January 29, 2017
This week, a Johns Hopkins psychologist publicly (and, it should be noted, without the benefit of any firsthand interactions) diagnosed President Trump as a malignant narcissist. Whether or not there’s any professional validity to this diagnosis, it provides some validation for what many of us have intuitively felt since he showed up on the scene. We can recognize the narcissistic behaviors because we’ve all encountered narcissists in our personal and professional lives. I suspect that most of us have come away more than a little bruised and bewildered from these encounters. As for the word “malignant,” I’m not sure what it signifies in the professional lexicon, but to a layperson it indicates that this particular narcissist is a really really bad one, like cancer, like a death sentence. Which is certainly how it felt this week.
Discussions of Trump’s personality often focus on his fragile ego and his colossal insecurity. I suspect that even his most ardent supporters would have trouble denying that the guy spends a fair amount of time asserting his own greatness. This fragile ego is a clue to the first of four key rejections that I observe Mr. Trump engaged in, all of which stem from and/or drive his narcissism. The first, and I believe most fundamental, rejection is of his own self-worth as a person. We all experience feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness at times, or even throughout our lives, but it’s hard to conceive of someone who so manifestly feels as utterly and completely worthless as our new President.
Mr. Trump demonstrated his second key rejection with this week’s executive order banning immigration, including of refugees, from predominantly Muslim countries: he rejects the worth of others. Anyone who is not him—or who doesn’t somehow bolster the compensations necessary to cover up his rejection of self—is not worthy of, well, anything. He rejects others’ dignity, their rights, their experiences, and what they have in common with people you’d expect him to celebrate. He is so far from being able to see the possible contributions to our society of immigrants and any other perceived enemy that he can’t understand the objections to his regressive policies. If you dare to disagree with him on the immigration issue or any others, you are by definition worthless.
President Trump’s third rejection has also been front and center since he started campaigning for the Republican nomination: he rejects rules. Rules are created by bodies of people who come together to define shared processes within which (they hope) opportunity, prosperity, and progress can be maximized. Trump is not alone, historically or currently, in seeing an opportunity for himself or his party in first defying and then attempting to shatter the rules. Rule-breaking is another concomitant of narcissism and reinforces the rejection of others, especially anyone who tries to defend the rules and the rationales from which they derive.
Mr. Trump’s fourth important rejection is of evidence. To him, concepts like truth and facts are irrelevant, maybe even nonexistent. The only criterion for whether he will accept what someone says or observes or counts or demonstrates is how much it validates his own self-aggrandizing words and actions. It’s not that Mr. Trump does his best to argue against the facts of an opposing ideology, it’s that he can’t participate in a discussion in which evidence is a relevant factor. So he asserts the primacy of his single criterion: If it’s what I said, it’s true; if it’s not what I said, it’s … nothing.
These four rejections—of self, others, rules, and evidence—are already causing serious negative ripple effects in our culture. Mr. Trump’s rise to power has emboldened all who share any of his rejections. These people have always been there, but now they have a voice—a loud voice with the biggest megaphone—who channels their self-loathing, their antipathy toward difference, their impulse to cheat, and their refusal to accept the world as it really is. Clearly this is sad and deeply troubling.
However, as Donald Trump continues to rage against any perceived threat to his supremacy, he will say and do increasingly ludicrous, dangerous things that provide an opportunity for maybe the most powerful object lesson that American children have had in generations. As he tries to dismantle—and to some (hopefully small) extent succeeds in dismantling—many of America’s great achievements, he can help us see the destructiveness of his four rejections. His terrible example can help us look inside ourselves and see how our personal rejections of self, others, the rules, and the truth hurt us and those around us. The denials of our own value and the human experiences we share with our family, friends, and neighbors diminish and destroy so many relationships every day. The denials of shared norms and facts undermine our happiness and productivity, and keep us, our families, and our businesses from reaching their full potential.
Donald Trump is a gigantic warning sign. In giant gaudy flashing lights, the sign says, “This is what happens when you hate yourself, deny our common humanity, disavow the shared wisdom of generations as codified in customs and constitutions, and reject observation, experience, and reason.” Okay, that’s kind of long for a sign, so let’s call it a warning label. Personally, as a writer and teacher, I plan to continue calling attention to this warning label every chance I get.
It remains to be seen how much damage this malignant narcissist—and the increasingly narcissistic party that brought him to power—will do, but whatever happens there will presumably be a future America that will need to heed the warnings of this one. That future America must be ready to start accepting the things this one has led so many of us to reject. The actions of our current president can show us just how sad and dangerous his four rejections are.
Here’s hoping the next generation never gets remotely close to rewarding such a person as this with so much power. The key lies in accepting—and, of course, seeking to improve—ourselves; in accepting the value and contributions of others, no matter how different they are; in accepting—though again, while seeking to improve—the rules; and in accepting empirical evidence as a guide for acting and bettering the world. We must reject the rejections that can bring about such insecurity and suffering.