Our Narcissist In Chief

Now more than ever, the president's psychological unfitness must be at the heart of our political conversation.
01/07/2018 08:18 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2018
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

This past week, with “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff provoked a media tsunami by depicting a dangerously ignorant and volatile president. But, however intriguing, his anecdotes told us nothing new – except how late we were to confront the klieg-lit symptoms of instability radiating from Donald Trump.

They were always there ― Trump’s party and the media simply averted their eyes. Over 19 months ago, in these pages, I courted considerable controversy ― and journalistic opprobrium ― by warning that Donald Trump was ”too sick to lead.”

Why? By then Trump’s trajectory as America’s would-be president seemed too obvious to ignore.

“One can forecast,” I wrote in early June 2016, “the inevitable day-to-day damage to our country – the lashings out, the abuses of power, the mercurial and confidence-destroying lies and changes of mind, the havoc his distorted lens would wreak upon our institutions and our spirit. But most dangerous of all is the collision between a volatile world, a leader unable to perceive external reality, and the often unbearable pressures of the presidency. That Trump’s judgment would crack time and again is certain – the only question is how dangerous the moment.”

This was not augury. The behaviors, and the dangers they foreordained, were there for all to see. A lifetime of public statements and actions – and a year of campaigning for president – had painted an indelible portrait of a pathological narcissist whose inner landscape would never change.

The presidency has not transformed him; he has transformed the office. However defined, Trump’s sickness is now ours.

In light of this history, it seemed insufficient  for journalists to merely catalogue Trump’s behaviors as they occurred, isolating them from context. And it struck me as an outright disservice to normalize the abnormal by jamming him into the usual analytic boxes of strategy, political typology, tactical unorthodoxy, or even his intuitive grasp of how to transfix the media while touching the pulse of our discontents.

What then? Taking the man whole, I contended, ”[t]here is only one organizing principle which makes sense of his wildly oscillating utterances and behavior – the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder.”

Using the Mayo Clinic’s formulation, “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others,” the narrative began: “This is bad enough in selecting a spouse or a friend. But when applied to a prospective president, the symptoms are disqualifying.”

To now reread the behavioral markers I listed is eerie, for they could serve as a précis for Trump’s first year in office:

An exaggerated sense of self-importance. An unwarranted belief in your own superiority. A preoccupation with fantasies of your own success, power and brilliance. An unreasoning fury at people you perceive as thwarting your wishes or desires. A tendency to act on impulse…

A need to always be right. An inability to tolerate criticism or critics... A compulsion to conform your ever–shifting sense of “reality” to satisfy your inner requirements... A tendency to lie so frequently and routinely that objective truth loses all meaning.”

Particularly damning were psychological characteristics which, inevitably, would inflame already volatile situations while impairing Trump’s judgment in the crucible of crisis:

A belief that you are above the rules. An array of inconsistent statements and behaviors driven by your needs in the moment. An inability to assess the consequences of your actions in new or complex situations. In sum, an incapacity to separate the world from your own psychodrama.

If, as seemed apt, one ascribed these qualities to Trump, it was imperative to address the GOP’s delusional rationalization that Trump would “grow” in office or fulfill his risible promise to become more “presidential.” As I wrote then: “By the consensus of mental health experts, [his] emotional impairment has a last fatal ingredient – there is no cure. For a man like Donald Trump, life offers no lessons, no path forward save to continue as you have until, like Icarus, you fly too close to the sun.”

Finally, the argument distilled the “central problem of Trump’s warped psychology – he believes that filling the presidency requires nothing but the wonder of himself.”

In short, the guardrails were illusory. It required no great leap of imagination to foresee the potential tragedy a Trump presidency could visit on America: a major party, hungry for power, tethered to an unstable president it lacked the means, or the will, to control.

But at the time, many objected that I was violating a cardinal rule of journalistic commentary – opining on the mental health of a presidential candidate. Frequently, they cited the “Goldwater Rule,” an ethical stricture emanating from a malign attack on Barry Goldwater, restraining psychiatrists from commenting on the apparent fitness of public figures.

It was enough, they insisted, to record specific behaviors and let the voters judge. And so, as I wrote in that same article, all too many in the media “breathlessly parsed [ Trump’s] every move as if he were something grander, yet more normal, than a mentally disordered demagogue bereft of principles and starved for adulation.”

Five months later, the electorate made Donald Trump the world’s most powerful man.

Copies of the book "Fire and Fury" by author Michael Wolff are displayed on January 5, 2018.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
Copies of the book "Fire and Fury" by author Michael Wolff are displayed on January 5, 2018.

