It took a while to fully manifest, but what many social critics, most notably Christopher Lasch (author of The Culture of Narcissism), noticed bubbling up from the painful social and economic conditions of the last third of the 20th century has finally burst into full Technicolor glory in the image of America’s president. In the form of Donald Trump we have a bloated ball of toxic energy whose name, pasted on gaudy skyscrapers the world over, has become a byword for pathological narcissism.
“Donald Trump's malignant narcissism is toxic,” shouts one headline. “President Trump is a 'world class narcissist,'" exclaims another. Even the New York Post editorial board blares, “Trump’s narcissism on display,” admitting that the nauseating suck-up routine of the president’s team left even Republicans disgusted.
Well, yes. Trump is clearly a narcissist of the nastiest variety. But are we in danger of becoming the flip side of his gilded coin?
In psychological terms, narcissism is what can happen when we respond to helplessness, loss and rage by creating a false self as a defense. Narcissists first fashion their own fake reality, then work to extend it to others. They hone in on what you lack and build the illusion that they can provide it. Feel beaten down? They will lift you up. Feeling left behind? They will put you first. Lack money? They will be your financial saviors. And so on. All illusory, of course.
The president, like any narcissist worth his bag of tricks, sees the world as an extension of himself. “America First” is nothing more than his own grandiose, power-hungry, bullying personality writ large. It’s a psychological sleight-of-hand, but the magician can’t pull off the performance alone. He needs a receptive audience — and receptive does not always mean going along with the show. A certain kind of resistance works just as well.
The narcissist has a necessary counterpart, commonly known as the codependent (more often codependents, plural). The term was first used to describe enabling family members who become addicted to the distressing behavior of an alcoholic. Now the concept has been extended to those who unwittingly prop up all kinds of destructive personalities, narcissists in particular. One common type is easy to spot: he’s a worn out soul, constantly bending his realty to the narcissist’s and believing empty promises no matter how often these turn into dust. Let’s call this type the Acquiescing Codependent, sometimes known as the "Pleaser."
There’s another sort of helper who is just as valuable to the narcissist. You might think of this type as the Resisting Codependent — the one who fights, castigates and demands accountability. Some of these are known as "fixers" for their urge to correct or set right the damaging behavior of the narcissist.
Either is useful because the narcissist is energized by attention, negative or positive. It really doesn’t matter, just as long as he remains the star of the show.
Maybe you’ve had the experience of a friend calling you in a frenzy over the antics of a narcissistic girlfriend. “Can you believe her?” he screams. “How can anyone behave like that? What the hell is wrong with her?” The gory details are chewed over and regurgitated. Maybe he dumps her, but takes her back on the condition that she never repeat the awful behavior, which of course she does— in spades. Or maybe he really does cut her loose, only to end up, six months later, with another, even more malignant narcissist. A year goes by and he has become utterly consumed with punishing, exposing and exacting revenge on any narcissist who crosses his path. There seem to be a lot of them.
I get it, because I have been that guy. Or gal, in my case. I have a knack for attracting narcissists of all stripes. Cerebral narcissists. Somatic narcissists. Rich ones. Poor ones. Some with seemingly humane false selves. Others sporting bad boy personas. All with uncommon capabilities for causing chaos around them.
But I was smart! I would glance over the band of gushing enablers surrounding these people and smile smugly to myself: Well, I am not one of those. Not me. I was a Resister. I lectured the narcissists and insisted on answerability. I studied them intensely and gave them books and articles on their condition. I argued, prescribed and diligently worked to get positive results out of confusion.
What I did not realize is that while my mind was busy performing all these challenging gymnastics, my body was becoming sick — addicted to potent emotional surges, flashes of outrage. By focusing intensely on narcissistic partners, my own personality was disintegrating. Soon enough, I was mirroring, even amplifying, the same bullying, insecure and paranoid traits I had been railing against. In the short run, I became a sorrier mess than the any of the Acquiescers.
The truth is that anyone fixated on a narcissist is in a bind. Both the Acquiescer and the Resister are stuck imagining a future in which things will be straightened out and made right. The placating codependent fantasizes that the narcissist will be the real hero he or she yearns for. The resisting codependent imagines that the narcissist will be defeated, forced to confront his errors. Neither is likely to happen.
Narcissists hook us in different ways, but no matter how they get us, as long as we are focusing on them, we are never going to be anything close to healthy.
Which brings us back to Trump.
Feeling smacked around and violated — either as individuals or as a people —pisses us off and can also make us obsessive. Our brains evolved in two ways that were handy for a weak biped avoiding predators on the savannah, but not so much for a contemporary human dealing with narcissistic abuse. We tend to pay the most attention to negative things in our environment, and we also focus intently on the unexpected.
When we have a narcissist acting out at the center of our attention whose moves both defy logic and spark negative emotions, that person sets off fireworks in our brains and transfixes our interest. We stay hyper-alert to what he will do or say (or tweet) next. Watching the narcissist’s behavior is disorienting. The laws of reality that normally apply appear to have vanished: the sky is red and the sea is pink. The sheer weirdness of it is mesmerizing.
Trump’s unnerving behavior is tailor-made to get us poring over his motivations and pathology. When we find ourselves losing sleep by constantly checking our news alerts and feeds for the latest outrage, we are getting addicted to the same sort of emotional surges that can hook us in any narcissistic relationship. Without realizing it, we’re cultivating both a mental and physiological compulsion.
We develop fantasies about the future as our minds try to create order out of mayhem. He’ll be impeached! Somebody will lock up this madman! We become cranky and paranoid. We may find ourselves saying intolerant things about those who don’t share our views. Or we become so obsessed with bad behavior that we lose the ability to distinguish the trivial from the truly threatening. Eventually, we lose our ability to respond creatively to the problems our country faces. And those, to be sure, are formidable.
