“His Majesty the (Angry) Baby”: Trump, Narcissism, and the American People

Figuring out what personality disorder explains Donald Trump is an emerging (possibly self-defeating) parlor game, part of our efforts to make sense of the new political world in which we live. Last week, N. Ziehl posted thoughts on Facebook about the narcissism of Donald Trump (republished on Medium and then again by James Fallows in The Atlantic). I have written myself about Trump’s narcissism. Prior to the election, most of these armchair diagnoses functioned as both warning about the risks of electing Trump and as a way to reassure ourselves that the American electorate, collectively and infinitely wise, would ultimately vote with their heads, not their spleens. Post-election, conversations about Trump’s narcissism have more the flavor of tactics for surviving a four-year cage match with a deranged grizzly bear.

This recent suffusion of the familiar tropes of narcissistic symptomology (grandiose self-conception, impulsive behavior, absence of boundaries, instrumental manipulation of others) and etiology (attachment trauma, foundational mistrust, arrested emotional development) should remind us that narcissism is a social pathology (in the sense that, unlike with depression or bipolar disorder, narcissism requires active social engagement to exist). Trump’s personality disorders don’t matter enormously except to the degree his political ascent communicates and refers us to political dimensions of this pathology that refract the distance we have traveled from norms of political health. In other words, we might be missing the mark if we spotlight the personal narcissism of Trump without embedding its importance for us politically in the social and relational dynamics on which narcissism feeds.

The Ziehl essay reminded me that, many lifetimes ago, I had actually written quite extensively about the political meaning of narcissism. In 1989, I published an article in the journal Political Theory entitled “His Majesty the Baby: Narcissism and Royal Authority” (which led to a brief exchange – here and here – with political theorist Patricia Springborg published in a subsequent issue of Political Theory). The premise of the article was that Freud’s 1914 essay “On Narcissism”, and his famous reference to “his majesty the baby,” might yield interesting insights if we focused attention less on “the baby” and more on “his majesty.” Below, I’d like briefly to apply the insights of the article, particularly those deriving from object relations theory, to the unreality of our present circumstances, the major lesson being that we need to appreciate how Trump has tapped into the psychologically atavistic and primitive desires and anxieties of a broad swath of the electorate, conditioned by real and addressable events in the world.

A simple rendering of the N. Ziehl essay on Trump’s narcissism might be “don’t feed the beast.” And this makes enormous sense, as attention is the only thing that fuels our President-elect, who possesses no inner life as most of us experience it, and so does not feel himself to exist without the attention and validation of others. But here’s the problem. We can’t not feed the beast. We cannot look away. None of us, those who voted against Trump no less than those who voted for him, those who despise and fear him no less than those who worship him (as on Reddit) as their new emperor-god. Trump only exists because we allow him to. He cannot directly make us read his tweets and follow his headlines. But he doesn’t need to, because each of us, yoked to the Pavlovian incentives of social media and reality television, experience the same override of our cognitive processes when he or his minions ride into our field of vision as we do with the Kardashians or with other celebrities. We literally lose our minds.

We have seen this before. History provides countless instances of the distortions and excess and cognitive confusion that can occur when a single ruler tramples the hedges of law and convention and becomes the “disintermediated” focal point of the political landscape. The family intrigues of imperial Rome, the machinations of the medieval papacy, and the rancid behaviors of the absolutist, dynastic (and inbred) ancien regime provide templates for this type of descent. The current moment presents some twists, however, with a semi-choreographed institutional implosion (a back-to-the-future return to a post-modern state of nature) that Donald Trump, with his cavernous emotional needs and intuitive, mercenary affinity for shit disturbance, has relentlessly exploited, thumbing his nose indiscriminately at all convention, and absorbing and enlarging himself via a calculus of taunts that in no way resemble political discourse as we have ever before experienced it, nor to any reality most of us can recognize, but which for these reasons offer a voice to those who see through a glass darkly (darkened gorilla glass of myriad “devices”) and mutely, and for whom speech and rhetoric are simply instruments for hyperventilation of an inchoate rage, and for the promise of succor and satiety and safety. No wonder democracy has exposed fragile, reed-like foundations confirming (ironically, of course), the dark realism of Alexander Hamilton and, before him, of Thomas Hobbes.

