Our Spiral From Malignant Narcissism to Sociopathic Denial of Reality
By Seth D. Norrholm, Ph.D. and David M. Reiss, M.D.
Numerous genres of radio, television, film, and digital streaming have focused on a post-apocalyptic Earth as a result of some worldwide natural disaster, devastating global warfare, famine, or a collapse of vital infrastructure. A common theme throughout these chilling entertainment vehicles is a catastrophic failure of humankind to “do the right thing.” The casts of these shows and movies are typically the remaining survivors of the cataclysmic event(s) who are left to pick up the pieces and attempt to figure out what went wrong.
Right now, things are going very wrong. We are slipping past the boundaries of reality into very dangerous, and potentially catastrophic, territory.
And for what?
No, this is not another article on malignant narcissism in the Trumpian era. This article discusses what malignant narcissism has evolved into via the behaviors of Trump himself, Trump’s sycophants, greed-driven sociopaths, very likely some of whom have been compromised/blackmailed, and in Trump’s own words, “the poorly educated” (which can also be read as “the unfortunately quite ignorant”).
To briefly review, having some narcissistic tendencies, of itself, is neither pathological nor necessarily destructive nor dangerous. In fact, it might be argued that benign narcissistic traits are often necessary, or at least beneficial, to the attainment of a certain level of success in almost any field of endeavor, most notably politics.
As Susan Kolod, Ph.D. has written (emphasis added), “Healthy narcissism is related to self-esteem and self-worth but it is not exactly the same. It’s taking pleasure in one’s beauty, in the workings of one’s mind, in the accomplishment of a tough job well done… A complete preoccupation with oneself is normal and expected in children at a certain age… at around age 2… Margaret Mahler, an eminent child psychologist, described this phase as a ‘love affair with the world’… Healthy narcissism, or a ‘love affair with the world,’ is something that adults can retain, although it no longer depends on being the center of the universe.” Simply put, psychological and emotional maturity can be defined as the realization and recognition that “you are not the only person in the world.”
Pathological and malignant narcissism emerges when a person never mitigates the childhood fantasies mentioned above with the objective realities of adult life. We discussed Trump’s malignant narcissism in our article, “Eternal Emperor in His Own Mind” in which we described the distortions of reality embraced by severe narcissists in service of maintaining unrealistic fantasies. These distortions impact interpersonal relationships, judgment, ethical development, and even the perception of time. We specifically noted,
“The narcissist is self-serving and will go to great lengths to protect himself from ego injury, including changing facts to fit his worldview rather than changing his worldview to fit objective facts. The nexus of repeated lies, creating an “alternative reality” even in the face of conflicting evidence, is so deeply rooted and so intricately woven that severe narcissists can display a quasi-delusional state (separation from reality) similar to that seen in psychotic disorders.”
“The extreme Narcissist will provide any plausible defense for his behavior in order to maintain the ego-protecting reality he has created… The severe narcissist will seek out and employ a defense, tenaciously, even if it could be characterized as well within the realm of “unreasonable doubt,” and having only the slightest chance of plausibility… It is not distressing to the severe narcissist if a belief is improbable.”
However, and quite predictably, as the travesties and corruption of the Trump administration have multiplied and have become obvious — beyond any reasonable doubt — to any logical, objective observer, malignantly narcissistic “quasi-delusional” rationalizations have been inadequate.
Trump has escalated from the practically trivial distortion of reality regarding:
- the size of the inauguration crowd,
- irrational expectation of “building a wall — and Mexico will pay for it”;
- the tax-scam giveaway to the ultra-wealthy;
- nods, “whistles,” and overt support provided to racists, white supremacists and misogynists;
- separation of families at the border and keeping innocent children in cages;
- out-of-control destructive nepotism;
- consistent “self-dealing” profit-making by administration officers; and of course,
- illicit interactions with foreign countries that have led to the current impeachment hearing.
As the pernicious behaviors have spiraled out of all control, “merely” relying upon simple narcissistic distortions of reality that remain within the possible, conceivable, or “plausible” (even if hardly logical or probable) have lost their efficacy as rationalizations of supposed lack of culpability.
While lying has been a staple of Trump’s public and private interactions, euphemistically referred to as being “transactional,” we have now reached the point where any number of Trump sycophants and apologists have gone beyond embracing gross misrepresentations of the truth to self-righteously demanding fealty to statements, ideas, and actions that are fully outside of the realm of objective reality (Put simply, OUTRIGHT FANTASIES AND LIES).
