Donald Trump: A Narcissist in Narcissistic America

By Ivan Light

Donald Trump’s well-documented narcissism turns out to fit into a pattern of increased cultural narcissism: part of his entertainment and success is to be explained by the larger pattern. But he also explicitly exploited that feature of his personality in order to achieve a connection to his audience.

Writing in 1979, historian Christopher Lasch argued that the producer ethic of nineteenth century America had given way in the late twentieth to “a culture of narcissism” that celebrated wealth, luxury, sex, and income inequality. According to Lasch, in the decades during which Donald Trump was reaching adulthood, American culture underwent decisive changes that produced corresponding changes in modal personality. “Self-absorption” and “delusions of grandeur” accompanied a pervasive privatism that replaced the communitarian ethos of De Toqueville’s America. In the same vein, Richard Sennett claims that the transition from Protestant Ethic to Ben Franklin’s secular work ethic, has left Americans prey to self-doubt. “Why ain’t you rich?” If you are not rich, you must be stupid. “Am I stupid?” people ask themselves. That self-doubt created what Sennett calls, a “driven man.” This driven person is “intensely competitive but cannot enjoy what he gains.” The life of such a person becomes, “an endless quest for recognition from others and for self-esteem.” Oddly, this academic’s analysis coincides with what Norman Vincent Peale concluded four decades earlier!

Three decades after Lasch, two academic psychologists, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell assembled time-series data that confirmed the spread of narcissistic personality traits in the American population after 1970. Decrying “the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture,” Twenge and Campbell estimated that narcissistic personality disorder only affected 10 percent of young adults in 2009 and 6 percent of those born before 1980. But they showed that many more Americans exhibited narcissistic traits. A major cause was well-intentioned parenting attempts to build self-confidence by assuring children that they were “special.” This practice had, in the authors’ opinion, resulted in unwanted and destructive diffusion of grandiose delusions of self-importance in adults, resulting commonly in aggression, materialism, and lack of caring about others. Trump’s father and grandfather had stressed “winning and coming out on top,” which suggests a familial culture of narcissism in place well before the rest of the United States caught up. When Donald Trump was a child, his father, Fred Trump, assured him that he was “a king” and would become “a killer.” In these exact respects, not to mention his wealth, young Donald was special and his subsequent course of life reflected the narcissism his father built into his personality.

Twenge and Campbell identified reality television as “a showcase of narcissistic people.” For 14 years Donald Trump starred in the “Apprentice,” a reality television program on which he boasted of his wealth and business acumen, congratulated winners and mocked losers. Viewed in this context, Donald Trump’s celebrity derived from the timely conjuncture of his personal narcissism with the growing narcissism of the American public. That is, Trump’s self-promotion, self-glorification, conspicuous extravagance, rage and cruelty, and his self-absorption resonated with many people who, thanks to cultural change, appreciated and valued exactly those qualities in a leader.

Just comparing the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder with Trump’s behavior, one is impressed by the goodness of fit, but, that conceded, an exclusively psychological explanation of Trump’s career confronts several objections. Without the inherited class resources that enabled his early career in property development and therewith the acquisitions of his first millions, Donald Trump would never have earned the initial millions that bought the conspicuous lifestyle that grabbed the attention of the American public. No one earns brand image by squandering money at Burger King. Indispensable class resources enabled the conspicuous consumption that earned personal celebrity for Donald Trump.

Moreover, even if narcissism diffused in American society as Twenge and Campbell aver, narcissism affected a large minority. Therefore, the trend toward cultural narcissism cannot by itself explain the success of Trump’s entertainment and political career. What is more, Trump controlled his narcissism in the conscious interest of financial gain and political advantage. In 2016, Trump’s attorney paid two sex partners for silence rather than basking in the tabloid publicity as young Trump would have. This reversal suggests that Trump’s publicity hunger came under prompt control as soon as it was no longer advantageous.

It would be simplistic to understand his self-promotion as mindless acting out of personal narcissism. In the Art of the Deal, published in 1987, Trump openly declared that his publicity seeking was an economic tactic. “From a business point of view,” he wrote, “the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks,” adding that free publicity is cheaper than advertising and more convincing. “We get lots of attention and that alone creates value.” When written in 1987, those words referred to Trump’s Atlantic City casinos to which Trump desired to attract action-seekers. For such people, Amy Chua points out, the American Dream is about wage-earning, vicariously enjoying the private lives of rich people, cynically decoupling success from hard work, and relishing the success of those who out-cheat the cheaters. As a rational tactic, lifestyle exhibitionism and aggression enabled Trump to attract the sympathy of working-class people. His purchase of a football team and his World Wrestling appearance served this purpose as well. There was method in Trump’s exhibitionism, not just narcissism run amok.

Endnotes

i. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

ii. Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character New York: Norton, 1998, p. 105.

iii. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Atria Books, 2009.

iv. Gwenda Blair, The Trumps, p. 4.

v. Kranish, Michael and Marc Fisher, Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President. Scribn locations 827-828

vi. Amy Chua, “How billionaires learned to love populism.” Politico 2 Mar. 2018.

vii. Richard Swedberg, “Folk economics and its role in Trump’s presidential campaign: an exploratory study.” Theory and Society (2018) 47:136 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-018-9308-8