Monday, February 13, 2017

Narcissist-in-Chief: The Psychopathology That Explains Donald Trump's Depravity

The president-elect might be pitiable if he weren't 
a threat to the future of mankind.

Reporter: What do you think people will take away from the [Republican National] Convention? What are you hoping?
Donald Trump: From the convention? The fact that I'm very well liked. —New York Times, July 21, 2016 
The initial shock has given way to a twofold horror. First, there is the unavoidable fact that more than 62 million Americans voted for this man. Presumably many of those 62 million aren't bigots or bullies or sexual predators or compulsive liars. But they knowingly voted for someone who is all of those things and more.  

And then there are the sickening practical implications. During the campaign, novelist Adam Haslett remarked that "endless acts of verbal violence shock us into stunned passivity so we no longer register the horror of what we're living through." But that's nothing compared to the horror fatigue that awaits us under a Trump administration. His election—along with Republican control of both Houses of Congress and more than two thirds of state legislatures—will almost certainly precipitate an assault on civil rights, civil liberties, environmental protections (including a reversal of early, tentative steps to deal with global climate change), consumer protections, reproductive rights, gay rights, workers' rights, prisoners' rights, humane immigration policies, aid to the poor, gun control, antimilitarism, support for public education, and on and on. It will be bad enough for an individual deeply committed to any one of these issues; for those interested in all of them, it will be difficult to absorb, let alone summon outrage about and become active in opposing, a tidal wave of reactionary policies likely to continue on a daily basis for many years.
The potential impact on official policy is staggering. And yet I can't stop thinking about the man himself. All through the campaign, I found myself looking through a psychological lens at Trump's behavior, not only appalled at the bellicose, racist pronouncements about, say, Mexicans or Muslims, but riveted by the deeply damaged human being who was saying these things. Even before he ran for president, Trump had been Exhibit A for the axiom that it's possible to be rich and famous without being a successful human being, psychologically or morally speaking. To flesh out the details now that we're more familiar with him is to add a layer of disbelief and dismay to the reality that so many people voted for him anyway. This psychological perspective is also critical for trying to predict just how much damage he will do to the country and the world, particularly to those who are most vulnerable.
Donald Trump has distinguished himself as someone who is:
  • given to boasting, preening and swaggering to the point of self-parody;
  • not merely thin-skinned and petulant but vindictive when crossed or even criticized;
  • restless, with the attention span of a toddler;
  • desperately competitive, driven to sort the world into winners and losers and to regard other people (or countries) primarily as rivals to be bested;
  • astonishingly lacking not only in knowledge but in curiosity;
  • given to uttering blatant falsehoods on a constant basis and apparently unaware of the extent of his dishonesty, as if the fact that he believes something makes it true; and
  • possessed of a sense of absolute entitlement—so if he wants to kiss an attractive woman, for example, he should be free to do so—along with a lack of shame, humility, empathy, or capacity for reflection and self-scrutiny.
Even if you set out to consider different sorts of deficits, you're pulled back to the psychological issues. It's not just that he's ignorant or even incurious, it's that he seems incapable of acknowledging that there's something he doesn't know. It's not just that he lacks the cognitive wherewithal to view himself as others view him (or to reflect on his failings), but that his psychological makeup is such that he can't bear to stop and think about who he is; he's like a shark, a blind eating machine that must always move forward or die. Similarly, while his speech rarely ventures beyond elementary-school vocabulary or grammar, what's more alarming than his cognitive limitations is his egocentrism. One careful analysis found that Trump inclines not only to the monosyllabic but to the megalomaniacal: The single word he uses more than any other is "I"—and his fourth-favorite word is his own name.
Donald Trump seems to me a textbook illustration of how a lifelong campaign of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement (acquiring as much as possible and then pasting his name on everything he owns) represents an attempt to compensate for deeply rooted insecurity. He fears being insignificant, worthless. In fact, his quest to humiliate and conquer, to possess and flaunt, may be strategies to prove to himself that he really exists, reflecting a condition R.D. Laing called "ontological insecurity" (in a chapter of that name in his classic book The Divided Self). He doesn't even bother—or maybe just lacks the sophistication—to conceal how desperate is his craving for attention and approval, how precarious his mental state.
This is also taken from Alfie Kohn's blog at

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