The Narcissist's Addiction to Fame and Celebrity
Frequently Asked Questions # 19
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By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Are Narcissists addicted to being famous?
In our narcissistic civilization, people dread not being noticed and being ignored. Modern technologies such as social networking are all about fostering a culture of mini-celebrity and garnering addictive spurts of micro-attention.
The narcissist, of course, is addicted to fame and celebrity: it is his first and predominant line of defense against the mass anonymity that characterizes modern industrial societies in our over-populated world. Being famous encompasses a few important functions: it endows the narcissist with power, provides him with a constant Source of Narcissistic Supply (admiration, adoration, approval, awe), and fulfils important Ego functions.
The image that the narcissist projects is hurled back at him, reflected by those exposed to his celebrity or fame. This way he feels alive, his very existence is affirmed and he acquires a sensation of clear boundaries (where the narcissist ends and the world begins).
There is a set of narcissistic behaviours typical to the pursuit of celebrity. There is almost nothing that the narcissist refrains from doing, almost no borders that he hesitates to cross to achieve renown. To him, there is no such thing as "bad publicity" – what matters is to be in the public eye.
Because the narcissist equally enjoys all types of attention and likes as much to be feared as to be loved, for instance – he doesn't mind if what is published about him is wrong ("as long as they spell my name correctly"). The narcissist's only bad emotional stretches are during periods of lack of attention, publicity, or exposure.
The narcissist then feels empty, hollowed out, negligible, humiliated, wrathful, discriminated against, deprived, neglected, treated unjustly and so on. At first, he tries to obtain attention from ever narrowing groups of reference ("supply scale down"). But the feeling that he is compromising gnaws at his anyhow fragile self-esteem.
Sooner or later, the spring bursts. The narcissist plots, contrives, plans, conspires, thinks, analyses, synthesises and does whatever else is necessary to regain the lost exposure in the public eye. The more he fails to secure the attention of the target group (always the largest) – the more daring, eccentric and outlandish he becomes. Firm decision to become known is transformed into resolute action and then to a panicky pattern of attention seeking behaviours.
The narcissist is not really interested in publicity per se. Narcissists are misleading. The narcissist appears to love himself – and, really, he abhors himself. Similarly, he appears to be interested in becoming a celebrity – and, in reality, he is concerned with the REACTIONS to his fame: people watch him, notice him, talk about him, debate his actions – therefore he exists.
The narcissist goes around "hunting and collecting" the way the expressions on people's faces change when they notice him. He places himself at the centre of attention, or even as a figure of controversy. He constantly and recurrently pesters those nearest and dearest to him in a bid to reassure himself that he is not losing his fame, his magic touch, the attention of his social milieu.
Truly, the narcissist is not choosy. If he can become famous as a writer – he writes, if as a businessman – he conducts business. He switches from one field to the other with ease and without remorse because in all of them he is present without conviction, bar the conviction that he must (and deserves to) get famous.
He grades activities, hobbies and people not according to the pleasure that they give him – but according to their utility: can they or can't they make him known and, if so, to what extent. The narcissist is one-track minded (not to say obsessive). His is a world of black (being unknown and deprived of attention) and white (being famous and celebrated).
Granted to Superinteressante Magazine in Brazil
Q. Fame and TV shows about celebrities usually have a huge audience. This is understandable: people like to see other successful people. But why people like to see celebrities being humiliated?
A. As far as their fans are concerned, celebrities fulfil two emotional functions: they provide a mythical narrative (a story that the fan can follow and identify with) and they function as blank screens onto which the fans project their dreams, hopes, fears, plans, values, and desires (wish fulfilment). The slightest deviation from these prescribed roles provokes enormous rage and makes us want to punish (humiliate) the "deviant" celebrities.
When the human foibles, vulnerabilities, and frailties of a celebrity are revealed, the fan feels humiliated, "cheated", hopeless, and "empty". To reassert his self-worth, the fan must establish his or her moral superiority over the erring and "sinful" celebrity. The fan must "teach the celebrity a lesson" and show the celebrity "who's boss". It is a primitive defense mechanism - narcissistic grandiosity. It puts the fan on equal footing with the exposed and "naked" celebrity.
Q. This taste for watching a person being humiliated has something to do with the attraction to catastrophes and tragedies?
A. There is always a sadistic pleasure and a morbid fascination in vicarious suffering. Being spared the pains and tribulations others go through makes the observer feel "chosen", secure, and virtuous. The higher celebrities rise, the harder they fall. There is something gratifying in hubris defied and punished.
Q. Do you believe the audience put themselves in the place of the reporter (when he asks something embarrassing to a celebrity) and become in some way revenged?
A. The reporter "represents" the "bloodthirsty" public. Belittling celebrities or watching their comeuppance is the modern equivalent of the gladiator rink. Gossip used to fulfil the same function and now the mass media broadcast live the slaughtering of fallen gods. There is no question of revenge here - just Schadenfreude, the guilty joy of witnessing your superiors penalized and "cut down to size".
This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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Q. In your country, who are the celebrities people love to hate?
A. Israelis like to watch politicians and wealthy businessmen reduced, demeaned, and slighted. In Macedonia, where I live, all famous people, regardless of their vocation, are subject to intense, proactive, and destructive envy. This love-hate relationship with their idols, this ambivalence, is attributed by psychodynamic theories of personal development to the child's emotions towards his parents. Indeed, we transfer and displace many negative emotions we harbor onto celebrities.
