Narcissists worship themselves, and they want you to worship them, too. But that does not mean that you can sway them with flattery. Narcissists want to be the person in charge. They want to be the person who does the manipulating. They do not want to let you manipulate them. Many people, including the leaders of foreign countries, are finding this out the hard way in their dealings with Donald Trump.
What is a narcissist?
Narcissists are people who worship themselves. Narcissists feel that they are special people who deserve a high social rank. They want the power, property, and prestige that go along with having that high social rank. Unfortunately, they lack the intellectual and social skills to earn that kind of position honestly. So instead, they try to rise by bamboozling or bullying other people. Yet because of their poor intellectual and social skills, narcissists cannot handle the responsibilities of the high position they crave, if they do manage to achieve it.
The real reason why narcissists like flattery
So what do you do if a narcissist takes power? Many people imagine that they can manipulate the narcissist through flattery, which means excessive or insincere praise. This approach may even seem to work at first, but it ultimately fails. The reason is simple. The narcissist’s main goal is to gain and retain power, not to receive meaningless praise. Narcissists seem to crave praise, even from people whose opinion they do not respect. However, praise from submissive underlings does not actually boost the narcissist’s ego. Instead, it simply reassures the narcissist that his or her position of dominance is secure. In contrast, narcissists will be suspicious of people who try to manipulate them through flattery. Narcissists want to be the manipulators, not the manipulated.
Praise and power
Narcissists are obsessed with power relationships, and they have a clearer understanding than most people of how praise is used to express power relationships. When you are a child, praise tends to run downhill toward you. Parents and teachers tend to praise children for doing something right, and they criticize or punish children for doing something wrong. Parents and teachers have power over children, and they typically use that power to stand in judgment of children. So even the well-earned praise that a well-behaved child receives is a reminder that the child is in a subordinate social position. For this reason, it can be risky to praise a narcissist. If the narcissist feels that you are standing in judgement over him or her, the narcissist may erupt into rage.
Narcissistic goods, narcissistic rage
Narcissists are continually playing games of “king of the hill.” They may enjoy praise, but only if it is the kind of worshipful praise that flows uphill from loyal subordinates. That kind of praise reassures them that their position at the top of that hill is secure. This reassuring kind of worshipful praise is called narcissistic goods or narcissistic supply. Narcissists have an extremely secure sense of self-esteem. However, they may realize that their grasp on power is insecure. By offering meaningless praise, you may reassure the narcissist that you are a submissive person who poses no threat to their rule. On the other hand, if you are offering an honest critique, the narcissist may feel threatened, even if your critique is positive. If you seem to be taking over the parent or teacher role, which is a superior social position, the narcissist will view you as a challenger—as a threat. This perception of threat is called narcissistic injury. To neutralize this threat, the narcissist may respond with aggression, called narcissistic rage.
Why some adults are narcissistic
Many young people seem narcissistic, and many adult narcissists seem childish. This is because narcissism is something that you are supposed to outgrow. As children grow, they start to develop peer relationships, which involve two-way exchanges of praise and criticism between equals. Friends normally give each other negative as well as positive feedback. Through receiving this kind of feedback from peers as well as from superiors, normal people develop an accurate idea of how they rank socially. Unfortunately, some people are not good at noticing the subtle feedback that they get from other people. They may even be unwilling to accept the explicit feedback that they get from other people. These poor souls are likely to suffer from a form of arrested development. They are likely to remain self-centered and insensitive to others’ feelings. They are also likely to have an inflated estimate of their own qualities.
Why Donald Trump expects praise
To understand Trump’s narcissism, you need to understand the politics of a royal court. Trump grew up as a princeling in his rich father’s real estate empire. For this reason, Donald Trump has always expected the royal treatment. He originally got this praise simply for being a rich white boy. For this reason, he goes out of his way to flaunt his wealth, to endorse white supremacy, and to exhibit toxic masculinity. This is why he goes to great lengths to exaggerate his wealth, his own supposed genetic endowment, his athleticism, and his sexual prowess. Trump is great at self-promotion, yet his hype rings hollow. His business career has been littered with bankruptcies—his own and those of the smaller businesses whom he refused to pay for the goods and services they provided to him.
