“When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.” Donald Trump
“He’s still a simple boy from Queens. You can quote me on that.” Maryanne Trump, Donald’s sister
I asked my husband where he’d place Trump on the spectrum of human chronological development. “He is a toddler,” was his instant reply.
Psychoanalysts believe that narcissism stems from a developmental arrest due to improper — inconsistent, unempathic — parenting and/or trauma, specifically a rejection by the mother/parents, in childhood. It is generally assumed that it happens during the first three, pre-verbal years of life (although other explanations of narcissistic pathology are also possible and plausible).
Choosing this point of view as a guide, and remembering, as always, that this is speculation and not a diagnosis, let’s count the ways in which Donny is (like) a toddler.
There is that toddlerish pout, the expression of hurt and/or contempt for others, permanently fixed on his resting (and not) face; the toddler-like hand gestures with characteristically splayed fingers which remind every parent of the time their child started walking and kept his arms outstretched in front, in an adorably defensive but ineffective posture (and reminiscent of the recurring SNL adult-toddler skit); and the infamous temper tantrums, complete with outbursts of hostile aggression when things do not go his way.
Then there is the fear of a punitive mommy so strong that it makes him run away from confrontations with assertive, intelligent women who dominate him intellectually and emotionally; the obsession with body functions and toilet activities, which disgust him in women so much that he cannot acknowledge their natural existence (shades of narcissistic overidealization of mother, possibly fixated during toilet training years, as psychoanalysts may speculate); and the tone he uses at his rallies, part a petulant tyke, part Big Daddy trying to reassure his young children that he’ll take care of them and make everything alright, there, there. The last one, playing Big Daddy, hints at what Donny imagines a good father — one he has not had and never was himself — would act like in trying to reassure and protect his children.
And then there is his speech.
Trump’s verbal output has been analyzed by linguists, speechwriters, political experts, and pundits, all of whom noted its strange effectiveness, despite its precious lack of substantive content — although it would be more accurate to state that its lack of substantive content is THE reason for its strange effectiveness. What they all agree on is that his peculiar communication style appeals to voters because of its uniqueness. People are tired of stilted speechifying and find Trump’s direct, highly emotional, and fact-free “telling it like it is” refreshing. Obviously.
The aforementioned analysts focused on either style or substance of his talk (because, as we are being reminded, what Trump does is talk rather than speak), but rarely on both. Style, however, is substance. The way we speak reflects the way we think. The way we think — and act — shows who we are. Who we are is demonstrated in our actions and words.
Trump’s speech, like his behavior, is notable for three major and interrelated features:
1a. lack of substantive content, i.e., facts and their analysis that would show an understanding of how they relate to each other within larger patterns of reality, an evidence of abstract thought;
1b. frequent subject changes suggestive of distractibility, poor impulse control, and, given their emotionally defensive content, unusual psychic fragility;
1c. emotional manipulation, e.g., complimenting a reporter to divert her attention from the issue at hand;
2. high and dramatic emotionality that underlies his black-and-white concrete reasoning: much of what he says, if not all, is about feelings — his own, projected onto others; those feelings center on themes of his greatness, personal threats from others, and self-protection and vengeance (e.g.,”they destroyed our country and we will pay them back”); they give us a glimpse at Donny’s paranoid inner world where “you’re either with me or against me;”
3. solipsism — everything is self-referential, it is all about him; even when he uses others as props in his verbal psychodrama, each verbal output is an occasion for self-aggrandizement and/or expression of hurt and resentment over being treated unfairly.
One common characteristic of pre-verbal toddler cognition is believed to be poor or absent object constancy: infants and toddlers may not understand that things exist objectively and permanently out of their sight (although research in infant cognition shows that babies acquire object permanence, the cognitive basis for object constancy, much earlier than it was previously believed). When an object is in an infant / toddler’s field of vision, he can grasp its existence. When the object is removed, it may as well not exist. Out of sight, out of mind.
With time and the right experience — consistent, loving care-giving with adequate mirroring of a child’s emotional states that a secure attachment between parent and child is based on — the child learns that objects, including his parents, come and go, but do not entirely disappear during the absences, and that he can depend on their existence.
This forms a basis of his sense of security, in the world and within himself, enabling healthy development of his cognitive and emotional capacities, relationships that are based on reciprocity and appreciation of other people’s complexity and uniqueness, and explorations of the world beyond the familial sphere.
In cases of abuse, improper parenting, and/or trauma, the child’s development becomes disrupted or sometimes entirely arrested, leading to, among other possible outcomes, narcissism. One of its manifestations is believed to be an impaired object constancy capacity.