I do not reprise my analysis of June 2016 simply to make a point, as president Trump has made it for me. Rather I am urging that we now must place our president’s psychological unfitness, squarely and unambiguously, at the heart of our political discussion ― journalistic constraints or psychiatric guidelines notwithstanding. 

We have learned who our president is, and the stakes transcend politesse. The presidency has not transformed him; he has transformed the office. However defined, Trump’s sickness is now ours.

He erases the line between truth and lies. He rejects the existence of objective fact as a basis for political discourse. He undermines respect for democracy, civil liberties, and a free press. He treats the rule of law with contempt. He discredits any source of information which threatens his alternative reality.

He makes no distinction between his office and himself. He uses the presidency to unleash his infinite anger and paranoia. He spreads misogyny and exacerbates racial, ethnic and religious divisions for political gain.

He traffics in patent falsehoods and fake conspiracies. He erodes our communal understanding and demeans the very idea of democratic leadership. He governs to serve the warped psychology and infinite self-absorption which is the essence of his presidency.

It is long past time for anyone with a public voice and a conscience ... to explicitly and unequivocally embrace the need to curb an irretrievably unstable president.

From this fever swamp of dysfunction emerges two existential threats.

First, that Russia attacked our presidential election to benefit Trump is beyond doubt. Yet Trump denies it, unleashing a fusillade of lies and slander against our intelligence agencies and anyone else who questions him. Equally destructive, he refuses to acknowledge the certainty that Russia will continue its attack through 2018 and beyond – including, potentially, undermining the credibility of our elections by attacking voting machines.

Trump’s unwillingness to defend American democracy against a hostile foreign power betrays the most basic obligation of a president. Indeed, his war against those charged with investigating the connection between his campaign and Russia – and his obsessive efforts to obstruct it – raise the inescapable question of whether America’s president is a knowing pawn of Russia.

Second, Trump has unfettered authority to order a nuclear strike. Knowledgeable officials from Senator Bob Corker to James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, question his psychological fitness to control our nuclear arsenal. We have no institutional defense against instantaneous catastrophe.

This puts the question of Trump’s mental fitness in sharp relief. We have seen him as president for a year now, and the evidence is inescapable; psychologically and temperamentally, Trump is unfit to wield the awesome powers we gave him.

President Trump delivers a speech at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017.
POOL New / Reuters
President Trump delivers a speech at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017.

However belatedly, more of us are prepared to confront that reality. In December, a group of lawmakers ― all but one Democrats ― received a private briefing from a prominent psychologist, Bandy X. Lee, who warned that Trump is “going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.” As though to confirm this, Trump reacted to “Fire and Fury” by foregoing the graceful silence one would expect from a president in a spasm of bizarre tweets ― announcing that “throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart” and, indeed, that he is a “genius... and a very stable genius at that!”

Increasingly, commentators are questioning Trump’s stability; a recent poll shows that 51 percent of Americans believe that Trump is mentally unbalanced. Shedding their professional strictures, numerous mental health professionals have warned against risks of maintaining him in office.

The grounds range from concerns about a profound character disorder to questions about his neurological condition. Lee, the editor of a book on the subject, recently wrote the New York Times:

We are currently witnessing more than his usual state of instability – in fact, a pattern of decompensation: increasing loss of touch with reality, marked signs of volatility and unpredictable behavior, and an attraction to violence as a means of coping. These characteristics place our country and the world at extreme risk of danger.

What more, one must ask, do we need? Nothing. It is long past time for anyone with a public voice and a conscience ― officeholders, commentators, mental health professionals and civic leaders ― to explicitly and unequivocally embrace the need to curb an irretrievably unstable president.

The obvious solution is impeachment. But Congress will block such an effort as long as Republicans control it ― which they will through 2018 and, perhaps, beyond. As in 2016, elected Republicans show little sign of having the patriotism or courage to face the dire reality of the man who leads them.

In the meanwhile, there are two legislative initiatives that can help call out congressional Republicans and focus public opinion on Trump’s mental state and, thereby, on the need to circumscribe the risks posed by three more years of his presidency.

One is Senate bills aimed at preventing Trump from arbitrarily firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The other is suggested legislation requiring that members of the House and Senate consent before a president can launch a unilateral nuclear strike.

Neither proposal is perfect; neither, in the short term, will pass. But the case for both is compelling. And pressing them gives voice to an urgent concern ― that our political leaders and institutions must protect us from a president psychologically unable to protect us from himself. If nothing else, the election of 2016 should have taught us that euphemizing the nature of this man is an inexcusable act of political and journalistic dereliction.

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