Donald Trump violates every rule of politics. His grandiosity knows no bounds; his willingness to offend, no limits. But, no matter how appalling the statement, how vague, contradictory or, in the context of a Republican primary, even heretical, the policies he advocates, nothing has deflated the Trump bubble. His rise has confounded politicians and analysts from across the political spectrum, many of whom seem baffled that someone so narcissistic has such appeal. Their confusion stems from a profound misunderstanding of the Trump phenomenon. Political science and management research shows that, far from handicapping his campaign, Trump's narcissism is its signature asset. You might even call it his trump card. Narcissism is a source of appeal, but it will also lead to his failure. Trump's dominance of today's race, though, may be repeated by other candidates in future elections, and one of whom may someday do enormous harm to the United States.
To call Trump narcissistic seems redundant. The word seems to have been coined with him in mind. Narcissists are arrogant, boastful and exaggerate their achievements. Trump speaks constantly of his business success, claims a net worth of "TEN BILLION DOLLARS" -- far more than any independent estimate -- and says that his The Art of the Deal is ""the No. 1 selling business book of all time," when it isn't even close to that. He even claims that going to a military high school gave him more training militarily than a lot of guys that go into the military."
Narcissists believe that they are uniquely attractive, and Trump has stated that women who criticize him do not attack his looks (as he does theirs) "because I'm so good looking" and that "My fingers are long and beautiful as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body."
Narcissists react with uncontrollable rage against anyone who challenges them. Trump has continued to respond to Megyn Kelly's tough questions with attacks two weeks after the debate, even though he risks alienating Fox news by doing so.
Finally, narcissists believe that they have a special genius. When Trump was asked how he'd deal with America's economic problems, he replied, "I understand business better than anybody that's ever run, in my opinion, for office...I know how to get rid of debt...and I would do it quickly."
There is no "how" in that response, of course, just an assertion that Trump's business acumen will make it happen. Our belief in his ability to fulfill his promises depends entirely on how much credit we give his supposed brilliance. If Trump were right about what he could do, I might vote for him myself. But, of course, he's not right. Shakespeare, as always, said it best. In Henry IV Part I, he has Glendower pompously proclaim, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," only to be immediately deflated by Hotspur, who sardonically replies, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?" Saying you know how to pay off the debt isn't the same thing as knowing how to do it, and it's much further still from actually being able to do it.
So Trump is a narcissist. Why has that helped him? It's because narcissism is a funny thing. You'd think that narcissism would be a repellent quality in a leader, but grandiose narcissists are overconfident, extroverted, dominant and superficially charming. They make an excellent first impression. They seem like leaders. They are more likely to want leadership positions and to be chosen for them. Furthermore, narcissists project extreme self-confidence and studies show that people, particularly non-experts, tend to confuse confidence and competence. If someone claims, with certainty, that they are an expert, they are likely to be believed, even if there is no real evidence of their mastery.
Over time, that first impression fades as people see the real person behind the facade. But that first impression is often enough to get the narcissist into a position of leadership, and once they're there, narcissists can do great harm. Their inability to admit mistakes leads them to disaster and their sense of entitlement destroys their relationships with those around them. Narcissism, like psychopathy or extreme ideology, is an example of leadership qualities I call Intensifiers. They aren't purely good or bad -- they exaggerate outcomes. They make bad things worse and good things better. A narcissist with the right idea might take your company (or your country) far, at least for a little while. Larry Ellison, for example, founded and led Oracle even though one of his executives said of him that "the difference between God and Larry Ellison is that God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison." More often, though, extreme narcissists devastate the organizations they lead. Vivendi Universal, for example, was shattered by its CEO Jean-Marie Messier, who sometimes signed his name "Jean-Marie Messier Moi-Meme-Maitre-du-Monde" or "Jean-Marie Messier myself master of the world."
If narcissism helps explain Trump's rise, then why have political elites responded so negatively to him? They haven't because political elites don't see politics the same way most voters do. Elites pay attention all the time; most voters only do so near Election Day. For example, in 2014 only 38% of Americans knew that the Republican Party controlled the House of Representatives. In many ways voters' inattention to politics makes sense. On a day to day basis, politics has little effect on most people's lives. The New Hampshire primary is more than six months away. Why obsess over it? Most of the time I don't follow politics out of civic virtue, I do it for the same reason I follow the Patriots -- because it's fun for me. If it weren't, I probably wouldn't bother, and for most people, politics isn't much fun.
Political elites have been watching Trump's forays into politics for decades. His first impression long ago faded away. By contrast, even though Trump has been famous since the 1980s, this is most voters' first real exposure to him as a Presidential candidate. His narcissistic aura has not yet worn off. Thankfully, narcissism is a wasting asset. The same bombast that propels him now will be a crippling handicap in six months. Trump will retain a core group of supporters, but he can only gain strength if people pay attention to him, and it is precisely that attention which will eventually destroy his appeal.
The broader worry, though, is that narcissism is not rare among billionaires and politicians (although even in that company Trump is exceptional). Trump's superficial charm and showmanship are powerful, but they are not unique. In future elections a candidate with the same narcissistic charm and more political skill might actually succeed, shaping a primary season or even seizing a nomination. If that happens, he or she might do enormous harm to the country. Once the Trump campaign has faded, guarding against that possibility will be a crucial task for everyone involved in the political system.