Lessons I Learned Working For A Narcissist And What That Means For Il Trumpe

Many moons ago, I worked at an organization that was run a textbook narcissist. Everything about Trump’s behavior reminds me of my former boss. Everything. Before I get to my own thoughts on the topic, back when I worked at Said Organization, I stumbled across Crazy Bosses by Stanley Bing, which is about, well, crazy bosses. The book describes five archetypes: the bully, the paranoid, the narcissist, the wimp, and the disaster hunter. I instantly recognized The Narcissist.

So one day when said boss was out of town, I brought in the book and had a little reading session in the lunchroom with some co-workers. As I made my way through it, the room became so quiet you could hear a pin drop, with only the occasional muttered “Oh my God.”

When putting this post together, I decided to re-read the chapter (I own the 2007 edition of the book), and, well, it’s best if I just give you the symptoms of the narcissist boss verbatim (pp. 141-2; boldface mine):

•Default emotion: emptiness. Think of a vast, blank wall that can be temporarily sprayed with any available can of paint, the prevailing color being the one most recently employed.

•Incapable of viewing others as real creatures with needs discrete from his or her own, consequently has no problem using others for any purpose that furthers his or her desires, up to and including their destruction, for which he or she will feel no remorse. Remorse in general not a strong suit.

Bipolar internal landscape, vacillates between delusions of grandeur, during which time he or she may be quite pleasant, even “happy”, and abject depression brought about by feelings of inadequacy and unimportance. At such times, may appear paranoid or mutate into hard-to-handle bully. Prone to terrible rage or suicidal self-pity when this artifical cosmic construct (with his or her self at the center) is contradicted by ample evidence to the contrary.

•Bold and heedless in the face of danger; highly imaginative, given to flights of fancy fueled by lack of any instinct for self-doubt, during which any and all ideas will be perceived as brilliant, even inevitable, no matter how lame.

Capable of great generosity and random acts of kindness, because they make him feel good about himself and justify his egocentric worldview.

Zero attention span, concentration of a small child.

Most used word: “I.” Second most used word: “Me.”

•Contagion factor: 34 (not enough oxygen in the room). Narcissists make for great viewing, but you rarely want to be one of them.

•Level of difficulty: 45. For those unwilling to suck up: 96.

•Examples: Louis XIV of France, Ted Turner, Donald Trump.

I don’t remember if the examples are in the first edition from 1992, but, for at least a decade, Donald Trump has been the archetype narcissistic boss. WHEEEEE!!!

I would add two other observations about the narcissist. First, he is essentially a full-tilt diva, with the rest of us either as bit, cameo players, or else the audience (or both). One day the script might be ‘hard-charging businessman’, the next ‘compassionate philanthropist’, followed by ‘competent manager’ and so on. Regardless, the show must go on. Ideally, his entire life is a fantasy, unmoored from reality. Anyone who challenges this fantasy causes extreme psychological distress.

That brings us to sunny point #2. Just like the addict’s primary goal is to get that fix, the narcissist’s primary goal is to maintain the fantasy. They will construct elaborate mechanisms to deny unpleasant realities. Plainly put, they turn everyone around them into liars. You have to lie as a self-defense mechanism in order to fend off and manage the impulsiveness, the bouts of inadequacy, the hare-brained ideas, and the laziness and ineptitude. If you are a reasonably honest person, this is soul-crushing.

The narcissist is often not very good for the organization’s mission. While he often rose to his position by selling a five-star sizzle on a one-star steak, he’s often underprepared and unskilled, and very dependent on others–essentially, he’s an Illustrious Name on the Door. Unfortunately, leaders, on occasion, do have to lead–and that does involve work, knowledge and experience, and relevant skills. The dishonest climate is another massive problem. Problems will fester and multiply because the narcissist doesn’t want to hear about them–the show must go on. Then things reach a crisis point, as the lies collapse on each other. At this point, the narcissist swings into paranoia and rage. Why did all of these awful people lie to me? (Can’t imagine why…). Then the impulsiveness kicks in. Needless to say, this isn’t the optimal environment for crisis management. So if you care about the goals of the organization, the narcissist boss is often the largest impediment. This too is soul-crushing.

