Donald Trump is his own whistle-blower.
During his 2016 bid, Donald Trump would sometimes pause from bashing elites and the media to speak with awe about a phone call he had with a Very Important Journalist.
Trump puffed up with pride as he told the story to bemused rallygoers, who only moments before had been jeering at the press.
It was, to say the least, a mixed message from the phony populist.
During an interview in June 2016 at Trump Tower, Trump bragged to me about the call with the journalist, who turned out to be Tom Friedman. Lately, Trump has been boasting about Tom’s praise for the White House’s Israel-United Arab Emirates peace plan.
Like Stella Dallas standing in the rain outside the gates of the mansion where her daughter is getting married, Donald Trump has always had his nose pressed up against the window of the elites.
“For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity,” former Ambassador Kim Darroch wrote to his colleagues in London, in a leaked cable.
Steve Bannon once told me that Trump was much more concerned about CNN’s coverage than Fox’s. Trump was not seeking affirmation from the nighttime slate of Fox knuckleheads; they were in the bag. Unserious though he may be, Trump covets praise from serious people. And serious Sean Hannity is not.
Fresh off his win in 2016, he was eager to come talk to The New York Times. I’ve never seen Trump happier than in that hour with the “failing” New York Times. (He even got to upbraid me in front of my boss.) As we wrapped up, he told the assembled editors, reporters and Times brass: “It’s a great honor. I will say, The Times is, it’s a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along.”
That same eager tone was echoed in the audio of Bob Woodward’s tapes with Trump, as the president warmly spoke the name “Bob” again and again, yearning for acceptance from the very establishment that he had denounced to win the Oval Office.
Even though Woodward keeps writing books about Trump with titles that sound like Hitchcock horror flicks — first “Fear” and now “Rage” — Trump somehow thought he could win over the pillar of the Washington establishment.
“I brought something that I’ve never shown to anybody,” the president told the writer in December 2019. “I’m going to show it to you. I’ll get you something that’s sort of cool.”
He had an aide bring photos of him with Kim Jong-un, including some capturing the moment when the two leaders stepped over the line between North and South Korea.
“Pretty cool,” Trump gushed. “You know? Pretty cool. Right?” He added, “I mean, they’re cool pictures when you — you know, when you talk about iconic pictures, how about that?”
In a later interview, he gave Woodward a poster-size picture of himself and Kim, saying: “I don’t even know why I’m giving it to you. That’s my only one.” He trumpeted about Kim: “He never smiled before. I’m the only one he smiles with.”
Trump also bragged to the man who helped break the Watergate story, which sparked an impeachment inquiry, that he handled impeachment with more aplomb than his predecessors.
“Nixon was in a corner with his thumb in his mouth,” Trump said. “Bill Clinton took it very, very hard. I don’t.”
Woodward once told me that every president gets the psychoanalyst he deserves.
But at least with Nixon, Woodward had to follow the money to expose the venality. With Donald Trump, he simply had to turn on a recorder.
Trump is his own whistle-blower.
As The Times’s Nick Confessore put it on MSNBC: “Trump is the first candidate for president to launch an October surprise against himself. It’s as if Nixon sent the Nixon tapes to Woodward in an envelope by FedEx.”
Trump fiends for legitimacy even as he undercuts any chance of being seen as legitimate. He is fact-based and cogent on the Woodward tape talking in early February about how the coronavirus is airborne and deadly and dangerous for young people. But he vitiated that by publicly downplaying the vital information for his own political advantage.
For more than a week, instead of focusing on his peace deals and his nomination for the “Noble Prize,” as a Trump campaign ad spelled it, everyone has been focused on a story that contends he called Americans who died in war “suckers” and “losers.”
Trump desperately wants approval even as he seems relentlessly driven to prove he’s not worthy of it.
He may be ludicrously un-self-aware, but even he sensed that his tango with Woodward would end badly. It was fun for a while, bro-ing out in the Oval with his fellow septuagenarian big shot, batting around the finer points of white privilege. But it could not last.
“You’re probably going to screw me,” the president told the writer. “You know, because that’s the way it goes.”
Even so, the unreflective Narcissus will never drag himself away from his reflecting pool. You know, because that’s the way it goes.
The consequences of Donald Trump’s inability to feel.
On Dec. 26, 2004, the French author Emmanuel Carrère, his girlfriend and their respective sons were vacationing at a cliff-top hotel in Sri Lanka. Their relationship was dying and, feeling out of sorts, they decided not to go down to the beachfront scuba diving lesson they’d signed up for. It was a consequential decision, for that was the morning the tsunami hit.
A family they knew was staying on the beach. That morning the grandfather, Philippe, was reading the paper while his 4-year-old granddaughter, Juliette, happily played in the wavelets nearby. Suddenly Philippe felt himself swept up by an enormous wall of black water, pretty sure he would die, certain his granddaughter already had.
In his memoir, Carrère bears witness to the days of suffering and endurance that followed the wave. When Philippe tells his daughter and son-in-law about the death of their child, Juliette’s mother, Delphine, screams. Her husband thought, “I can no longer do anything for my daughter, so I will save my wife.”
Carrère had lamented that he had always been unable to love, but in those horrific days he and his girlfriend stayed with the family, searched among the corpses, enveloped the family with compassion and practical care. He observes how at mealtime Delphine’s hand shakes as she brings a forkful of curried rice to her lips.
He is with Delphine when they come across a woman, Ruth, who was on her honeymoon and has lost track of her husband, Tom. For two days she sat outside the hospital, not eating or sleeping, convinced that if she nodded off Tom would never emerge alive from wherever he was.
“Her determination is frightening,” Carrère writes. “You can sense that she’s quite close to passing to the other side, into catatonia, living death, and Delphine and I understand that our role is to prevent this.”
Carrère’s memoir describes how a self-absorbed man is altered in crisis and develops a deep and perceptive capacity to see the struggles of others. The book is called “Lives Other Than My Own.”
I thought of that book this week because the sensitive perceptiveness Carrère displays is the opposite of the blindness Donald Trump displayed in quotes reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and Bob Woodward in his latest book about the administration, “Rage.”
Goldberg says Trump told people that he sees the war dead as “suckers” and “losers.” Trump can’t seem to fathom the emotional experience of their lives — their love for those they fought for, the fears they faced down, the resolve to risk their lives nonetheless.
If he can’t see that, he can’t understand the men and women in uniform serving around him. He can’t understand the inner devotion that drives people to public service, which is supposed to be the core of his job.
The same sort of blindness is on display in the Woodward quotes. It was stupid of Trump to think he could downplay Covid-19 when he already knew it had the power of a pandemic. It was stupid to think the American people would panic if told the truth. It was stupid to talk to Woodward in the first place.
This is not an intellectual stupidity. I imagine Trump’s I.Q. is fine. It is a moral and emotional stupidity. He blunders so often and so badly because he has a narcissist’s inability to get inside the hearts and minds of other people. It’s a stupidity that in almost pure clinical form, flows out of his inability to feel, a stupidity of the heart.
In most times and cultures, people realized that understanding a person or situation is as much an emotional process as an analytical one. In the Bible the word “to know” covers a range of activities, from having a conversation with, to having sex with, to entering into a commitment with and much else — all the different ways we come to understand each other.
St. Augustine’s theory of
- knowledge begins with emotion.
- Love is a focus of attention.
- Love is a motivation to learn more about a person.
- Love is a reverence for the image of God in each person.
Through his own failures, Trump illustrates by counterexample that the heart is the key to understanding. To accurately size up a human situation you have to project a certain quality of attention that is personal, gentle, respectful, intimate and affectionate — more moving with and feeling into than simply observing with detachment.
Carrère achieved that quality of attention after the tsunami.
Maybe I spend too much time on Twitter and in media, but I see less and less of this sort of attention in America, even amid the tragedies of 2020. Far from softening toward one another, the whole country feels even more rived, more hardened and increasingly blind to lives other than our own.
Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain.
When, in January 2016, I wrote that despite being a lifelong Republican who worked in the previous three GOP administrations, I would never vote for Donald Trump, even though his administration would align much more with my policy views than a Hillary Clinton presidency would, a lot of my Republican friends were befuddled. How could I not vote for a person who checked far more of my policy boxes than his opponent?
What I explained then, and what I have said many times since, is that Trump is fundamentally unfit—intellectually, morally, temperamentally, and psychologically—for office. For me, that is the paramount consideration in electing a president, in part because at some point it’s reasonable to expect that a president will face an unexpected crisis—and at that point, the president’s judgment and discernment, his character and leadership ability, will really matter.
“Mr. Trump has no desire to acquaint himself with most issues, let alone master them” is how I put it four years ago. “No major presidential candidate has ever been quite as disdainful of knowledge, as indifferent to facts, as untroubled by his benightedness.” I added this:
Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe. The prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief should send a chill down the spine of every American.
It took until the second half of Trump’s first term, but the crisis has arrived in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s hard to name a president who has been as overwhelmed by a crisis as the coronavirus has overwhelmed Donald Trump.
To be sure, the president isn’t responsible for either the coronavirus or the disease it causes, COVID-19, and he couldn’t have stopped it from hitting our shores even if he had done everything right. Nor is it the case that the president hasn’t done anything right; in fact, his decision to implement a travel ban on China was prudent. And any narrative that attempts to pin all of the blame on Trump for the coronavirus is simply unfair. The temptation among the president’s critics to use the pandemic to get back at Trump for every bad thing he’s done should be resisted, and schadenfreude is never a good look. That said, the president and his administration are responsible for grave, costly errors, most especially the epic manufacturing failures in diagnostic testing, the decision to test too few people, the delay in expanding testing to labs outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and problems in the supply chain. These mistakes have left us blind and badly behind the curve, and, for a few crucial weeks, they created a false sense of security. What we now know is that the coronavirus silently spread for several weeks, without us being aware of it and while we were doing nothing to stop it. Containment and mitigation efforts could have significantly slowed its spread at an early, critical point, but we frittered away that opportunity.
