To be sure, focusing on Trump’s character is unlikely to result in his impeachment, but it can shed some light on one of the puzzles stumping commentators — namely, how it is that a staggering 63 million American citizens voted for this man with no political experience, a man roundly judged to be unfit to hold office who broke just about every political norm? And why have a goodly proportion of his supporters stuck with him, driven not only by expediency — though expediency is certainly in play — but more interestingly by what is by all accounts an utterly implacable, unperturbable belief in him and what he represents?
I will focus here on his narcissistic appeal — and not, as does almost all of the commentary on Trump, on the liabilities of narcissism. Trump mobilizes his narcissism, I’ll argue, to connect to his followers, thereby eliciting their willing submission and unwavering loyalty. The bonds forged with these supporters afford him — a master exploiter of opportunities embedded in a rapidly changing media environment — a steady stream of adulation. What does he promise in return? Participation in his greatness. The deal thus struck, many of the nation’s most disenfranchised and aggrieved have sworn allegiance to this larger-than-life figure who, they feel, understands them and their struggles. Unfazed by his performance in office, notably his occupying rather than draining the Washington swamp, they continue to declare their unwavering support to puzzled print and television journalists.
Neither psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a.k.a. the DSM, nor research psychologists’ construals of narcissism can help us understand this phenomenon — precisely because they focus on the condition’s liabilities to the exclusion of its upsides. And yet it is precisely these upsides that hold the key to making sense of what Trump’s character means for his followers and the country in general.
But first, let’s consider the many ways in which even psychiatric and psychological experts have been stumped by Trump. Some argue that labeling him a narcissist offends not only ethical precepts prohibiting diagnosing at a distance but also common clinical sense. Sure, he looks and acts like a narcissist, but he’s not suffering, nor is he impaired — after all, as he’s reminded us, he’s the president and we’re not. Distress is a key criterion in diagnosing personality disorder according to the DSM, and, these clinicians argue, while we might be feeling it, Trump most certainly is not. However much he looks like the stock narcissist, we’d therefore be wrong, they argue, to label him as such. Clinicians’ reasoning varies. Psychiatrist Allen Frances, who wrote the DSM criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), argues that Trump is a narcissist but doesn’t meet the criteria for diagnosing NPD because he’s neither stressed nor impaired — a distinction without a difference in the public debate. And psychologist W. Keith Campbell, who in his co-authored 2010 best seller, The Narcissism Epidemic, blithely brands an entire generation of millennials as selfish, entitled, navel-gazing narcissists, demurs when it comes to the celebrity-obsessed billionaire president on the grounds that “he’s functioning pretty highly.”
Many a layperson, consulting the DSM, has surmised that Trump’s behavior and temperament conform to psychiatric descriptions of pathological narcissism. More than a few articles have presented the DSM’s nine criteria for the diagnosis using side-by-side examples drawn from Trump’s actions, speeches, and Twitter feed. This exercise is almost too easy, especially given Trump’s extensive record of over-the-top self-assessments as well as his preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success and power, his interpersonal exploitativeness, his conviction that others envy him, and his lack of empathy. By such DSM criteria, Trump is a living, breathing textbook of character disorder, meeting just about every criterion in the literal book — Frances’s objections notwithstanding.
Yet: The DSM narcissist is an altogether repugnant character. Reference to it can’t help us understand why anyone — let alone all those voters — would be drawn to such a person. Pompous, entitled, devaluing, boastful, exploitative — what is the attraction? The DSM’s narcissistic personality disorder can certainly account for why people might fear Trump, but not why so many Americans would flock to him with abject devotion.
My point here is that focusing on narcissism’s disabilities leaves a lot of what’s most useful about the category on the table. The fact is that narcissism is actually a remarkably protean concept. In clinicians’ hands, it refers to a broad range of behaviors and dispositions, encompassing traits both desirable and supportive of worldly success (ambition, self-confidence) on the one hand and despicable and undermining of that success (ruthlessness, a lack of empathy) on the other. It is an epithet in popular parlance, used synonymously with “selfish” and “self-involved.” But it can also refer to a neutral quantity of self-feeling (akin to self-esteem) as well as, confusingly, to a seriously disturbed yet often high functioning type of person. Confusing indeed — and yet everyone’s an expert on narcissism in an age when a Google search of the term will yield you 10 million hits, when you can take a 40-question test on the internet (the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) that will tell you in a flash just how narcissistic you are, and when you can play amateur psychiatrist, tallying Trump’s symptoms alongside the DSM checklist.