For an adult with the mindset characterized by the impaired object constancy, facts either do not exist objectively or do not matter, as they can be “disappeared” any time — gotten out of sight and/or wished away by closing one’s eyes, literally and figuratively.
Such an adult would have a very tenuous relationship with reality and the truth as most of us know it, and it is not because he’d be lying — in a sense of purposely bending the truth with a specific goal in mind — but because facts for him are not solid entities that exist outside of his field of vision (consciousness); rather they are things that enter and leave it randomly and/or at his wish.
(Of course Donny also lies in the traditional meaning of the term, brazenly and without compunction, to create a self-aggrandizing narrative and to humiliate others, often spreading outright fabrications and insinuations about people whom he sees as his enemies. While we understand and may excuse such blatant truth-bending in very young children, who believe that fabrications would work for them to get them out of trouble, adults are a different matter. And adults aspiring to be president even more so.)
We can see the poor object constancy reflected in a narcissist’s speech, which is infamously impressionistic: vague, light on facts and figures, and full of poorly articulated, but always self-centered feelings and self-referential emotion-laden observations which are based on his (mis)interpretations of reality, as his acknowledgment of facts is only cursory at best.
If object constancy is severely impaired, reality as most of us know it does not matter. Reality is not something existing objectively, outside of the narcissist’s mind, but is only his mind’s reflection, good and/or bad, depending on whether it meets or thwarts his need for power and adulation. Unmoored from objective facts and not anchored in any values, such reality is always negotiable — to his benefit.
This is one likely reason why there is so often no discernible, coherent train of reasoning in Donny’s pronouncements, no logical connection between statement A and statement B, but rather seemingly disconnected emotional “jumps” based on either his deep-seated emotional problems (narcissistic insecurity) and/or fleeting impressions of any given situation / problem.
To be sure, those fleeting impressions always express in some way his deep-seated problems — as we have seen, there seems to be no possibility in his judgment for even a modicum of objectivity; that sometimes his assessments do coincide with objective reality appears to be a matter of luck rather than a correct understanding of facts or any internal deliberations.
This is why his talks resemble a word salad — though, more accurately, a clause salad — heavily seasoned, as it usually is in a narcissist, with entitlement, grandiosity, a sense of victimhood, and resentment. His broken and clumsy syntax reflects his fractured and unstable thoughts, unanchored in anything other than his changing emotions.
This is why Donny can say with a straight face — to the extent a grandiosely contemptuous pout ever allows such — that his financial worth depends on his feelings (“My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings”). Facts are immaterial, or rather are what his feelings make them to be at any given moment — so yes, they change as rapidly as his feelings do.
This is also one possible reason why Donny has problems with numbers. In his post-Orlando speech, teleprompted as it was, he announced spontaneously and apparently off-script, with distinctly fake concern and horror, that “So many people — it’s just hard to believe, but just so many people dead, so many people gravely injured,” because remembering specific numbers — 49 and 50 in this case — is not something an impressionistic mind struggling with object constancy does. (He “recalled” the numbers from the teleprompter later in his speech.) That’s also likely why he couldn’t grasp how the most recent Supreme Court 5–3 abortion ruling worked, and why he could mistake 9/11 for 7–11 — there is no more difference between the two elevens than there is between the two Corinthians.
Knowing this, one is compelled to wonder just how exactly Donny has made those spectacular deals he likes to brag about so much — the few ones that were supposedly not fraudulent, as most of them appear to be — given that facts and numbers are not his strong suit (to put it kindly).
And the answer to that lies in other facets of his narcissistic character, specifically his impaired conscience and manipulative approach to people where he uses cajoling, insinuations, bribes, or threats to achieve what he wants (giving us hints about the way he was treated by his parents who most likely made deals with him to control his behavior, or used threats and worse when deal making failed).
He leaves the nitty-gritty stuff — facts and figures — for others (confidants and family) to iron out, further deepening his disconnect from reality, particularly its less pleasant aspects, those showing that he may not be as tremendous as he believes himself to be.
Narcissistic arrest has of course profound repercussions for emotional and social functioning, limiting it to the same very early stage of development, with all the consequences to follow. Those include extreme egocentrism; seeing other people as largely interchangeable and discardable objects of wish fulfillment; categorical good or bad — or nice or nasty, to use a young child’s vocabulary that’s characteristic of Donny — assessment of others based on how well they fulfill the narcissist’s wishes; an impaired or absent conscience; and more.
