Americans are shocked on a daily basis by President Trump’s infantile, narcissistic behavior: his hypersensitivity to criticism and impulsive, retaliatory insults, such as against MSNBC journalists “Morning Joe” Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, his flagrant lying and grandiose hubris through which he elevates his ego above respect for the responsibility and integrity of the American presidency. His political inattention, poor judgment and ominous self-reliance have resulted in two congressional committees and a special counsel appointed by the FBI investigating him and his campaign for collusion with the Russian government and obstruction of justice, which pundits are comparing to Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Instead of “making America great again,” Trump’s America is rapidly losing its leadership in international affairs. The drumbeat for impeachment grows louder.
Yet what pundits and the media are overlooking is that Trump’s egocentric grandiosity is largely responsible for his incredible success in business and politics. His grandiose belief in his potential for greatness motivated him to stick his neck out fearlessly and convince the most prestigious bankers in the world to lend him huge sums of money to revamp failing New York City skyscrapers and Atlantic City casinos, at a time when hardly anybody else was taking such creative initiative. After significant investment failures and deeply in debt, instead of giving up, his incredible belief in himself motivated him to persist and brand numerous buildings and resorts with his name, making him a billionaire.
Moreover, without any political experience, his enormous self-confidence motivated him to compete in arguably the most difficult political arena in the world and defeat seasoned politicians of both political parties. It energized his ambition, enhanced his charismatic appeal and strengthened his persuasive conviction, which ultimately led to becoming the most powerful man in the world. Ironically, Trump knows this and prides himself on his narcissism, according to biographers Kranish and Fisher. They quote him as saying that narcissistic people are the most successful, and, in a certain way he is right.
In virtually any professional, business, scientific, artistic or academic field, the most salient leaders are often charismatic, narcissistic personalities. The reason is that adaptive grandiosity (i.e., when one’s grandiosity is accompanied by sufficient ego-strength and reality testing) imbues a person with a feeling of extraordinary specialness and an incredible belief in his or her greatness. This inflated self-esteem often fuels one’s ambition to work harder to pursue one’s goals and to creatively confront the uncertainties of one’s field by thinking and acting divergently. This is because a narcissistic person often relies exclusively upon himself or herself, and is not dependent upon others and traditional ways of doing things. Thus, Trump rarely listens to authorities or advisors. By being one’s own self-ideal, many narcissistic individuals become independent thinkers and create new ways of doing things.
However, because of its fragile nature as a defense against dependency and feelings of inadequacy, adaptive grandiosity can easily regress to maladaptive grandiosity, i.e., an omnipotent belief in one’s magical control of external reality, a euphoric feeling that you can do whatever you want regardless of human limitations. During experiences of political power with its intoxicating adulation and euphoria, the politician’s adaptive grandiosity often yields to the temptation of regressing to infantile dynamics and omnipotence, unleashing Pandora’s box of greed in all of its manifestations. This results in believing that ethics, laws and traditional rules don’t apply, and that you can get away with whatever you want.
For example, President Trump evidently believes that he can ignore the emoluments clause of the United States Constitution, and profit from his political position by holding onto his private properties while in office. Moreover, he ignored the traditional ethics of separating the presidency from the FBI by allegedly trying to convince FBI director, James Comey, to be loyal to him by quashing the investigation into Russian collusion with various campaign advisors and to drop the charges against General Flynn. In his interview with Lester Holt, Trump confessed to firing Comey to block the Russian investigation, admitting to obstruction of justice. With maladaptive grandiosity, the emperor believes he should be appreciated in his “new clothes” and for others to perceive him as he desires. As President Nixon said to David Frost in a 1977 interview, “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.
Surprisingly, what now appears to be maladaptive: his outrageous infantile grandiosity, worked beautifully on the campaign trail. Through his unorthodox, simple impolitic way of expressing himself, he appeared to be fresh and authentic to his supporters, who identified with him. He presented himself as America’s savior, a businessman who could fix the problems plaguing the country. As a political outsider, he could express rage for the politically disenfranchised against establishment politicians of both parties. He could insult his fellow candidates, women, Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled, war heroes, blame immigrants for American terrorism, foster violence at his rallies, speak tangentially, even nonsensically, and blatantly lie. Yet he did this with such grandiose self-conviction, that his base believed he was a strong, powerful leader who would bring their jobs back and safeguard the country against terrorism and foreign exploitation.
Since assuming the presidency, Trump’s maladaptive grandiosity, in other words, his omnipotence, has been confronted with the limitations of reality: a government with checks and balances and a media that is scrutinizing his every lie, every failed promise and every ethical and legal breach. His approval ratings have plummeted, and yet he refuses to listen to his advisors and fellow Republicans who warn him against tweet storms.
For so many Americans, it is like watching a Sophoclean tragedy unfold in which the protagonist is inexorably ruined by a fatal flaw. Can Trump evoke the adaptive narcissism that worked so well for him in the past, or has he finally reached his level of incompetence, according to the Peter Principle. Each day we watch this tragedy with disbelief, like lookie-loos witnessing the fragmentation of our revered American presidency as the specter of impeachment hangs over Trump’s head like a Sword of Damocles.