“They’ve simply lost time they can’t make up. You can’t get back six weeks of blindness,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who helped oversee the international response to Ebola during the Obama administration and is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told The Washington Post. “To the extent that there’s someone to blame here, the blame is on poor, chaotic management from the White House and failure to acknowledge the big picture.”
Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whose reputation for honesty and integrity has been only enhanced during this crisis, admitted in congressional testimony that the United States is still not providing adequate testing for the coronavirus. “It is failing. Let’s admit it.” He added, “The idea of anybody getting [testing] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. I think it should be, but we’re not.”
We also know the World Health Organization had working tests that the United States refused, and researchers at a project in Seattle tried to conduct early tests for the coronavirus but were prevented from doing so by federal officials. (Doctors at the research project eventually decided to perform coronavirus tests without federal approval.)
But that’s not all. The president reportedly ignored early warnings of the severity of the virus and grew angry at a CDC official who in February warned that an outbreak was inevitable. The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council’s global-health office, whose purpose was to address global pandemics; we’re now paying the price for that. “We worked very well with that office,” Fauci told Congress. “It would be nice if the office was still there.” We may face a shortage of ventilators and medical supplies, and hospitals may soon be overwhelmed, certainly if the number of coronavirus cases increases at a rate anything like that in countries such as Italy. (This would cause not only needless coronavirus-related deaths, but deaths from those suffering from other ailments who won’t have ready access to hospital care.)
Some of these mistakes are less serious and more understandable than others. One has to take into account that in government, when people are forced to make important decisions based on incomplete information in a compressed period of time, things go wrong.
Yet in some respects, the avalanche of false information from the president has been most alarming of all. It’s been one rock slide after another, the likes of which we have never seen. Day after day after day he brazenly denied reality, in an effort to blunt the economic and political harm he faced. But Trump is in the process of discovering that he can’t spin or tweet his way out of a pandemic. There is no one who can do to the coronavirus what Attorney General William Barr did to the Mueller report: lie about it and get away with it.
The president’s misinformation and mendacity about the coronavirus are head-snapping.
- He claimed that it was contained in America when it was actually spreading.
- He claimed that we had “shut it down” when we had not.
- He claimed that testing was available when it wasn’t.
- He claimed that the coronavirus will one day disappear “like a miracle”; it won’t.
- He claimed that a vaccine would be available in months; Fauci says it will not be available for a year or more.
- Trump falsely blamed the Obama administration for impeding coronavirus testing.
- He stated that the coronavirus first hit the United States later than it actually did. (He said that it was three weeks prior to the point at which he spoke; the actual figure was twice that.)
- The president claimed that the number of cases in Italy was getting “much better” when it was getting much worse. And in one of the more stunning statements an American president has ever made,
- Trump admitted that his preference was to keep a cruise ship off the California coast rather than allowing it to dock, because he wanted to keep the number of reported cases of the coronavirus artificially low.
“I like the numbers,” Trump said. “I would rather have the numbers stay where they are. But if they want to take them off, they’ll take them off. But if that happens, all of a sudden your 240 [cases] is obviously going to be a much higher number, and probably the 11 [deaths] will be a higher number too.” (Cooler heads prevailed, and over the president’s objections, the Grand Princess was allowed to dock at the Port of Oakland.)
On and on it goes.
To make matters worse, the president delivered an Oval Office address that was meant to reassure the nation and the markets but instead shook both. The president’s delivery was awkward and stilted; worse, at several points, the president, who decided to ad-lib the teleprompter speech, misstated his administration’s own policies, which the administration had to correct. Stock futures plunged even as the president was still delivering his speech. In his address, the president called for Americans to “unify together as one nation and one family,” despite having referred to Washington Governor Jay Inslee as a “snake” days before the speech and attacking Democrats the morning after it. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz put it, “Almost everything that could have gone wrong with the speech did go wrong.”
Taken together, this is a massive failure in leadership that stems from a massive defect in character. Trump is such a habitual liar that he is incapable of being honest, even when being honest would serve his interests. He is so impulsive, shortsighted, and undisciplined that he is unable to plan or even think beyond the moment. He is such a divisive and polarizing figure that he long ago lost the ability to unite the nation under any circumstances and for any cause. And he is so narcissistic and unreflective that he is completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. The president’s disordered personality makes him as ill-equipped to deal with a crisis as any president has ever been. With few exceptions, what Trump has said is not just useless; it is downright injurious.
he nation is recognizing this, treating him as a bystander “as school superintendents, sports commissioners, college presidents, governors and business owners across the country take it upon themselves to shut down much of American life without clear guidance from the president,” in the words of Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
Donald Trump is shrinking before our eyes.
The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point, when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain. The president, enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged. He knows nothing will be the same. His administration may stagger on, but it will be only a hollow shell. The Trump presidency is over.
The Dire Dangers of Narcissism
Though I’m professionally distant from today’s media luminaries, I have a particular personal interest in the current narcissistic spectacle du jour: I went to college and was friends with Harvey Weinstein nearly a half a century ago.
With an admixture of feelings, I watch the scandal unfold. I’m horrified and angry at what Weinstein is charged with perpetrating. I’m confused and saddened by my former friend’s behavior. Yet, I’m not surprised, given what I remember about Harvey when we were students. That’s not to say I could have predicted this. I don’t identify with interviewees solicited by journalists to tell what they knew of ignominious scoundrels before they committed their heinous acts. Harvey Weinstein—from first impression of him being grandiose, sycophantic, and magnanimously generous to the progression of his unstable and rampant ambition—was intense, needy, insecure, ingratiating, and over-the-top in his endeavors.
I’m not invested in justifying or scourging Harvey. He’ll get whatever the consequences of his actions bring—spiritually and legally. I feel sorry for him, but ever more sorry for, and indignant about, the victims he is accused of abusing, exploiting, bullying, and oppressing. Such injustice must be vindicated—but that is not up to me. As a psychologist, my goal is to unravel and shed light upon the inner forces that develop into disastrous behavior. Since I consorted with Harvey and knew him well decades ago, I want to lay bare the seminal roots of an accused tyrant before he became one.
As a psychologist, I have something to contribute by explaining the wily dangers of narcissism, thus allowing potential victims to be informed and better protected. As an American citizen, I am alarmed and wary about the course and future of our country, our people and our principles. As a father, husband, and person with strengths and weaknesses who is desirous of healthy relationships, I, too, am vulnerable. Narcissism is an insidious monster, born of a needy and unstable ego that lurks for years, nursing its perceived wounds, until it explodes in aggressive and blind perpetrations. A healthy self-image must be nurtured. It can be achieved by hard work that includes the basis for self-respect and the practice of respect for others. Though the development of narcissism is neither predictable nor clearly delineated, certain factors may contribute to a self-aggrandizing ego and overbearing sense of entitlement:
- a “silver-spoon” upbringing, where material things and excessively indulgent opportunities became integral elements in the family culture;
- exposure to a series of traumas and humiliations;
- use of embarrassment to modify childhood misbehavior;
- employing self-flagellation to cope with insecurity; or simply
- relying on an escapist fantasy and the transformative illusion of becoming a legend and hero in one’s mirror.
Though we may recoil from the exaggerated hubris of the narcissist, we should also be respectful and thankful for not traveling along such an isolating and destructive path. As my mother often said: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” To live a life of worthiness and honor, one must embrace gratitude and humility.
What Happened to You, Harvey Weinstein?
Do you remember me, Harvey? I know you’ve got a lot on your mind these days; but I’ll bet that if you heard my name, you’d say, “Mark… how the hell are you doing?” We go back a long way, Harvey, to some wild days at the University of Buffalo.
Remember the crowd? Janis Siegel (affectionately called Pumpkin), who went on to acclaim as a singer with Manhattan Transfer. And the creative and iconic Jay Beckenstein, jazz saxophonist with Spyrogyra.
Remember those all-nighters, the 4:00 AM greasy burgers at Your Host Restaurant? The anguished, drugged-out rants and discussions about the universe, who we were, and where we were going?
We grew up and went out in the world to different places. You were amazing, Harvey: intense, sycophantic, driven, disturbed, and needy. I identified with you—Jewish kids from New York, arrived in a blue collar city, ready to take over and show how much we knew and how things should be done.
You floundered, and then soared. It wasn’t long before you traded academics for an entrepreneurial path, on your way to becoming a juggernaut. You founded Harvey & Corky Productions, bringing big-name musical talent to downtown Buffalo. You soon rubbed shoulders with the top names and icons of our generation. It must have been intoxicating, far beyond the drugs that most used to reach for peace and imagined self-importance.
Throughout the years, I watched your movies and cheered you on. There goes Harvey Weinstein—I knew him in college; we were friends. I envied your success. From my intimate knowledge of your personality, I suspected that you were not happy or fulfilled. How could you be, never filling the immense void within you with something other than riches and accolades? Not to diminish your sweeping achievements. But you were so needy and insecure. How could anything the world had to offer be enough?
I wrote to you fifteen years ago, hoping to reconnect. But I never got a response.
