|The "portrait" he bought with his charity's money|
Senator Ted Cruz once described Donald Trump as “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” That characterization echoes what many psychological researchers and therapists have long concluded. Although the American Psychiatric Association strongly discourages mental-health professionals from assigning mental-illness labels to public figures, some clinicians have even suggested that President Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. In a recent article in The Atlantic, George T. Conway III argued that Trump exhibits all the classic signs of NPD, and that for that reason, among others, he is unfit for office.
But Trump is stranger than any diagnostic category can convey. Narcissism is a psychological construct with profound implications for an individual’s well-being and interpersonal relationships. Personality and social psychologists have done hundreds of studies examining narcissistic tendencies, revealing certain patterns of behavior and outcome. In some ways, Trump fits those patterns perfectly. But in at least one crucial respect, he deviates.
Back in June 2016, I wrote in this magazine about how narcissists “wear out their welcome”:
Psychological research demonstrates that many narcissists come across as charming, witty, and charismatic upon initial acquaintance. They can attain high levels of popularity in the short term. As long as they prove to be successful and brilliant—like Steve Jobs—they may be able to weather criticism and retain their exalted status. But more often than not, narcissists wear out their welcome. Over time, people become annoyed, if not infuriated, by their self-centeredness. When narcissists begin to disappoint those they once dazzled, their descent can be especially precipitous. There is still truth in the ancient proverb: Pride goeth before the fall.Nearly three years into Trump’s presidency, how does this generalization about narcissism hold up for him? On the one hand, many of the people who have staffed Trump’s administration have learned that he is not the “stable genius” he claims to be. Disappointed and beaten down, they have left in droves. On the other hand, Trump has retained the loyal backing of many voters despite scandal, outrage, and chaos. How is this possible? Why has Trump followed the predictable course for narcissism in one way, alienating many who have served in his administration, and defied expectations in another way, by continuing to attract an adoring core?
At its mythic heart, narcissism is a story of disappointment. The ancient source is the Greek tale of Narcissus, a beautiful young boy who falls in love with his reflection in a pool. Captivated with his beguiling image, Narcissus vows never to leave the object of his desire. But the reflection—forever outside his embrace—fails to reciprocate, and as a result Narcissus melts away (in one version of the story), a victim of the passion burning inside of him. The lover’s inconsolable disappointment is that he cannot consummate his love for the reflection, his love for himself.It's a long and interesting article about how he's alienated insiders who tried desperately to help him. That, apparently, tracks with what narcissists usually do. But how can we explain his hardcore, unmovable base? That' the strange part. He attempts to explain it:
A real-life narcissist, by contrast, manages to take his eyes off himself just long enough to find out if others are looking at him. And if the narcissist has admirers, this makes him feel good. It temporarily boosts his self-esteem.
Likewise, his admirers feel a rush of excitement and allure. They enjoy being in the presence of such a beautiful figure—or a powerful, creative, dynamic, charismatic, or intriguing figure. They bask in his reflected glory, even if they find his self-obsession to be unseemly. As time passes, however, the admirers grow weary. Once upon a time, they thought the narcissist was the greatest, but now they suspect that he is not. Or maybe they just get tired of him, and disgusted with all the self-admiration. They become disappointed, for very few narcissists can consistently provide the sufficient beauty, power, and greatness to sustain long-term unconditional devotion. In the end, everybody loses. The former fans loathe themselves for being fools, or else they blame the narcissist for fooling them. And the narcissist never attains what can never be humanly attained anyway: supreme and unending love and adoration of the self.
Those who can’t point to specific achievements may remain loyal supporters because they hear relatively little that is expressly negative about their hero. If the president shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, would Fox News even cover it? Trump supporters and Trump detractors live in different worlds. They may not speak to one another about politics, knowing that such a conversation is likely to end badly. They get their news from different sources. They stay faithful to their respective political tribes.Or ... it's a cult of personality.
