This article first appeared on Open Democracy Transformation
The release of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury has heightened concerns about Donald Trump’s mental fitness for office. In her review of the book for the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin says that it shows Trump to be “an unhinged man-child utterly lacking in the skill needed to be president”—despite Trump’s assertion that in fact he’s a “very stable genius.”
In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that Wolff’s revelations “prove—yet again—what a vile, narcissistic and dangerous man we have in the Oval Office.” And in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen, warns that Trump’s White House is “waging a daily assault on the public’s sense of sanity, decency, and cohesion. It makes us feel crazy.”
Is there any way to get beneath the daily assault on our sanity and try to understand what might be driving the chaos of the Trump Presidency? A good place to start is with the word that many say best sums up the man, which is narcissism.
As Wolff reports, “I will tell you the one description that everyone gave, everyone has in common. They all say, ‘He is like a child,’ and what they mean by that is he has a need for immediate gratification. It’s all about him.” And ‘It’s all about him’ is a pretty good definition of narcissism.
Psychologists are at pains to stress that it is not narcissistic for a person to value a quality in themselves that they actually possess, or to want to be admired and valued by others. What’s problematic is when someone loves and admires themselves excessively for qualities for which there is little or no foundation, a condition known as “narcissistic personality disorder.”
The characteristics of this disorder are well known: a grandiose sense of self-importance or uniqueness; an exhibitionistic need for constant attention and admiration; a lack of empathy and an inability to recognise how others feel; disregard for the personal integrity and rights of other people; and relationships marked out by a sense of entitlement and the exploitation of others.
The ancient myth of Narcissus conveys these features powerfully. The myth tells us how the handsome Narcissus was doted on by the nymph Echo, whom he rejected. In retaliation, the gods decided to punish Narcissus by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a mountain pool. Every time Narcissus reached out to this image of perfection, the image fragmented, eventually causing him to die of sadness.
To fathom the psychological origins of narcissistic personality disorder and the real meaning of this myth, we have to go back to the earliest days of infancy. In very early childhood, when a baby’s mind and brain are still developing, it is thought that they are unable to distinguish between themselves and the world around them. At this stage in their development there is a magical, omnipotent quality to the child’s experiences.
They cry and are automatically enveloped in a warm soothing embrace. They are hungry, and warm milk is quickly conjured up to satisfy their needs. Physical discomfort from a soiled nappy is magically dispelled whenever it’s required. In these earliest days, the infant is the world and the world responds to their every need. But life does not continue in this magical vein for long.
This state of “primary narcissism” as Freud called it is soon disrupted as the child experiences the inevitable frustrations that occur as the mother and father slowly withdraw from the intensity of care that was necessary in the first few months of life. Now the child’s every wish is no longer immediately and magically satisfied, and the existence of an outside reality begins to break in.
Psychoanalysts refer to this crucial period of development as the beginning of “object relations.” The child’s dawning and painful realisation that an external reality exists, and that they are not the sum total of the universe, happens when the child’s mind is still a bundle of loosely interacting parts. The infant’s first relationships are not only to people outside themselves, but also to the fragmented and developing parts of their own mind.
Two of these fragments of the mind, the “ego” and “superego,” are familiar to us. The ego is the part of the psyche that we most readily relate to as the ‘self.’ Freud described the ego as the part of the personality that enables the individual to delay immediate gratification. A mature ego acts as the seat of judgement, rationality and control.
A second part of the mind is the superego. According to psychoanalysis, as the intensity of the mother and father’s care is slowly reduced, the child deals with the terrifying feelings of loss and anxiety that result from being left alone by internalising aspects of the caregiver within their own mind. This internalised image is the superego. It plays the role of an ever-present carer, guarding over the thoughts and behaviour of the child, and eventually comes to act as the source of conscience and guilt.
In the infant’s mind, two other psychic parts are also initially present that are less well known in popular discussion—the “ego ideal” and the “narcissistic self.”
The ego ideal is that part of the mind which holds onto the belief in the child’s omnipotence despite all evidence to the contrary. Refusing to adapt to the limitations placed on it by the external world, the ego ideal continues to exert relentless demands for grandiosity and perfection. And like a cruel circus trainer, it stands ever ready to pour scorn on the ego should its unattainable standards for omnipotence and control of the external world not be met.
The fourth part of the infant psyche—the narcissistic self—contains the child’s natural drive for love and admiration and their desire to be looked at and admired. In early infancy, the narcissistic self has a heightened intensity that reflects the infant’s existential need for attention. During the course of normal development, the narcissistic self eventually loses its original all-consuming quality and becomes the source of healthy self-esteem.
Under normal circumstances then, as the child matures, their developing ego manages to moderate the extreme demands for perfection and omnipotence of the ego ideal, and to contain the childish exhibitionism and desperate need for acclaim of the narcissistic self. As a result, as psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut writes, the mature personality becomes dominated by the ego—which exercises a measure of rational control—under the guidance of the superego which sets realistic ideals and moderates behaviour through a healthy modicum of guilt.
Hence, during the course of normal psychic development, a person acquires a measure of humility, the recognition of external reality, and the acceptance that others are not here simply to serve their own needs. But these qualities are not those that people see in Donald Trump. Instead, as Wolff reminds us, “it’s all about him.”
A number of quotes from Fire and Fury about Trump’s behaviour are consistent with someone with narcissistic personality disorder—someone whose psyche is dominated not by a mature rational ego and an ethical superego, but by the immature parts of the infant psyche, namely the narcissistic self and the ego ideal.
For example, Wolff writes that “Bannon described Trump as a simple machine. The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door.”
“[Trump] neither particularly listened to what was said to him nor particularly considered what he said in response. He demanded you pay him attention, and then decided you were weak for grovelling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his performance—without making him angry or petulant.”
These quotes suggest a mind dominated by a constant battle between the childish exhibitionism of the narcissistic self and the unattainable demands of the unforgiving ego ideal. Every interaction is a desperate attempt to prove perfection and omnipotence against the background of a constant fear of shame and humiliation.
In the ancient myth, Narcissus eventually died of sadness because every time he reached out to himself his self-image fragmented and disappeared. Every time he tried to know himself he found that there was nothing solid.
The myth’s message for our times is a warning that people with narcissistic personality disorder are driven to live out their lives by damaging others and pursuing their grandiose destructive dreams—often at enormous expense to society—because they are psychologically incapable of coming to terms with the Fire and Fury that lie within.