DONALD TRUMP AND THE POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF HIS NARCISSISTIC WOUND
By: Lawrence Alschuler
Two-thirds of the mental health professionals who contributed to the book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, conclude that he suffers from a narcissistic character disorder (Lee, 2017). Traits associated with a narcissistic disorder include lacking empathy, blaming others, craving admiration, and emotionality over rationality.
My interest here is in the political consequences of his narcissistic wound. Perhaps the forthcoming book by Trump’s niece, a psychologist, will shed light on the origins of this wound, based on her first-hand experience with him, presenting facts hitherto unknown to the public.
Whatever the origins may be, it is clear from our knowledge of narcissism that a wound that occurs in childhood requires a life-long effort to avoid activation. Without psychological defences against activating the wound, a person could fall into a depression. Alice Miller gives an eloquent insight into the psychodynamics of narcissism and enables us to understand the narcissistic grandiosity of Donald Trump.
In the view of the Freudian analyst, Alice Miller, the narcissistic wound is a “loss of self”. This loss is the denial of one’s own emotional reactions and feelings such as discontent, anger, rage, pain, and hunger. As a child one learns what one is not allowed to feel or else risk losing one’s mother’s love (Miller, 1983, pp. 64-65, 77). This situation is often called “conditional love”. The loss of self creates a narcissistic disturbance and takes two forms: grandiosity and depression. Grandiosity is the defence against depression and depression is the defence against the deep pain over the “loss of self”. In order to sustain one’s grandiosity one needs admiration from others based on one’s successes and achievements. If therapy is successful a person discovers that he was never loved as a child for what he was but for his achievements, success and good qualities (Miller, 1983, pp. 56, 76, 77).
The politics of narcissism
In order to tie Trump’s narcissistic grandiosity to a number of political consequences I will propose several initial premises.
The first premise: the undisputed fact that the House of Representatives impeached Trump in 2019. We can set aside the fact that the Senate voted not to remove him from office. As often as Trump claimed that the Democrats were on a “witch hunt” and were biased in their investigation, the fact remains that only two other Presidents of the US were ever impeached. The second premise is that only the re-election of Trump can restore the grandiose self-image that was tarnished by the impeachment. To say, “tarnished” alludes to the activation of Trump’s narcissistic wound and the impending threat of a psychological depression.
Why would there be political consequences from the activation of Trump’s narcissistic wound. In the usual case, a person would search for confirmation of his or her self-esteem by seeking out admiration from others or by performing successfully so as to substantiate his or her grandiosity. But here, we are dealing with the POTUS. Interpersonal experiences would not suffice to heal the wound. Public admiration might. Trump requires absolution from the condemnation that emerged from his impeachment. I contend that for the POTUS only his re-election can do the trick. That would signal to Trump that the electorate, in its majority, is willing to ignore or even deplore the impeachment and to reinstate Trump to his throne of respectability, what psychotherapists call “self-esteem”.
What political consequences can we attribute to Trump’s single-minded effort to assure his re-election? Here I wish to think big. I need not deal with his lies, denials, rallies, or endorsements of certain political groups. These may indeed produce some of the admiration that Trump seeks. I will focus on Trump’s stance on two current issues of sizeable importance: the pandemic and the economy.
For Trump there is a kind of trade-off between these two challenges. That is to say, he emphasises the opening up of the economy after the lock-down at the expense of the battle against the pandemic. In sharp contrast, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, insisted that saving lives in the pandemic took absolute priority over the economy. Among the twenty-seven mental health professionals who considered Trump to have a narcissistic personality disorder, many believe that grandiose narcissists lack empathy. In the case of Trump, it seems to me that he lacks empathy for those who have contracted covid-19 and for those who have died from it. They would be “expendable” in Trump’s eyes. Opening up the economy takes precedence. His re-election, so all-important for restoring Trump’s self-esteem, he seems to believe, depends on the health of the economy…. opening up.
In Trump’s relentless pursuit of re-election the coronavirus deaths are for him “collateral damage” from opening up the economy. Since re-election constitutes the only way to restore his injured self-esteem, Trump’s other decisions are subordinate to this. While many presidential candidates in the past proposed ways to improve race relations, reduce economic inequality, provide universal health care, and make the justice system more equitable, none of these figure into Trump’s single-minded pursuit of electoral victory. His aim is entirely personal and not at all patriotic, to meet his narcissistic needs.