Apparently, you tried to fill your deep inner void with surreptitious trysts, using your money and influence to sway and dominate young women—impressionable and aspiring beauties you used for your lustful and egotistical purposes. You used your money, power, and influence to lord it over people, to take advantage of them, and to coerce their silence. The chickens have come home to roost; the truth will not be hidden; you are exposed and in trouble.
It’s not for me to judge you Harvey. I just want to tell you something about women and men and power and accountability.
Females are not immune from deceit, hypocrisy, and the fleshly litany of sins. But females are to be protected and respected. They are “weaker” in some sense, but immensely more powerful than men in many respects. Our society inherently imposes on women mixed messages, psychological traumas, economic discrimination, and often the raw end of many deals. Our culture exalts and worships physical appeal, but quickly disregards and discards worthwhile human beings when their outward beauty fades. Ironically, we exalt and worship physical beauty, and yet we exploit it. The fleeting blooms of pulchritude and stardom leave women vulnerable and with undeserved dismissal or ostracism. Too many men strut their machismo, stricken with envy (and with the fantasy) that a woman can have sex any time she wants (whereas many men have to feel they must lure or seduce). Unfortunately, some men act out of this context to take advantage and force or exploit women. When the playing field becomes overly imbalanced, many women either withdraw into resentful passive aggressiveness—avoiding or manipulating intimacy—or act out with hostile projection—rejecting men or typecasting them as insensitive and only interested in exploitative sex. Though there’s plenty of blame to spread around, men bear the burden—historically, we have been at fault by dominating women and isolating them from full and equal participation in society.
With your overarching success, Harvey, you now have trouble (tsouris, in Yiddish) on a grand scale. My heart aches for you, and I pray for you.
I have some advice for you, Harvey, my dear old friend: it’s time for you to make amends, to acknowledge your wrongdoing, to seek forgiveness, and to make restitution—no holds barred. I know you must now resort to posturing for strategic legal reasons, but you are going to sacrifice a lot of money to pay for your mistakes. You can no longer “buy” people (and certainly not their silence). You will feel alone, and will be alone. You will have to give up the pretenses you have long abused to fill the abyss and mollify the gargantuan ego that hides the empty Harvey Weinstein.
Yet, there is someone valuable, tender, sensitive, worthwhile inside the blustering and offensive Harvey. This is an opportunity to find out who you really are, to change the offensiveness, and to develop into an honorable person.
God has used you, Harvey, and he is not done yet. Through these scandals, he is using you writ large to teach others; and he is bringing you to your knees in the hope that you will stay there and begin to acknowledge and worship him.
Truer riches await you, my friend, if you will only repent and ask for divine forgiveness and guidance. You must also seek forgiveness from the people you hurt, so many of them. It’s time to be open, sincere, and humble. You must unequivocally repent.
Years ago, you founded a big company—Miramax—named after your parents, Max and Miriam Weinstein. What would they think of their son now? I never knew Max or Miriam, but I am sure they always loved you. Why, Harvey, has it been so difficult for you to feel love?
The Harvey Weinstein I knew nearly half a century ago could never relax. He always had to prove something, to get more and show more. You were an intense and difficult person. But you were likable, Harvey, and you didn’t have to try so hard.
The term narcissism is taken from Greek mythology. Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope. He was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. He was drawn to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it (himself), not realizing it was merely an image.
Today, narcissism is a psychiatric diagnosis and considered a mental disorder. It is also often used disparagingly in common parlance and description. Narcissism involves extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, and has come to characterize a personality type. Narcissists think extremely highly of themselves and are often driven to seek validation of their worthiness and inflated self-opinion by soliciting and even demanding the approval of others. They delude themselves that their boorish machinations and manipulations of others testify to their own self-worth. Though they may be capable of compassion and empathy, narcissists are so preoccupied with their own selfish interests and with validating themselves that they typically ignore or do not consider or recognize others’ needs, even the people closest to them.
Narcissists’ classic “me-first” posture often leads them to resort to aggressive acts that allow them to dominate or “win,” regardless of the costs. They love and need to be the center of attention, often usurping the limelight, dominating conversations, and controlling situations and people to serve their own ends.
It is when they are challenged or confronted with reality that the true pathological character of narcissists flagrantly emerges. Narcissists’ fragile self-image and ego structure do not allow them to acknowledge the egregious nature of their self-importance. Thus, is it is rare for them to apologize or admit wrongdoing. Remorse and repentance for their offensive actions almost never occurs (think Trump).
Thus, narcissists often have a problem with reality-testing; that is, they can only perceive events and circumstances from the same perspective as others when such “reality” supports and buttresses themselves in a positive and flattering light. Unfortunately, this infrequently happens. Instead narcissists twist and distort reality to suit their own views, inevitably causing confusion, alienation, and damage to relationships and the integrity and well-being of others. They constantly use people in devious ways, and invariably deny their motives and the unpleasant effects upon others. Narcissists have confounding and appalling obsession to blame others for what they themselves have done. A psychological term for this is projection. This is denial at its craftiest, and it is infuriating (again, think Trump).
When dealing with and referring to people who thought too highly of themselves, a dear friend of mine use to quip. “I’d like to buy you for what you’re really worth, and sell you for what you think you’re worth.”
We can shake our heads in disbelief or disgust at narcissism, and we can mock this condition with humor. However, don’t underestimate the dire danger of narcissism as the disorder affects all those who come into contact with the narcissist. Narcissists cannot have good relationships because they view others as opportunities to validate and gratify themselves. In psychoanalytic terms, they have poorly developed object relations. In plain language, this means that they cannot separate and distinguish between themselves and the legitimate perceptions, opinions, values, desires, and needs of others. What others experience (including hurt or neglect perpetrated by the narcissist) is blocked by the arrogant, center-stage prominence of the narcissist’s own needs.
Dealing With Narcissists
Because narcissists live in a bubble of self-absorption and denial, it’s very hard to break through their manipulations and defenses. Normal people (allowing for differences among individuals) have varying abilities to admit mistakes, acknowledge wrongdoing, apologize with sincerity, recognize their flaws and trespasses along with the negative impact upon others, and modify their behaviors to minimize the negative effects of selfishness. Not so with narcissists, as this is the core of their personality disorder.
It may be helpful to review the following guidelines in dealing with people you suspect of narcissism:
Expect self-centeredness and reality distortion
Because narcissists’ self-absorbed attitudes and responses are often provocative, it’s tempting to react with consternation, indignation, umbrage, and the like. However, if you keep your dismay and outrage to yourself, you’ll be in a better position to question the behaviors with a strategy of setting limits. Instead of expressing your emotional reactions to narcissistic self-centeredness, practice the strategies listed below.
Refrain from demonstrative emotional reactions
Tie responses to facts, evidence, and questions
When faced with narcissists’ bold claims, quietly question the bases for such statements. Or, just ignore them. For example, someone may proudly announce, “These people don’t know how to drive. I happen to be one of the best drivers on the road.” You could say, “ I guess so. But there is the issue of your three moving violations and numerous parking tickets.” Or, you could just let it go, and smirk to yourself.
Sometimes, simply questioning the basis for outrageous statements is enough to slow down the narcissist’s bluster. Remember Trump’s tirades about how he “knows more about Isis than any general in the military,” and his defiant complaint that he is “the victim of the greatest witch hunt in history”? There is no shutting down such an ego. However, one might ask, “Where did you acquire your military knowledge, and why were you not consulted and solicited before you became president?”
“Please give us some details about the other witch hunts against which you compare your own alleged persecution.”
And don’t expect an intelligent and coherent response to your questions!
Preface accountability and confrontations with acknowledgment and legitimate praise
Narcissists perceive questions, challenges, and alternate opinions—even facts—as threats to and defamation of their integrity. Therefore, it’s helpful to preface and intersperse your messages of accountability with reasonable and relevant praise toward the person whom you’re trying to get to really listen to you. Even appealing to their putative sense of discernment and justice may get you farther along on your attempts to bring reality into the conversation.
When I deal with pie-in-the sky people who live inside dreams inflated by their own sense of self-worth and entitlement, I find it prudent to ask, “I understand that, given your abilities and track record (?!), you expect this to work out as you’ve favorably planned…, but because you are smart, have you formulated an alternative scenario and plan?”
Set boundaries and repeat if-then consequences as they pertain to the narcissist’s behaviors
Inevitably, narcissists repeatedly step on the toes of others. Their transgressions may be verbal and/or they may take vindictive actions (hello again, Mr. Trump). Their self-aggrandizement can make it hard to keep a straight face; or, their attitude of entitlement may carry implicit threats for noncompliance or resistance. (Harvey Weinstein got away with his egregious behavior in large part due to his political and economic influence, much of which he wielded against much less powerful women. When he ultimately confronted a woman who was formidable and courageous, she pulled the plug, and the dirty slimy water that had accumulated in the bathtub over the decades slurped down the drain. Harvey was left sitting naked and shivering in his own filth.)
Granted, it’s not for individuals to take on the President of the United States. But the collective violations and outrage are propelling Trump to his comeuppance. Kudos to the brave people who have spoken the truth and challenged Trump, even at risk to their own reputations and careers! That takes integrity, confidence, and courage!
And Harvey? My old friend, your bullying and predation have ironically transformed the zeitgeist. Your secret life of lust, aggression, and intimidation now exposed has caused trauma and harm—shame on you! However, the notoriety has caused a groundswell of indignation, objection, and cries for justice. You have become the agent of change, long overdue.
The message is clear: If you abuse or intimidate women, it will come to light and you will pay.
