At the Intersection of Donald Trump and America’s Delusions of Grandeur

Caravaggio’s Narcissus Meets Donald J. Trump.
Caravaggio’s Narcissus Meets Donald J. Trump.

The Narcissism Trump’s Narcissism Unleashed

Right now and in the coming weeks and months, many Americans will beat their brains black and blue attempting to decipher the mystery behind President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s successful 2016 White House run. In studying the palm prints of Trump’s mostly White supporters, there will be the standard explanations. White supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, economic populism, and the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic machine she represented. All will be among the factors the media and academicians will sift and weigh. And all of these factors will be proven correct, but they paint an incomplete picture.

To fully appreciate Trump and his 60 million voters, the world must dig deeper, and consider the narcissism that Trump the narcissist managed to tap into. For it was Trump’s appeal as a “successful businessman,” an “I alone can fix it” billionaire, a “I am your voice” uncommon man who could speak to the fears and desires of White Americans, that also paved the way for his election. But this in no way exonerates the Trump voters who do not see themselves as racist, sexist, or anti-immigrant. Like Trump, their narcissism means they cared only about their needs for greatness and admiration. So much so that other Americans didn’t matter at all.

There are a few in the field of social psychology who have observed this collective narcissism at work in American culture. In The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue that Americans, in attempting “to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression, and ‘loving yourself,’” have caused millions to take a “flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy.” One where the caustic mix of “celebrity worship” and “reality TV” in particular “became a showcase of narcissistic people.”

With the backdrop of growing economic inequality between America’s rich and poor, Trump’s years as billionaire star of NBC’s The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice from 2004 until the beginning of his presidential run in 2015 made him a proven commodity to Americans who admired his narcissistic tendencies. Trump’s lack of empathy and his brutal honesty—both in the form of his signature “You’re fired!” line at the end of every episode—made him catnip to millions of viewers. Even though Trump’s show was #1 on NBC for only a few episodes, overall, it averaged 21 million viewers in the 2003-04 season, and about 7.6 million in its last run with him in 2015. Enough to give Trump a base of supporters who cared more about how he “tells it like it is” than about the potential and actual destruction Trump’s behavior on set may well have caused his contestants on a weekly basis.

This shared belief between Trump and his fans about winners and losers, about loyalty and self-aggrandizement, transitioned well from reality television to presidential politics. Trump’s most vocal supporters consistently chanted whatever riffs he had about groups he saw as either the cause of America’s problems or about individuals and institutions he portrayed as betrayers. From “Build the wall!,” “Lock her up!,” and “Drain the swamp!” to “Trump That Bitch!” (in reference to Hillary Clinton) and “CNN Sucks!,” Trump’s rallies were the political equivalent of a fire-and-brimstone, call-and-response church service. Only with resentment, entitlement, and lack of empathy on display.

One lesser known aspect of narcissism was also evident at Trump’s rallies and among his supporters all along, though. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), one criterion for being a narcissist includes a person believing “that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions.” Simply put, Trump supporters have seen themselves in Trump, and firmly believe that only someone as extraordinary as Trump can understand them. That “Trump! Trump! Trump!” was the most common chant from Trump’s supporters throughout the 2016 election cycle may be some evidence. But the fact that most White women and White men who voted on November 8 voted for Trump is more evidence of a collective narcissism responding in favor of Trump’s narcissism. This despite all the revelations about Trump’s financial failures, misogyny, possible sexual assaults, and discriminatory housing and hiring practices over the past two years.

The next question would be whether Trump’s supporters also have dangerous levels of narcissism combined with high self-esteem. The media has covered well at times the violence that broke out with increasing frequency against protesters at Trump’s rallies throughout 2016. As Twenge and Campbell wrote, “narcissists are aggressive exactly because they love themselves so much and believe that their needs take precedence. They lack empathy for other people’s pain”—and points of view—“and often lash out” when they perceive others as having disrespected them. For after all, narcissists believe they are owed the utmost respect, precisely because they believe they are better than others, with only people like Trump as their equals.

In Black Reconstruction, the great African American sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, the effects of slave ownership 150 years ago "inflate[d] the ego...beyond all reason," made planters "arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets," people who "were choleric and easily insulted.” What Du Bois described was the effect of American racism on the individual Southern planter, a narcissistic class of elites whom poor Whites aspired to become. In so many ways, what Du Bois wrote in 1935 parallels with the symbiotic relationship between Trump’s narcissism and that of his voters, a toxic intersection between institutional and individual racism, misogyny, xenophobia, high self-esteem, and collective narcissism in 2016.

That Trump may well have all these traits is hardly a surprise. That many Americans who voted for Trump may also possess such thoughts and exhibit such behaviors is an indication of Twenge and Campbell’s narcissism epidemic argument is a valid one. The danger is that the fantasies of Trump and Trump’s supporters about “Making America Great Again” for themselves will leave America less great, less democratic, more unequal, and more in jeopardy of devouring itself than ever before.

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