The GOP front-runner may or may not be a walking case of narcissism, but there’s a lot we can learn from him either way
It’s a pretty safe bet you’d like Donald Trump’s money. It’s likely too you wouldn’t mind Trump’s celebrity. And if you have a taste for politics, well, you wouldn’t half mind being the leading contender for the presidential nomination of a major political party. So the world of The Donald ought to be pretty sweet.
The problem is, the world of The Donald is a very different thing from the mind of The Donald. And that might be a less happy place to be.
By now, it may not come as much of a surprise that Donald Trump appears to think a great deal of Donald Trump. Unavoidably, this has led a lot of people to slap the narcissist label on him, myself included. But a label is not the same thing as a diagnosis, and that’s important. The looks-like-a-duck, quacks-like-a-duck standard is fine for casual conversation and Sunday morning talk shows, but psychologists require a bit more.
Still, it’s undeniable that Trump’s behavior at least appears consistent with clinical narcissism, and in fact, a particular kind of narcissism—the one psychologists call the “mask model.” As its name suggests, mask model narcissists use the self-adoring narcissistic pose as a way to cover up its exact opposite—a profound insecurity and lack of self-esteem.
It is, in some ways, the most painful kind of narcissism, driven by a deep need to fill an even deeper psychic hole. Frank Bruni of the New YorkTimes touched on this aspect of the Trumpian personality—what he called an “epic neediness”—in a way that makes Trump, improbably, almost a sympathetic figure: “I was and am transfixed by … the scope and intensity of his hunger for adulation,” Bruni wrote. “It’s bottomless, topless, endless, insatiable. He gazed upon a teeming arena of admirers and neither their presence nor their numbers was quite enough.”
It will be for the American electorate to reckon with the phenomenon that is Trump, and that is a job best done by judging his temperament and his expressed policies, without speculating too much about the psychological machinery that animates them. But there is still something to be learned from watching his behavior. There are, after all, plenty of real narcissists at large in the world—and, perhaps, in your life. Dealing with them is a lot more complicated than just checking a box on Election Day.