Solicit commitments, promises, and contracts in writing
Remember that, as part of their sense of entitlement, narcissists do not hesitate to change the rules—including their agreements, commitments, promises, and respect for others’ needs—when it suits their purposes. Therefore, it’s wise to make a habit of solidifying commitments and promises in writing, with dates and signatures if possible. Though the self-entitled may scoff and sneer at such requests, pretend you are prone to mistaking the details, since your memory might not be as good as theirs (!) and remind them of the pithy saying, Black and white on paper is a lot clearer than the gray matter of the brain.
In other words, play dumb, like a fox. The narcissist may pity you and indulge you.
At the very least, keep your own meticulous records with details of words, actions, and dates. E-mails and texts establish a continual, accessible, and practical audit trail, useful for holding the narcissist accountable, especially when deception and conflict arise.
Be prepared for breaches of trust, intimacy, and fidelity
Precautions and attentiveness notwithstanding, you cannot change the basic flawed character of the narcissist. That’s not to say that people don’t change. Life experience, traumas, pain, and consequences are all great teachers. They even teach to the seemingly robust and impregnable bravado of narcissists (and, at best, it takes awhile). In his own way and with his own timing, God chips away at the lives and consciences of the foolish and hurtful. At his own discretion, he causes miracles to happen.
But the very nature of narcissism attacks trust, empathy, and consideration. Don’t be surprised when the narcissist (repeatedly) violates boundaries, flaunts rules, and sabotages trust, intimacy, and even your own faith. Remain loving, but be cautious and be prepared. Your sensitivity and good intentions are no match for the power of narcissism. Engaging in an argument or a major adversarial battle with a narcissist can be akin to stepping into the ring with a mixed martial arts fighter. No holds are bared. Be prepared for the unexpected. Be on guard. Protect yourself at all times. Expect hyperbole, manipulated facts, concocted falsehoods, inconsistencies, and outrageous lies. It’s all part of the package.
Narcissism’s Dire Consequences
Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein are but two notorious narcissistic icons—caricatures writ large in a field of opportunism. Their transgressions leave us aghast, wondering how such egregious behavior could have escalated and continued.
Surely, someone like Weinstein, if indicted and convicted of a crime or crimes in a court of law, must be thwarted and punished. Trump is a much more complex matter involving political and constitutional issues that are still in the process of unfolding. However, the important take-home message is that there are many like them—young, old, male, female, prominent, less significant—who foist their attitudes and perpetrations upon the unsuspecting and vulnerable, the psychologically and experientially less sophisticated, and those with fewer defenses and resources.
Narcissists may be overtly offensive, or they may be furtive and wily—sheep in wolves’ clothing. In a culture that has inveterately promoted self-centeredness and a “me-first” value system, narcissists may seem to embody the cultural virtues, to blend in and prevail over the competition. But you will recognize them by their intransigence and lack of compassion for the basic welfare and psychological well-being of others. As legends in their own mirrors (or pools, as with the Greek Narcissus), they deem themselves the only ones who matter.
As a society, we should focus attention on identifying, dissuading, and modifying the development of narcissistic character. Respect for women—pervasive societal, legal, accommodating respect—is surely a good place to start. We are beginning to painfully learn those lessons.
But the battle against misogyny is not enough. Parents must teach their children that the world does not “owe” them. The government should provide more than minimal education and health care—service, schooling, and training that focuses on character development and resources for the ravages of character failure, including disorders of emotional bonding, anxiety, depression, trauma, and the depredations of addiction.
We need to return to God, individually and collectively. Each of us determines our own personal relationship with or abandonment of our Creator. Religion should not be forced. But spiritual living should be foundational and institutionally encouraged. The development of the soul and its conscience and compassion is incompatible with the “me-first” ethos that culturally reinforces narcissism.
When tragedy strikes, we become voracious Monday morning quarterbacks. We scrutinize the history of assassins and predators, looking for clues that should have exposed them earlier. However, social autopsies on misfits will not relieve us of the larger problem, nor will those efforts alone avert the perverse development of unhealthy, megalomaniac egos.
We must become a society, through and through, that values humility and teaches people, rank and file, to put others first. Against such a social norm, the Trumps and Weinsteins will identify themselves early as faulty people who need discipline, correction, and guidance to develop true and healthy self-love.
Narcissism may never be eliminated, for we are a prideful and sinful species. With regard to selfish insensitivity, some are given to robust excess, even to the point of outright cruelty. Recoil as we might from Trump and Weinstein, we should learn that we need to expose them earlier in order to prevent the devastating potential of narcissism from exerting its will.
Farewell to the Harvey I Knew
We can’t live in the past. The Harvey Weinstein I knew nearly a half century ago has gone his own way, as have I.
In college, you looked up to me, Harvey. In your desperate neediness, you couldn’t see through my pretense, my needing to appear hip and avant-garde. If I’d had your talents, Harvey, perhaps I would have gone much farther astray than I did. Money and fame eluded me, but I guess I was luckier than you. And life did not let me get away with what, in my insouciant arrogance and ambition, I secretly wanted to.
If we could have coffee, I’d share with you some of the ordeals that happened in my life, what I’ve learned and about the people who taught me. Despite many setbacks and traumas, I’ve been fortunate. I have loved and been loved. Women have been great teachers to me, some intimate, some maternal, and many have been platonic, wonderful influences. I have learned to respect women and to not take advantage of them. Except for my wife, I regard them as sisters, mothers, and daughters. I treat them with biblically directed protection, respect, and deference. I joke (respectfully) about the differences between men and women. I note with professional acumen the stereotypes that frequently characterize the brains and demeanors of the two sexes. I’ve written a book about this, too, aimed at improving harmony and satisfaction in marriage relationships.
With maturity, I have more confidence and less need to prove myself or be the center of attention. I’m more able to appreciate the difficulties women have in a male-dominated world. I’m grounded enough to speak up and to model for males how to respect, value, protect, and share equally with females.
With God’s help and the stringent sanctions of many people who knocked me off my self-constructed pedestal and put me in a proper place, I’ve tamed most of my narcissistic tendencies.
The Harvey Weinstein I knew has grown and devolved. Farewell naïve and callow college buddy. I still recognize you, Harvey; beneath the atrocities, there is a boy, now a man, desperate for satisfying love. I hope this is God’s way of teaching you how to find it.
— Mark Steinberg, Ph.D.
Ann Coulter is a conservative commentator, columnist and the author of several books, including “Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole” and “In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!”
Coulter’s candid, full interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of the October 2019 documentary “Zero Tolerance.”
26:54So why is he hiring people that disagree withwhat his tenets are?>>Why he surrounded himself by peopleactively opposed to his agenda and let Paul Ryan take overhis agenda for the first two years when he hada Republican House and Republican Senate,“No, let’s do all the stuff on the loser GOP’s to-do list.Let’s not do the popular stuff that wonthis very unlikely person the presidency.”Why he did that, who knows?Who knows?He has surrounded himself with people who disagree with him.Why did he hire his kids?I mean, I don’t know.Does he believe any of it?Is he a con-man liar and this was just a good gig?Again, picked up the $1,000 bill lying on the ground becauseno other Republican was willing to run on popular issues.Or is he just lazy?Yeah, he does believe it, but if it’s going to take a phone call—“I have to call [Sen.] Mitch McConnell?Nah, let them do whatever they want.”Could be laziness.Could be narcissism: “They love me for me!”Who knows?But he has surrounded himself by people who don’t agreewith his agenda, and that’s why very, very, very littleis getting done.(Time Left off: 38 min)
Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.
On a third-down play last season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith stood in shotgun formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. As he called his signals, a Houston Texans cornerback, Kareem Jackson, suddenly sprinted forward from a position four yards behind the defensive line.
Jackson’s timing was perfect. The ball was snapped. The Texans’ left defensive end, J.J. Watt, sprinted to the outside, taking the Redskins’ right tackle with him. The defensive tackle on Watt’s right rushed to the inside, taking the offensive right guard with him. The result was a huge gap in the Redskins’ line, through which Jackson could run unblocked. He quickly sacked Smith, for a loss of 13 yards.
Special-teams players began taking the field for the punt. But Smith didn’t get up. He rolled flat onto his back, pulled off his helmet, and covered his face with his hands. He was clearly in excruciating pain. The slow-motion replay immediately showed the television audience why: As Smith was tackled, his right leg had buckled sharply above the ankle, with his foot rotating significantly away from any direction in which a human foot ought to point. The play-by-play announcer Greg Gumbel said grimly, “We’ll be back,” and the network abruptly cut to a break. There was nothing more to say.
Even without the benefit of medical training, and even without conducting a physical examination, viewers knew what had happened. They may not have known what the bones were called or what treatment would be required, but they knew more than enough, and they knew what really mattered: Smith had broken his leg, very badly. They knew that even if they were not orthopedists, did not have a medical degree, and had never cracked open a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. They could tell—they were certain—something was seriously wrong.
And so it is, or ought to be, with Donald Trump. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need to be a mental-health professional to see that something’s very seriously off with Trump—particularly after nearly three years of watching his erratic and abnormal behavior in the White House. Questions about Trump’s psychological stability have mounted throughout his presidency. But those questions have been coming even more frequently amid a recent escalation in Trump’s bizarre behavior, as the pressures of his upcoming reelection campaign, a possibly deteriorating economy, and now a full-blown impeachment inquiry have mounted. And the questioners have included those who have worked most closely with him.
No president in recent memory—and likely no president ever—has prompted more discussion about his mental stability and connection with reality. Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly is said to have described him as “unhinged,” and “off the rails,” and to have called the White House “Crazytown” because of Trump’s unbalanced state. Trump’s former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, once reportedly discussed recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, the Constitution’s provision addressing presidential disability, including mental disability.
