In another time, in a different circumstance, there would perhaps be room to pity such a person.
The most revealing answer from Donald Trump’s interview with Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace came in response not to the toughest question posed by Wallace, but to the easiest.
At the conclusion of the interview, Wallace asked Trump how he will regard his years as president.
“I think I was very unfairly treated,” Trump responded. “From before I even won, I was under investigation by a bunch of thieves, crooks. It was an illegal investigation.”
When Wallace interrupted, trying to get Trump to focus on the positive achievements of his presidency—“What about the good parts, sir?”—Trump brushed the question aside, responding, “Russia, Russia, Russia.” The president then complained about the Flynn investigation, the “Russia hoax,” the “Mueller scam,” and the recusal by his then–attorney general, Jeff Sessions. (“Now I feel good because he lost overwhelmingly in the great state of Alabama,” Trump said about the first senator to endorse him in the 2016 Republican primary.)
Donald Trump is a psychologically broken, embittered, and deeply unhappy man. He is so gripped by his grievances, such a prisoner of his resentments, that even the most benevolent question from an interviewer—what good parts of your presidency would you like to be remembered for?—triggered a gusher of discontent.
But the president still wasn’t done. “Here’s the bottom line,” he said. “I’ve been very unfairly treated, and I don’t say that as paranoid. I’ve been very—everybody says it. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. But there was tremendous evidence right now as to how unfairly treated I was. President Obama and Biden spied on my campaign. It’s never happened in history. If it were the other way around, the people would be in jail for 50 years right now.”
Just in case his bitterness wasn’t coming through clearly enough, the president added this: “That would be Comey, that would be Brennan, that would be all of this—the two lovers, Strzok and Page, they would be in jail now for many, many years. They would be in jail; it would’ve started two years ago, and they’d be there for 50 years. The fact is, they illegally spied on my campaign. Let’s see what happens. Despite that, I did more than any president in history in the first three and a half years.”
With that, the interview ended.
Such a disposition in almost anyone else—a teacher, a tax accountant, a CEO, a cab driver, a reality-television star—would be unfortunate enough. After all, people who obsess about being wronged are just plain unpleasant to be around: perpetually ungrateful, short-tempered, self-absorbed, never at peace, never at rest.
But Donald Trump isn’t a teacher, a tax accountant, or (any longer) a reality-television star; he is, by virtue of the office he holds, in possession of unmatched power. The fact that he is devoid of any moral sensibilities or admirable human qualities—
- a desire for justice—
means he has no internal moral check; the question Is this the right thing to do? never enters his mind. As a result, he not only nurses his grievances; he acts on them. He lives to exact revenge, to watch his opponents suffer, to inflict pain on those who don’t bend before him. Even former war heroes who have died can’t escape his wrath.
So Donald Trump is a vindictive man who also happens to be commander in chief and head of the executive branch, which includes the Justice Department, and there is no one around the president who will stand up to him. He has surrounded himself with lapdogs.
But the problem doesn’t end there. In a single term, Trump has reshaped the Republican Party through and through, and his dispositional imprint on the GOP is as great as any in modern history, including Ronald Reagan’s.
I say that as a person who was deeply shaped by Reagan and his presidency. My first job in government was working for the Reagan administration, when I was in my 20s. The conservative movement in the 1980s, although hardly flawless, was intellectually serious and politically optimistic. And Reagan himself was a man of personal decency, grace, and class. While often the target of nasty attacks, he maintained a remarkably charitable view of his political adversaries. “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents,” the former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who worked for Reagan, quotes him as admonishing his staff.
In his farewell address to the nation, Reagan offered an evocative description of America. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it,” he said. “But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
A city tall and proud, its people living in harmony and peace, surrounded by walls with open doors; that was Ronald Reagan’s image of America, and Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party.
When Reagan died in 2004, the conservative columnist George Will wrote a moving tribute to his friend, saying of America’s 40th president, “He traveled far, had a grand time all the way, and his cheerfulness was contagious.” Reagan had a “talent for happiness,” according to Will. And he added this: “Reagan in his presidential role made vivid the values, particularly hopefulness and friendliness, that give cohesion and dynamism to this continental nation.”
There were certainly ugly elements on the American right during the Reagan presidency, and Reagan himself was not without flaws. But as president, he set the tone, and the tone was optimism, courtliness and elegance, joie de vivre.
He has since been replaced by the crudest and cruelest man ever to be president. But not just that. One senses in Donald Trump no joy, no delight, no laughter. All the emotions that drive him are negative. There is something repugnant about Trump, yes, but there is also something quite sad about the man. He is a damaged soul.
In another time, in a different circumstance, there would perhaps be room to pity such a person. But for now, it is best for the pity to wait. There are other things to which to attend. The American public faces one great and morally urgent task above all others between now and November: to do everything in its power to remove from the presidency a self-pitying man who is shattering the nation and doesn’t even care.
Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.
But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry.
.. The word narcissism was everywhere—this diagnosis of everyone’s ex, condemnation of the personal-essay trend, fear of the coming selfie apocalypse.
.. I had been wondering why people who seem evil to us, or who break up with us or just disagree with us entirely, can begin to seem “empty” and “fake” and uncanny, even inhuman. And as a nonfiction writer, and a reader, I’m always puzzling over the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust whom we do, in life and in writing.
.. I suspect some of the things we condemn as narcissistic in others might be more accurately defined as how everyone has to perform—in capitalism, or online—doing things formerly considered vain, things we feel guilty or anxious about.
.. Like the journalist she writes about, and the murderer, too, the narcissist is bad because he fakes an “I,” rather than being an “I,” he charms you rather than being genuinely interested in you.
.. Arguably, nonfiction writers always fake an “I,” even if we don’t use the word, creating ethos, so the reader trusts the text. Maybe anyone who writes does, any Facebook poster does. But an “I” can feel generous or self-absorbed, to the reader, and so can a more “objective” voice. Maybe the ease with which we dismiss one another as narcissists these days is partly a symptom of how much it’s changed, and speeded up, the way that we determine how and when to trust writers, now that almost everyone’s writing publicly all day long online.
.. This question of when we trust texts is related, in my mind at least, to this everyday problem of when and why we judge others as so self-absorbed as to be beyond empathy, and to write them off or turn away from them. Of course, sometimes we have to separate from people. Sometimes maybe even judge others as selfish. But if we believe that, on the whole, others are becoming more selfish and self-absorbed than ever before, how willing would we be to trust each other enough to work on the great injustices, the inequality and environmental catastrophes of our time? Is the well-being of future humans even worth fighting for, if all millennials are assholes?
.. Your various chapters, as I read them, follow a surprising, slyly circular design—you often start with an observation that looks true, even self-evident, and then complicate it, such that the opposite of that initial observation is ultimately just as compelling, maybe even more true. How did you arrive at that shape? Did you see that circular design as echoing the way narcissism operates, or perhaps is said to operate?
.. And fear of narcissism. “He didn’t ask me a single question about myself. What a narcissist.” This is René Girard’s idea, that narcissism and fear of narcissism mirror each other.
.. People started dropping the word casually into conversation when they were around me, as if they were worried I thought they were one, and so they wanted to show me they knew what the word meant. I started wanting to exorcise this fear, so I think, I hope, the circular design lets the reader alternately suspect others and herself and me of the disorder until she’s just exhausted and stops worrying so much. Anyone who would pick up a book with this title is probably worrying too much.
.. E. M. Cioran’s great phrase—“thinking against oneself.” The Selfishness of Others is always thinking against, or away from, something you just wrote. I’m remembering a complex sequence early on that at once recognizes and deflects what you call your “personal stake” in the topic.
.. a complex sequence early on that at once recognizes and deflects what you call your “personal stake” in the topic. As you remark—“I’m an essayist; I write the word I all day long, and I’m nervous when I do. More than anything, I don’t want you to think me self-absorbed. So I will try to take up the topic of the narcissism epidemic objectively. If using the word I turns out to be a symptom of narcissism, you won’t hear from me again.”
.. I was joking! But yeah, the experiment was initially to outlaw use of the “I” for most of the book, and then have it turn into memoir, to kind of investigate why we read memoir, what we want from writing about the “I.” The last third was memoir, in the original draft. Anyway, yes, to take on this topic is probably grandiose, if that’s what you’re saying. It was supposed to be an even smaller book than it is, and my editors persuaded me this was too much.
.. I tried to keep a sense of an uncanny “I” moving under the text, without ever using the word, but it’s not really “me,” it’s fraudulent. At least until the last few pages. For example I’ve never had a boyfriend who I feared was a narcissist.
.. There is so much scholarship on the history of psychology and narcissism, and even in my reading I only skimmed the surface.
.. what do you think is our most dangerous misconception when we talk about narcissism?
.. One way to view narcissism is that the diagnosis is a symptom of a privileged portion of civilization—those of us who have time to go to therapy and sit online reading how to diagnose others—turning on itself, “thinking against itself,” maybe, but kind of blaming the problem always on someone else.
.. We’re called upon to curate our lives, share them, focus on ourselves and self-brand and compete for money and stay mentally healthy and say positive affirmations to raise our self-esteem, and then narcissism is the word we use to condemn others who do exactly these things.
.. And because the word names a lack of empathy, using it can create a certain narcissism of decency, I think, where we fetishize our own empathy. It feels new, but it’s also the oldest problem of the self. It’s tragic or it’s comic. Shakespeare was obsessed with it and David Foster Wallace exhausted it, to the extent that there was probably no need to write about it.