Everyone may be an expert, but all this expertise — including that found in the DSM — does not explain Trump’s appeal. What we need to do is acknowledge the often considerable charisma and charm that enable some high-functioning and successful narcissists to extract from adoring acolytes the admiration that sustains their sense of self. This understanding of narcissism is rooted in psychoanalytic thinking and, while now found throughout the literature on leadership, it is missing from popular discussions. It is indispensable to understanding Trump. After all, unappealing narcissists pose little threat in a democratic political system; few voters will willingly tie their fortunes to a monster. It’s the successful and beguiling narcissist, the one who flatters, seduces, and finally enslaves you into mirroring his (most of these narcissists are men) greatness and feeding his bottomless appetite for approval who is dangerous. The psychoanalyst-turned-leadership guru Michael Maccoby usefully calls such individuals “productive narcissists,” and locates Trump in their ranks. He argues that Trump’s personality is similar to those of “charismatic leaders who emerge in times of turmoil and uncertainty, when people are ready to follow a strong leader who promises to lead them to greatness” — Make America Great Again. Freud took note of this type more than 80 years ago, writing that such individuals are aggressive, not easily intimidated, and primed to “take on the role of leaders.” They “impress others as being ‘personalities,’” Freud continued, warning they were capable of damaging “the established state of affairs.” These narcissists are appealing but also dangerous visionaries. You won’t find them in the DSM. Then again, psychiatry and the DSM don’t own narcissism.
The question then becomes less “is Trump a narcissist” — and more “how does Trump mobilize his narcissism to connect with his followers.” Many studies of leadership start from the premise that a successful leader will be, by definition, narcissistic — capable of crafting a vision of change and transformation and charismatic enough to attract acolytes yet ruthlessly prepared to sacrifice anyone and anything in pursuit of his own aims. Trump is this leader. A figure of fascination, obsessive interest, and intrigue, he conscripts others to join in his outlandish visions and then lulls them into submission, extracting from them ongoing awe and devotion. Journalists are busy charting Trump’s shrinking base, reporting that his approval rating has taken a hit as it’s become clearer that he has no intention of honoring his campaign promises to protect the most vulnerable among them. Yet despite the changed sentiments of voters like the Kentuckian originally drawn to Trump sensing that “he had a kind of charisma about him, something different” who now rues his support, saying that “he played me for a fool,” approval still hovers at around 40 percent. That’s a lot of ongoing devotion.
The news media itself routinely falls victim to Trump’s charisma, even as various outlets engage in self-flagellation for doing so. During the campaign, they could hardly take their collective eyes off of Trump, which meant that he enjoyed, it is estimated, around $2 billion in free coverage. Happily exploiting this fascination, Trump explained in an interview with Bloomberg in 2016, “I just don’t think I need nearly as much money as other people need because I get so much publicity. I get so many invitations to be on television. I get so many interviews, if I want them.” Virtually every day he threw the media a bone — in the form of an outrageous or offensive claim — and virtually every day the media gnawed on it, lamented it, analyzed it, and, most important, showcased it.
There are of course no leaders without followers. And it is Trump’s gift to make others feel that he values them — even as he flew around the country in his own 757 and sat atop Fifth Avenue in his own little Versailles. Charismatic leaders excel at apprehending and even exploiting the often unarticulated needs of those they would dominate, and we can see in this quality something of Trump’s success. Any successful leader reflects back what people need, the analyst of narcissism Heinz Kohut proposed, with the charismatic narcissist more dangerously endowed with “the uncanny ability to exploit, not necessarily in full awareness, the unconscious feelings” of subordinates. Perhaps no narratives were more ubiquitous throughout the campaign than, first, Trump cares about me and, second, he is offensive to be sure but only saying what others think. As one supporter recently explained her vote for Trump, “he says the things out loud that I say to myself.”
How, then, did Trump convince the proverbial little person that he actually cared about him or her? Consider how Trump invites people to identify with him and thus share in his omnipotence and power. His braggadocio and rule-breaking incite envy among those who have little to boast of and feel imprisoned by their circumstances. His offer is of course illusory — no amount of speechifying will launch the little guy into the economic stratosphere Trump inhabits. But Trump has some awareness of what he is doing. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump writes in his best-selling The Art of the Deal.
People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.
