Co-Authored by Christine Hutchison and Giancarlo Scherillo for Psyched in San Francisco Magazine. Christine Hutchison is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern in San Francisco, Supervised by Debra Warshaw Taube. She provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and adolescents as well as studying for her doctorate. Giancarlo Scherillo is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in San Francisco. His work focuses on applying mindfulness techniques with somatic therapy approaches to support his clients process.
The world celebrated an unofficial Back To The Future day last month, on October 20th, 2015: the date to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel and encounter their troubled future selves. Most of the film's grand promises (flying cars, fifty-dollar pepsi) have not come to pass, but there is one strange similarity between the predictions of this mid-80's movie and our modern stage.
In Back To the Future Part II's portrayal of the year 1985, the self-proclaimed "richest and most powerful man in America" has arisen in the nation's spotlight as an example of the pinnacle of American greatness. He resides in an opulent 27 story Vegas-style Casino, fashioned with his name and face emblazoned in brilliant lighting. He sits on a golden throne-like chair in his palace, wearing lavish clothes, sitting in his high-backed chair, making demands of his staff and 3rd wife, and flanked by a regal portrait of...himself. We laugh at Biff Tannen's ridiculousness in the movie but America has a romance with these pathological displays of power in real life that speak to something inside of each of us that is disturbingly unexamined. We all are protected from owning our own part in creating these characters when we can stay busy making fun of them.
Yes, this nearly 30-year-old movie portrays an enormously wealthy character with an uncanny likeness to the present day GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, and fans finally got to put their theories to rest when the film's screenwriter confirmed this week that he did fashion Biff Tannen after Donald Trump.
In addition to amassing undeserved wealth (read the original article on Psyched Magazine for details about Trump's financial history), both Trump and Tannen display strong characteristics of narcissism. The worlds they create around themselves are typical of narcissists who hold positions of leadership. Trump's presidential campaign, at first, was as comical as Biff's mixed metaphors. But Trump's continued appearance in debate after exhausting debate actually reveals something more about us than we may care to admit. It's easy (especially in progressive areas of the country), to point our fingers at Trump but in order for a Trump candidacy to truly die out, We the People need to begin looking at our own narcissism that breeds candidates like him in the first place.
The classic narcissist is big, loud, pompous, and condescending in order to protect deep-seated feelings of insignificance and worthlessness. But we as bystanders catch the small scared feelings underneath like a bad cold going around, feeling unsettled and ill but not quite sure the source. When we're around these kinds of narcissists, we might feel like we're in the presence of something great, but it always comes with a nagging sense of worthlessness or smallness in ourselves.
There are actually two kinds of narcissism: Inflated and deflated. Inflated narcissism is what we most often picture (as with Donald Trump and Biff Tannen). These are the big, strutting, haughty clowns that make the news (or the movies). Deflated narcissism holds the opposite belief: Everything I do, and who I am as a person, is fundamentally broken and wrong. Deflated narcissism says, "I need to be in the presence of someone great to be worth anything at all."
Often these two pair together. And that's the Donald Trump/America romance. We as a nation are terrified of feeling small, worthless, and (inter)dependent on others, so we tend to latch ourselves to leaders who promise power, strength, and complete control. Our collective narcissism says, "If we are not THE GREATEST country, THE STRONGEST, then we are nothing." With Trump, it's particularly Whiteness and Maleness that is The Greatest Thing at the expense of the female, the Brown and Black, the elsewhere-born, the Queer (and it is baffling to the authors of this piece how Trump has any non-White, straight, male supporters).
The appeal of the inflated narcissist is the glorious promise that "With me, you won't have to think and you won't have to feel." This is what people are responding to in Donald Trump, and in narcissists in any leadership position, whether in government, church, or academia. Self-reflection and critical thinking are hard; And when you live in a country that is 18 trillion dollars in debt, coming out of two horrendous wars, poisoning the planet, and supporting sweatshop labor in other countries through our constant consumerism -- well, not thinking and not feeling has its appeal. Trump promises us four years of not having to think about all that horror.
But the nightmare of narcissism is, you don't get to think. Since narcissism only has room for one, any other's thoughts, feelings, and critiques are unwelcome. Biff Tannen required his wife, Lorraine, to cater to his every wish, to meld her desires (including her desires of what to do with her own body) with his. In Tannen's mind, Lorraine has value only for how well she pleases him and upholds his narcissism. A President Trump would demand that of his staff, and, more broadly, of the rest of the world. If a staffer, a constituent, or another nation does not do its part to uphold America's Narcissism (our own belief in our greatness), then they will need to be punished, even obliterated.
Having a narcissistic leader is dangerous. The American Dream of having someone else think and act for us will surely turn nightmarish (if it hasn't already). The fact that Trump's candidacy is still happening reveals our own fragile, deflated American narcissism. We are desperate to see displays of power and conceit because, deep in our collective unconscious, we are terrified of being small, weak, and helpless.
So how do we avoid a Biff Tannen/Donald Trump presidency?
The way out of narcissism is grief.
Healing our own narcissism means facing the deep shame and inferiority that drives inflated or deflated behavior, and grieve the circumstances that caused those feelings in the first place. As a narcissistic nation, we must grieve what we've done to our precious brothers and sisters who come from elsewhere seeking a better life, grieve what we've done to the planet that might not be able to be undone, and grieve the world we're leaving our children. We must grieve how long it took to recognize women -- first White women, and much later, Women of Color -- as people deserving dignity and rights (this is still in question whether we believe this. Trump apparently does not). We must grieve that we still see the queer and especially the transgender community as worthy of hatred and violence.
Grief always leads us to a place of recognizing our fallibility, our fragility, and our interconnectedness. Through grief, we will begin to want a president who does not see America as THE GREATEST NATION ON EARTH, but as inexorably linked to and interdependent on every other nation. We need someone who can recognize the true and equal humanity of those who are different from us. We need someone who listens to those who speak quietly, thoughtfully, and slowly, not just to those who shout and throw around the most money.
The joke is over. Trump's candidacy for president is revealing our American narcissism to the world. If we want a chance to continue surviving, not as THE GREATEST NATION but as a country who takes care of its people and who acts thoughtfully, ethically, and interdependently, we must begin to acknowledge our fragility and our past wrongs. When we do that, a Donald Trump/Biff Tannen presidency will die a natural, and hopefully quiet, death.