Q. I would never dare asking some questions the reporters from Panico ask the celebrities. What are the characteristics of people like these reporters?
A. Sadistic, ambitious, narcissistic, lacking empathy, self-righteous, pathologically and destructively envious, with a fluctuating sense of self-worth (possibly an inferiority complex).
6. Do you believe the actors and reporters want themselves to be as famous as the celebrities they tease? Because I think this is almost happening...
A. The line is very thin. Newsmakers and newsmen and women are celebrities merely because they are public figures and regardless of their true accomplishments. A celebrity is famous for being famous. Of course, such journalists will likely to fall prey to up and coming colleagues in an endless and self-perpetuating food chain...
7. I think that the fan-celebrity relationship gratifies both sides. What are the advantages the fans get and what are the advantages the celebrities get?
A. There is an implicit contract between a celebrity and his fans. The celebrity is obliged to "act the part", to fulfil the expectations of his admirers, not to deviate from the roles that they impose and he or she accepts. In return the fans shower the celebrity with adulation. They idolize him or her and make him or her feel omnipotent, immortal, "larger than life", omniscient, superior, and sui generis (unique).
What are the fans getting for their trouble?
Above all, the ability to vicariously share the celebrity's fabulous (and, usually, partly confabulated) existence. The celebrity becomes their "representative" in fantasyland, their extension and proxy, the reification and embodiment of their deepest desires and most secret and guilty dreams. Many celebrities are also role models or father/mother figures. Celebrities are proof that there is more to life than drab and routine. That beautiful - nay, perfect - people do exist and that they do lead charmed lives. There's hope yet - this is the celebrity's message to his fans.
The celebrity's inevitable downfall and corruption is the modern-day equivalent of the medieval morality play. This trajectory - from rags to riches and fame and back to rags or worse - proves that order and justice do prevail, that hubris invariably gets punished, and that the celebrity is no better, neither is he superior, to his fans.
8. Why are celebrities narcissists? How is this disorder born?
No one knows if pathological narcissism is the outcome of inherited traits, the sad result of abusive and traumatizing upbringing, or the confluence of both. Often, in the same family, with the same set of parents and an identical emotional environment - some siblings grow to be malignant narcissists, while others are perfectly "normal". Surely, this indicates a genetic predisposition of some people to develop narcissism.
It would seem reasonable to assume - though, at this stage, there is not a shred of proof - that the narcissist is born with a propensity to develop narcissistic defenses. These are triggered by abuse or trauma during the formative years in infancy or during early adolescence. By "abuse" I am referring to a spectrum of behaviors which objectify the child and treat it as an extension of the caregiver (parent) or as a mere instrument of gratification. Dotting and smothering are as abusive as beating and starving. And abuse can be dished out by peers as well as by parents, or by adult role models.
Not all celebrities are narcissists. Still, some of them surely are.
We all search for positive cues from people around us. These cues reinforce in us certain behaviour patterns. There is nothing special in the fact that the narcissist-celebrity does the same. However there are two major differences between the narcissistic and the normal personality.
The first is quantitative. The normal person is likely to welcome a moderate amount of attention – verbal and non-verbal – in the form of affirmation, approval, or admiration. Too much attention, though, is perceived as onerous and is avoided. Destructive and negative criticism is avoided altogether.
The narcissist, in contrast, is the mental equivalent of an alcoholic. He is insatiable. He directs his whole behaviour, in fact his life, to obtain these pleasurable titbits of attention. He embeds them in a coherent, completely biased, picture of himself. He uses them to regulates his labile (fluctuating) sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
To elicit constant interest, the narcissist projects on to others a confabulated, fictitious version of himself, known as the False Self. The False Self is everything the narcissist is not: omniscient, omnipotent, charming, intelligent, rich, or well-connected.
The narcissist then proceeds to harvest reactions to this projected image from family members, friends, co-workers, neighbours, business partners and from colleagues. If these – the adulation, admiration, attention, fear, respect, applause, affirmation – are not forthcoming, the narcissist demands them, or extorts them. Money, compliments, a favourable critique, an appearance in the media, a sexual conquest are all converted into the same currency in the narcissist's mind, into "narcissistic supply".
So, the narcissist is not really interested in publicity per se or in being famous. Truly he is concerned with the REACTIONS to his fame: how people watch him, notice him, talk about him, debate his actions. It "proves" to him that he exists.
The narcissist goes around "hunting and collecting" the way the expressions on people's faces change when they notice him. He places himself at the centre of attention, or even as a figure of controversy. He constantly and recurrently pesters those nearest and dearest to him in a bid to reassure himself that he is not losing his fame, his magic touch, the attention of his social milieu.
Cyber-celebrity vs. “Real” World Fame
I know at least ten people whose personal Websites attract as many unique visitors a year as the number of copies sold of Dan Brown’s books. Yet, Dan Brown is a global celebrity and they remain largely anonymous. Why is that? Fame is defined as the number of people who have heard about you. If the same number of people learns of your existence online as has heard of Dan Brown, why is it that he is in all the prime time TV talk shows and you are not? What is the difference between cyber-fame and the “real world” variety? Isn’t the Internet an integral part of our reality?
