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Donald Trump: What Malignant Narcissism Looks Like

November 2, 2016

“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”

Note: This does not pretend to be a formal psychological evaluation. While I am a 30-year veteran mental health professional who has assessed, evaluated,  diagnosed and treated many hundreds of clients and who was for a number of those years particularly interested in the special challenges of working with people with personality disorders, I free admit this is an informal series observations and thoughts based entirely on Donald Trump’s public behavior and is based on public records of his words and deeds.

There is normal narcissism(AKA healthy self-esteem), there is  the attention-seeking show-off always seeking an admiring audience (often harmless & entertaining), there is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (301.81 in DSM-5) where  arrogance, entitlement, grandiosity, exaggeration and pretense, a lack of empathy, a need for constant  admiration and  constant confirmation of his/her superiority, demanding constant stroking of his/her inflated self-image (called ‘narcissistic supplies’), dominates a person’s life and interpersonal  behavior. Ironically the narcissist doesn’t really love himself or herself. They love a false self-image not grounded in reality. They are not self-sufficient lone wolves—they need a circle of fawning admirers. Narcissists rarely seek help from metal health professionals: there is nothing wrong with them, only with other people of failing to see their superiority and uniqueness and failing to appreciate how lucky they are to be subjected to his narcissist displays. Such displays and harangues are often seen as unselfish gifts his audience should be grateful to receive.

Do you know anyone like that?

Then there is Malignant Narcissism when a sever NPD is also infused with traits of malice and of paranoia. These latter traits tend to make the person much more dangerous and destructive. Such a person will see anyone who doesn’t obey him, continually feed her and reinforce his/her grandiosity, as disloyal traitors or vicious enemies. Anyone who criticizes him or her will be seen as a sadistic enemy, bent on destroying him, threatening his status and entire identity. Paranoia often leads to murder and other forms of violent attack, believing they are engaging in necessary self-defense against an imagined threat. Any attempt to get them to question their perceptions gets you labeled one of “them,” the evil conspirators trying to destroy them.

Sound familiar?

“Always seek revenge” is ax central theme in Trump’s book Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life. In public speeches Trump also forcefully advocates trusting no one, especially good employees. “Be paranoid, he preaches. David Cay Johnston recounts a striking example of this behavior in his recent bestseller, The Making of Donald Trump, involving an unnamed female employee he employed for years then fired when she declined a directive from him saying she felt that would be an unethical. Did Trump care about ethics? No. Not content to fire her, Trump brags of waging an ongoing campaign of degradation and malicious depictions of her to others. “I went out of my way to make her life miserable,” Trump boasted.
When someone offends you or annoys you, “Screw them back fifteen times harder!” he crows. At a 2000 speech in Loveland, Colorado, he spent much of his time denigrating former wives and employees, calling one former wife “as ugly as dog” and sneering “I love losers because they make me feel good about myself.”

These are Trump’s own words. His own unforced behaviors. He not only admits to them, and brags about them but he also advocates that everyone do the same, offering himself up as a role model. An insatiable thirst for revenge against real or imagined slights appears to be an organizing principle of his life, one of his guiding tenets.

In his book Johnston makes the important point that Trump’s only real value in interpersonal relationships appears to be blind, total loyalty to him. That is the supreme value: unquestioning obedience and continual flattery. Not only are empathy and integrity missing but so also is respect for truth, ethics, the law, and standards of honesty and common decency. Johnston points out that total and blind obedience to the will of the great leader is the mindset of a mob boss or dictator. Are self-styled “values voters” blind to this?

Megyn Kelly’s “crime” against The Donald was to ask him a question he didn’t want to answer. For that he raged at her for over a week, heaping sneering contempt, a stream of smears, and blatantly dishonest characterizations on her head. When newsmen asked why, he replied that she had attacked him. Therefore he was entitled to defend himself by any means necessary. Paranoid people always claim to be attacking in self-defense against a vicious, unwarranted attempt to destroy them: “I have to bring her down before she brings me down!”