To be clear, being a narcissist can be advantageous: there are times when self-delusional confidence is incredibly useful (if for no one other than the narcissist). Needless to say, the narcissist doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome (most of the time anyway, when the imaginary show in his head is uninterrupted). And they often have, at the very least, a superficial ability to play to an audience. Erratic behavior, at times, can be advantageous. But the narcissist has an additional advantage–most people don’t know how to deal with someone like this, especially in someone in a position of authority. Most people simply aren’t wired like this (certainly not to this extreme). You are working for and dependent on someone who is mentally ill–and, by and large, is unwilling to seek help (or who even realizes there is a problem).

If you want to know how I dealt with this, it’s very simple. I left. As long as there is no one to ride herd on the narcissist, there is nothing else to do. In the short term, as I noted, dissembling, if you can stomach it, is a reasonable strategy. But there is no effective long term solution, other than removing either you or the narcissist from the situation.

Regarding Trump, the obvious question is how do we deal with the most fucked up, pathological president in U.S. history? (Keep in mind both Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon were presidents).

Well, one strategy is something like this (boldface mine):

He’s easily manipulated. Having a fragile, approval-craving narcissist as president isn’t the end of the world. It just means that to get him to do the right thing, you have to pet him. In Trump’s post-election exchanges, we have several useful models. The first is Obama, who gave Trump a tongue bath in their 90-minute meeting on Nov. 10 and may have saved his signature legislative achievement in the process. Three days after that meeting, Trump told the Journal he was reconsidering his pledge to abolish Obama’s health insurance program: “Either Obamacare will be amended, or repealed and replaced.”

The second model is Times columnist Tom Friedman. In the group session at Times headquarters on Nov. 22, Friedman worked Trump like a horndog in a bar, trying to get him into bed on climate change. “You own some of the most beautiful links golf courses in the world,” Friedman told Trump. “I’d hate to see Royal Aberdeen underwater,” the columnist added. When Trump ragged on windmills, Friedman whispered sweet nothings: “General Electric has a big wind turbine factory in South Carolina.” Trump, eager for approval, told the Times staffers about his “many environmental awards” and bragged, “I’m actually an environmentalist.” By the end of the session, Friedman had Trump eating out of his hand.

The third model is a story Trump told about his threat to narrow the First Amendment. During the primaries, Trump had pledged to “open up our libel laws so when [journalists] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” But in his meeting with the Times, Trump said someone had later warned him, “It’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.” “You’re right, I never thought about that,” Trump recalled telling this person. And that reflection led Trump to assure the Times that on the question of libel laws, “You’re going to be fine.”

The fourth model is Jim Mattis, the retired general who met with Trump on Nov. 19 to be considered for secretary of defense. Trump asked Mattis about waterboarding, which Trump supported. “I’ve never found it to be useful,” said Mattis, according to Trump’s account of their conversation. “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I do better with that than I do with torture,” the general told him. Trump told the Times that he was “very impressed by that answer,” especially because it came from “the toughest guy.” Waterboarding, Trump concluded, was “not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think.”

That’s how you move Trump. You don’t talk about ethics. You play the toughness card. You appeal to the art of the deal. You make him feel smart, powerful, and loved. You don’t forget how unmoored and volatile he is, but you set aside your fear and your anger. You thank God that you’re dealing with a narcissist, not a cold-blooded killer. And until you can get him safely out of the White House, you work with what you have.

The downside of this approach is that it fosters a culture of dishonesty and lying. We can’t normalize his behavior or his lies. We’re not dealing solely with a crazy boss. We can’t remove ourselves from the situation, other than by emigrating–and I, for one, am sticking it out. If nothing else, I’m too damn old to run.

Our refusal to bow before his fantastical order is vital. It will enrage him at times–which can be useful for those of us who then can conciliate him as it makes them appear to be solving his problem. But opposition will also cause him to make mistakes and lash out at those near him. His administration will collapse under its own contradictions, though not without a strong push from us. In the meanwhile, resistance will remind us what we are fighting for. It will keep us sane and ethical. The act of resistance is important for the sake of those who resist–and for those who are unable to do so.