A dialog with Murray Stein, Jungian Analyst
Murray Stein on my paper
Thanks for sending me your insightful paper, Larry. Your explanation of Trump’s need to be re-elected at all costs is compelling. The cure (re-election) has to match the injury (impeachment). A solid explanation of the dynamics. Now, what happens when Trump loses, and perhaps by a landslide, to such a weak loser as little Joe Biden? How does Trump attempt to recover from that? People are worried about what will happen between Nov. 3 and January 20. Any predictions?
It’s an amazing thing to watch this drama of the narcissistic personality being played out on the world stage, and with such large consequences. It’s reminiscent of the Roman Empire with figures like Nero fiddling while Rome was burning at his behest.
Can the American psyche ever be healed? This is driving such a wedge into the heart of the collective, splitting the population into factions that cannot communicate across the divide. Add racism to the mixture, and you have the makings of unending psychic suffering. Any thoughts for how to treat this patient, America?
Your paper is stimulating and touches the key issue in Trump’s quest for deification. He’s a little man with a big need for adulation. His niece’s book shows the origins. America is suffering the consequences. Why would Americans choose such a character as their president? and continue to support him as the Republicans are doing? What is the collective source of support for such a narcissistic personality?
My reply to Murray Stein (16 July 2020)
Thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions. You will see below how you stimulated my response.
- What will happen between Nov. 3 and Jan. 20 if DT is not re-elected ?
A) DT will deny the election results. He will claim fraud.
He had a similar reaction in 2016 when Hillary had 3 million more popular votes than he. DT claimed that voters in New England crossed over the state line to vote a second time. A further example of DT’s denial: DT wanted to legitimise his 2016 election victory against the claim that the Russians had intervened in the election to support him. This explains why DT continues to deny Russian interference despite the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that the Russians did intervene. Also, DT denies a central conclusion of the Mueller inquiry that the Russians did intervene in his favor. Of course there may be additional reasons why DT is soft on Russia.
B) If DT is unable to succeed in “denial” then perhaps his narcissistic grandiosity may collapse. DT will experience psychological depression, according to Alice Miller’s thesis on narcissism. Asper tells us that the myth of the happy childhood is displaced by the reality of having been unloved that was formerly unconscious (Asper, 1993, pp. 171, 209-212). In a depressive condition what would DT do? He might not find the energy to carry out his presidential duties at all. His WH staff would then carry the burden of the presidency.
I have the idea that depressive people often turn to anger. The targets most likely will be those who seem to DT to be responsible for his defeat. Now comes the fascinating possibility: conspiracy theories. Who will be scapegoated? DT often speaks of the “deep state” where those opposed to him would want to defeat him. DT’s remarks on “whistle-blowers” give some indication of his views of the “deep state”. In reference to the deep state, Cassam believes that “Conspiratorial explanations are personal; they explain significant events by talking about the secret decisions, plans and activities of small groups of people” (Cassam, 2019, pp. 12-13, 87).
- How is it that DT was elected in the first place in 2016?
I interpret this question in terms of his “base” support that continues even now. You use the word, “deification” of DT. You note how Nero in ancient Rome may fit the condition of narcissism. I cannot resist a pun here. In Brazil President Bolso-Nero fiddled while the Amazon burned.
In pure speculation I will suggest a Jungian answer. DT has a “savior” complex. In 2016 he believed that he would clean up the “corrupt elites” of Washington and benefit the “real people”. This belongs to the ideology of the populists. In a nearly magical way his “base” lives this populist myth and projects the “savior” onto DT. My article on populism follows a Jungian logic to elaborate the populist morality (Alschuler, 2020). It does suggest the source of populist support: which parts of the population and under what conditions.
- What can be done to pull America out of its current polarisation, racism, etc.?
I only wish I knew. I fall back on my book, The Psychopolitics of Liberation (Alschuler, 2007) for some answers. My four case studies illustrate how Native people in a seriously polarised society succeed in overcoming their oppressed consciousness and in moving toward a democratic society. What is also important, yet missing from my book, is how the oppressors and their agents can relinquish their oppressor consciousness and move toward a democratic society. At least my approach seems relevant to discussions of racism, police repression, and inequality in America.
Alschuler, L. (2007). The psychopolitics of liberation: Political consciousness from a Jungian perspective. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Alschuler, L. (2020) “Populism and the Psychopolitics of Morality”, Politics, Culture and Socialization.
Asper, K. (1993) The Abandoned Child Within: On Losing and Regaining Self-Worth. New York: Fromm International.
Cassam, Q. (2019) Conspiracy Theories. Cambridge, U.K. Polity Press.
Lee, B. ed. (2017). The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Miller, A. (1983) The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books.
Lawrence Alschuler, Professor of Political Science (retired)
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