To describe Donald Trump as a narcissist has become cliché, so widely accepted that the use of the label barely raises an eyebrow.
When pundits or politicians like Carly Fiorina remark that Trump has tapped into an underlying rage within the Republican base, they often want to distinguish his appeal to disaffected voters from his narcissistic personality, to separate the man from his message. Trump talks “truth to power,” we often hear, which supposedly explains why so many voters disillusioned with their party leaders admire him. The fact that he often comes across as an egomaniac is irrelevant to the message, almost beside the point.
But Trump’s narcissism actually constitutes a large part of his appeal to certain voters. I’m not referring to his over-the-top braggadocio, his unrelenting drive to trumpet his superiority. Narcissism means much more than having an inflated sense of self. Extreme Narcissists (as I refer to them in my forthcoming book) like Donald Trump rely on a characteristic set of defenses to evade painful truths about themselves and to shore up that inflated sense of self: righteous indignation, blame, and contempt. For voters who may feel small and helpless in the face of rapid change, who are worried about their economic future and social standing, or frightened by a complex world beset by seemingly intractable problems, Trump models a simplistic way to vanquish self-doubt and defend oneself against existential anxiety.
The rise of Donald Trump thus marks the fusion of populism and narcissism. In times of enormous demographic shift and economic uncertainty, populism exerts a strong appeal for the anxious voter. Populist messages rely on simplistic answers to complex problems and promote an us-versus-them warfare mentality. Like Mr. Trump, populists engaged in battle have traditionally ridiculed their opposition; but in the narcissistic endeavor to prove himself a winner at the expense of all those “losers,” Trump relies on righteous indignation, blame, and contempt as weapons of war. Many disaffected voters are drawn to him precisely because of those traits and not in spite of them.
When criticized or challenged, the Extreme Narcissist will experience it as a personal attack and retaliate in kind. So during the recent Republican presidential debate, when Megyn Kelly drew attention to Trump’s history of misogynistic remarks and raised a valid question – whether he could be a suitable leader for 53% of the electorate – he felt it as a personal assault. He launched into a self-righteous critique of political correctness in America. With blatant condescension, he then blamed Megan Kelly for treating him unkindly. Then he insinuated that he might have to take off the gloves in response to her attack.
During a subsequent CNN interview, those gloves did in fact come off when he appeared to ridicule Kelly as a hormonal female whose questions were purely emotional and entirely off-base. In response to the public furor following those remarks, Erick Erickson disinvited Trump from the RedState conference in Atlanta. Trump then mocked Erickson as “weak” and referred to him as a “loser,” his favorite put down. With characteristic self-righteousness, Trump painted himself as a victim of political correctness in America.
What Trump never gave us was a thoughtful response to Kelly’s question.
As personality traits, righteous indignation, blame, and contempt help the Extreme Narcissist to shore up an inflated sense of self and dispatch unconscious doubts as to his personal worth. When he enlists those traits in the service of a populist message, the Extreme Narcissist models for anxious voters a way to dispatch their own fears and uncertainties.
Transform that sense of helplessness into indignation and then vent it in the Twittersphere.
Blame our “stupid” politicians for the current mess and cling to simplistic answers that vanquish doubt and complexity (e.g., “Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it”).
If anyone questions your positions, immediately attack them with contempt and mockery.
While pundits on both sides swiftly derided Trump’s performance during this first debate, many informal polls showed that admiration among his most vehement supporters remains strong. Critics may denounce his self-righteous victim stance, his propensity to blame others for his own mistakes and to heap scorn and derision upon his detractors, but many people praise him for those very traits.
To identify yourself as a Trump supporter – that is, to identify with the man himself on some level – helps you to feel like a “winner” when you may unconsciously fear that you’re a “loser” in this complicated world, in danger of being displaced by illegal immigrants and countries whose wily leaders out-negotiate our own at the trade table. We don’t yet know whether Trump’s followers will continue to support him, but for now, he continues to demonstrate the populist appeal of Extreme Narcissism as a method for coping with doubts about one’s personal value and social status.