Rosenstein denies that claim, but it is not the only such account. A senior administration official, writing anonymously in The New York Times last September, described how, “given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment”—but “no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” And NBC News last week quoted someone familiar with current discussions in the White House warning that there is “increasing wariness that, as this impeachment inquiry drags out, the likelihood increases that the president could respond erratically and become ‘unmanageable.’” In September, a former White House official offered a similar assessment to a Business Insider reporter: “No one knows what to expect from him anymore,” because “his mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know his entire schedule gets tossed out the window. He’s losing his shit.”Even a major investment bank has gotten into the mix, albeit in a roundabout way: JPMorgan Chase has created a “Volfefe Index”—named after Trump’s bizarre May 2017 “covfefe” tweet—designed to quantify the effect that Trump’s impulsive tweets have on interest-rate volatility. The bank’s press release understatedly observed that its “volatility fair value model” shows that “the president’s remarks on this social media platform [have] played a statistically significant role in elevating implied volatility.” The president isn’t simply volatile and erratic, however—he’s also incapable of consistently telling the truth. Those who work closely with him, and who aren’t in denial, must deal with Trump’s lying about serious matters virtually every day. But as one former official put it, they “are used to the president saying things that aren’t true,” and have inured themselves to it. Trump’s own former communications director Anthony Scaramucci has on multiple occasions described Trump as a liar, once saying, “We … know he’s telling lies,” so “if you want me to say he’s a liar, I’m happy to say he’s a liar.” He went on to address Trump directly: “You should probably dial down the lying because you don’t need to … So dial that down, and you’ll be doing a lot better.”That was good advice, but clearly wishful thinking. Trump simply can’t dial down the lying, or turn it off—even, his own attorneys suggest, when false statements may be punished as crimes. A lawyer who has represented him in business disputes once told me that Trump couldn’t sensibly be allowed to speak with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, because Trump would “lie his ass off”—in effect, that Trump simply wasn’t capable of telling the truth, about anything, and that if he ever spoke to a prosecutor, he’d talk himself into jail.Trump’s lawyers in the Russia investigation clearly agreed: As Bob Woodward recounts at length in his book Fear, members of Trump’s criminal-defense team fought both Trump and Mueller tooth and nail to keep Trump from being interviewed by the Office of Special Counsel. A practice testimonial session ended with Trump spouting wild, baseless assertions in a rage. Woodward quotes Trump’s outside counsel John Dowd as saying that Trump “just made something up” in response to one question. “That’s his nature.” Woodward also recounts Dowd’s thinking when he argued to Trump that the president was “not really capable” of answering Mueller’s questions face to face. Dowd had “to dress it up as much as possible, to say, it’s not your fault … He could not say what he knew was true: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’ That was the problem.” (Dowd disputes this account.) Which raises the question: If Trump can’t tell the truth even when it counts most, with legal jeopardy on the line and lawyers there to help prepare him, is he able to apprehend the truth at all? Behavior like this is unusual, a point that journalists across the political spectrum have made. “This is not normal,” Megan McArdle wrote in late August. “And I don’t mean that as in, ‘Trump is violating the shibboleths of the Washington establishment.’ I mean that as in, ‘This is not normal for a functioning adult.’” James Fallows observed, also in August, that Trump is having “episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting,” and that if he “were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role.”
Trump’s erratic behavior has long been the subject of political criticism, late-night-television jokes, and even speculation about whether it’s part of some incomprehensible, multidimensional strategic game. But it’s relevant to whether he’s fit for the office he holds. Simply put, Trump’s ingrained and extreme behavioral characteristics make it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires. To see why first requires a look at what the Constitution demands of a president, and then an examination of how Trump’s behavioral characteristics preclude his ability to fulfill those demands.
The Framers of the Constitution expected the presidency to be occupied by special individuals, selfless people of the highest character and ability. They intended the Electoral College to be a truly deliberative body, not the largely ceremonial institution it has become today. Because the Electoral College, unlike Congress and the state legislatures, wouldn’t be a permanent body, and because it involved diffuse selections made in the various states, they hoped it would help avoid “cabal, intrigue and corruption,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in “Federalist No. 68,” and deter interference from “these most deadly adversaries of republican government,” especially “from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”
Though the Constitution’s drafters could hardly have foreseen how the system would evolve, they certainly knew the kind of person they wanted it to produce. “The process of election affords a moral certainty,” Hamilton wrote, “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” might suffice for someone to be elected to the governorship of a state, but not the presidency. Election would “require other talents, and a different kind of merit,” to gain “the esteem and confidence of the whole Union,” or enough of it to win the presidency. As a result, there would be “a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” This was the Framers’ goal in designing the system that would make “the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”Hamilton’s use of the word trust in The Federalist Papers to describe the presidency was no accident. The Framers intended that the president “be like a fiduciary, who must pursue the public interest in good faith republican fashion rather than pursuing his self-interest, and who must diligently and steadily execute Congress’s commands,” as a recent Harvard Law Review article puts it. The concept is akin to the law of private fiduciaries, which governs trustees of trusts and directors and officers of corporations, an area that has been central to my legal practice as a corporate litigator. “Indeed,” as the Harvard Law Review article explains, “one might argue that what presents to us as private fiduciary law today had some of its genesis in the law of public officeholding.” The overarching principle is that a fiduciary—say, the CEO of a corporation—when acting on behalf of a corporation, has to act in the corporation’s best interests. Likewise, a trustee of a trust must use the assets for the benefit of the beneficiary, and not himself (a fundamental rule, incidentally, that Trump apparently couldn’t adhere to with his own charitable foundation). In providing for a national chief executive, the Framers incorporated the very similar law of public officeholding into his duties in two places in the Constitution—in Article II, Section 3 (the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”), and in Article II, Section 1, Clause 8, which requires the president to “solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” That language—particularly the words faithfully execute—was in 1787 “very commonly associated with the performance of public and private offices,” the Harvard Law Review article points out, and “anyone experienced in law or government” at that time would have recognized what it meant, “because it was so basic to … the law of executive officeholding.” In a nutshell, while carrying out his official duties, a president has to put the country, not himself, first; he must faithfully follow and enforce the law; and he must act with the utmost care in doing all that.
But can trump do all that? Does his personality allow him to? Answering those questions doesn’t require mental-health expertise, nor does it really require a diagnosis. You can make the argument for Trump’s unfitness without assessing his mental health: Like James Fallows, for example, you could just ask whether Trump would have been allowed to retain any other job in light of his bizarre conduct. At the same time, the presence of a mental disorder or disturbance doesn’t necessarily translate to incapacity; to suggest otherwise would unfairly stigmatize tens of millions of Americans. Someone battling a serious psychological ailment can unquestionably function well, and even nobly, in high public office—including as president. The country, in fact, has seen it: Abraham Lincoln endured “no mere case of the blues”; he suffered such “terrible melancholly,” said one of his contemporaries, that “he never dare[d] carry a knife in his pocket.” Many historians speculate that he suffered from what we would now diagnose as clinical depression. Yet Lincoln’s mechanisms for coping with his lifelong affliction may have supplied him with the vision, the creativity, and the moral fortitude to save the nation, to achieve for it a new birth of freedom. As a writer in this magazine once put it: Lincoln’s “political vision drew power from personal experience … Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition. And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society.”
More than a diagnosis, what truly matters, as Lincoln’s case shows, is the president’s behavioral characteristics and personality traits. And understanding how people behave and think is not the sole province of professionals; we all do it every day, with family members, co-workers, and others. Nevertheless, how the mental-health community goes about categorizing those characteristics and traits can provide helpful guidance to laypeople by structuring our thinking about them.And that’s where the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes into play. The DSM, now in its fifth edition, “contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders,” and serves as the country’s “authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.” What’s useful for nonprofessionals is that, for the most part, it’s written in plain English, and its criteria consist largely of observable behaviors—words and actions.That’s especially true of its criteria for personality disorders—they don’t require a person to lie on a couch and confess his or her innermost thoughts. They turn on how a person behaves in the wild, so to speak. If anything, a patient’s confessions in an office may disadvantage a clinician, because patients can and do conceal from clinicians central aspects of their true selves. If you can observe people going about their everyday business, you’ll know a lot more about how they act and behave. And Donald Trump, as president of the United States, is probably the most observable and observed person in the world. I’ve personally met and spoken with him only a few times, but anyone who knows him will tell you that Trump, in a way, has no facade: What you see of him publicly is what you get all the time, although you may get more of it in private. Any intelligent person who watches Trump closely on television, and pays careful attention to his words on Twitter and in the press, should be able to tell you as much about his behavior as a mental-health professional could.One scholarly paper has suggested that accounts of a person’s behavior from laypeople who observe him might be more accurate than information from a clinical interview, and that this is especially true when considering two personality disorders in particular—what the DSM calls narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These two disorders just happen to be the ones that have most commonly been ascribed to Trump by mental-health professionals over the past four years. Of these two disorders, the more commonly discussed when it comes to Trump is narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD—pathological narcissism. It’s also more important in considering Trump’s fitness for office, because it touches directly upon whether Trump has the capacity to put anyone’s interests—including the country’s and the Constitution’s—above his own.