A huge sense of entitlement is another defining trait of intense narcissist. “I have a right to have my own way all the time! If I don’t get it someone is cheating me! I’m going to identify that person and kick their ass!”It is horribly unfair if I don’t get my way all the time. It means I’m being robbed, victimized, deprived of what is rightfully mine!!” Failure or frustration is never acceptable or fair. It is never the narcissist’s fault and never just. While usually unspoken, this underlying attitude usually isn’t hard to detect.

Such personalities arrogate to themselves the right not only to be somewhat of a law unto themselves but to define reality for others. In their minds, they are the final judge of what is truth, facts, evidence, justice, and reality itself. So they believe. Denial is pervasive:

“If I don’t recognize it, it doesn’t exist”

“If you can’t make me confess, I didn’t do it”

“If I refuse to see it is not there (or not real)”

“You can’t possibly be aware of something I am not aware of”

“No one knows better than I do!”

“I have the final word on everything!”

“Racism isn’t racism if I don’t call it that!”

“Lying isn’t lying if I don’t call it that!”

Of course, denial is a dysfunctional defense mechanism. The person is denying reality which does not change the reality. But intensely narcissistic types can be extremely self-absorbed, believing their view is reality itself.  They may seem t o be incapable of reflection or self-questioning. They are only interested in others’ views when those views can be sued to bolster his own.

The flip side of denial is “Whatever I assert to be true is true.”  Passionate assertion makes it true! The world is what I say it is! They recognize no standards of truth or falsehood outside of their own ego. They may act like someone with godlike powers (“God said ‘let there be light’ and there was light” Genesis 1:3). The world has no independent existence. “The world is what I say it is because I say it is!” I impose my omnipotent will upon the world.  This may help us see the overlooked meaning of the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”   The leader’s aggressive self-assertion overwhelms truth and reality and redefines those terms.

There is much more to b said on the subject of malignant narcissism but I will only mention two more characteristics:

“Headline knowledge,” meaning the orator appears knowledgeable, articulate, persuasive and well-ironed until a closer look (and perhaps a probing question or two)   reveals no real understanding, no depth, systematic thought, only bombastic platitudes, slogans, clichés, buzzwords and empty exhortations. Sam Harris has a number of short videos on You Tube analyzing Trump’s thought processes, arguing that how a person talks reveals how he thinks. I recommend them to you.

Finally, intensely narcissistic people often have a love for apocalyptic fantasies of total destruction and annihilation. They may become fascinated win the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse; a book Harold Bloom noted was full of vengeful resentment not love, and devoid of wisdom. goodness, kindness, or affection. They may long for some apocalyptic war, probably beacons they see the world as only an extension of themselves and cannot imagine that he universe will go on after they are gone.

Malignant Narcissism is not a “disease” or an “illness” but a character disorder, a warping and distortion of the personality and character. They rarely want to change, attempts at change often fail, and many mental health experts consider them untreatable.  Prognosis for serious change is poor.

Trump’s politics is another topic for another day. However it is fascinating to understand how much his personality nd character determine his politics

Donegal Descendant

(please excuse my typos. My sight is fading and spell-check isn’t always reliable.).

12/22/16 update: I am delighted to see more and more well-respected psychologists and psychotherapists taking up the theme of malignant narcissism with regard to Donald Trump.  They include Ross Rosenberg, Steven Buser & Leonard Cruz in their book A Clear and Present Danger Dan P. McAdams’ long article in   The Atlantic, and several articles appearing on I can take no credit for their work but it’s good to see others elaborating on what I wrote and saying it better than I can. It is good to know I’m not a voice crying alone in the wilderness.

The point if not to stigmatize Donald Trump with a DSM-V label but to lay bare the psychological drives that always determine his actions much  more than any political agenda or “philosophy.”

Also to resist pressure to “normalize” what is blatantly abnormal and unprecedented.

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