Last night, we watched a president publicly undergo narcissistic break. While lots of people are familiar through experience and popular culture with sociopathy and so have witnessed it (e.g., bullying), fewer have seen public displays by a narcissist, after his bubble has been burst.
Unfortunately, while his statements bore no semblance to reality, they are statements by a president, and therefore, must be taken ‘seriously.’ Worse, there will be those who will take them seriously. This is potentially very dangerous, and I hope none of his inner circle attempt to use his instability as an excuse to do something (else) horrible.
Anyway, last night led to reread something I wrote about a few weeks after his election, and what’s terrifying is how well it holds up (I’ll be the first to admit that not everything I write has held up so well…), so I’m reupping it here. I think you’ll see just how stereotypical his behavior has been. Onto the post:
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.