Narcissus, the greek mythological figure, was a boy who fell so in love with his own reflection in a pool of water that, according to one version of the story, he jumped in and drowned. Psychiatrists and psychologists now use the term narcissism to describe feelings of self-importance and self-love. As Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively on the subject, has explained, narcissism is a trait that, to some extent, all human beings have: “the drive to feel special, to stand out from … other[s] … to feel exceptional or unique.”
A certain amount of narcissism is healthy, and helpful—it brings with it confidence, optimism, and boldness. Someone with more than an average amount of narcissism may be called a narcissist. Many politicians, and many celebrities, could be considered narcissists; presidents seem especially likely to “rank high in extroverted narcissism,” Malkin writes, although they have varied greatly in the degree of their narcissism. But extreme narcissism can be pathological, an illness—and potentially a danger, as it was for Narcissus. “Pathological narcissism begins when people become so addicted to feeling special that, just like with any drug, they’ll do anything to get their ‘high,’ including lie, steal, cheat, betray, and even hurt those closest to them,” Malkin says.
The “fundamental life goal” of an extreme narcissist “is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see,” the psychologist Dan P. McAdams wrote in The Atlantic. To many mental-health professionals, Donald Trump provides a perfect example of such extreme, pathological narcissism: One clinical psychologist told Vanity Fair that he considers Trump such a “classic” pathological narcissist that he is actually “archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of the characteristics of the disorder he displays. “Otherwise,” this clinician explained, “I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.” Another clinical psychologist said that Trump displays “textbook narcissistic personality disorder.”
Not everyone agrees that Trump meets the diagnostic criteria for NPD. Allen Frances, a psychiatrist who helped write the disorder’s entry in the DSM, has argued that a mental “disturbance” becomes a “disorder” only when, as the DSMputs it, the affliction “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” The idea behind this threshold is to separate “mild forms” of problems from pathological ones, “in the absence of clear biological markers or clinically useful measurements of severity for many mental disorders.”In Frances’s view, that dividing line disqualifies Trump from having a disorder, particularly NPD. Trump “may be a world-class narcissist,” he has written, “but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder. Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.”But from the perspective of the public at large, the debate over whether Trump meets the clinical diagnostic criteria for NPD—or whether psychiatrists can and should answer that question without directly examining him—is beside the point. The goal of a diagnosis is to help a clinician guide treatment. The question facing the public is very different: Does the president of the United States exhibit a consistent pattern of behavior that suggests he is incapable of properly discharging the duties of his office? Even Trump’s own allies recognize the degree of his narcissism. When he launched racist attacks on four congresswomen of color, Senator Lindsey Graham explained, “That’s just the way he is. It’s more narcissism than anything else.” So, too, do skeptics of assigning a clinical diagnosis. “No one is denying,” Frances told Rolling Stone, “that he is as narcissistic an individual as one is ever likely to encounter.” The president’s exceptional narcissism is his defining characteristic—and understanding that is crucial to evaluating his fitness for office.The DSM-5 describes its conception of pathological narcissism this way: “The essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” The manual sets out nine diagnostic criteria that are indicative of the disorder, but only five of the nine need be present for a diagnosis of NPD to be made. Here are the nine:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
These criteria are accompanied by explanatory notes that seem relevant here: “Vulnerability in self-esteem makes individuals with narcissistic personality disorder very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat.” And “criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.” The manual warns, moreover, that “interpersonal relations are typically impaired because of problems derived from entitlement, the need for admiration, and the relative disregard for the sensitivities of others.” And, the DSM-5 adds, “though overweening ambition and confidence may lead to high achievement, performance may be disrupted because of intolerance of criticism or defeat.”
The diagnostic criteria offer a useful framework for understanding the most remarkable features of Donald Trump’s personality, and of his presidency. (1) Exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements? (2) Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance? (3) Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and should only associate with other special or high-status people? That’s Trump, to a T. As Trump himself might put it, he exaggerates accomplishments better than anyone. In July, he described himself in a tweet as “so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!” (Exclamation point his, of course.) That “stable genius” self-description is one that Trump has repeated over and over again—even though he has trouble with spelling, doesn’t know the difference between a hyphen and an apostrophe, doesn’t appear to understand fractions, needs basic geography lessons, speaks at the level of a fourth grader, and engages in “serial misuse of public language” and “cannot write sentences,” and even though members of his own administration have variously considered him to be a “moron,” an “idiot,” a “dope,” “dumb as shit,” and a person with the intelligence of a “kindergartener” or a “fifth or sixth grader” or an “11-year-old child.” Trump wants everyone to know: He’s “the super genius of all time,” one of “the smartest people anywhere in the world.” Not only that, but he considers himself a hero of sorts. He avoided military service, yet claims he would have run, unarmed, into a school during a mass shooting. Speaking to a group of emergency medical workers who had lost friends and colleagues on 9/11, he claimed, falsely, to have “spent a lot of time down there with you,” while generously allowing that “I’m not considering myself a first responder.” He has spoken, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, about awarding himself the Medal of Honor. Trump claims to be an expert—the world’s greatest—in anything and everything. As one video mash-up shows, Trump has at various times claimed—in all seriousness—that no one knows more than he does about:
- campaign finance,
- work visas,
- the Islamic State,
- “things” generally,
- environmental-impact statements,
- renewable energy,
- nuclear weapons,
- tax law,
- currency devaluation,
- “the system,”
- debt, and
Trump described his admission as a transfer student into Wharton’s undergraduate program as “super genius stuff,” even though he didn’t strike the admissions officer who approved his candidacy as a “genius,” let alone a “super genius”; Trump claimed to have “heard I was first in my class” at Wharton, despite the fact that his name didn’t appear on the dean’s list there, or in the commencement program’s list of graduates receiving honors. And Trump, through an invented spokesman, even lied his way onto the Forbes 400.
(4) Requires excessive admiration? Last Thanksgiving, Trump was asked what he was most thankful for. His answer: himself, of course. A number of years ago, he made a video for Forbes in which he interviewed two of his children. The interview topic: how great they thought Donald Trump was. When his own father died, in 1999, Trump gave one of the eulogies. As Alan Marcus, a former Trump adviser, recounted the story to Timothy O’Brien, he began “more or less like this: ‘I was in my Trump Tower apartment reading about how I was having the greatest year in my career in The New York Times when the security desk called to say my brother Robert was coming upstairs’”—an introductory line that provoked “‘an audible gasp’ from mourners stunned by Trump’s self-regard.” According to a Rolling Stone article, other eulogists spoke about the deceased, but Trump “used the time to talk about his own accomplishments and to make it clear that, in his mind, his father’s best achievement was producing him, Donald.” The author of a book about the Trump family described the funeral as one that “wasn’t about Fred Trump,” but rather “was an opportunity to do some brand burnishing by Donald, for Donald. Throughout his remarks, the first-person singular pronouns—I and me and mine—far outnumbered he and his. Even at his own father’s funeral, Donald Trump couldn’t cede the limelight.”
