What Exactly Is "Malignant Narcissism"?
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier calls President Trump a malignant narcissist.
Posted May 25, 2019
Five-term U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D—CA) has become the most prominent elected official to date to call President Trump a “malignant narcissist.”
What does “malignant narcissist” mean? And can such a label that has been used to describe figures such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin be appropriately applied to Trump or anyone short of a murderous tyrant?
The term "malignant narcissism" was coined by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1964. Fromm, a Holocaust survivor, suggested that malignant narcissism is a severe and destructive pathology that can lie at the heart of the inhumane acts exhibited by dictatorial tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin.
The concept of malignant narcissism was expanded by psychiatrist Otto Kernberg, who termed it a toxic combination of four highly dysfunctional traits and behaviors:
- Narcissism, with its grandiosity, lack of empathy, need for attention, and sense of entitlement.
- Antisocial behavior, with its lack of remorse, destructive and impulsive behavior, deceitfulness, and disregard for and violation of the rights of others.
- Paranoid thinking, with its sense of persecution, difficulty trusting others, preoccupation with others' loyalty, tendency to bear grudges, and tendency to view benign actions of others as attempts at deception or exploitation.
- Sadism, with its cruelty, efforts to humiliate or manipulate others, and deriving enjoyment from others' pain and suffering.
A day after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she prayed for Donald Trump and the nation and wished his family and staff could stage an “intervention for the good of the country,” Congresswoman Speier told MSNBC, “The mental stability of the president of the United States is in question.”
Speier added, “There have been plenty of psychiatrists and psychologists who have observed him now for over two and a half years that have made the diagnosis from afar that he is a malignant narcissist.”
Rep. Speier is all too familiar with the destructive effects of malignant narcissism. As a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, she was shot five times and left for dead on an airport tarmac while on a fact-finding tour of the People’s Temple in Jonestown in 1979. After that shooting, which killed Ryan and four others, charismatic cult leader Jim Jones orchestrated the murder of 909 of his followers, most of whom were led to drink cyanide-laced liquid.
Other public figures to have labeled Trump a malignant narcissist in recent weeks include former governor of Massachusetts William Weld, who is running against Trump for the Republican nomination, and attorney George Conway, husband of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway.
Since Trump's entry into the presidential race, several psychiatrists and psychologists have spoken out about what they see as Trump’s lack of psychological fitness to hold office, and some have used the term malignant narcissism to describe him.
Psychoanalyst and retired Harvard Medical School Professor Lance Dodes said, “The best diagnosis for Trump is that he is a malignant narcissist. It contains the narcissistic part, which is no big deal alone —lots of people are narcissistic—but the malignant part is the sociopathy dimension. These terms suggest that Trump is a very primitive man. He is also a man who has a fundamental, deep psychological defect. It is expressed in his inability to empathize with others and his lack of genuine loyalty to anyone. You will notice that Trump wants everyone to be loyal to him, but he is loyal to nobody.”
Psychologist and retired professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School John Gartner wrote of Trump, “His narcissism is evident in his grandiose sense of self-importance... without commensurate achievements. From viewing cable news, he knows ‘more about ISIS than the generals’ and believes that among all human beings on the planet, ‘I alone can fix it.’
“His repeated lying, disregard for and violation of the rights of others (Trump University fraud and multiple sexual assault allegations) and lack of remorse meet the clinical criteria for anti-social personality. His bizarre conspiracy theories, false sense of victimization, and demonization of the press, minorities, and anyone who opposes him are textbook paranoia. Like most sadists, Trump has been a bully since childhood, and his thousands of vicious tweets make him perhaps the most prolific cyber-bully in history.”
While Dodes, Gartner, and others argue that Trump is a malignant narcissist, few suggest he is a Hitler or Stalin or Jim Jones. It is a matter of degree, and many say Trump falls far short of such tyrants. However, some warn that it may only be a matter of time, given the right circumstances. And the danger of a potentially unstable or malignantly narcissistic president, say some, deserves our full attention.
Of course, not all observers view Trump as having a mental disorder or being a narcissist. Some suggest his behavior is consistent with other big-time developers, business executives, or public figures. Others object to diagnosing any public figures, arguing that doing so may increase the stigma about mental illness, increase shame in those who have mental illness, discredit the mental health profession, and potentially dissuade people in need from seeking mental health treatment. Still others suggest that some of the cascade of labeling Trump as a narcissist is politically motivated.
To definitively determine whether Trump is mentally unstable or a malignant narcissist would take a thorough, in-person examination by qualified mental health professionals—something unlikely to happen while Trump is president.
Though we are unable to definitively diagnose Trump’s mental status, we can observe his words and actions. Each of us free to determine whether we believe Trump—or anyone’s—behavior parallels the actions of people who have narcissistic, antisocial, paranoid and sadistic tendencies—and, based on our conclusions, what that may portend for our nation and world.
Fromm, Erich (1964). The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books.
Kernberg, O. F. (1989). The narcissistic personality disorder and the differential diagnosis of antisocial behavior. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(3), 553-570.