Many veteran institutions regard cyberspace as a threat to their continuing prosperity, or even existence. The publishing, music, and film industries; academe; libraries; bookstores; newspapers; and governments are all apprehensive about the Internet’s culture of laissez faire, seeming encroachment on their territories, and controlled anarchy. They deliberately (and at their own peril) ignore the main actors there. Thus, while “real-world” experts may have a presence on the Internet (in the form of a blog or a social networking page), specialists whose mainstay is in cyberspace are rarely if ever invited to share their wisdom and experience with academics and other gatekeepers. They are shunned because they “lack credentials” or because their virtual presence makes them “not serious”. Online fame and celebrity do not spill over into television and magazine fame or academic recognition because television and magazines and universities and publishers of works of reference are being decimated by the Internet and regard it as “the competition”.
The medium itself – the Internet – poses additional obstacles to attaining “real world” fame. Because barriers to entry are low (anyone can and does have a Website), reputation relies solely on word-of-mouth. As opposed to other mechanisms of establishing reputation and credentials (such as peer review or investigative journalism), the word-of-mouth sort is very easy to manipulate and control. The Internet’s is a mob mentality and crowds source its “information”. In other words: to an extreme degree, you can’t trust what you read and see online. Text, images, videos can all be doctored and tampered with. Nothing is authentic and, therefore, nothing is “real”. Rumours, gossip, and disjointed facts pass for “knowledge” or “reporting”. Since the bulk of cyberspace is populated by anonymous users and because identities, personal biographies, credentials, and claims cannot be staked or supported properly, the Internet is a universe of apparitions, ephemeral avatars, and “handles”. These tend to vanish overnight with startling regularity.
The celebrities of the “real world” – from Madonna to Dan Brown – have been with us for many years. Their output has been vetted by peers, editors, publishers, media executives, producers, anchors, eyewitnesses, and flesh-and-blood consumers. We feel a modicum of intimacy with Brad Pitt that we can never develop with, say, Larry Singer (a co-founder of the Wikipedia). Brad Pitt is three-dimensional: he has a body, a face, a wife, kids, habits we follow, comments he utters, interviews he grants, property he buys and sells, movies he makes, causes he supports. The number of people who use the Wikipedia annually far exceeds the number of people who had watched all of Pitt’s films put together. Yet, few have heard about Sanger. That’s because Sanger is a mere handle: he is two-dimensional, more a representation of a concept than a “person”. We may know he is out there and we may be cognizant of his contributions to the Wikipedia and Citizendium, but that is the extent of it. Jimmy Wales – Wikipedia’s other co-founder and driving force – is as close to a cyber-celebrity as they get, yet even he doesn’t reap an infinitesimal fraction of the coverage that Pitt effortlessly garners.
Until the Internet is better regulated, the way to fame is outside its bounds. Cyberspace is merely another – marginal and auxiliary - marketing and branding venue. No matter how many people have visited your Website as long as they haven’t “met” you through a more reliable venue (newspaper, print book, television, even radio), you are likely to remain anonymous (literally: nameless).
Narcissist of Substance vs. Narcissist of Appearances
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Why do some narcissists end up being over-achievers, pillars of the community, and accomplished professionals - while their brethren fade into obscurity, having done little of note with their lives?
There seem to be two types of narcissists: those who derive ample narcissistic supply from mere appearances (“Potemkin narcissists”) and those whose narcissistic supply consists of doing substantial deeds, of acting as change-agents, of making a difference, and of creating and producing things of value. The former type aim for celebrity (defined as "being famous for being famous") and the fostering and promulgation of an “empty brand” (name recognition without commensurate real-life accomplishments). In contradistinction, narcissists of substance strive for meaningful careers, albeit in the limelight.
We find Potemkin narcissists with empty brands in politics (the “Being There Syndrome” manifested in the likes of Obama, Palin, and Putin); in the media (where, for example, compulsively self-promoting physicists like Kaku or even Hawking are worshipped as transformative geniuses even though they are credited with a mere single, esoteric, and marginal contribution to physics, decades ago); in business (e.g. Donald Trump, or the infamous “empty suits”); and in entertainment (Paris Hilton, the Kardashians).
To create the empty brand, the narcissist cultivates a following with his alleged distinct character traits, looks, behavioral modes, daring audacity, and even shallowness (presenting his facade as proof that he is “a common man or woman, a typical member of the crowd”). He transforms himself into a fantastically grandiose cartoon, a caricature of the unfulfilled dreams, hopes, and wishes of his acolytes.
The Potemkin Narcissist accomplishes the impossible: he resonates with the shortcomings, losses, and failures of his obsequious “constituencies” or rapt audience even as he simultaneously ostentatiously flaunts his flamboyance, riches, and glamorous, meticulously documented life. This paradoxical admixture imbues his proponents, fans, followers, adherents, and admirers with hope: “We are so alike! If he made it, then, surely, so can I!” TV reality show programs like “The Apprentice” or “American Idol” capture this yearning for a breakthrough, a deus ex machina resolution and solution to the dreariness, shabbiness, and miserable hopelessness of the average spectator’s life. As the late lamented Bruno Bettelheim noted, these are the very same elements that make up great fairy tales like Cinderella or Red Riding Hood.