As many pundits have noted (some only with 20-20 hindsight), Trump is both vessel and voice, the (perversely unintended) consequence of an enormously successful eight-year campaign by Congressional Republicans to destroy Barack Obama, assisted by entirely craven and merciless political allies in the heartland: 1) a hugely well-funded and well-organized business / lobbying complex; and 2) a consolidated Tea Party / white nationalist media (I think we can now safely use “white nationalism” as an appropriate term for the goals of conservative talk radio, book publishing, and digital media). These scorched-earth campaigns activated and exploited popular emotional vulnerabilities and deficiencies that had little to do with concrete interests, needs, and goals, and everything to do with the mercenary accumulation of power.

This project of political destruction has really been about cementing fear and loathing into our political institutions (let’s call it the real infrastructure project). And clearly, many analogies of this sort present themselves, from whatever myth or fantasy one chooses, anything to characterize the unreality of the moment. The bottom line, however, is that we can no longer ignore the toxic emotional energy released by this recalibrated political environment, the intentional birthing of a new, diminished and twisted kind of man.

My article on narcissism and royal authority is obviously dated, and it is with some trepidation that I even introduce it into conversation about politics in the 21st century. But having read the essay again, after a break of several decades, I think the analysis is still pretty robust, partly because it was always meant to ground our understanding of politics within a universal model of human development, but also because the impact of economic globalization and digital communication and media technologies has, if anything, heightened the polarized, yet twinned, experiences of helplessness and omnipotence around which a political narcissism can form itself. Two paragraphs from the article summarize the emotional dynamics supporting this condition.

Object relations theorists, such as Margaret Mahler and Heinz Kohut, do not deny that separation from the mother dictates that the young child exchange “some of his magical omnipotence for autonomy and developing self-esteem.” However, they also stress that separation and individuation do not require the flourishing young child to abandon the primary narcissism of its infancy. Rather, the child’s developing ego builds upon this narcissism as a foundation, as a source of basic trust, inner strength, and enduring self-regard. Mature and socially valued qualities such as creativity, empathy, humor, and wisdom represent successful attempts to harness and to transform the energy generated by narcissistic sensations of grandiosity and omnipotence. With the attainment of these qualities, burnished over time, comes the ability to accept one’s mortality, to live fully and completely within the limits imposed upon us a embodied creatures. This, Heinz Kohut suggests, represents the ego’s definitive triumph over the narcissistic self. It may also provide a measure of the distance psychologically between royal subjection and democratic citizenship.

Narcissism assumes pathological dimensions only when, to return to language introduced by Freud, the grandiose “ego-feeling” never shrinks as an adjustment to reality and instead persists into adulthood as an artificially inflated entity. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel has explored connections between narcissism in adults and the regressive, ultimately destructive, impulses liberated by social movements and regimes sustained by a charismatic or messianic leader. She suggests that this type of leader promotes illusion. He draws on the authority of the omnipotent mother of earliest infancy, whose seductive siren song to the child is that he or she need not grow up. The personal ego may freely dissolve into the maternal matrix sustained by the encompassing aura of the group itself. Individuals need not identify with other individuals so much as they ought to identify with the group in its entirety. The megalomania induced by this transubstantiation of personal identities from discrete, self-contained unities into one vast, throbbing organism confers upon each individual the sense of possessing an omnipotent ego. Each now inhabits a “colossal body.” Within this narcissistic mental world, from which reality has been banished and in which there no longer exist any limits, the individual imagines he or she will no longer see through a glass darkly, but now will witness face to face the magic place where all wishes come true.

