal in American culture! If that is true, we have no evidence that the narcissism we observe generally creates dysfunctional adults. It is the depth of dysfunction that determines whether narcissism becomes a disorder, thus a diagnosis. In any case, the mud of narcissism slung at Trump may irritate him and his admirers, but they can legitimately brush this off as mere name-calling by people sucking on sour grapes.
Let us take a look at Post’s criteria for narcissism:
Five or more of the following traits must appear for a potential diagnosis:
1. 1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (exaggerates achievements, and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
2. 2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. 3. Believes that he or she is special and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people or institutions
4. 4. Requires excessive admiration
5. 5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
6. 6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
7. 7. Lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
8. 8. Is often envious of others, or believes that others are envious of him or her
9. 9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
(American Psychiatric Association, DSM IV, 1994, p. 661)
Trump’s opposition through their bias will easily find all nine traits operating in Donald Trump’s character throughout the decades of his public and private life. Trump’s honest supporters will admit that he has some degree of those traits, but they will argue with merit that most any highly successful business man or political figure does as well, so what is the problem? If we take Post’s studies seriously, anyone with strong narcissistic traits under the spell of power will tend to expand those traits to protect the theater of feedback around them. That theater of feedback is also called an echo chamber. Remember Echo? Echo fell in love with Narcissus, fell out of favor with Juno for talking too much and offending Juno. She was cursed by Juno to say only what she hears from others first. In her grief, Echo diminished into a mountain rock wall condemned forever to repeat what people say to her. In the political or cult echo chambers, enthusiastic insiders tend to hear and repeat only what they like or are conditioned to hear.
Post examines a few cult leaders including David Koresh of the Branch Davidian sect that went up in flames in 1993 during an armed standoff with the U.S. government. Many women and children died with the dominant men. Koresh also died in the flames, thus fulfilling his grandiose need to be a martyr for the cause he so jealously enforced with himself as the Second Coming. Koresh was unwilling to give himself up, which he could have easily done to save dozens of lives. Reality was theater to him, a theater he nurtured as the only reality worth living for. Like many cult leaders, Koresh directed his actors on a psycho-social stage that he micromanaged with effective charisma and authority, a stage that his followers as performers saw as the true reality. Everyone off stage was living in a dangerous, sinful cultural delusion. Even the thought of defection meant inviting eternal punishment. Narcissists tend to be very insecure without this staged reality intact, without a congress of enthusiastic or loyal folks echoing how great the narcissist is and how true his vision is.
Already we see Trump living his unprecedented style of theater as president with the press curious at every turn of events in Trump Tower or at a Trump Country Club. The Trump presidency promises to be a reality show for news outlets more so than with prior administrations, which is precisely what Trump will need to feel narcissistically satisfied daily. Of course, there could be some immediate benefits to industry with large building projects and reworking of infrastructure that will likely bear Trump’s name. Hoover Dam stuff. The problem will arise when Trump runs into opposition. Congress may not allocate all that money—Republicans will not stomach a Democratic FDR works project. We can guess that like any decent narcissist Trump will continue to blame others for his shortcomings, or totally exaggerate any wins he may have with an ungracious congress.
What I will find interesting to watch, noting the well-documented personal histories of Assad in Syria and Putin in Russia covered in Post’s book, is how Trump interacts with these two consummate generators of self-theater. We saw what happened between like-minded leaders Hitler and Mussolini, and we saw what happened between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. These leaders narcissistically saw or see their countries as themselves. They felt that their nations could not function without them. As with David Koresh, if all seems to fail, the theater must come down with the director because they are one. The narcissist believes that his theater needs him as much as he needs the theater to exist. They are one. How far Trump can go with his American theater is anyone’s guess, but we can surmise that he will view his will as America’s will and he will do anything he can get away with to reinforce that end, more so than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Narcissism in and of itself is not bad. It is a trait that all of us need to make improvements in ourselves and the world. We call this self-esteem, and self-esteem depends on a certain projection of an ideal self that we want others to accept as we strive to reach the ideal. American Religion as described by Howard Bloom depends on this and sometimes to a fault. Bloom argues that the essence of American spiritual sensibility is most represented in Southern Baptist churches and Mormonism that both eschew intellectualism in Christian tradition and encourage experiential connection with the deity. Emerson’s transcendentalism has been in the mix as well. This neo-Gnostic experiential religion has spread into a seemingly disparate variety of new movements.
Specifically, we saw the rise of the cult of positive thinking in the New Thought movements that formed in the 19th century. Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill, Robert Schuller, and currently a host of Christian churches including Joel Osteen’s mega-congregation have deep roots in American New Thought. The thesis here is that a large segment of American society wants to believe that their thoughts are God’s thoughts, so any politician that can evoke enthusiasm can evoke something akin to a cosmic directive in the hearts of supporters. Moreover, when we connect with God’s thoughts it is not a leap to connect with God’s will, thus we can will what we want into existence. Prayer, positive thought, and affirmation have become the means of a new American shamanism. We “make” America great again in our minds when we vote.
Make America Great Again was used by candidate Reagan in 1979 and now by Trump as a campaign slogan, but what does this mean? What kind of America are we talking about? Great at what? The slogan is an ideal projection that we might esteem being a part of. Great, greatest—one presupposes the other in the mind of a narcissist and the wounded narcissists that find potential glory in grandiose promises.
Post defined the wounded narcissist who sees a hero in a charismatic promise maker as someone who suffers because he or she perceives that some other is taking away a good job, some other is threatening a better way of life, and some other race or nationality diminishes the wounded narcissist’s rights.
Farmers have never been able to think their crops into existence. They cultivate the soil, know their craft, and hope that natural forces cooperate. They plan for down years caused by drought, rising heat trends, and flooding. Cult means to care for and devotion for, but caring for or cultivating a farm relies on facing the reality of the farm. An ignorant farmer will go bust unless he is a quick learner who bends his will to match the reality of the farm. My question about this new president is whether he has the character to bend his will to a reality that he has yet to learn in governance. Draining the swamp (one of Trump's chanted slogans was "drain the swamp" of politics in Washington) will not work unless one knows how to cultivate the soil that remains. Swamps have a purpose and an ecology all their own. There are healthy swamps, so this slogan chosen by Trump was a poor one. I think he meant cesspool. Will the cesspool he delivers be any better than the one we had (if we had one) under President Obama?
Here's to healthy swamps!