The Art of the Con
Donald Trump, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the Divided States of America
In the past year, I have probably read more political commentary than I have over the course of my lifetime. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in politics and society before this election, but for a variety of reasons, this election cycle felt far more important and personal, and got me to questioning where exactly I stood on the bloody battlefield.
This article has been several months in the making. I’d start, then stop, then start again. The target kept moving. Every news article about Donald J. Trump, every nutty thing that emerged from his mouth, every media outcry, public reaction and friend’s Facebook post, and I would be rethinking my perspective. In the end, what I thought would be a philosophical view from high above the fray, as an impartial observer, became a hard look around myself, at the convictions and beliefs of friends on both sides of the divide, at self-righteous liberals in my own family and at the world outside my strange bubble. Because, as progressive and enlightened as we may like to think we are, we all live within our own self-created reality and, increasingly, in “reality bubbles” that only serve to reinforce our world view.
As the dust begins to settle, I see blindness and intolerance on both ends of the spectrum. I make no attempt here to arrive at any truths or come to any definitive conclusions. These are only observances.
America’s First President with NPD?
There have been mountains of opinions about Donald Trump’s true motivations. Is he really the racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist white supremacist nationalist that he so convincingly portrayed during his campaign, or was there something more calculating and fundamental at work here? Recent changes of opinion and policy depending on the audience (such as his lunch meeting at The New York Times) suggest a deeper purpose.
A year ago, Vanity Fair published an article. It was a psychological profile of then candidate Donald Trump. Several developmental and clinical psychologists plus psychotherapists weighed in, as did psychology professors from prestigious universities, authors and other experts. The verdict was unanimous: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I read this article and did a good deal of research about this personality disorder, including the symptoms and behavior. As the campaign unfolded, it seemed that every single quote and each of Trump’s actions that were perplexing the public and the news media were perfectly explained by one or more of the 9 symptoms outlined in the Wikipedia entry.
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
- Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
- Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
- Needing constant admiration from others
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
- Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
- Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs
- Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
- Pompous and arrogant demeanor
Each of these, at this point, could inspire a book of examples. But we’ll briefly revisit just a few.
Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.? From the fixation about the size of his hands (and other body parts) to his boast on Access Hollywood about being able to sexually assault women because he was famous, to his “I have a very good brain” comments, clearly he’s got this one well covered.
Needing constant admiration from others? Trump’s aides recently told the New York Times that he wanted to continue to hold large rallies, even after he becomes president. The Times reporter speculated that it was because “he likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide.” Upon hearing that people were protesting his victory, Trump tweeted, “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”
Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain? Back in June, USA Today reported that hundreds of people and businesses charged that Trump never paid them for their work and services.
Unwilling to empathize with other’s feelings, wishes, or needs? There was Trump’s attack on Gold Star Family, the Kahns. He mocked a handicapped reporter (and then denied it). He politicized the Orlando night club shooting.
Pompous and arrogant demeaner? Back in March, when asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program who he speaks with about foreign affairs, he said, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things… my primary consultant is myself.”
The Con Exposed
You don’t typically see people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder consulting a therapist, because that’s not how they roll. They don’t think there’s anything wrong — unless they stand to lose something important to them because of their behavior. On the surface, people with NPD might appear to be self-assured and successful. They’re bigger than life and obsessively driven. However, what drives them isn’t a desire to improve people’s lives or even a desire for self-improvement. Their key motivation is their own insatiable need for the approval and adulation of others. For that, they will say and do anything, and they will be whatever it is that they perceive their target (or target audience) wants them to be. They’ll also quickly turn hostile if challenged. Because their cup of adulation is never full, they are likely to regularly abandon their conquests in search of a new frontier, forever looking for the next ego fix. It is futile endeavor, since what they really seek is self-approval.
Trump’s feeling of entitlement and superiority has led to raging opportunism and a disregard for the seriousness and responsibility of the presidency. Already he’s exploiting his future position for his own financial benefit, ready to test the boundaries of constitutional law that allows presidents to maintain a business while in office and not have to consider conflicts of interest. However, his business concerns are so widespread and so intertwined with foreign entities, it is highly likely problems will arise.
If someone with NPD sees an opportunity and thinks they can get the attention they crave by playing a role, they’ll commit to that role completely. And isn’t that exactly what Trump has been doing, ever since he announced his candidacy? He first played the role of “angry white man” to con all the angry white people who felt marginalized and threatened by a rapidly changing (and increasing less white) world into believing he was one of them. Never mind that he has always been a proud member of the 1% and that his tax plan will no doubt widen the income inequality that keeps the lower and middle classes (his supporters) from thriving. And now he will attempt to play the role of “president of all the people.” This will no doubt be much more difficult than he anticipated. In time (or maybe even before that), those who voted for him will begin to see him for what he is.