But the crux of the matter—the secret to Trump’s success with the base—may be that if bad news can’t quite pierce the Trumpist bubble, neither, in a way, can Trump. The millions of American voters who adore the president do not have to interact with him directly. Unlike the White House staff, they do not have to endure Trump’s incendiary outbursts or kowtow to his unpredictable whims. As anonymous members of a television audience, they can gaze upon their hero from afar.
If they want to get a little closer, they can attend a Trump rally. In the local sports arena or civic center, they can sit just a few hundred feet away from the president, cheering and chanting. They can express their love for the him in the presence of thousands of others who love him too. They can laugh at his jokes and partake of the anger and disgust he expresses toward his enemies. Excitement fills the arena. What outlandish thing will he do? What will he say to capture the headlines of the next day? A Trump rally is a safe space for Trump supporters. They can sit back and enjoy the performance, because whatever he says cannot directly threaten them. He will be gone tomorrow.
The relationship that Trump enjoys with rally-goers may mirror the one he established more than a decade ago with viewers of The Apprentice. In her article “From Apprentice to President,” the cognitive scientist Shira Gabriel argued that viewers of Trump’s reality-television show formed “parasocial bonds” with the host. These “one-sided psychological bonds with specific media figures such as favorite celebrities” leave the viewer feeling that she truly knows the star and enjoys a special relationship with him. After statistically controlling for a range of other factors, Gabriel found that American television viewers who established parasocial bonds with Trump as the host of The Apprentice were disproportionately likely to vote for him in the 2016 presidential election, even if they were Democrats. They were also more likely than others to report that they believed Trump’s promises to bring back factory jobs to the United States, build a wall on the Mexican border, and defeat America’s enemies in the Middle East. If it were not for The Apprentice, Gabriel argued, there would be no President Trump.
Trump’s biggest fans have a parasocial bond with an icon—whereas his advisers and staff must work through a real-life social bond with a difficult human being. Trump’s biggest fans believe that they have an up-close-and-personal relationship with Trump—but they never actually see the man up close.
Other charismatic presidents, such as Ronald Reagan and Obama, probably established parasocial bonds with their supporters, too. The relationship between Trump fans and Trump may be more resilient, however, because of the peculiar nature of the president’s narcissism.
Generally speaking, politicians work hard to present themselves to the American people as regular human beings whose emotional lives and personal stories may resonate with their fellow citizens. Trump is strangely different, and he revels in that. He is a stable genius who admits to no faults. He has no inner doubts. He has never made a mistake. He has never failed. As one of the countless examples of Trump setting himself apart from every other human being on the planet, consider this statement he made on The Tonight Show in 2015: “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”
The fact that Trump will not admit to error sets him apart from most narcissists. Research shows that highly narcissistic people often create heroic stories of their own lives wherein they have triumphed over their limitations and failures, against all odds, to become the awesome people that they believe they are. Trump has never talked about himself in that way, even when urged to do so. Instead, he suggests that he has always been perfect, like the flawless image of Narcissus in the pool.
“I am the chosen one,” Trump told reporters in August, in response to questions about obtaining a trade deal with China. In claiming this almost superhuman status, Trump may somewhat inoculate himself against critical press. His supporters adore him as something like a larger-than-life force, a beautiful persona reflected in the pool. Should they encounter new negative information about the president, they may judge it against the “evidence” of their acquaintance with the president’s persona—and discount it. The contrast is simply too great between what the “fake news” claims, and the infallible presence onscreen.
The president’s raging narcissism has created chaos in the White House, and it has driven away scores of advisers, staff members, and others who had hoped to serve productively in his administration. As is usually the case with narcissists, Trump has worn out his welcome. He has disappointed and alienated many of the people with whom he has worked closely, as narcissists eventually do.
But Trump’s unusual brand of narcissism has simultaneously worked to solidify his loyal base of support in the American public at large. Those who admire him from afar may enjoy an extraordinarily durable parasocial relationship with a reflected persona that is deeply familiar to them. They know in their heart who Donald Trump is. They continue to admire his wonderful and unchanging essence, beautiful like the boy in the pool, even if they know very little about what it is like to encounter Donald Trump as a real human being.