Obviously, this is not an ordinary political strategy. But Trump is unlike any other president-elect, certainly in recent history.

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9 Responses to Lessons I Learned Working For A Narcissist And What That Means For Il Trumpe

  1. John Danley says:

    This is well noted. As a mental health clinician, I’ve been emphasizing Trump’s “walking DSM” status for the last 18 months. He meets full criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (know shit!) with a provisional diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder combined with Other Specified Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorder/s. Then there’s the comical Edifice Complex, etc. Not only is the average American unfamiliar with psychopathy, they’ve mistaken his unhinged bravado for leadership. He’s a divisive sensationalist and con artist with no accountability for his salesmanship. It’s no wonder that most New Yorkers want nothing to do with the man, and anyone who has ever been in close proximity to the vortex of his ego have described him as verbally abusive, controlling, and forever duplicitous. We, the people, are fully fucked.

  2. Peronista says:

    The problem with this — and I am inclined to agree with your diagnosis — is that it means access is king. Because narcissists are actually quite easy to manipulate, whomever can do the manipulating effectively rules. And judging by who is in close proximity to El Trumpe – the people who will interact with him daily, and therefore have the ability to push him in the direction they want – this is going to be a terrifying 4 years.

  3. John Danley says:

    There needs to be an on-call Dialectical Behavior Therapy specialist and psychotropic med provider on Fifth Avenue that’s willing to provide referrals for Pennsylvania Avenue. Let go and let Abilify.

  4. becca says:

    Looking at Trump at various times in the campaign, I have wondered if the problem with him isn’t his core moral compass, or lack thereof- but rather the moral compasses of those that cheer for him most loudly.
    We wouldn’t need people to “manage” Trump in the same way if we lived in a society that applauded bringing insurance to people and not just firing people on reality teevee.

  5. coloradoblue says:

    My gut says the problem is going to be less Trump than the people he appoints. He is (probably) not going to specifically tell the Secretary of Whatever to “burn everything down” but the people he is appointing and rethugs in congress have had that goal since FDR/LBJ and this is their big chance and they are going to do everything in their power to not miss the chance.


  6. daved says:

    Trump has reportedly picked Mattis as Secretary of Defense, assuming Congress provides the needed waiver (Mattis retired too recently to be eligible for the job).

  7. Good stuff.

    On a tangent from the book quote, I’m going to stand up for Louis XIV of France. By the standards of seventeenth-century absolute monarchs, he was very competent and functional. He had an inflated ego, but when you’re the King that’s a feature, not a bug. He intentionally constructed an artificial fantasy world at the Palace of Versailles, not because he believed it was real, but because it kept the unruly French nobles in line as they were forced to play along.

    (Also, Louis XIV’s famous quip of l’etat, c’est moi (I am the state) was probably never really said by him.)

    Louis XVI, on the other hand, is a lot closer to what we’re dealing with in Trump. It’s all too easy to imagine Melania saying “let them eat cake” as an angry mob threatens to storm Trump Tower.

    • C baker says:

      Point: Marie Antoinette never said that. That’s a line from a satirical publication about some generic evil princess.

  8. E.A. Blair says:

    Elsewhere, I made these remarks at a point in Trump’s candidacy when he still seemed like a bad joke:
    Donald Trump doesn’t have an attitude; he has a personality nobody can stand.
    Donald Trump doesn’t suffer from insanity; he enjoys every minute of it.
    Recent Trump quote: “You can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ME!”
    The only time Donald Trump settled for second-best was when he heard that honesty was the best policy.
    The last time Donald Trump went through customs, he had nothing to declare except how amazing he was.
    After reading this post, I find it surprising that I hadn’t read that book, too, but came to much of the same conclusions regarding Trump. I did, however, read Problem Bosses: Who They Are And How To Deal With Them by Mardy Grothe and Peter Wylie. I deliberately left the book in my cubicle where it was easily seen by anyone, including said boss, who walked past, as a non-so-subtle hint of how I felt. The boss in this case was a combination of a bully and a disaster hunter.

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