The celebrity narcissist has a short attention span. He rapidly cycles between the idealization and devaluation of ideas, ventures, places, and people. This renders him unfit for team work. Though energetic and manic, he is indolent: he prefers the path of least resistance and adheres to shoddy standards of production. His lack of work ethic can partly be attributed to his overpowering sense of entitlement and to his magical thinking, both of which give rise to unrealistic expectations of effortless outcomes.
The life of the celebrity narcissist is chaotic and characterized by inconsistency and by a dire lack of long-term planning and commitment. He is not really interested in people (except in their roles as instruments of instant gratification and sources of narcissistic supply). His learning and affected erudition are designed solely to impress and are, therefore, shallow and anecdotal. His actions are not geared towards creating works of lasting value, effecting change, or making a difference. All he cares about is attention: provoking and garnering it in copious quantities. The celebrity narcissist is, therefore, not above confabulating, plagiarizing, outright crime, and otherwise using short-cuts to obtain his fix.
The other strain of narcissist, the career narcissist, is very concerned with leaving his mark and stamp on the world. He feels a calling, often of cosmic significance. He is busy reforming his environment, transforming his milieu, making a difference, and producing and creating an oeuvre of standing value. His is a grandiose idée fixe which he cathexes. To scale these lofty self-imputed peaks and to realize his goals, the career narcissist acts with unswerving passion and commitment. He plans and inexorably and ruthlessly implements his schemes and stratagems, a workaholic in pursuit of glory and fame.
The career narcissist does not recoil from cutting the odd corner, proffering the occasional confabulation, or absconding with the fruits of someone else's labor. But while these amount to the entire arsenal and the exclusive modus operandi of the celebrity narcissist, they are auxiliary as far as the career narcissist is concerned. His main weapon is toil.
The career narcissist is a natural-born leader. When not a guru at the center of a cult, he operates as the first among equals in a team. This is where the differences between the celebrity narcissist and the career narcissist are most pronounced: the relationships maintained by the former are manipulative, exploitative, and ephemeral. The career narcissist, by comparison, is willing and able to negotiate, compromise, give-and-take, motivate others, induce loyalty, forge alliances and coalitions and benefit from these in the long-term. It is this capacity to network that guarantees him a place in the common memory and an abiding reputation among his peers.
Not unexpectedly, the communication styles of these two types of narcissists are completely different. The Potemkin narcissist is sensitive to form, protocol, decorum, and etiquette. He is hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for signs of disrespect, insults, and slights. He reacts with unbridled rage to any hint of disregard, disagreement, or criticism. The narcissist of appearances is vindictive, holds grudges, and obsessive-compulsive in his reactions to such misconduct and awelessness. In contrast, the narcissist of substance tends to focus on content rather than delivery. He is pragmatic and willing to compromise and reach a consensus. He does not take everything personally and to heart. He bears no grudges and is, usually, not vindictive (though he may be decisive or even punitive).
Donald Trump: A Narcissist? Interview granted to “American Thinker”, March 2016
Q: Psychiatrists are generally precluded from publicly discussing their opinions or findings concerning individuals' mental illness. But Dr. Vaknin, your expertise comes by over twenty years of focused study of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) free of such inhibition. You have related grave concerns about one of our Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump. I think anyone might relate narcissism with Trump as a fairly obvious and perhaps innocuous trait. But you mean something else.
A: I do. I was the first to introduce pathological narcissism into the terms of the political debate with my July 2008 essay where I suggested that Obama may be a narcissist. But Obama is intelligent and prosocial. Trump is neither. I regard him as much more of a menace than Obama ever was to the future of the USA and, by extension, the world. I am shocked that - despite an increasing awareness of the dangers of narcissism in the media and in the public - Trump is still making any headway in this election cycle.
Q. What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as a mental illness and how "malignant," as your book's title states, is it?
A. The latest, fifth, edition (2013) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) - the classificatory bible of psychology in North America - has done an excellent job of revamping the definition of NPD by introducing a dimensional description of the disorder. But, the diagnostic criteria from the previous, fourth, edition of the DSM are more accessible to laymen. So, here they are, updated with the latest knowledge we have about this pernicious disorder. You can easily see Trump writ large in each and every one of the nine criteria.
The narcissist ...
Q. How likely do you believe it is that Donald Trump has NPD? Why do you think so? Can you surmise how far up or down the NPD scale he may be?