This is occurring on both national, state, and local levels of Trumpian politics. Statements and assertions are offered, contradicted by objective data, yet either steadfastly maintained as true (see Barr misrepresentation of Mueller report) or simply reversed or revised with no compunction and sufficient duplicity to put to shame the Nixon administration declaration of Press Secretary Ron Ziegler that previous statements are “no longer operative.”
Additionally, there has been wholesale rejection of established reality and accepted theory (practical, scientific, and medical) ranging from quoting of verifiably-false statistics to rejection of climate change theory simply by fiat to most recently, endorsement of anti-abortion-related legislation that defy medical reality, such as the currently impossible re-implantation of ectopic pregnancies into a woman’s womb.
Narcissistic distortion can no longer account for the blatant dishonesty and detachment from reality that that is occurring under Trump’s influence. A narcissist may stoutly maintain adherence to a premise that is highly unlikely and improbable but is still (at least faintly) possible/plausible. However, when embracing a documentable falsehood (LIE), there are only three possibilities:
- gross ignorance;
- intentional, sociopathic, self-serving manipulation/gaslighting; or
- overtly psychotic loss of reality testing
Three possible reasons that predict a frightening turn of events if we do not course correct.
Unless we hear evidence to the contrary and in support of the currently unsubstantiated public claims by the GOP members of Congress, we are left to ask why are these GOP members of Congress rejecting undeniable evidence, rejecting their oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, and spouting Putin-sparked propaganda. Why are they acting as if their loved ones are tied up in a warehouse by a goon squad? Are these “loved ones” tangible, financial, or merely re-election hopes?: Why Jim Jordan? Mark Meadows? Matt Gaetz? Devin Nunes? Louis Gohmert? Steve Scalise? John Kennedy? John Ratcliffe? Will Hurd? Elise Stefanik? Michael Turner? Mike Conaway? Lindsay Graham? Mitch McConnell?
This is not attempted partisan smearing or disagreements over policy. This is Orwellian, “the sky is green” targeted deception…against American citizens and their interests.
As we watch an entire political party abdicate its role in checking a corrupt administration, turn its back on the rule of law, truth and honesty, and actively LIE to the American people, we are watching a slow death of our Republic.
We like to use metaphors and imagery in our writing.
To what end is half of the United States Senate sitting on its hands and for which of the three possibilities above (ignorance, manipulative sociopathy, shared psychosis)?
It’s as if they are sitting within a house on fire arguing over who gets the master bedroom.
Put another way, are Mitch McConnell and his colleagues going to light cigars as they count their money atop the charred ruins of our democracy?
Is there some victory in being the last party sitting on the wooden door after the Titanic has sunk? (yes, Rose, there WAS room for Jack)
We have entered an increasingly dangerous and ominous phase of Trumpism wherein even malignant narcissistic distortion is now effectively passé, trite, and largely normalized; a dangerous, malicious, alternative reality that is dependent upon ignorance, sociopathy/psychopathy, and/or psychosis.
The damage to our society, to our world, to our future — as well as the time it will take to implement, if possible, correction and healing — should not be underestimated.
About the Authors:
Seth D. Norrholm, PhD (Twitter: @SethN12) is a former Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. Dr. Norrholm has spent 20 years studying trauma-, stressor-, anxiety-, depressive-, and substance use-related disorders and has published over 100 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters. The primary objective of his work is to develop “bench-to-bedside” clinical research methods to inform therapeutic interventions for fear and anxiety-related disorders and how they relate to human factors such as personality, genetics, and environmental influences. Dr. Norrholm has been featured on NBC, ABC, PBS, CNN.com, Politico.com, The Atlantic, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, Yahoo.com, USA Today, WebMD, The History Channel, and Scientific American. In 2019, Dr. Norrholm was recognized as an Expertscape world expert in Fear and Posttraumatic Stress Disorders.
David M. Reiss, M.D. (Twitter: @DMRDynamics) has been a practicing psychiatrist for more than 30 years, specializing in “front-line” adult and adolescent psychiatry. He has evaluated and treated over 12,000 persons of diverse social and cultural backgrounds, from every occupational field. Dr. Reiss has been recognized internationally for expertise in character and personality dynamics. He is often interviewed and quoted in the print, Internet and radio/TV media, nationally and internationally, to help the public understand the psychological aspects of current events. Dr. Reiss was a co-author on the New York Times bestselling book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” He is an authority on issues regarding social and political phenomena, medical and mental health treatment, PTSD, violence in society, and the functioning of the current mental health system.