During the recent Presidential campaign, many people have asked, “Is Donald Trump a narcissist?” Many people have suggested that he qualifies for a psychiatric diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. However, American psychiatrists cannot weigh in on this issue. They are not supposed to offer diagnoses of people whom they have not formally evaluated. Yet even if psychiatrists could render an opinion about Trump, they cannot give him a diagnosis of a personality disorder unless his behavior is unacceptable to the people of his culture.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a personality disorder is a maladaptive pattern of behavior that differs markedly from what is accepted in that individual’s culture. Donald J. Trump’s behavior is not yet maladaptive. He has adapted so well to the current political climate that he has just been elected President of the United States. (Of course, one can only imagine how well he will adapt to being President!) Nor can one honestly say that his behavior differs markedly from what is accepted in his culture. The majority of white male and white female voters cast their votes for Trump. For these reasons, a psychiatrist should not make a diagnosis of a personality disorder in Trump’s case. Trump is not abnormal. The problem is bad norms.
Nevertheless, Trump shows many of the signs of narcissistic personality disorder, and that is reason for concern. People with this disorder have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They overestimate their abilities. They are the sort of fool who charges in where angels fear to tread. Narcissists feel that they deserve a high social rank, and they demand the privileges that go along with it. They demand that other people shows signs of submission, such as expressing admiration and giving them special favors. For this reason, they cannot tolerate constructive criticism. Any criticism would imply that they are not the top of the social pyramid. Narcissists take advantage of other people, and they are unable or unwilling to recognize other people’s needs and feelings. In other words, they make lousy public servants.
The word narcissism refers to a character from ancient Greek mythology. Narcissus was a young man who cared nothing for other people but fell in love with his own reflection. For that reason, psychologists use the term narcissist to describe people who love themselves too much and other people too little. Roman Catholic theologians called this problem superbia, or the sin of pride. Superbia meant that you put yourself above other people. Superbia was one of the seven capital sins. Capital sins are forms of self-worship that give rise to bad behavior. They are called deadly sins because they were believed to lead to the death of grace within the person. Each of the seven deadly sins has an opposing heavenly virtue. The opposite of superbia was humilitas, or humility. Humility does not mean low self-esteem. Rather, it means accurate self-esteem. A humble person understands how he or she ranks relative to other people.
The diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder boil down to one simple problem. Narcissists are overly ambitious people. They crave the power, property, and prestige that go along with high social rank. However, they lack the intellectual and social skills to earn those things. Moreover, if narcissists do manage to rise to a high position, they lack the benevolence to use their power to serve others. In other words, they do not deserve the high rank that they desire.
Narcissists can be dangerous. If they do get the high social rank that they crave, they can use their power in selfish or foolish ways that harm other people. On the other hand, if they do not get all of the admiration and privileges that they desire, they can lash out in anger. Narcissists are known for throwing severe temper tantrums in reaction to minor or even imaginary slights. Trump already has a reputation for being thin-skinned and vindictive. As President, he will have more opportunities to strike out at his enemies. President Richard M. Nixon had an extensive secret list of enemies. During the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, John Dean explained that the Nixon administration had hoped to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Fortunately, the IRS Commissioner refused to launch punitive audits of the people on the list.
Trump’s followers see him as a man of destiny: a strong manly man who will save the nation from a state of crisis. This is a fascist ideal. The fact that so many white Americans are embracing it should be troubling. Of course, Trump has no special magic formula to solve any of the problems that his supporters are currently facing. Instead, he is likely to obstruct solutions to serious problems, such as income inequality and global climate change.
To solve our political problems, Americans must become better judges of character. Americans must elect wise people who have the virtues of humility, generosity, patience, kindness, and diligence, instead of supporting fools who are afflicted by the deadly sins of pride, greed, wrath, envy, and sloth.
For a complete explanation of what narcissism is and what you can do about it, read my book Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health