A. I have watched 600 hours of video of Trump. Here are my preliminary clinical observations:
Trump confabulates a lot and has grandiose fantasies, which he has come to believe in, thus partially and intermittently losing touch with reality (delusionally "failing the reality test");
Trump is hypervigilant to the point of paranoia, besieged by conjured enemies and imaginary slights to his person, appearance, or accomplishments. He reacts aggressively and vindictively to such perceived narcissistic injuries and humiliations. His is a siege mentality;
Trump is a compulsive attention-seeker and will go to any extreme to obtain it;
Trump is counterdependent: he abhors authority, rules, traditions, and "The Establishment" and rebels against them vociferously and ostentatiously. He is manifestly defiant, contumacious, and abrasive. He is an avowed and ostentatious iconoclast;
Trump talks about himself in the third person ("Trump will do this") and often uses the royal "we" to refer to himself. His first person pronoun density (the number of times he uses "I", "me" and "myself" in a conversation or in interviews) is the highest I have ever heard from any politician, Obama included;
Trump places a premium on appearances rather than on substance. He judges people by their looks and attire, especially women who he tends to patronize and even disdain (although he is not a misogynist, merely a chauvinist);
Trump is highly somatic and hypochondriac as he emphasizes the way he dresses and refrains from damaging his shrine-like body by consuming substances like alcohol or nicotine. He is self-worshipping and painfully self-conscious;
Trump is disproportionately aggressive, hypersensitive, and defensive, faking superiority which, in all probability is compensatory: it masks a deep and unsettling sense of inferiority and extreme awareness of and an agonizing dependence upon what other people think of him ("thin skin");
Trump lacks empathy and clearly enjoys embarrassing and hurting other people gratuitously. Such antisocial bullying misconduct makes him feel (and, in his mind, actually renders him) all-powerful and God-like ("omnipotent"). He seems to regard himself as an intellectual and entrepreneurial Gulliver, trapped among contemptuous, pusillanimous, and retarded Lilliputians who he despises;
Trump has an inordinately developed "cold empathy": the kind of an "x-ray vision" that allows him to immediately spot the vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and chinks in the armor of his interlocutors, adversaries, partners, and enemies and to leverage this knowledge to his benefit by penetrating their defenses, taunting, and tormenting them, often with aggressive and cruel “humor”. This capacity for instant penetration allows him to resonate powerfully and intimately with the hidden hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions, and negative emotions (rage, hatred, fear) of his "constituencies". He is a consummate predator.
To my mind, Trump is the most perfect example I have ever come across of a malignant and, probably, psychopathic narcissist. Of course, he cannot be fully and assuredly diagnosed this way. Only a qualified mental health diagnostician can determine whether someone suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and this, following lengthy tests and personal interviews. But the overwhelming preponderance of presenting signs and symptoms and visual and textual evidence for tentative profiling is definitely there.
Q. Mr. Trump has recently threatened two other wealthy men with reprisals for behvior that he relates as being against him: Tom Ricketts (also, Ricketts' family) allegedly for "secretly" spending money against him and possibly his political ambitions, also Jeff Bezos, whose Washington Post has editorialized against his presidential candidacy. He has also threatened to sue Ted Cruz for his ad about Trump's varying positions on abortion. Is such behavior likely to be a trait of NPD? Also, one doesn't usually associate narcissism with violence, but Trump has apparently come out for ordering our military or intelligence personnel to murder the families of terrorist combatants, also to torture terrorists (or suspected terrorists or collaborators) in ways "much worse than waterboarding." These are war crimes. Does this suggest problems in his make-up beyond NPD?
A. All narcissists lack emotional empathy and are, to some extent, anti-social. Many narcissists are somewhat psychopathic and, therefore, sadistically prone to violence. They get a high and derive an almost sexual gratification from wielding power and inflicting pain and humiliation on others. It sustains their grandiose fantasy of omnipotence (that they are Godlike, all-powerful). That's why many narcissists are litigious, threaten "their enemies" incessantly, seek to embarrass and humiliate them in public, stalk them, and harass them recurrently. Narcissists have a black and white view of the world: if you are not 100% with me, you are 110% the enemy (this is known as "splitting" in the psychological jargon). Trump strikes me as this type of narcissist.
Q. Is it your considered opinion that Donald Trump would represent a significant danger were he to become president of the United States of America and if so, how?
A. You just have to look at Trump's business history to extrapolate America's future under a President Trump. Narcissists are unstable and go through repeated cycles of self-destruction (with other people usually paying the heft of the price). Narcissists tend to be divisive, vindictive, confrontational, aggressive, hate-filled, raging, incoherent, judgement-impaired, and irrational. Narcissists are junkies: they are addicted to attention ("Narcissistic Supply") and will go to any extreme to secure it. Narcissists are liars, confabulators, and miserable failures (although some of them, like Trump, are geniuses at disguising the fact that they are, in fact, losers). Is this the kind of person you want in the White House?
The Trump Revolution
Trump’s supporters and fans are frustrated. In 1939, a team of psychologists, led by John Dollard, hypothesized that frustration always leads to aggression. Legitimate grievances against a dysfunctional, corrupt, and compromised polity, a deceptive ethos, an American Dream turned nightmare, a broken system that no longer works for the overwhelming majority and appears to be unfixable lead Trump’s base to feel that they had been betrayed, abandoned, duped, exploited, abused, ignored, disenfranchised, and trampled upon. They are in the throes of dislocation, disorientation, and trauma. Their declining fortunes and obsolete skills render them insignificant and irrelevant, and their lives meaningless. It is hopelessness coupled with impotent helplessness.
Trump’s adulators seek to bypass the system and even to dismantle it altogether – not to reform it. This is the stuff revolutions are made of and the pronouncements of Trump’s cohorts are inadvertently copy-pasted from the texts of the French Revolution, The October Revolution (which led to Bolshevism), and even the Nazi Revolution.
