Up is Down, Left is Right
Last night I came accross a comment on Facebook that was pushing back against one of the sea of headlines comparing Donald Trump to a child. The parent argued that their 7-year-old had a dramatically stronger moral compass than the president. I felt sympathetic.
Plenty of thoughtful people in my news feed regularly push back against descriptors of Donald as crazy. This is stigmatizing of mental health challenges. “He’s not crazy. He’s an asshole.”
I want to honor that kind of wisdom while connecting some dots. Donald Trump is not a child, but some of his behavior can be better understood when looked at through the lens of child development, a child’s inability to tolerate sustained frustration, or inability to extrapolate another person’s vantage point.
I don’t have any special knowledge about Donald’s perpetration of domestic violence — although the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming — but I do know that looking at his administration through the lens of domestic violence offers profound insight into what’s happening in our country right now.
I also don't have any special insight into Donald’s mental health. His words and behavior send up a lot of red flags for me there. Psychologists debate over the ethics of diagnosing a public figure, and disagree about that diagnosis when they do weigh in (The psychologist who authored the diagnosis for narcissism doesn’t believe Trump meets the criteria). But I do know that looking at his administration through the lens of narcissism offers me a lot of context. His actions reflect narcissistic patterns, and offer us clues about how to confront his regime.
I’m rubber, you’re glue
The narcissist’s accusations about your character and what you “do” are exactly what the narcissist feels internally about him or herself and how he or she operates in the world.
-Melanie Tonia Evans
“I think we should take a drug test prior to the debate. Because I don’t know what’s going on with her, but at the beginning of her last debate, she was all pumped up at the beginning… I think she’s actually getting pumped, you want to know the truth? She’s getting pumped up.”
— Donald Trump
Narcissism is a broad cultural idea about self-absorption, but it also has a specific psychological definition that has been well fleshed out. The basic paradox of the narcissist is that they feel worthless inside and in response attempt to create an identity as someone remarkable. When that illusion fails to pan out, they turn on those around them to place the blame for the immense sense of failure they feel.
Almost any list of traits of a narcissist feel like they were custom written for Donald’s administration. One popular author offers this list:
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
- Requires excessive admiration
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
A specific trait of narcissists is their inability to keep to a coherent narrative. Their constantly evolving account of reality often leaves those closest to them doing a double take to make sure they aren’t losing their grasp on reality.
The most telling thing that narcissists do is contradict themselves. They will do this virtually in the same sentence, without even stopping to take a breath. It can be trivial (e.g., about what they want for lunch) or it can be serious (e.g., about whether or not they love you). When you ask them which one they mean, they’ll deny ever saying the first one, though it may literally have been only seconds since they said it — really, how could you think they’d ever have said that? You need to have your head examined! They will contradict facts. They will lie to you about things that you did together. They will misquote you to yourself. If you disagree with them, they’ll say you’re lying, making stuff up, or are crazy.
Joanna’s description of narcissists was written almost 20 years ago, but it sounds like a reporter reflecting on their baffling experiences with the Trump administration.
Another particular qualities of a narcissist — in addition to not being able to tolerate anything resembling criticism — is their need to criticize others to boost their terminally precarious sense of self-worth. But their criticism isn’t random or arbitrary. Narcissists take their darkest truths and project them onto those around them.
Another blogger names it very specifically.
To make things simple, he/she is accusing you of what he/she is thinking, doing or planning or has done.
This is a powerful insight
What is Donald afraid of? Look at his tweets:
He’s immensely preoccupied with letting us know how unintelligent those around him are.
His anxiety about being a spoiled brat. Continued anxiety about intelligence.
He’s deeply concerned about his appearance as he ages.
He’s anxious to demonize others for infidelity in monogamous relationships.
It’s important that blame for sexual assaults goes somewhere other than the perpetrator.
And he’s deeply, deeply, concerned about his “so called” legitimacy.
So what do we do with this information? I think for the takeaway that the lens of narcissism can offer us two key tools in dismantling his administration.
- The first is that we need to take everything he accuses others of doing and extrapolate that he’s up to that himself. His criticism of others will give us a clear window into his private world.
- The second is that we need to confront him not with logic, hope, shame, or fear. We need to confront him with an accurate mirror that reflects what a petty, small, pathetic soul he is. Accusing him of being fascist isn’t going to ruffle his feathers. Accusing him of being a failure is terrifying to him.