The twisted psychology that explains Donald Trump's appeal

The pundits have it half-right, but The Donald's success is rooted in more than just racist nativism

Published September 1, 2015 8:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Scott Heppell)
(AP/Scott Heppell)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Nobody needs a psychology degree to know the 2016 presidential campaign trail is filled with genuine narcissists—exceptionally vain men and women who see themselves as deserving attention and power. And then, in a class by himself, is Donald Trump.

Remarkably, the chord that Trump has struck with voters is growing, to the dismay of the Republican establishment and to the glee of Democrats and progressives—who feel they are watching a spectacle that’s better than The West Wing. Who could have imagined this script, where the GOP is being destroyed from within—and Trump, leading in all recent national polls for the nomination, is fighting with Fox News?

“Something is going on,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wroteFriday, then describing two acquaintences who wouldn’t normally vote for Republicans but are wildly cheering Trump. First is a women from Georgia in her late 60s, living on Social Security, who voted for Obama in 2008, but can’t stop texting her family—“middle-class, white, independent-minded.” And Cesar, from her local deli, who said, “He’s the man,” adding legal immigrants are angry at illegals and Latinos don’t vote in blocks anymore.

Americans are in a very anti-Establishment mood, Noonan said, offering her explanation, and comparing Trump’s appeal to “a rock being thrown through a showroom window.” She doesn’t mention that a big part of Bernie Sanders’ appeal also is based on shaking up the system. But what Noonan and many mainstream media commentators will not parse is the psychology of Trump’s appeal, or why narcissists have populist allure.

But there are a few seasoned observers who know the “incredible pros and inevitable cons” of narcissistic leaders in politics or business, as the title of a famous Harvard Business Review article by Michael Maccoby states. Their insights explain the Trump phenomenon, while also raising disturbing questions about where it might be going.

John Dean was White House counsel under President Richard Nixon, until he resigned during the Watergate scandal. Dean has made a career in recent decades warning about the dangers of authoritarian politicians. As he recentlywrote, Trump is “a near perfect authoritarian leader.” As a personality type, “these people are usually initimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitliess, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheat to win, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic, tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of ‘suckers,’ specialize in creating false images to sell self, may or may not be religious, are are usually politically and economically conservative and Republican.”

Dean’s summation leads to a bigger question, how far can such a leader go in America? It’s a question worth returning to—but not until we get an explanation of why Trump, if he is a tyrant-in-waiting, is gaining in popularity. Maccoby, the octogenarian expert on the psychology of leadership “who has advised, taught, and studied leaders of companies, unions, governments, healthcare organizations, and universities in 36 countries,” as his Harvard Business Journal blog states, has that answer.

As Maccoby wrote this week, people like to follow narcissists, in both business and politics—even if there frequently is a dark side to their leadership.

“What do his followers like about Trump?” he began. “The answer may have as much to do with Trump’s achievements as his proposed policies. Unlike his rivals, he has made a fortune by his own efforts; he can convincingly claim he is his own man while his rivals are puppets, indebted to the big money donors his followers distrust.

“But his appeal may have even more to do with his personality. No one pushes Trump around, and no insult goes unanswered. He fights back. He is not cautious or fearful of offending a critic or any of America’s adversaries. In this, Trump has a personality type that’s common to the charismatic leaders who emerge in times of turmoil and uncertainty, when people are ready to follow a strong leader who promises to lead them to greatness. Sigmund Freud called people with this personality type “normal narcissists” and he described them as independent and not vulnerable to intimidation, also noting that they have a large amount of aggressive energy and a bias for action. Freud included himself in this group and saw these narcissists as driven to lead and to change the world. Such narcissists can be very charming, and indeed, research has shown most of us like to follow narcissists.”

As University College London business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic said in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Why We Love Narcissists,” they are masterful impression managers, manipulate credit and blame in their favor, and fit the stereotype expected form leaders: overconfident, charismatic and selfish.