If we are to neuter Donald Trump and reorient our politics toward a specific, mappable reality of needs and goals, we must remind ourselves, continually, that Trump’s power rests in his ability to claim and hold our attention (consider the Medusa legend, with all of its gendered and sexualized meanings). It is precisely in those moments where he claims us that we lose ourselves, and experience the disorientation of the narcissistic fable.  Trump and his various Sith Lords (including, we may assume, Steve Bannon as Darth Sidious) have successfully spun their web using three specific techniques of disorientation that both absorb and reinforce politically the narcissist pathology: 1) normalization; 2) confusion; and 3) misdirection. Let’s examine each in turn.

  1. Normalization – Donald Trump has benefited not simply from the obliteration of behavioral norms and policy conventions by Tea Party white nationalists and the business-lobbying complex in the past eight years. He has personally normalized a paranoid, demonizing chaos of the mind that most closely resembles the Salem Witch Trial on a national scale, in which the dominant emotions are anger and contempt, a sadistic will to punish the weakest and most vulnerable among us on behalf of hyper-inflated fantasies of threat and menace.
  2. Confusion – By leveling “adult” (or “elite”) norms of professional conduct, Trump has also sanctified the roaring, rampant anti-intellectualism of Breitbart, Infowars, Rush Limbaugh and other Tea Party / white nationalist “patriots” that collapses knowledge into opinion, rant, screed, and worse. As others have noted, the effect is less to disprove evidence-based knowledge as it is to call into question the concept of knowledge altogether, and so destroying the epistemological ground of our capacity to act effectively (and collectively) in the world.
  3. Misdirection – Trump wants us to focus on him – on his tweets, his family, his finances, his improprieties, his boorishness, etc. – partly because he craves the attention, but not incidentally, because when our gaze is upon him, we are not paying attention to the flow of ideas and policies, and on the underlying machinery and political agenda of Tea Party.

Taken together, these techniques further enmesh us within the narcissistic  bubble, in which fantasy and and willed ignorance displace reality, disengaging us from norms of civility based on learned skills of empathy and intersubjectivity. The essence of their impact is to externalize, embody, and personalize evil (perhaps not a surprising outcome in a movement inspired by the revealed religion of a personal God). If an emotionally consistent thread runs through the guttural language of the movement conservatives, it is a relentless passion for naming names, creating demons, and outsourcing evil to specific individuals and targeted groups. Again, we have seen, in both the past and the present, where the personalization of evil can lead.

Our task, then, is to depersonalize our own conception of the challenge. One of the fatal mistakes of the Clinton campaign was to take the bait and turn the election into a referendum on the character of Donald Trump. Within the unmoored, unbounded political landscape of our time, it was perhaps inevitable that Trump supporters, and probably even Trump fence-sitters, would internalize attacks on Trump’s character as attacks on themselves. The term “deplorables” has now become a badge of honor for many of Trump’s most ardent citizen voices in flyover land. But of course these are the folks we want to reach, or at least to neutralize. And so we need to focus less on the personal failings, misdeeds, and excesses of Donald Trump and members of his misbegotten royal court. Instead, we must attend to the conditions that have produced this political metastasis. We need to cure the disease, not kill the patient. And so we must attack Trump’s positions, not his personality or his lifestyle. We must specifically and closely track the activities of Congress, because after eight fallow years, Trump has liberated a Republican-controlled legislature to undertake a Bacchanalian frenzy of lawmaking, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen in at least 50 years. We need to closely track the impact of court appointments and court decisions and directions of Constitutional lawmaking. We need to study and map and itemize the networks and assets and activities of movement conservatives

The national (and global) risks we face are deep and serious, with complex and layered causes, and we should not assume they will happily resolve themselves any time soon. We will need to play a long game, with a selfless and disciplined awareness of the stakes that allows us to transcend and see beyond the chaos in which Donald Trump himself seems to thrive and does not at all mind exploiting. But awareness of these underlying social and emotional dynamics can can help us to focus on the institutional foundations of reason, insight, and wisdom that are the source of our sanity as a democratic nation.