Trump projects and promises self-transcendence. “I think he touched something inside of a lot of people, maybe even something that they didn’t know what it was,” an 86-year-old woman from small-town Pennsylvania told a reporter after the election. “I don’t like authority,” she added. “I don’t like people breathing down my neck.” To her, he promises something intangible yet powerful: a sense of autonomy and freedom. He routinely offers himself as a remedy for powerlessness. First he points to his followers’ marginalization and humiliation: “We’re tired of being the patsy for, like, everybody. Tea party people […] You have not been treated fairly.” Then he declares himself their tribune: “At least I have a microphone where I can fight back. You people don’t!” Finally he shares his power with them, telling the crowd, “You don’t know how big you are. You don’t know the power you have.” Trump’s speeches are full of fights won and clowns and losers humiliated by his take-no-prisoners combativeness. He promises respect to those who have none.
Trump is also a master at performing intimacy. His engagement with his followers is direct, whether at mass events or by way of Twitter, which he’s likened to having his own free newspaper. Disdaining the media as corrupt and dishonest, he skirts them by connecting at all hours with his followers through a barrage of tweets, by turns bombastic, hyperbolic, and pugilistic, filled with unsubstantiated claims and outright lies and expressive use of intense negative emotion (“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest-and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault” — from 2013). “I mean, he’s so authentic,” said Donald Jr., speaking of his father’s tweets, adding that the fact he writes them himself is “actually what makes him the great candidate that he is.” Trump sees “genius” in his tweets: “I mean, you will get — you will read some of the stuff, there is genius there. You have to find the right genius. But it is a powerful thing.” There is genius in this.
Trump’s fantasies and primal emotions are openly on display in a way no other American president’s have been. This is another aspect of his pull on his followers — the ways in which he links his own emotions and fantasies of total and absolute control to those of his followers, their own narcissistic strivings tempered as life has beaten them down and passed them by. Bound together by the vague but powerful ideal of “Making America Great Again,” they become “susceptible to his commands and directives.” Consider how he uses anger. “The people are angry,” Trump proclaims, but so is he. “I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” he says, explaining that he doesn’t have time for therapy. Throughout the campaign, he positioned himself as the change and anger candidate: anger at the federal government, at Obama and about Obamacare, about illegal immigration, and about the direction in which the country is headed. Think here of his repeatedly engaging his crowds in symbolic acts of expulsion, as he yells, variously, “Get him out,” “Knock the crap out of” protesters and “take their coats,” and “Throw them out into the cold” — directives that crowds at his rallies fulfilled. This is all straight out of the analytic textbook: in the words of one analyst, the followers “submit in order to preserve their love of the leader, and whatever esteem they experience comes from the sense of devotion to the ideals and causes established in the leader’s image.”
Trump’s apparent authenticity — his lack of the usual filters — is likely both a sign of his cluelessness and profoundly strategic, meant to distract and inflame. His constant rule-breaking is engaging and dramatic, and invites his followers’ identification with him as sharer of secrets and speaker of truths that cannot otherwise be expressed. The analyst Kohut understood how powerful this sense of direct access to the mind of another — the feeling of being part of its intimate workings — could be in nurturing identification of the sort we can see among Trump’s followers.
It’s been said that “he’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person” and that his lifestyle exemplifies “beer taste on a champagne budget.” But a more significant dimension of this aspirational appeal can be seen in the abandon with which he asserts his dominance and the ease with which he inhabits power. He invites others to identify with his aggression and independence from constraining norms. Explaining his bankruptcies, he told a crowd: “You have to use the laws to your advantage. What I did to that bank? Aye yai yai. […] I should get credit for having vision that things were on the decline. […] I made a lot of money in Atlantic City.” Many of his supporters are eager to interpret his record of bankruptcies as evidence of his independence and dominance. As one middle-aged woman put it, “the important thing is he doesn’t need their money.”
In sum, it’s a mistake to overlook the intensity of the connection he has forged with his enthusiasts — even to those of them who know, as one supporter put it, that “Trump doesn’t give a shit about me, or almost anyone else.” Many of his supporters don’t care that his relationship with truth is shaky and opportunistic. They don’t care that he trades in anger and hate, and that he invites violence against his enemies. They don’t care that he as much as admitted to sexual assault. The difficulty in explaining Trump and his appeal lies in the fact that he has prevailed not despite but because of all of his lies, anger, contempt toward losers, intolerance of dissent, and bombastic grandiosity. His flouting of just about every political, social, and sexual norm has only enhanced his appeal to his devotees. In short: His narcissism is a resource for — not an impediment to — his electoral and political success.
Elizabeth Lunbeck is a historian of the human sciences at Harvard, and the author of The Americanization of Narcissism (2014).