Is Narcissism A Mental Illness?
With the publication of Michael Wolff’s book about Donald Trump being brought forward today, many commentators have again been discussing the issue of Trump’s mental health. A good few of them have either accepted or at least remarked upon the view that Trump suffers from what is usually (including clinically) termed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’ve written a few times on this subject, but today I wanted to add a footnote to my main points.
My view of narcissism is more of a social and consciousness-based view than a clinical view. It has been pointed out by a few commentators today that lumping together people who suffer from clinically assessed mental disorders with Donald Trump is unfair to both. They argue that narcissism is not a mental illness, and that mentally ill people should not be mocked by implication, as Trump is mocked. This seems reasonable.
However, to accept the above is to grasp only half the story. Every report I’ve read about NPD and Donald Trump describes sufferers’ vanity, grandiosity, etc, with reference to pride, arrogance, childishness and so on. What these reports miss is the underlying metaphor. An insane person is cognitively separate from the real world. An insane person is like somebody following a path for one: the real world is not checked, indeed – as with schizophrenia, where internal mental sensations are all assumed to come from the outside world – it cannot be checked. Mentally ill people (and this is obviously a generalisation, but bear with me) cannot do what most people take for granted – assess the real world and act accordingly. They rely on their faulty mental model to survive, and alas in so many cases they simply cannot survive.
But this is exactly how narcissistic people work, and the effect can be seen in all intensely narcissistic “leaders” – Thatcher, Napoleon, Hitler, Trump et al.
The underlying metaphor of narcissism is separation from the real world. The narcissist sifts all their experiences through the filter of the self. Nothing is independent out there; everything is determined by themselves and themselves alone. This is the source of the narcissist’s grandiosity, pride and arrogance. They operate as though they are the only real thing, with the ‘outside’ world merely an extension of themselves. Thus the narcissist always reaches out to make the real world as much like their mental model as possible: they are controlling, authoritarian, domineering. They are also plagued by a lack of a sense of realism. (This is why Donald Trump cannot grasp that we in the real world simply have to fact-check his lies to find out what is going on. Fact-checking is not an option for him.)
Donald Trump therefore should be viewed in this light. While there is no evidence for schizophrenia or any other awful mental illness, his narcissism is of a particularly intense variety, and therefore the gap between himself and reality is an abyss. This is of particular worry because he has acquired so much military power.
If narcissism was discussed in the media in this way, we could be fair to clinically ill people and to others caught up in the appalling spectacle unfolding at the White House.