Monday, 15 August 2016

Trump: A psychological fiction

Nobody predicted it. A chronic narcissist they said. Mentally unstable. Not fit for office. But 2016 was that sort of year. The unthinkable had happened time and again. In retrospect the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency seems inevitable. Already the succession of events seems pre-destined; a global economic downturn, combined with the shift of manufacturing jobs overseas, guts the white American working class financially, at the same time as the rise of a triumphant cultural liberalism aliented them socially. Trump was able to ride to power on a double wave of anger. The story seems designed for school history books.

It took no time at all for Trump to look seriously out of his depth. What had looked like confident bluster for most of the previous year (and had so pleased that section of the population that had voted for him after years of feeling sick at being condescended to by the "liberal elite") started to lose its sheen even for the Donald's most ardent fans. It was one thing for Trump to swagger onto one of his golf courses in Scotland during the UK's EU referendum. It was quite another to watch him garble his way through his first joint press conference with the proficient Theresa May. For the first time in living memory a US president came second fiddle to a UK Prime Minister. Worse, for former Trump supporters, this was a woman!

Again and again Trump looked foolish. His gaffes piled up; mixing up North and South Korea during his  inauguration address, appearing to think Francois Hollande was the Canadian premier, and of course the unforgettable backtracking on the great Mexico-US border wall as it transpired almost immediately that such a project was utterly unfeasible. Never in history had a president looked so hopeless so quickly after taking office. 

But the really unpredictable part came next in mid 2017. Rumours began to circulate that the joint chiefs of staff were plotting to find some way of dealing with Trump. Not unseating him (a straight coup would have been too de-stabilising for America), but subtly moving to de facto rule by military until the 2020 general election rolled around. Despite America's historical love of democracy, there was a quiet sense that most of the population would have supported such a move. Americans may have been sick of being governed by politics-as-usual career politicians, but they had no wish to see the country driven to complete destruction by someone as nasty and stupid as the president.

Trump's bluster began to falter. For a man with a historical lack of any apparent humility (or capacity for self reflection) he started to seem far quieter. Interviewers noticed a calmer quality. He was famously photographed leaving a briefing in the Oval Office with tears in his eyes. Suddenly Trump's mental health was in question again; tabloids ran crass stories about him losing it; buckling under pressure.

And then the game changing press conference on the White House lawn in September, reading tearfully, but with unprecedented dignity from notes on a lectern. "Fellow Americans, I have a burden I wish to share with you today; the burden of a man who has battled all his life with crippling shame and self disgust." The journalists were aghast. Was this a bizarre trick? A resignation? Had Trump finally gone mad?

He continued:
During my campaign a lot of people threw a lot of diagnoses at me, a lot of hateful terms. That hurt, but I did what I have learned to always do, to shrug it off and roll on. I knew I could ignore the haters, even feed off them. I had never known failure before, not real failure, so I rolled on, thinking I could just keep my head above water. But in my months as president I have learned something profound; something which has changed me more than I can hope to convey to you. Those wannabe doctors throwing diagnoses at me? Well, painful though it was to admit it, I have come to see they were right. Here's what the doctors say they mean by Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
Trump pulled out a piece of paper and read out the DSM-5 criteria for NPD. He laughed at each item on the list, with the Washington press pack (nervously at first) joining in too, sharing with him this unprecedented self-disclosure:

  • Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  • Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  • Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  • Needing constant admiration from others
  • Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  • Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  • Unwilling to empathize with others' feelings, wishes, or needs
  • Intensely jealous of others and the belief that others are equally jealous of them
  • Pompous and arrogant demeanor
Sounds like me right? Well, at least it sounds like the me of last year, and the me of my entire life up to now. I've been that guy everyone calls 'arrogant'. I've been the pompous entitled guy who bullies and intimidates to get what he wants. But I have to tell you, there is another side to all this that the psychiatry textbooks don't play up; the feeling of vulnerability, shame and goddam self hatred underneath it all!
He was getting tearful again, and across America, so were millions of others too. Blue collar workers who had voted Trump to stick it to the liberal elite; New York intellectuals who had hated Trump and everything he stood for. Blacks. Whites. Latinos. All across the country, people united in shared emotion at the disclosure suddenly being made by the most powerful man on the planet. Trump went on and described the intense feelings of loneliness and shame he had experienced all his life, and which he had protected himself from using a defensive shield of confidence and grandiosity.

What Trump did that day changed America's understanding of mental health, and of Narcissistic Personality, forever. Trump made a radical shift toward collective governmental decision making, openly acknowledging his own limitations; "now I have been open about how I used narcissism to defend myself, I don't have to hide my own lack of knowledge or experience; I can learn! It's liberating, really."  Bullying bosses across rethought their behaviour as the president role-modelled a strong but fallible leader. Books appeared describing that hidden underbelly of narcissism; the fear and insecurity it hides. The American Psychiatric Association revised the DSM to more strongly emphasise that "true self" core underneath the defence. And slowly the term came to have a less insulting ring as the population at large stopped associating it with brashness and arrogance, and held in mind instead that fragile, frightened person underneath to who we can all relate.

As I write this, in 2018 Trump's approval ratings are middling, but there is an unprecedented sense of warmth and respect for someone who, having brought the country to the brink of crisis, managed to weather his own psychic storm to rapidly. Americans have weathered that storm with him, and there is a feeling that somehow leadership has been changed forever. 

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