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John Samuel Tieman: What is wrong with Donald Trump?

What is wrong with Donald Trump? Folks have asked that since the day he announced his candidacy. Who calls Mexicans “rapists”? Then there was Charlottesville and “very nice people on both sides.” Some of Trump’s defenders describe him as crude: “a bull in a china shop”. But his administration puts kids in cages, praises white nationalists, claims that climate change is a “hoax,” bans Muslims from entering the country, and claims that Jews who vote Democratic are “traitors.” Trump isn’t simply crude. Harry Truman could be crude. Trump is dangerous.

What is wrong with Trump? You hear that question a lot. We also hear “malignant narcissism” a lot. So, simple question: what characterizes malignant narcissism? 

Malignant narcissism is a theoretical category. There is debate about whether it exists at all. Is it plain old narcissism with some characteristics of other disorders, that ever-popular combination of sociopathy and narcissism for example? Is Trump a sociopath, what we used to call a psychopath? Malignant narcissism is not listed in the current Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (DSM-V); however, it was listed in earlier editions, such as DSM-IV. In 1964, it was first discussed by the social psychologist Erich Fromm, and in 1968 described by Otto Kernberg in the Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association. It is the subject of papers and panels too numerous to list here. In sum, malignant narcissism may be, as Kernberg thinks, an extreme on the narcissism spectrum. Or it may be a thing unto itself. Call it what you will. In any case, such people exist, and it is often painful, even dangerous, to be around them. The name of the thing is secondary to what folks experience. Thus the expressions of the disorder, listed below. These we experience.

What follows is a list, a compendium of traits or characteristics. I make no claims of originality. In some cases, I have taken one characteristic mentioned by theorists, and listed it as two or three for the sake of the lay reader. There is no particular order to the list.

Briefly, people with malignant narcissism may exhibit many of the following traits:

They lack sympathy;
There is an exaggerated sense of entitlement and 
There is a vacuum where there should be an inner core;
They have fantasies of power, and a chronic need for power;
They have fantasies of self-control;
They exhibit cruelty and even sadism;
People are seen as objects to be manipulated;
They project their own personal qualities upon others;
They bully;
They blame others;
They shame others;
Envy is a constant;
They elevate people, then lash out at them;
They are deceitful;
Paranoid traits are common;
An absence of a conscience is common;
They are aggressive;
They display grandiosity;
They have a chronic need to be viewed positively by others;
There is an indifference to social norms;
There is little introspection;
They have insecure social attachments;
They often suffer from low self-esteem;
They may on occasion be charming;
And, lastly, they are often rather successful in their 
         chosen field.

Of these traits, the most disturbing are summarized by G. H. Pollock, who said in the International Journal Of Psychoanalysis, “The malignant narcissist is presented as pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.” 

What is wrong with Trump? We can put a check next to every characteristic of the malignant narcissist. Narcissism is a rather permanent state. But the characteristics that make it malignant are, in my opinion, floating traits, traits which on occasion can manifest themselves in sufficient enough quantity so as to make a person dangerous. That same person may also, on another occasion, be a charming dinner companion.

One more thought. We must be careful not to lump everyone with a mental disorder in the same category as a malignant narcissist. Abraham Lincoln suffered overwhelming depression, but he was a pretty good president. James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge may also have suffered from depression. Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Woodrow Wilson seem to have suffered anxiety disorders. Teddy Roosevelt suffered a debilitating masculinity. Each day millions wake up and go to work, all the while suffering from a mental illness. 

But a person who displays the characteristics of a malignant narcissist is something very different than a person who displays other forms of mental illness. What is under consideration here is a disorder of such magnitude that it makes a person dangerous. In this case, that person is the President of the United States.

Copyright 2019 John Samuel Tieman

Regular readers of Vox Populi know John Samuel Tieman as an essayist, poet, and a retired teacher. Tieman also holds a Ph. D. in the intellectual history of education. He is a graduate of the Child Development Program of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute. He co-chairs the Schools Committee of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and chairs the sub-committee that presents the annual Anna Freud Award for educational achievement.

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