Lasch, using Freudian psychology as a guide, described malignant narcissism as what societies produce as a prevalent type when people lose the traditional skills, meaningful jobs and family bonds that used to give them pride and purpose. They turn to the makeshift satisfactions of consumerism and corporate culture to try to find meaning and status. Today, we can add to these depressing tensions the scourge of increased institutional distrust, declining status among many (most vividly the white working class), persistent racism and sexism, and economic inequality so flagrant it is taking on Gilded Age proportions. The upshot is an epidemic of discontent, alienation and rage. Read through a psychological lens, our current situation looks alarming.
A narcissist president is attempting to suck the life out of a nation already in pain, but we do not have to be powerless or fixated. The circumstances require that we shift our attention, strategies and activities. Here are five ways to steer ourselves back to empowerment and sanity.
1. Claim the opportunity. Narcissists are napalm to humanity, but they also create opportunities for healing. They can help us clarify what is important by exposing our deepest wounds, fears, and needs. These wounds, on a societal level, may include intolerance, harm to nature, inequality, and a painful lack of connection and purpose. What is it about Trump’s presidency that gives you the biggest emotional charge? The one that hurts the most? That’s the place to dig in and invest your attention in the form seeking out solutions rather than staying mired in the pain.
The shattering agony of narcissistic abuse gives us the chance to ask big questions: What are the belief systems, underlying assumptions, and ways of framing experience that do not serve us? Dr. Martin Luther King helped focus our national attention on the wound of racism and its attendant belief systems at a time when violence and social unrest were exposing it. Fifty years later, wounds that have been festering in our society are again surfacing in painful ways. The trauma of Trump could be the catalyst to galvanize us into focus and creative action.
2. Shift the focus. There’s not much to be gained by constantly micro-analyzing the behavior and psychology of our disordered president. By now, we know what he is and what he will always create around him: chaos. This is not going to change. In personal relationships, we can opt to go “no contact” with such a person. There’s no ignoring a president, but instead of wasting our energy throwing up our hands in horror every time he behaves like himself, endlessly circulating his tweets and replaying his baffling actions, we can focus on things that are bigger and more powerful than this one man.
We can actively turn our attention to protecting and strengthening our democratic institutions, electing representatives who will better serve us, and learning how to mobilize and organize in our communities. Lasch wrote in the 1970s that despite the plague of narcissism, traditions of localism, self‐help and community action are always available to create a new vision of society. His words remain true today. We can recognize that Trump is the symptom, not the cause, of giant forces like globalization and inequality that require patient, long-term planning and action to confront. Trump is not the real problem: the problem is whatever created the conditions for his presidency,
3. Do the opposite. Instead of reflecting the destructive ways of the narcissist, we can double down on behaviors and activities that are the opposite of narcissism, like engaging in diplomacy and collective action. We can emphasize cooperation and compassion over competition and judgment in our workplaces, with our children, and in our relationships and communities.
Caveat: Many people believe that empathy is the opposite of narcissism, but it is possible to overdo empathy and take on the pain of others in ways that are harmful. Setting reasonable boundaries and responding to toxic people and situations with loving detachment that allows us to think and act clearly are all the opposite of narcissism.
Narcissists are not fans of real intellectual exertion or scientific inquiry, preferring to posture and distort reality in ways convenient to the warped perspectives of their false selves. Wherever possible, we can commit ourselves to deep intellectual dives and rigorous investigations. We can cultivate the habits of regularly refuting our own ideas, studying our biases, questioning what we observe, and seeking out further evidence. We can break through our bubbles and engage with people with whom we disagree, from parts of the country and the world we may not understand. Taking the perspectives of others seriously, whether they live in Afghanistan or Appalachia, is the opposite of narcissism.
4. Change the narrative. The president’s narrative for the country is that of his false self, one in which a big bully uses cutthroat tactics to win a zero-sum game. Win-win is never a possibility, only win-lose. Trump’s address announcing the U.S. withdrawal from a landmark agreement on the world climate crisis was a particularly stark example of this storyline. When we react to such false narratives with lamentations about disintegration and decline, we are showing signs of the existential malaise that narcissists usually end up producing.
Freud recognized that narcissism is connected to the death instinct, the drive that gets us hankering after a state in which we never have to depend on anyone. The mythic Narcissus died staring at his reflection as the nymph Echo called out to him in vain. Narcissistic narratives, at their core, are death narratives.
In the face of this, we need life-affirming stories. When Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the mayors of several major American cities vowed to uphold it. Citizens responded by organizing to pressure business and political leaders. Instead of “All is lost,” the narrative becomes, “We will do this no matter what.”
Instead of counting on the blunders of Trump and his administration to sway Americans to choose a different path for the future, people in opposition can create aspirational narratives concerning things that deeply matter to them. A message like “We believe healthcare is the right of every citizen” sounds much more inspiring than “We’re not Trump.”
5. Take the long view. In four years, or eight if things go especially badly, Donald Trump will no longer be president. He may leave with his gigantic ego and bank account ballooning, but the things narcissists build are inherently unstable. They don’t tend to hold up over the long run.
Trump’s presidency may appear to be a trauma that can only bring about collective post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a real possibility, but there’s another reaction to trauma that psychological researchers, notably Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, have become increasingly interested in: post-traumatic growth — what happens when we find a way toward positive change as a result of a crisis. The theme is really an ancient one: the hero must descend into hell before claiming her true abilities and strength. PTG implies that suffering can be positively transformative. The end result is more than merely surviving — it's thriving.
The lives of human beings and the history of societies are fundamentally about crises and how we respond to them. The way we struggle with the new reality in the face of the trauma of narcissism is what determines our future.