Such conditions often give rise to cults, centered around a narcissistic or psychopathic leader-figurehead. In Trump’s case, the abyss between his life’s circumstances and his followers’s is unbridgeable and yet, they hope that by associating with him, however remotely, some of his glamour and magical, fairytale success will rub off on them. Voting for Trump is like winning the lottery, becoming a part of a juggernaut and of history. It is an intoxicating sensation of empowerment that Trump encourages by telling his voters that they are no longer “average”, they are now, by virtue of following him, “great” and “special”, even if only by proxy.
Trump idealizes his voters and they return the favor. In their eyes, he is the Cleanser of the Beltway’s Augean Stables. He, singlehandedly, “in 10 minutes”, will destroy the ancient regime, the old order (of which he had been a part since age 21), settle scores, “Dirty Harry” style, and, thus, make their day. It is a nihilistic mindset. Some of his followers gleefully contemplate the suspension of the Constitution and its elaborate check and balances. Others compare him to the first Roman Emperors. They wish to unburden themselves by transferring their decision-making and responsibilities onto The Chosen One.
To his acolytes – and contrary to much evidence – Trump is a “doer”, with a long list of (mostly illusory) accomplishments. He is best equipped to get things done and to prioritize. In Washington, where appearances matter far more than substance, no one is better credentialed that The Donald, they smirk. These champions of small government and Conservatism look to Trump-when-President (in other words: to the State!) to generate jobs, to insulate them from the outside world, to protect them from illegal aliens and terrorists (surely one and the same), and, in general, to nanny and cosset them all the way to the bank. The world is a hostile, psychopathic place and who best to deal with it than an even more hostile, narcissistic leader like Trump? We need a bad, big wolf to navigate through the jungle out there. This is a form of collective regression to toddlerhood with Trump in the role of the omnipotent, omniscient Father.
In abnormal psychology this is called “shared psychosis”. The members of the cult deploy a host of primitive (infantile) psychological defense mechanisms as they gradually dwindle into mere extensions and reflections of their skipper. Theirs is a malignant optimism, grounded not in reality, but in idealization: the tendency to interact not with Trump himself, but with an imaginary “Trump” that each fan tailors to suit his or her fears, hopes, wishes, and fervent fantasies.
Then there is denial: a pathological response, the repression of inconvenient truths about Trump and their relegation to the unconscious were they fester into something called “dissonance”. Dissonance breeds rage and violence and these oft accompany nihilistic and destructive political cults. Denial goes well with splitting: the demonization and denigration of opponents and adversaries, critics, and bystanders. “If you are not 100% with us, you are 1000% against us and if you are against us, you are the enemy to be sucker-punched and carried out on a stretcher.”
But by far the strongest psychological defense mechanism is fantasy. When reality becomes unbearable, fantasy, however improbable and implausible, is a welcome refuge. This is Trump’s forte: the promulgation and dissemination of fantasies customized to resonate irresistibly with the weaknesses, fears, disenchantments, and disillusionment of his hapless hoplites.
One such fantasy Trump actively encourages is that he is just acting to the crowds now. His below-the-belt obnoxiousness is just for show. In a feat of rationalization worthy of Houdini, Trump’s legions attribute his crass boorishness to “market research” and reasoned electoral calculus. Once elected, he will miraculously be transformed into a “presidential” and dignified politician who plays by the rules and is by no means buffoonish, vulgar, and offensive, they insist with a knowing wink, as though they have ever truly been in-the-know, pals with the Great Man Himself. Such intimations of arcane knowledge cater to their growing sense of self-importance. Indeed, Trump’s may well be the first post-modern narcissistic mass movement.
Such admirable thespian skills attributed to Trump (and proudly owned by him) require the inbred personality of a consummate and thoroughly psychopathic con-artist. Narcissists effect these transitions effortlessly precisely because they only have a False Self (a confabulated grandiose image that they project) whose sole aim is to garner narcissistic supply: attention and, if possible, unmitigated adulation and admiration. Faking it is second nature to the narcissist: exaggerating, lying, pretending, shapeshifting, Zelig-like. Whatever it takes.
Another fantasy is that the narcissist will never turn against his own people. Trump will mercilessly crush the coterie of corrupt power brokers in Washington – but will never ever direct the full might of his gratuitous sadism against his followers, fans, ardent supporters, and fawning admirers. History, of course, teaches otherwise. Sooner or later, the narcissist cannibalizes his own power base and treats as enemies his most rabid lackeys and toadies.
Peopled shrug and say: “but ain’t all politicians narcissists?” The answer is a resounding: no. Granted, it would be safe to assume that most politicians have narcissistic traits. But, as the great psychologist Theodore Millon observed, there is a world of difference between being possessed of a narcissistic style and being a full-fledged, malignant narcissist. The famous author Scott Peck suggested that “narcissism” may just be a modern fancy byword for “evil”. He may have had a point. But, evil should be contained, not elevated to the position of Leader of the Free World.
Laymen confuse “narcissistic style” with “narcissistic personality disorder”. Many politicians have a narcissistic style: narcissistic traits and behaviors that may amount to a narcissistic personality. They are vain, self-centered, haughty, bombastic, and infantile. Narcissistic Personality Disorder in general and “malignant narcissism” in particular are an entirely different ballgame. It’s like the difference between a social drinker and an alcoholic.
