Narcissism & Donald
With the focus in recent months on Donald Trump and his increasingly absurd campaign, there has been much talk about the mental condition he suffers from. It is generally recognised that he is an intensely narcissistic person, and there have been several enlightening assessments in the serious media about him and his condition. But what is narcissism, and are there any aspects of it that have been missed in all the febrile political discussion?
I’ve been interested in the human condition for decades, and some of my work (not least the Factory Girl trilogy) has touched on various aspects of our essential qualities. Narcissism is a particularly interesting aspect because it is entangled in so much of how we as individuals and societies interact with the real world. Narcissism is commonly thought of in terms of the Greek youth Narcissus, who was “in love with his reflection” in a pool of water. But that visual metaphor is only one comparatively minor aspect of the condition. In fact narcissism is all-encompassing, especially when we are young.
Erich Fromm defined narcissism thus: The narcissistic orientation is one in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous.
In other words, our entire attitude to the world is characterised by how real we conceive it to be; that is, how narcissistic we are. Human beings, uniquely lacking the great majority of instincts utilised by the rest of the animal kingdom, make sophisticated mental models in order to survive. These mental models are incredibly flexible at the beginning of life – a human infant can become almost anything, and overwhelmingly this depends on their quality of parenting and other social bonds. But an infant has almost nothing of a mental model when they are born, and has to painstakingly piece one together through experience of life.
All human beings are born 100% narcissistic. Narcissism, in the general, Frommian sense of the word, is the essential glue that binds together an infant’s inchoate sensory perceptions, memories and experiences. Without it, no human being would be able to create the essential mental model required to survive in the real world. A human life, on this view, is thus a gradual process of the sophistication of the mental model, including the reduction of and eventual overcoming of narcissism.
That, of course, is a very difficult process. We all have our personal convictions, our personal “absolute truths” as Dorothy Rowe called them, and the only way to overcome them is to listen to the views of others – in other words, to see yourself through the eyes of others. Yet narcissism specifically militates against that option. We all have to hear difficult truths about ourselves, yet our unconscious attitudes act against such realisation.
Amongst the standard symptoms of narcissism – that in Donald Trump are malignant, where in most others they are benign – are an obsession with and a drive for power, an inability to accept criticism, an inability to see “other” people and cultures from their particular perspective, with a consequent leaning to racism, misogyny in men, prejudice, etc – and a notable lack of empathy, an inability to be sensitive or compassionate, and a tendency to black-and-white, ie infantile or juvenile thinking. Narcissistic people commonly believe in Destiny or Fate too, and often are unusually superstitious. Most of these symptoms Donald Trump, like other “leaders” who suffered from his extreme form of the narcissistic condition such as Napoleon and Thatcher, shows in profusion.
It is important to realise however that Donald Trump’s condition is not something that developed out of nothing during his lifetime. It is not something that he created, or even aimed for. Rather, the intense narcissism we see in him is that of the child, which in this 70 year old man has never been overcome through normal experience of life. There are likely many reasons for this, but the quality of his parenting must come very high on that list of reasons, if not at the summit. Donald Trump’s outlook on the world is most similar to that of the small boy.
This then is the great adventure of life. Through evolutionary necessity we are all born utterly self-centred, and through our relationships with others and by accepting the reality of the world external to our imaginations we have to rid ourselves of all vestiges of the narcissism we were born with. But it is not easy…