Recall Noonan’s examples of the Georgia retiree cheering for Trump like she cheered for Obama, or her Latino friend who said, “He’s the man.” It’s not just that “both sides, elites and the non-elites, sense that things are stuck,” as Noonan opined. Rather, Americans,  including those drawn to Sanders’ class-centric critique and his redistribute-the-spoils remedies, viscerally feel these men have a vision and can lead. You could call that the poetry of the campaign trail, versus the prose—or reality—of governing. And that’s where Maccoby says where “productive narcissists” can go off the rails.

“I have done much additional study of leaders such as these, whom I call productive narcissists,” he wrote this week. “The results of this research were first published in my Harvard Business Review article of 2000, “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons” (which was later expanded into a book). I wrote that productive narcissists like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison were exploiting new technologies to create great companies, just as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford did over a century ago. However, I also illustrated that people with this personality type, however brilliant, have potential weaknesses that can do them in.”

To succeed in business and politics, leaders like these either need able assistants who can rein in their excesses, or “they should pretend to learn to be humble." He continued, “I’ve seen CEOs who were productive narcissists who have become so inflated with their success and the adulation of followers that they rejected the sidekicks who held them back from rash action. The same is true of national leaders. When Napoleon fired his adviser, Talleyrand, there was no one to dissuade him from his disastrous invasion of Russia.”

Maccoby has similar cautionary words for their followers, who “must also take a step back to attain perspective. People who become entranced by charsimatic narcissists—whether in the business or political realm—often fail to sufficiently evaluate the leader’s policies and their ability to execute them. Are their policies realistic? How will they be implemented? What results will they produce in the long run? Do the leaders in question have trusted advisors to keep them from taking rash actions?”

That last point is especially poignant when it comes to Trump. His political advisor, until Trump started going after Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, and was fired—or agreed to go—was Roger Stone, who sat with folded arms in a white linen suit in a full-page photo spread atop the most recent ThursdayStyle section of The New York Times. Stone told him to stop attacking Kelly, the Times said.

Stone has been an extraordinarily sleazy political operator for years. As the man who has Nixon’s face tattooed on his back told The New Yorker in a 2008profile, he mostly lives in Florida—“a sunny place for shady people. I fit right in.” Stone has worked with the most notorious GOP political hit men for decades. His recent resume includes being the man who helped bring down ex-New York Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer; he was at a Miami strip club when a prostitute told him that she almost had a date with Spitzer.

The fact that Stone was Trump’s advisor until weeks ago is revealing—given his rocky past relationship with Trump. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobinnoted, Trump flirted with running for president in 2000 and hired and fired Stone then. “Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump told Toobin. “He always tries taking credit for things he never did.” Later in the article, Trump tells Toobin that the New York State GOP fired him after learning Stone made anonymous calls threatening Spitzer’s elderly father. “They caught Roger red-handed lying,” Trump said. “What he did was ridiculous and stupid.”

Toobin points out that Stone loves whatever-it-takes success and turning the world into his stage. No wonder he and Trump have an ongoing relationship of mutual convenience, regardless of its dark undercurrents. As Trump parades across the landscape that is the 2016 campaign, it is easy to understand why a billionaire narcissist with a ruthless streak has genuine popular appeal—as Maccoby explains. But should the Trump phenomenon translate into the possibility of winning the nomination, it raises very serious questions, as Dean points out, about “how far a truly authoritarian leader can go in America.”

Maccoby distinguishes between constructive and destructive narcissists. “Narcissistic leaders can create companies like Apple or those like Enron. Like Lincoln and Nelson Mandela they can change the world for the better, or like Napoleon and Hitler they can lead their followers to disaster. In the final accounting, a large part of the credit for their successes, or blame for their failures, belongs to the people who followed them.”

Will enough people keep following Trump to make him the GOP nominee? There’s no telling. But the fact that millions of Americans are currently flocking to arguably the biggest narcissist in the country is a very sobering thought.


Donald Trump's Most Insane and Controversial Comments


By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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