The effects of the arrest on his emotions are most visible when Donny tries to pretend to care about others. Not capable of empathy and pro-social feelings, he must mimic what he believes they look like, so he does it in a typical Trumpian fashion: with over-the-top drama of exaggerated facial expressions and preponderance of adverbs and bombastic adjectives meant to convey his understanding of other people’s pain.
This was most apparent in his post-Orlando speeches where, like a bad actor that he is, he laid on thick his grief and horror; yet that performance fell flat — or left the observers uneasy, as it should — because it is obvious that Donny lacks any internal correspondence of the pro-social feelings he is trying to demonstrate. This is why his expressions of them ring fake, even as he goes to great lengths to assure everyone that he is a caring and loving man.
Especially when he goes to such lengths.
The extent of his bragging about his caring and charitable nature appears to be directly proportional to his callousness and cruel stinginess which the bragging is meant to obscure. It is a rule of the Trump’s small thumb, as it is with all narcissists of his kind whose grandiosity functions as a cover for their conscienceless characters and a means of manipulating the world to their advantage: the more they boast about some virtue of theirs, the higher the chances their actual behavior is the exact opposite of the self-promoted virtue.
Poor object constancy is implicated in the rigid fragility of a narcissist’s grandiose persona that compensates for his lack of genuine mental and emotional flexibility; in his defense mechanisms that form his persistent and incorrigible biases; and his rage in response to frustration and, especially, to rejection / abandonment.
He must control others, because he cannot trust them. He invests so much of his ego in the other person — who is never fully a person but an object / part of his narcissistic supply — that her (or his, as the case may be) leaving means a psychic death, not unlike his mother’s absence in infancy.
The abandonment and the unsoothable terror it creates must be defended against at all costs, by annihilating the offending object if necessary, and sometimes himself right along with it. There is no other option, for there is nothing stable and reliable within his inner core (no authentic self with its values and interests independent of the narcissistic mirrors provided for him by others).
Severe narcissistic disturbance is believed to be largely incurable. The narcissistic arrest removes a possibility of psychological growth, limiting a person’s functioning to a very basic level. While a narcissist of normal intelligence will acquire a vocabulary and basic cognitive and social skills (the latter mostly through mimicry) to navigate life in ways that will help him in trying to meet, often very effectively, his insatiable narcissistic objectives (i.e., adulation and power, serving as protections for his fragile and underdeveloped self), his thinking and emotions will remain severely limited and this arrest will manifest in every aspect of his behavior.
In thinking, the arrest may reduce one’s functioning to concrete operations making it very difficult to develop broad abstract reasoning skills, and resulting, in narcissists of high intelligence, in being smart instead of being bright.
Narcissists endowed with high IQ and special talents in specific domains — science, art, technology — may develop those talents to a remarkable extent sometimes; but other areas of their character, most notably the emotional / interpersonal sphere, remain on that very basic, arrested level, reduced to egocentric preoccupations, without a possibility of developing critical self-reflection and capacity for self-education or self-transformation.
This will negatively affect all interpersonal relations, including the most intimate ones, which, more often than not, will resemble some forms of “deal making” that are based on an imposition of the narcissist’s terms and will upon others and “convincing” them to go along — or else.
Narcissism thus represents a form of one-sided development.
In a rare moment of something almost resembling insight, Trump said once:
When you start studying yourself too deeply, you start seeing things that maybe you don’t want to see. And if there’s a rhyme and reason, people can figure you out, and once they can figure you out, you’re in big trouble.
It is a remarkable statement of narcissistic vulnerability, within himself and in relation to others, as well as a perfect justification of cultivated narcissistic blindness.
A narcissist cannot look too closely (there is usually not much depth there) at himself, because this could possibly reveal, to him, the split between his grandiose persona and the primitive, underdeveloped, and/or empty self which the persona is created to cover up. He has no capacity to cope with this knowledge, so it must be denied: his existence depends on this denial. Of course he does not put it in those terms, but rather as a necessity of defending himself from “big trouble” caused by others, who could use this knowledge against him somehow.
We’ll never know what exactly Donny had in mind there; but it shows how he sees his own “unpredictable” behavior as a way to defend himself against being taken advantage of / punished (shamed) by others. It’s better not to know one’s own “rhyme and reason” — not knowing makes you “safer;” or so he believes in his magical thinking kind of way, like a toddler who sticks his head under a bed leaving the rest of his body exposed, convinced that since his face is hidden and he cannot see anyone, others cannot see him either.
An earlier version of this post was published on good marriage central on July 6, 2016.