And he still can’t. Here’s a man who holds rallies with no elections in sight, so that he can bask in his supporters’ cheers; even when elections are near, and he’s supposed to be helping other candidates, he consistently keeps the focus on himself. He loves to watch replays of himself at the rallies, and “luxuriates in the moments he believes are evidence of his brilliance.” In July, after his controversial, publicly funded, campaign-style Independence Day celebration, Trump tweeted, “Our Country is the envy of the World. Thank you, Mr. President!” In February 2017, Trump was given a private tour of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, and paused in front of an exhibit on the Dutch role in the slave trade. He turned to the museum’s director and said, “You know, they love me in the Netherlands.”(5) A sense of entitlement? (9) Arrogant, haughty behaviors? Trump is the man who, on the infamous Access Hollywood tape, said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything you want”—including grabbing women by their genitals. He’s the man who also once said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”(8) Envious of others? Here’s a man so unable to stand the praise received by a respected war hero and statesman, Senator John McCain, that he has continued to attack McCain months after McCain’s death; his jealousy led White House staff to direct the Pentagon to keep a destroyer called the USS John S. McCain out of Trump’s line of sight during a presidential visit to an American naval base in Japan. And Trump, despite being president, still seems envious of President Barack Obama. (6) Interpersonally exploitative? Just watch the Access Hollywood tape, or ask any of the hundreds of contractors and employees Trump the businessman allegedly stiffed, or speak with any of the two dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, or rape. (Trump has denied all their claims.) Finally, (7) Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others? One of the most striking aspects of Trump’s personality is his utter and complete lack of empathy. By empathy, psychologists and psychiatrists mean the ability to understand or relate to what someone else is experiencing—the capacity to envision someone else’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.The notorious lawyer and fixer Roy Cohn, who once counseled Trump, said that “Donald pisses ice water,” and indeed, examples of Trump’s utter lack of normal human empathy abound. Trump himself has told the story of a charity ball—an “incredible ball”—he once held at Mar-a-Lago for the Red Cross. “So what happens is, this guy falls off right on his face, hits his head, and I thought he died … His wife is screaming—she’s sitting right next to him, and she’s screaming.” By his own account, Trump’s concern wasn’t the poor man’s well-being or his wife’s. It was the bloody mess on his expensive floor. “You know, beautiful marble floor, didn’t look like it. It changed color. Became very red … I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s disgusting,’ and I turned away. I couldn’t, you know, he was right in front of me and I turned away.” Trump describes himself as saying, after the injured man was hauled away on a makeshift stretcher, “‘Get that blood cleaned up! It’s disgusting!’ The next day, I forgot to call [the man] to say is he okay … It’s just not my thing.” And then there was 9/11. Trump gave an extraordinary call-in interview to a metropolitan–New York television station just hours after the Twin Towers collapsed. He was asked whether one of his downtown buildings, 40 Wall Street, had suffered any damage. Trump’s immediate response was to brag about the building’s brand-new ranking among New York skyscrapers: “40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and it was actually, before the World Trade Center, was the tallest—and then when they built the World Trade Center, it became known as the second-tallest. And now it’s the tallest.” (This wasn’t even true—a building a block away from Trump’s, 70 Pine Street, was a little taller.)That human empathy isn’t Trump’s thing has been demonstrated time and again during his presidency as well. In October 2017, he reportedly told the widow of a serviceman killed in action “something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’” (Trump later claimed that this account was “fabricated … Sad!” and that “I have proof,” but of course he never produced any.) On a less macabre note, on Christmas Eve last year, Trump took calls on NORAD’s Santa Tracker phone line, which children call to find out where Santa Claus is as he makes his rounds. Trump asked a 7-year-old girl from South Carolina: “Are you still a believer in Santa? Because at 7, it’s marginal, right?” According to Woodward’s Fear, when Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, resigned, he found out about his replacement when he saw a tweet from Trump saying that he had appointed John Kelly as the new chief of staff—moments after Priebus and Trump had spoken about waiting to announce the news. Kelly was appalled, and that night apologetically told Priebus, “I’d never do this to you. I’d never been offered this job until the tweet came out. I would have told you.” His predecessor, though, wasn’t surprised. “It made no sense, Priebus realized, unless you understood … ‘The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way.’”Priebus apparently isn’t the only White House staffer to have learned this; in February 2018, when Trump met with survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and their loved ones, his communications aide actually gave him a note card that made clear that “the president needed to be reminded to show compassion and understanding to traumatized survivors,” as The New York Times put it. The empathy cheat sheet contained a reminder to say such things as “I hear you.” One aide to President Obama told the Times that had she and her colleagues given their boss such a reminder card, “he would have looked at us like we were crazy people.”Most recently, in July of this year, in a stunning scene captured on video, Trump met in the Oval Office with the human-rights activist Nadia Murad, a Yazidi Iraqi who had been captured, raped, and tortured by the Islamic State, and had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for speaking out about the plight of the Yazidis and other victims of genocide and religious persecution. Her voice breaking, she implored the president of the United States to help her people return safely to Iraq. Trump could barely look her in the eye. She told him that ISIS had murdered her mother and six brothers. Trump, apparently not paying much attention, asked, “Where are they now?” “They killed them,” she said once again. “They are in the mass grave in Sinjar, and I’m still fighting just to live in safety.” Trump, who has publicly said that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, seemed interested in the conversation only at the end, when he asked Murad about why she won the prize. Another equally unforgettable video documents Trump visiting Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria, tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of victims. He later responded vindictively to charges that his administration hadn’t done enough to help the island, prompting the mayor of San Juan to observe that Trump had “augmented” Puerto Rico’s “devastating human crisis … because he made it about himself, not about saving our lives,” and because “when expected to show empathy he showed disdain and lack of respect.”In October 2018, a gunman burst into Shabbat morning services at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh and sprayed worshippers with semiautomatic-rifle and pistol fire. Eleven people died. Three days later, the president and first lady visited the community, and the day after that, the first thing Trump tweeted about the visit was this: “Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh. The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite—Disgraceful!” Similarly, after gunmen killed dozens in the span of a single August weekend in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Trump went on a one-day sympathy tour that was marked by attacks on his hosts and on political enemies, and an obsessive focus on himself.
Yet pathological narcissism is not the only personality disorder that Trump’s behavior clearly indicates. A second disorder also frequently ascribed to Trump by professionals is sociopathy—what the DSM-5calls antisocial personality disorder. As described by Lance Dodes, a former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “sociopathy is among the most severe mental disturbances.” Central to sociopathy is a complete lack of empathy—along with “an absence of guilt.” Sociopaths engage in “intentional manipulation, and controlling or even sadistically harming others for personal power or gratification. People with sociopathic traits have a flaw in the basic nature of human beings … They are lacking an essential part of being human.” For its part, the DSM-5 states that the “essential feature of antisocial personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”
The question of whether Trump can serve as a national fiduciary turns more on his narcissistic tendencies than his sociopathic ones, but Trump’s sociopathic characteristics sufficiently intertwine with his narcissistic ones that they deserve mention here. These include, to quote the DSM-5, “deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others.” Trump’s deceitfulness—his lying—has become the stuff of legend; journalists track his “false and misleading claims” as president by the thousands upon thousands. Aliases? For years, Trump would call journalists while posing as imaginary PR men, “John Barron” and “John Miller,” so that he could plant false stories about being wealthy, brilliant, and sexually accomplished. Trump was, and remains, a con artist: Think of Trump University, which even Trump’s own employees described as a scam (and which sparked a lawsuit that resulted in a $25 million settlement, although with no admission of wrongdoing). There’s ACN, an alleged Ponzi scheme Trump promoted, and from which he made millions (he, his company, and his family deny the allegations of fraud); and the border wall that hasn’t been built and that Mexico’s never going to pay for. Trump is a pathological liar if ever there was one. Other criteria for antisocial personality disorder include
- “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”;
- “impulsivity or failure to plan ahead”; and
- “lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.” Check, check, and check:
As for social norms and lawful behaviors, there are all the accusations of sexual misconduct. Also relevant is what the Mueller report says about Trump’s efforts to derail the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the last presidential election. And given what federal prosecutors in New York said about his role in directing hush money to be paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels, a strong case can be made that Trump has committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice and criminal violations of campaign-finance laws. Were he not president, and were it not for two Justice Department opinions holding that a sitting president cannot be indicted, he might well be facing criminal charges now.
As for impulsivity, that essentially describes what gets him into trouble most: It was his “impulsiveness—actually, total recklessness”—that came close to destroying him in the 1980s. In “response to his surging celebrity,” Trump, “acquisitive to the point of recklessness,” engaged in “a series of manic, ill-advised ventures” that “nearly did him in,” Politico reported. His impulsiveness has buffeted his presidency as well: Think of his first ordering, then calling off, the bombing of Iran in June, and his aborted meeting with the Taliban at Camp David just last month. And remember the racist tweets he sent in mid-July in which he told four nonwhite representatives—three of whom were born in the United States—to “go back” to the “countries” they “originally came from.” Those tweets were apparently triggered by something he saw on TV.
Or consider his impetuous, unvetted personnel decisions, such as his failed selection of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician, as Veterans Affairs secretary, and his choice of Representative John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence. It was just so on The Apprentice, where editors and producers found that “Trump was frequently unprepared” for tapings, and frequently fired strong contestants “on a whim,” which required them “to ‘reverse engineer’ the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage … in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.” One editor remarked that he found “it strangely validating that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.” Trump sees none of this as a problem; to the contrary, he prides himself on following his instincts, once telling an interviewer: “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody’s brain can ever tell me.”
And lack of remorse? That’s a hallmark of sociopathy, and goes hand in hand with a lack of human conscience. In a narcissistic sociopath, it’s intertwined with a lack of empathy. Trump hardly ever shows remorse, or apologizes, for anything. The one exception: With his presidential candidacy on the line in early October 2016, Trump expressed regret for the Access Hollywood video. But within weeks, almost as soon as the campaign was over, Trump began claiming, to multiple people, that the video may have been doctored—a preposterous lie, especially since he had acknowledged that the voice was his, others had confirmed this as well, and there was no evidence of tampering. “We don’t think that was my voice,” he said to a senator. The “we,” no doubt, was a lie as well.
Again, as with his narcissism, all this evidence of Trump’s sociopathy only begins to tell the tale. The bottom line is that this is a man who, over and over and over again, has indifferently mused about the possibility of killing 10 million or so people in Afghanistan to end the war there, while allowing that “I’m not looking to kill 10 million people”—as though this were a realistic but merely less preferred option than, say, raising import tariffs on chewing gum. As a 1997 profile of Trump in The New Yorker put it, Trump has “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”
In a way, Trump’s sociopathic tendencies are simply an extension of his extreme narcissism. Take the pathological lying. Extreme narcissists aren’t necessarily pathological liars, but they can be, and when they are, the lying supports the narcissism. As Lance Dodes has put it, “People like Donald Trump who have severe narcissistic disturbances can’t tolerate being criticized, so the more they are challenged in this essential way, the more out of control they become.” In particular, “They change reality to suit themselves in their own mind.” Although Trump “lies because of his sociopathic tendencies,” telling falsehoods to fool others, Dodes argues, he also lies to himself, to protect himself from narcissistic injury. And so Donald Trump has lied about
- his net worth,
- the size of the crowd at his inauguration, and
- supposed voter fraud in the 2016 election.
The latter kind of lying, Dodes says, “is in a way more serious,” because it can indicate “a loose grip on reality”—and it may well tell us where Trump is headed in the face of impeachment hearings. Lying to prevent narcissistic injury can metastasize to a more significant loss of touch with reality. As Craig Malkin puts it, when pathological narcissists “can’t let go of their need to be admired or recognized, they have to bend or invent a reality in which they remain special,” and they “can lose touch with reality in subtle ways that become extremely dangerous over time.” They can become “dangerously psychotic,” and “it’s just not always obvious until it’s too late.”
Experts haven’t suggested that Trump is psychotic, but many have contended that his narcissism and sociopathy are so inordinate that he fits the bill for “malignant narcissism.” Malignant narcissism isn’t recognized as an official diagnosis; it’s a descriptive term coined by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and expanded upon by another psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg, to refer to an extreme mix of narcissism and sociopathy, with a degree of paranoia and sadism mixed in. One psychoanalyst explains that “the malignant narcissist is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioural regulation with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.” In the view of some in the mental-health community, such as John Gartner, Trump “exhibits all four” components of malignant narcissism: “narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personality and sadism.”