The Divided States of America, in the Harsh Light of Day
Meanwhile, in his search for followers and ego gratification, Trump has catered to America’s disenfranchised, feeding fears that find too convenient an outlet in bigotry, intolerance and nationalism. And now we find ourselves with a demagogue for our next president and a nation divided like never before. The Trump candidacy has split families and separated friends. However, if Trump’s narcissistic rampage and presidential win has a silver lining, it is that he shined a bright light on the racial, socioeconomic, religious and gender divides in our country. Sadly, he has succeeded in making those rifts wider and the atmosphere more poisonous. But there is still a chance to turn this mess into a positive, by getting off our respective high horses and engaging in conversation. Rather than debating from a position we believe is right and trying to convince someone who disagrees, it seems what we need right now is more listening.
Our Filtered Lives
The internet is a powerful medium for connecting with others around the world, for making everyone a reporter and for putting everyone with an internet connection on an even playing field. But it’s also a place where we can, if we so choose, surround ourselves with only like-minded individuals. Personalization that is designed for convenience, networks that are created so we can stay in touch with our family and friends, creates what is known as an internet silo. We are encircled by who and what we already know, and our experience is filtered so that we only see news stories and viewpoints that we’ve seen and enjoyed before. We soon find ourselves living in an information bubble, only seeing what we want to see. We are never exposed to alternative viewpoints and are never challenged, unless we make a concerted effort to step outside our comfort zone and engage with the world outside.
So, what was the deal with all those fake news stories leading up to the U.S. election? Was it a Russian plot to influence the outcome? Was it just people looking to profit from ads placed in popular, albeit untrue, articles? Probably it was both. A dear friend from high school regularly posted these kinds of stories on her Facebook page, and they would show up in my feed. One was about President Obama banning the Pledge of Allegiance. Upon posting, she asked “Really?” Uh, nope. And what about those stories of organized voter suppression? If we have learned anything from this exhausting ordeal, it’s that we as Americans, as global citizens, must keep ourselves educated and well-informed, for our own protection and the sake of our fragile country, so we are not led astray by those who wish to profit from our ignorance. This is true whatever our gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or where we happen to stand on the political spectrum. Donald Trump loves the poorly educated. Of course he does. Poorly informed people don’t question what is told to them, and we should all be questioning everything, all the time.
How Do We Live and What Do We Fear?
It’s ironic. Thanks to the connected world, we can see in real time what someone is doing in Paris, or Sydney or South Africa. And yet, a business professional in New York City doesn’t really have a clue of how a farm worker in rural Idaho lives their life (and vice versa). I strongly suspect that most of us have the same worries. Will we make enough money to support ourselves and our families? If we get sick or a family member gets sick, will we be able to afford healthcare? Will we lose our jobs to automation, outsourcing and the rapidly changing work environment? Will there ever be a world without violence and endless wars? What sort of planet will our children be inheriting? We may not share a common language, a common religion or a common race, but it’s very likely we share common anxieties. We can begin the conversation there.
Divide and Conquer
With Donald Trump’s divisive campaign and subsequent victory, Islamist extremists rejoiced. Trump’s hateful rhetoric created enemies out of peaceful Muslims, and no doubt did more for ISIS recruitment than any of their own efforts. There is perhaps no more compelling reason for Americans to be tolerant, compassionate and resolve their differences than to present a strong, united force in the face of adversity. Whether it’s the 99% in solidarity against the super-rich ruling class or Americans of all races standing up against terrorism, it is far more difficult to enslave or threaten a large, powerful group of like-minded people.
What Will Trump Actually Do as President?
That’s the lingering question, isn’t it? I’m not so sure we should believe the fox when he tells us that he’s the best one to build a better chicken coop. I’m also not so sure that his unbridled narcissism will bring about world catastrophe. Although he enjoys the attention, he will probably balk at the amount of work involved. Based on what we have seen so far, he will likely serve himself and his business interests first, even if it’s through the pseudo-blind-trust handled by his children. But then there’s that constant need for approval. A preoccupation with his legacy may end up working in America’s favor. However, he may find it to be an impossible task, trying to please everyone so that all of America loves him. We might see him engaging in arbitrary high-profile deals for the sake of appearance and changing positions on issues depending upon who is in the room, to garner favor with one group or another.
The Best Way Forward?
On December 19, the electoral college electors cast their votes. Another interesting side-effect of this election insanity is that a lot of people have been discussing the electoral college in great detail. Before Trump (and Hillary Clinton’s 2.5 million popular vote lead), not many people thought too much about it. Regardless of what happens in two weeks, or following inauguration day, the challenge remains the same — to stay strong and be kind.
As for myself, I will always do my best to understand the fears and motivations of those around me and demonstrate compassion. I’ll continue to try to make sense of the madness. And whether or not I’m wearing a safety pin, I’ll be my own sanctuary city. Because we’ve all been through a lot, and it’s the least we can do for each other.