Narcissists (people with a full-fledged personality disorder) are positively dangerous: they are delusional, their thinking is clouded by grandiose fantasies, they are vindictive, contemptuous, aggressive, destructive, bullying, sadistic, and have no self-awareness. They are not curious and vehemently and sometimes violently reject any criticism, suggestion, or disagreement. They lack empathy and they exploit people, having objectified and abused them.
One more thing: it is common practice to evaluate someone’s mental health not having interviewed him or her and without administering psychological tests. Mental health evaluation (as distinct from a proper diagnosis) does not require physical access to the evaluated person. The CIA has an entire department dedicated to the psychological profiling of world leaders (read Jerrold Post’s analysis of Saddam Hussein, now available online – or the OSS psych-profile of Adolf Hitler). The FBI uses psychiatrists to construct psychological profiles of serial killers and terrorists. Scholars habitually publish “remote diagnoses” of public personalities in weighty and venerable academic journals. It is common practice!
Evaluating the mental health of a public figure requires an inordinate amount of research. Over the past 5 years, I have watched well over 600 hours of Trump in various settings and read everything he has written and was quoted as saying. I have no such in-depth acquaintance with the other candidates except Clinton.
Trump is a malignant narcissist. This view is shared by dozens of mental health professionals who went on public record with their analyses of his mental infirmity. He is dangerous, antisocial, destructive, vindictive, sadistic, and hypervigilant (paranoid and hypersensitive). He tends to cast himself as a belligerent martyr: the self-sacrificial victim of a vast conspiracy of the establishment, in a David vs. Goliath confrontational morality play.
Clinton strikes me as somewhat psychopathic: she is a pathological liar, a rank manipulator, a confabulator, and is exploitative and dysempathic. But, she is far less likely to implode and self-destruct than Trump. While she is far from an optimal choice for any public office, she is no way near as ominous as Trump.
Trump is so unfit to be President that I am not sure where to start. But here are a few issues that are likely to raise their collective ugly heads even in the first weeks of a Trump presidency:
Trump regards himself as omniscient, an authority on anything and everything, from aesthetics to ethics. He, therefore, lacks intellectual curiosity and regards outside advice as both superfluous and injurious (because it implies that he is less than perfect). He is likely to surround himself with timid yesmen and sycophantic acolytes and generate an impregnable echo chamber rather than a council of wise men and women.
Trump’s grasp of nuanced reality, weak as it already is, is likely to deteriorate further to the point of paranoid psychosis. Faced with opposition, however tenuous, he is likely to react by scapegoating and by inciting street or state violence against targeted groups. Trump is the state, so his enemies (anyone who as much as voices doubt or disagrees with him) is, by definition, an enemy of the state.
Owing to his self-perceived innate superiority, Trump regards himself as above and transcending laws made by lesser mortals. Laws are meant to trap and ensnare giants like him, to drag him down to the pedestrian level of mediocrity. He plays by the rules only when and if they accord with his predilections and self-interest.
Like all narcissists, Trump believes that he is universally loved, adored, and admired. He attributes this ostensible (and utterly delusional) blanket approbation to his effusive charm and irresistibility. He is firmly convinced that he can motivate people to transgress against their own moral convictions and to break the law, if necessary, just by the sheer force of his monumental personality. Trump idealizes and then rapidly devalues people, collectives, and institutions. Trump is in sempiternal flux: he is inconstant in his judgements, opinions, views, and fleeting attachments.
Trump is intellectually lazy, so he is a firm adherent of shortcuts and of “fake it till you make it”. It is a dangerous approach that led him to botch numerous business deals and inflict untold damage and suffering on thousands of people.
Trump is authoritarian in the worst sense of the word. In his disordered, chaotic mind, he is infallible (incapable of erring), omnipotent (can achieve anything if he just sets his mind to it), and omniscient (needs to learn nothing as he is the fount of all true, intuitive knowledge). This precludes any proper team work, orderly governance, institutional capacity, flow of authority and responsibility, and just plain structure. Trump is an artist, led by inconsistent and intermittent inspiration, not by reliable, old-fashioned perspiration. He is not a self-made man, but a self-conjured caricature of a self-made man. Trump is guided by his alleged inner divine wisdom. He is a malevolent guru and cult leader, not a politician or a statesman.
Ironically, Trump’s much trumpeted grandiosity is fragile because it is based on delusional and fantastic assumptions of perfection and intellectual brilliance which are hard to defend. Hence Trump’s relentless and compulsive pursuit of affirmation and adulation. He needs to be constantly idolized just to feel half human. Criticism and disagreement, however minor and well-intentioned, are perceived as unmitigated threats to the precarious house of cards that is Trump’s personality. Consequently, Trump is sadistically vindictive, aiming not just to counter such countervailing opinions regarding his Godlike status, but to deter and intimidate future critics.
Finally, aiming to disavow his own fragility and the indisputable fact that his public persona is nothing but a fabrication, Trump ostentatiously and volubly abhors and berates the weak, the meek, “losers”, “haters” (of which is a prime example), the disabled, women, minorities, and anyone else who might remind him by their very existence of how far from perfect and brilliant he is. The public Trump is about hatred, resentment, rage, envy, and other negative emotions because he is mercilessly driven by these very demons internally. Trump’s quotidien existence is a Kafkaesque trial in which he stands accused of being a mere, average, not-too-bright, mortal and is constantly found wanting and guilty as charged. His entire life is a desperate, last ditch attempt to prove wrong the prosecution in this never-ending courtroom drama.
