In this article, the authors discuss 5 possible conflicts underlying the President’s abnormal public behavior as well as ways in which these conflicts represent potential avenues for intervention and the “reigning in” of this Presidency
By Seth Davin Norrholm, Ph.D. & David M. Reiss, M.D.
The sitting President is a conflicted man and, of course, the conflict within can be either partially or, at times, entirely internal. As such, trained behavioral observers can use their expertise, based on thousands of hours of clinical observation, to infer as to the underlying nature of the conflict through publically observable psychologically significant, abnormal, or disturbed behavior (via interviews, Tweets, press pool footage, etc.).
Considering the controversy and conflict that has surrounded and immersed Trump since long prior to his candidacy for POTUS (e.g., birtherism, Central Park 5, Trump University, comments on Howard Stern), the addition of the ultimately-high level internal and external stressors related to the Office of the Presidency, can compound pre-existing conflicts and ineffective practical responses to the point of triggering maladaptive emotional and behavioral patterns including, but not limited to, depression, anxiety, impulsivity, irritability, suspiciousness, fear, and anger. In addition, the heightened constant, instantaneous, and world-wide attention to these issues make attempts to avoid active recognition or conscious awareness of the aforementioned conflicts much more problematic both practically and emotionally.
During the first six months of this Presidency, there appear to be at least 5 major conflicts evident in Trump’s public behavior. These conflicts must be addressed not only in an effort to keep the general public informed but also as potential avenues through which interventions aimed at stemming the tide of this toxic Presidency might be focused.
CONFLICT 1: Consistent rejection of others
A central conflict in extremely narcissistic individuals is appropriate regulation of self-esteem, self-worth, and maintenance of a stable sense of self (an internal recognition of one’s own identity, of itself and in relation to others). There is often great pain and turmoil associated with an unavoidable facing of a view of oneself that is small, ineffectual, and unworthy (this can often be rooted in an unstable childhood in which valuation was not consistently provided or lacking; a terrified intolerance of personal imperfection). Extreme narcissists will go to great lengths to avoid this pain and turmoil. A common and primary means of enacting this avoidance is through the rejection of others as unworthy (think Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Elizabeth Warren), thereby rendering their opinions and statements “irrelevant” or worse.
While rejecting others, the extreme narcissist will also go to great lengths to seek out positive affirmation from any sources available in order to, even if only temporarily, feel praiseworthy, deserving, and accepted. This may include self-serving activities such as rallies and meetings whose sole purpose may be nothing more than soothing a “bruised ego.” This does not even imply having respect for or allegiance/loyalty to those bestowing praise – they are nothing more than bit-players, serving a pre-determined role (for as long as they are useful).
AVENUE FOR INTERVENTION 1: Maintain increased scrutiny by free press, Congress, and resisting general public of those within the President’s orbit and pointed, consistent rebuttal from those upon whom the President has bestowed the label unworthy (either directly, e.g., Rep. Adam Schiff or via a hostile “nickname”, e.g., “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer”).
CONFLICT 2: Resentment targeted toward persons and principles viewed as threats
The experience of conflict is characterized by the extreme narcissist developing and relying upon beliefs, with differing rationales, that no one has the right or authority to control or limit him from doing whatever he wants. He truly believes that he is outside the boundaries of rules, laws, oaths, customs, or mores (e.g., Presidential Oath of Office, Emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, nepotism). All of those normal social constructs fall by the wayside in contrast to the need for immediate relief and gratification. The resentment aimed at others may be passive or active and may be presented in the form of a response to a perceived injustice; the presentation of a perceived sense of victimization. The facts and realistic circumstances become secondary issues to attacking the significance of the persons posing the threat. The focus of attack is on the integrity of the messenger, not the message; ad hominem rather than reasoned.
AVENUE FOR INTERVENTION 2: Persistent reminders that no one is above the law. These reminders will assuredly come from the Mueller investigation, the ongoing RICO/financial investigations by New York AG Eric Schneiderman, and the Congressional Special Committees. This intervention will require patience but is rooted in respect for rule of law.
CONFLICT 3: Sadism
When a person is driven to destroy a perceived enemy, a person posing a threat, simply removing that person or “chasing them away” is often inadequate. The narcissist is never certain the threatening person might not return, perhaps even more powerful and dangerous. However, if the threatening person is humiliated, observed to be suffering, publicly scorned – it is very reassuring. Thus, mere attacks upon a threatening person’s credibility of motivation provides insufficient relief – but observing that person suffering is reassuring and even cause for rejoicing. Sadism, by definition, is the enjoyment of another person’s suffering. Thus, what emerges from a defense of self-esteem against conflict can crystallize into a need for sadistic glee in order to feel “safe”; and sadism may then become a generalized mode of controlling interpersonal relationships.
AVENUE FOR INTERVENTION 3: The targets of the President’s sadistic tendencies have repeatedly found themselves in tenuous positions, or in some cases, already removed from his Administration. Yet these individuals represent a potentially powerful avenue (via the free press and media outlets) by which to expose damning information that can weaken and ultimately dismantle the narcissistic façade created by this President and his team. At the same time, constant reminders within the press and social media of the violations by the Trump team of basic, accepted standards of respect and decency.