Why kings crave praise
Kings expect their subjects to bow before them. They also expect to be met by cheering crowds when they go out in public. Yet kings want this kind of adulation for a simple, practical reason: it shows that their grasp on power is secure. Kings know that if the people turn against them, they may lose their throne and even their life. Trump also knows that he benefits greatly from the value of the “Trump brand,” which he has worked hard to promote. However, Trump knows that his grasp on the Presidency is weak. Trump is old enough to remember Watergate. Thus, he presumably understands that he can be kicked out of office in disgrace, like Richard Nixon. That is why Trump seems hell-bent on persuading everyone that his election was legitimate and that there was a huge crowd of people at his inauguration. Trump is enough of a showman to know that the truth matters less than people’s perception of the truth.
Servants, courtiers, and advisors
In any royal court, there are several kinds of people. There are, of course, the humble servants, who are supposed to be dim-witted people of unquestioned loyalty. There are also the courtiers. Courtiers are clever people who may have some power in their own right and who are typically trying to compete with other courtiers for the king’s favor. Then, there is the privy council. This is a group of the king’s closest advisors, who give the king advice in private. Servants and courtiers are expected to provide flattery in public, as a sign of loyal submission. In contrast, the king needs his privy councilors to tell him inconvenient truths in private. Otherwise, he will make mistakes that could lead to his overthrow. All of these kinds of characters can be found in any royal court. Any of them can fall out of favor in a twinkling, if they cross the king in any way.
Emperors and client kings
An emperor is a king who rules over kings of other nations. The emperor demands loyalty from these client kings, who are then allowed to have a lot of latitude in how they manage their country’s internal affairs. However, the client king’s relationship to the emperor is like that of any other courtier. Presumably, the emperor can have a client king replaced. Thus, the client kings are like courtiers. They are expected to provide flattery, and they may be rewarded for doing so. However, their flattery would have only a limited effect on the emperor’s decisions. Foreign leaders need to understand that Trump may view them as client kings, or at best as executives from competing businesses. He expects them to flatter him, and he might punish them if they fail to pay homage to him, but he won’t let their flattery sway him.
Trump the star
Some commentators have suggested that Trump did not expect or even want to become President, that he launched his Presidential campaign as a publicity stunt to promote his other business interests, including his career in the entertainment industry. Trump’s Presidential campaign succeeded only because of the implosion of both major parties. Trump is a showman who seems to love the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowds. Thanks to his skill in attracting media attention, he got nearly $2 billion dollars’ worth of free media exposure in the runup to the 2016 Presidential election. Trump’s ambition seems to have been to become an A‑list celebrity. He may even think that he has achieved that rank, because he was allowed to host Saturday Night Live. Thus, Trump is stung by the rejection of other A‑list celebrities. Trump thrived on the attention of the cheering crowds during his campaign appearances. After his victory, he has shown little interest in anything but the ceremonial aspects of the job, such as speaking at rallies.
Trump the outsider
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were also criticized during their Presidencies for being lazy, stupid men who were interested only in the ceremonial aspects of their job. Yet Reagan and Bush the younger were Republican Party insiders, and they brought with them a cadre of Republican operatives with a great deal of work experience in the federal government. In contrast, Trump was an outsider whose promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington seemed credible to many people precisely because he did not have this kind of cadre. Yet Trump’s outsider status also meant that Trump was unable to fill out his staff and Cabinet with people who actually understand what they were supposed to do. To solve this problem, Trump has been falling back on the schtick that served him so well on his television show The Apprentice: firing people. As a result, the Trump administration has had a breathtaking turnover of staff. As Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci put it, “I thought I’d last longer than a carton of milk.”
Watch out for the rage
Trump became famous for dramatically firing people on television. Yet Trump himself could be fired on television, if he is impeached. Donald Trump accidentally caught a tiger by the tail. He has caught hold of something that he cannot control. He does not know how to be a good President. Some people fear that he cannot even read well enough to read the legislation and executive orders that he has been signing. Yet he is far too egotistical to admit his shortcomings, and he seems to have no exit strategy. For this reason, he is coming under heavy criticism, and there are rumblings about impeachment. Yet if Trump is impeached, he is likely to react with narcissistic rage, and there is a distinct possibility that some of his supporters on the alt-right could react with terroristic violence. So there is good reason to proceed with caution.
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