Will Trump Quit the Race?
Even his most ardent foes agree that Trump is not stupid and that he is a relentless fighter. Based on what flimsy evidence? His own repeated and vociferous reassurances, of course. Yet, when we apply the cold instruments of psychology to both boasts, they appear to be decidedly shaky.
I will dispense with his claim that he is intelligent by referring the reader to the incredible transcripts of his recent interviews with the New York Times and the Washington Post. As he emerges from these painful exchanges, he makes Sarah Palin look like a towering intellect by comparison. Scoring well in all manner of IQ tests requires an endowed vocabulary, an awareness and knowledge of current affairs (which indicates curiosity, a pillar and hallmark of intelligence), and analytic skills. Trump demonstrates not a hint of these three.
His second attempt at self-portrayal as a dauntless warrior merits much deeper study.
Start with the facts: Trump is a quintessential quitter. He had quitted marriages, business deals, enterprises, and campaigns. When things get rough, he reflexively abandons ship. He is labile, desultorily hopping from one harebrained scheme to another, one romantic union to its successor, one burst of self-promotion to a spectacular, implosive feat of self-destruction. Indeed, this is his brand: a feckless, reckless, daring, unpredictable, vicissitudinal Trump with a capital T.
Trump is taking a lot of flak, heat, criticism, and mockery from his reference group: the people whose opinions he values, whose club he wants to join, to whom he wishes fervently to belong, and by whom he dreams to be finally and unconditionally accepted and respected. I am not talking about his mindless supporters and fans whose dreary lives he probably abhors and whose unthinking loyalty inspires in him only profound contempt. No, he aspires to be counted among the very people that he constantly denigrates, belittles, and humiliates: eggheads, pundits, accredited public intellectuals, analysts, the elites, his father. Indeed, their rejection of him is the trigger for his unbridled wrath. Hell hath no fury like a narcissist scorned.
Trump feels entitled to be admired, adulated, specially and exceptionally treated, and revered (he compulsively seeks “narcissistic supply”). Instead, he is mocked and insulted (he garners “negative supply”). These massive and recurrent narcissistic injuries may well be enough to put him off and, thus, derail his quest for the nomination. Faced with deficient narcissistic supply in their chosen Pathological Narcissistic Space (their stomping grounds, their “kingdom”), narcissists disengage and move on as swiftly and as decisively as circumstances permit. Trump is no exception. But he is so invested in his grandiosely fantastic self-image, that he is likely to go through decompensation and acting out.
What are these?
In extremis, when all the narcissist’s default behaviors, charm, stratagems, and solutions fail, or when only negative, fake, low-grade, and static narcissistic supply is to be had, the narcissist "falls apart" in a process of disintegration known as decompensation (the inability to maintain psychological defenses in the face of mounting stress.) This is accompanied by “acting out”: when an inner conflict (most often, frustration) translates into aggression. It involves acting with little or no insight or reflection and in order to attract attention and disrupt other people's cosy lives.
The dynamic forces which render the narcissist paralysed and fake – his vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and fears – are starkly exposed as his defences crumble and become dysfunctional. The narcissist's extreme dependence on his social milieu for the regulation of his sense of self-worth is painfully and pitifully evident as he is reduced to begging, threatening, and cajoling.
At such times, the narcissist acts out self-destructively and anti-socially. His mask of superior equanimity is pierced by displays of impotent rage, self-loathing, self-pity, passive-aggressiveness, and crass attempts at manipulation of his friends, family, and colleagues – or the public comprised of his disaffected and outraged acolytes. His ostensible benevolence and caring evaporate. He feels caged and threatened and he reacts as any animal would do: by striking back at his perceived tormentors as well as at his hitherto "nearest" and "dearest".
But, if Trump is, as I suggested, a malignant narcissist, how could he possibly justify withdrawing from the race at this late stage, having promised so much to so many? Isn’t he emotionally invested in winning?
Narcissists rationalize their actions. Rationalization is a
psychological defense mechanism. It is intended to cast one's behavior after
the fact in a favorable light. To justify and explain one's conduct or, more
often, misconduct by resorting to "rational, logical,
socially-acceptable" explications and excuses. Rationalization is also
used to re-establish ego-syntony (inner peace and self-acceptance).
Cognitive dissonance – the state of having simultaneous and equipotent but inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes - usually provokes rationalization. It involves speech acts which amount to the devaluation of things and people very much desired or perceived positively but frustratingly out of one's reach and control or socially deemed unacceptable. In a famous fable, a fox, unable to snag the luscious grapes he covets, says: "these grapes are probably sour anyhow!" This is an example of cognitive dissonance in action.
Trump is likely to use three lines of defensive reasoning:
(1) They don’t deserve me. I am much ahead of my time, perspicacious, and sage. People are just not ready for me. History will vindicate me; and/or
(2) I am quitting the race in order to protect my family and heal the wounds of the nation; and/or
(3) I have proved what I wanted to prove (whatever that may be). No need for me to continue to waste my time and resources. I have better things to do.
We can all only wish.
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