CONFLICT 4: Ambition-Achievement
Even within the context of conflict, the extreme narcissist must continue to view himself as “special”, “extraordinary” and, as such, possessing unique abilities and talents as well as an inevitably glorious destiny not available to those deemed unworthy. The manifestation of desiring these qualities can often appear qualitatively as a form of mania. However, unlike mania, behaviors falling within this sub-conflict are not acute, pressured, or associated with typical manic activities such as hyperactivity, decreased need for sleep, or risk taking. They are not associated with a disruption of thought processes due to malfunctioning neuro-cognitive processes. The behaviors linked to the Ambition-Achievement conflict are undertaken with a specific goal of increased praise or admiration and reinforcement of the narcissist’s special standing. Put succinctly, the manic truly (psychotically) believes in his/her grandiosity and then thinks and acts accordingly; the narcissist must act in preposterous ways in order to constantly reassure himself/herself that he/she truly is extraordinary.
Let’s take the ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign initiative as an example. Clearly, the message from the candidate-turned-President was that he, and he alone, possessed unique qualities to restore this Nation to a previous incarnation in which national pride was high and the populace was well taken care of (at least in his perception). This was an enormously popular sentiment to a large group of his supporters and provided a rich source of admiration and praise. However, as is often the case with this type of conflict, this President did not have the required talent, expertise, or drive to actually achieve the stated goal of making America “great” again.
In fact, other than referring to being a “businessman” and using over-the-top adjectives in reference to general tasks (e.g., “the greatest negotiator… surrounded by the best people… America First…), Trump never elucidated exactly what skills he had or how he might practically implement those skills. Trump constantly referred to himself in very general terms as representing the epitome of talent to accomplish anything and everything – without ever specifying actual plans or methods. (Trump even extended this ephemeral quality to his son-in-law – there would be no task that Jared Kushner could not conquer, despite having no qualifying experience or talent.)
This shortcoming has become more and more apparent with each passing day Trump has been in Office and is often made abundantly obvious by Trump’s statements and actions that betray a sheer lack of understanding regarding how government works. When on some level recognizing such a shortcoming, the extreme narcissist will often revert back to the aforementioned ill-defined but grandiose Extraordinary Talents and Great Plan while shying away from providing any details regarding implementation or strategy. To state this another way, the fantastical carrot is continually held before the adoring fan base in hopes of soon achieving the fruits of the Great Plan “at some time in the near future.”
AVENUE FOR INTERVENTION 4: Members of Congress, American citizens, regardless of political affiliation, and the free press should ask ad nauseum for details beyond hyperbolic statements without substance. Vague statements, claims and predications cannot go unchallenged.
CONFLICT 5: Object Hunger
A central conflict in the extreme narcissist that is related to the maintenance of the sense of self is the acceptance versus rejection of others within one’s daily orbit. Not surprisingly, those allowed within the inner circle, or orbit, must have the requisite devotion to the narcissist (at least as long as he or she is deemed non-threatening). Many narcissists possess an emotional void that must be addressed in order to construct some semblance of a sense of self and this void is often filled by an individual with whom he spends a great deal of time every day. who is available “on-call” and who has minimal personal needs beyond those that are in full concert with the needs of the narcissist. This person provides a sense of pseudo-attachment as well as a convenient source for ad hoc admiration. In many cases, the “void filler” is undyingly loyal and has been a long-standing presence within the narcissist’s inner circle as his/her own needs are, in some manner, satisfied vicariously through their relationship to / identification with the narcissist.
In the President’s case, it has been reported that he does not like to be alone and often seeks late night companionship in the form of a close advisor or team member. The most notable void fillers for Trump have included Hope Hicks, assistant to the President and often the official “bearer of bad news,” Keith Schiller, longtime bodyguard, deputy assistant to the President, and director of Oval Office operations, Dan Scavino, one-time Trump caddy, now assistant to the President and director of social media (as well as a constant source of candy), John McEntee, production assistant at Fox News, Trump’s “body man,” George Gigicos, director of advance and “optics” for the President, Michael Flynn, former NSA Director, upon whom Trump called upon for advice on a wide range of matters including the economics of the U.S. dollar, and most recently, Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived Director of White House Communications.
Just as the narcissist does not have a need to identify his/her own actual skills to justify a sense of grandiose power, the members of the entourage need not have particular experience or skill in their technically-assigned position as long as they have exquisitely fine-tuned skills to meet the emotional needs of their leader, their true assignment.
AVENUE FOR INTERVENTION 5: This conflict may actually resolve itself as the number of truly trusted advisers diminishes with the President becoming more isolated and suspicious (if not paranoid) or as these individuals are caught up in the web of investigations that is sure to include them and their role in the scandals embroiling this Presidency. At the same, there must be constant questioning of the expertise and qualifications of those whom the President designates to handle important positions of advice and/or implementation of policy.
Summary: Merely describing Trump as “narcissistic” or applying other psychological or diagnostic terms 1) adds nothing new to the discussion; and, 2) provides no direct suggestions for solutions or remedies. However, by appreciating the nature of conflicts experienced by narcissistic individuals and the manner by which the individual responds to those conflicts allows for more effective strategizing to diminish the unwarranted exercise of power and dangerous damage that can be inflicted by a narcissistically-impaired leader.