Trump, Narcissism and removal from office per the 25th Amendment

There has been a good deal of discussion regarding the removal of Trump from office because of a mental illness, malignant narcissism. There is in fact a petition supported by mental health professional calling for Trump ouster via the 25th amendment. This effort has also been taken up by several journalists, notably Ross Douthat at the New York Times. I want to address this possibility directly and then suggest a new system level model of narcissism and organizations that I think better describes the current political climate.

Trump’s Purported Mental Illness

The primary claim is that Trump suffers from “malignant narcissism” and this disorder makes him incapable of holding office.

I have little doubt that Trump is narcissistic as I wrote about during the campaign; and I know some academics who believe this rises to the level of a personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder or NPD. This debate between narcissism and NPD has basically hung on the issue of impairment — I believe Trump’s narcissism has harmed him and helped him (indeed, I think without elevated narcissism he would not be president) but that his narcissism does not represent a clinical level of impairment. Others believe it does. Whatever the case, there is no clear negative association between narcissism in leaders and their ability to perform in office. Actually, narcissism and positive performance seem to go together in presidential politics. When I first had a call from a reporter about efforts to remove Trump from office for his narcissism, I started laughing. My response was a question: Without narcissists, how many politicians would be left? Certainly some, but you would loose a good chunk of them.

As noted, the counter argument is that Trump is not suffering from any old narcissism. He is suffering from “malignant narcissim” which is “like a malignant tumor: toxic”. In the research world, there is no good assessment of malignant narcissism that shows it is substantially different from trait narcissism and NPD. Malignant narcissism is an old psychodynamic term from Erich Fromm that describes a blend of narcissism and psychopathy. Think of malignant narcissism a cocktail that has 3 parts narcissism, one part low self-control, and a dash of sadism. A recent clinical description of “grandiose/malignant” narcissism describes narcissism plus antagonism and impulsivity (e.g., substance abuse disorder). Trump does appear impulsive at times, but his impulsivity seems more like his ego getting out of control rather than classic low self-control. For example, Trump doesn’t drink and is against substance abuse. Trump also doesn’t strike me as truly sadistic, but I don’t have any data on this and he is certainly disagreeable/antagonistic.

But, even if Trump was a perfect exemplar of the poorly understood malignant narcissism, there is no evidence that this or any other form of narcissism would make a leader unable to carry out his or her duties. This is truly a strange assertion — the world is and has been filled with successful sadistic, narcissistic and psychopathic leaders. What narcissism (and I assume malignant narcissism although there are no data) predicts in leaders is not an incapacity to lead but leadership marred by unethical behavior, such as the killing and torture on political enemies.

The appropriate but extreme political response to ethical lapses by narcissistic leaders is impeachment (see Nixon when it was threatened and Clinton when it was carried out). Using the 25th amendment in cases like these or President Trump would, in my opinion, be the equivalent of a coup supported psychologists and psychiatrists. This would lead to massive civil unrest and maybe war.

The Clash between a Bold, Narcissistic Leader and the Establishment

There is another psychological lens through with to view Trump’s collision with the Washington establishment (e.g., congress, intelligence agencies and “deep state”, corporate media, corporate lobbyist). It is a clash between an outside change agent and an highly integrated and self-sustaining system: a system that generates tremendous wealth for its members but which is distrusted and disliked by a very large percentage of the country.

Recently, Constantine Sedikides and I proposed the Energy Clash Model of narcissism, leadership and organizational change. This model describes the clash between a bold, narcissistic leader and an organization. The basic idea is that the leader, especially one like Trump with a desire to fundamentally change the system (e.g., “drain the swamp”), will go through a three step process in this quest: perturbation, conflict and resolution.

The first step is simply making waves in the system. We call this perturbation and it has already happened. When Trump ran for office and was unexpectedly — at least to the establishment — declared the winner there was a period where people went a bit nuts trying to figure out what a Trump presidency would mean.

Next, in what we term the conflict stage, forces in the system are marshaled to fight back against and ultimately repel the leader. This is precisely the stage we find ourselves in. Trump’s efforts are being thwarted on several fronts. The corporate media (with the semi-exception of Fox news) is going into full attack mode against Trump. As I write this, there are two thinly sourced stories in the headlines regarding Trumps revealing classified intelligence to the Russians, and obstructing justice. These were both based on alleged leaks within the system. Apparently, members of the state intelligence agencies are using the media to strike back at Trump (although I am admittedly speculating — no sources were named or evidence provided). In general, Trump is having a huge issue with leaks, and some of these represent one or more insiders risking prison to provide classified information to the press. I have no idea of the truth of these allegations, but that is not the point. The point is that these represent efforts of the corporate media, in this case two papers controlled by billionaires, taking information from the deep state (intelligence, military), and using it to attack Trump. And, I will add, they seem to be successful at inflicting damage. Trump’s agenda has essentially been stopped.

The final stage of our model is where we are heading next. This is the state where a resolution to the conflict emerges. There are two primary outcomes. First, Trump could wrest control from the internal saboteurs in the White House, eliminate the relevance of the corporate media as he successfully did during the campaign, come to some compromise over goals with congress and actually pass some legislation. Second, Trump could be expelled from the system. There are two efforts to do this now: the removal of Trump under the 25th amendment for mental illness that I just described, and impeachment for some criminal act (e.g., obstruction of justice). If these efforts are successful, an establishment politician like Mike Pence or, if it goes another step, Paul Ryan would be put in the presidency and the system will remain intact. The other form of removal is less drastic. Trump could be hamstrung by these accusations and not have any political impact. Then he would be taken out of power during the next presidential election cycle.

I do not have a crystal ball to see how this clash will be resolved. This is blood sport at the highest levels of power. I am simply trying to contextualize the current state of affairs within a model of narcissism and organizational change and outlining the possible directions toward which this process will unfold.

A Call for Intellectual Humility

When psychologists and psychiatrists are told not to make clinical diagnoses of leaders from afar, this is often referred to as the Goldwater Rule. The name comes from Barry Goldwater, the Republican who ran against Lyndon Johnson for president and who was considered by many psychiatrists to be an impulsive warmonger who presented a grave risk to the republic (sound familiar?). These psychiatrists were polled by a magazine story and the magazine later lost a libel case over the reporting. Most of us remember this campaign from the famous ad suggesting that Goldwater was so crazy that he would lead us into a nuclear war — and that Johnson was all about peace and love.

Well, it turns out that the psychiatrists were wrong. Not just about Barry Goldwater who had a fine career in politics even after losing his presidential campaign, but about the competition, Lyndon Johnson. As we know now thanks to some excellent biographies, Johnson was the actual war monger and truly a monstrous human being. The so called mental health professionals pushed for the president who got us deep into Vietnam, tore the country apart and was, not coincidentally, incredibly narcissistic. And, despite these qualities, Johnson still was a great president in many ways.

Diagnosing leaders, whether done by psychiatrists, psychologist or journalists, is a challenging task. And linking those diagnosed disorder or traits to specific policy outcomes makes is that much harder. All writing on Trump’s narcissism, including my own, should be read with these difficulties in mind.