Mental-health professionals have raised a variety of other concerns about Trump’s mental state; the last worth specifically mentioning here is the possibility that, apart from any personality disorder, he may be suffering cognitive decline. This is a serious matter: Trump seems to be continually slurring words, and recently misread teleprompters to say that the Continental Army secured airports during the American Revolutionary War, and to say that the shooting in Dayton had occurred in Toledo. His overall level of articulateness today doesn’t come close to what he exhibits in decades-old television clips. But that could be caused by ordinary age-related decline, stress, or other factors; to know whether something else is going on, according to experts, would require a full neuropsychological work-up, of the kind that Trump hasn’t yet had and, one supposes, isn’t about to agree to.
But even that doesn’t exhaust all the mental-health issues possibly indicated by Trump’s behavior. His “mental state,” according to Justin A. Frank, a former clinical professor of psychiatry and physician who wrote a book about Trump’s psychology, “include[s] so many psychic afflictions” that a “working knowledge of psychiatric disorders is essential to understanding Trump.” Indeed, as Gartner puts it: “There are a lot of things wrong with him—and, together, they are a scary witch’s brew.”
This is a lot to digest. It would take entire books to catalog all of Trump’s behavioral abnormalities and try to explain them—some of which have already been written. But when you line up what the Framers expected of a president with all that we know about Donald Trump, his unfitness becomes obvious. The question is whether he can possibly act as a public fiduciary for the nation’s highest public trust. To borrow from the Harvard Law Review article, can he follow the “proscriptions against profit, bad faith, and self-dealing,” manifest “a strong concern about avoiding ultra vires action” (that is, action exceeding the president’s legal authority), and maintain “a duty of diligence and carefulness”? Given that Trump displays the extreme behavioral characteristics of a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, or a malignant narcissist—take your pick—it’s clear that he can’t.
To act as a fiduciary requires you to put someone else’s interests above your own, and Trump’s personality makes it impossible for him to do that. No president before him, at least in recent memory, has ever displayed such obsessive self-regard. For Trump, Trump always comes first. He places his interests over everyone else’s—including those of the nation whose laws he swore to faithfully execute. That’s not consistent with the duties of the president, whether considered from the standpoint of constitutional law or psychology.
Indeed, Trump’s view of his presidential powers can only be described as profoundly narcissistic, and his narcissism has compelled him to disregard the Framers’ vision of his constitutional duties in every respect. Bad faith? Trump has repeatedly used executive powers, threatened to use executive powers, or expressed the view that executive powers should be used to advance his personal interests and punish his political opponents. Thus, for example, he has
- placed restrictions on disaster aid to Puerto Rico in apparent response to criticism of him and his administration;
- directed the Pentagon to reconsider whether to award a $10 billion contract to Amazon because its CEO owns The Washington Post, whose coverage he doesn’t like;
- threatened to take “regulatory and legislative” action against Facebook, Google, and Twitter, because of their supposed “terrible bias” against him;
- tried to get White House staff to tell the Justice Department to try to block the merger between AT&T and Time Warner in order to punish CNN for its coverage;
- attacked his first attorney general for allowing the indictment of two Republican congressmen who had supported him; and
- ordered the revocation of the security clearance of a former CIA director who had criticized him.
And now, in just the past two weeks, we’ve seen the pièce de résistance of bad faith, the one that’s brought Trump to the verge of impeachment: Trump’s efforts to use his presidential authority to strong-arm a foreign nation, Ukraine, into digging up or concocting evidence in support of a preposterous conspiracy theory about one of his principal challengers for the presidency, former Vice President Joe Biden. As one political historian has put it, Trump’s use of his Article II authority to pursue vendettas is “both a sign of deep insecurity … and also just a litany of abuse of power,” and something no president has done “as consistently or as viciously as Trump has.”
Profit? Self-dealing? Look at the way Trump is using the presidency to advertise his real-estate holdings—most notably and recently, his apparent determination to hold the next G7 summit at the Trump Doral resort in Florida. Ultra vires? Trump has made the outrageous claim that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” Consistent with that view, he has repeatedlysuggested that, by executive order, he can overturn the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship—an utterly lawless assertion. His core constitutional obligations flow from Article II’s command that he faithfully execute the laws, yet he has told subordinates not to worry about violating the laws. According to one former senior administration official quoted in The New York Times, Trump’s “constant instinct all the time was: Just do it, and if we get sued, we get sued … Almost as if the first step is a lawsuit. I guess he thinks that because that’s how business worked for him in the private sector. But federal law is different, and there really isn’t a settling step when you break federal law.” Federal law is also different, one might add, because he’s in charge of upholding it.
Facing the approach of the 2020 election with not a single new mile of his border wall having been built, Trump, as reported in The Washington Post, has urged his aides to violate all manner of laws to expedite construction—environmental laws, contracting laws, constitutional limitations on the taking of private property—and “has told worried subordinates that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing” they commit along the way.
A duty of diligence and carefulness? Trump is purely impulsive, and incapable of planning or serious forethought, and his compulsion for lying has enervated any capacity for thoughtful analysis he may have ever had. He apparently won’t read anything; he himself has said, in regard to briefings, that he prefers to read “as little as possible”—despite occupying what David A. Graham calls “one of the most demanding jobs in the world” precisely because its “holder is expected to consume, digest, and absorb prodigious amounts of information via reading.”
And then there’s the question of honesty. Fiduciaries must be honest. The Framers understood, based upon the law of public officeholding in their time, that “faithful execution” of the laws requires “the absence of bad faith through honesty.” In the private realm, fiduciaries owe a duty of candor, of truth-telling; the standard of behavior was once memorably described by the renowned jurist Benjamin Cardozo as “not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.” Today, in my own practice area of corporate litigation, corporate officers and directors, as fiduciaries, owe duties that include a duty to disclose material information truthfully and completely. Trump, whose lawyers wouldn’t dare allow him to speak to the special counsel lest he make a prosecutable false statement, couldn’t pass this standard to save his life.
Trump’s incapacity affects all manner of subjects addressed by the presidency, but can be seen most acutely in foreign affairs and national security. Presidential narcissism and personal ego have frequently displaced the national interest. Today, the most obvious—and stunning—example is his conduct toward Ukraine: While trying to pressure the Ukrainian president to restart an investigation against Biden, Trump ordered the withholding of vital military aid to that country, thus weakening its ability to withstand Russian aggression and undermining the interests of the United States. But the list goes on: Last summer, in a narcissistic effort at self-aggrandizement, Trump told the Pakistani prime minister about a conversation he had with the Indian prime minister—leading India to deny, indignantly, that any such conversation had ever taken place. Trump reportedly even lied about trade talks with China—announcing that phone calls had occurred that never occurred and that the Chinese denied took place—in an apparent attempt to pump up the stock market and take credit for it.
Trump’s penchant for vendettas also doesn’t stop at the water’s edge—American interests be damned. When confidential cables sent by the United Kingdom’s ambassador to his government were leaked, and were revealed to contain uncomplimentary (but obvious) observations about Trump’s ineptitude and emotional insecurity, and the dysfunction of his administration, Trump went on an extended Twitter tirade against the ambassador, calling him “wacky” and “a very stupid guy,” “a pompous fool,” and ultimately declared: “We will no longer deal with him.” When reports surfaced that Trump was interested in having the United States purchase Greenland from Denmark, and the Danish prime minister understandably described talk about such a purchase as “an absurd discussion” in light of Greenland’s position on the matter, Trump canceled a visit to Denmark, and then attacked the prime minister, calling her comments “nasty”; for good measure, he also attacked some of America’s NATO allies.
At the same time, Trump happily succumbs to flattery from America’s enemies; he received “beautiful … great letters” from North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, and therefore “fell in love” with him, and rewards him with kind words and meetings even as North Korea continues to develop new nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Trump once said on television: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”
Putin, of course, did more than say great things about Trump, which brings up what was, until the Ukraine scandal surfaced, the most significant way in which Trump’s extraordinary narcissism influenced his presidency—the Russia investigation. Trump made that investigation about himself, and in the course of doing so, committed what appear to be unmistakably criminal acts. At the outset, the Mueller investigation wasn’t about what Donald Trump had done during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. It was primarily an investigation about what the Russians had done to interfere with that election and to help the Trump campaign. At its core, it was a counterintelligence investigation—an effort to protect the country, to defend our democracy. An effort to find out exactly what a hostile foreign power had done to attack the United States, so that our nation could fight back, and so that it could take measures to ensure that such an attack never happened again.
But Trump didn’t see it that way. The Mueller report repeatedly describes Trump’s self-obsession, and his disregard for the national interest. Trump viewed “the intelligence community assessment of Russian interference as a threat to the legitimacy of his electoral victory.” He is said to have “viewed the Russia investigation as an attack on the legitimacy of his win.” He thought it would “tak[e] away from what he had accomplished.” The Washington Post has now reported, moreover, that in the Oval Office in May 2017, Trump told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador that he was unconcerned with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
And so, contrary to his obligation to act in the nation’s interests rather than his own, and contrary to the criminal code, he repeatedly tried to obstruct the investigation—and therefore, ironically, put himself in the crosshairs of the investigation. Thanks to Trump’s narcissism, the special counsel was forced to devote an entire volume of his report—some 182 pages of single-spaced text—to Trump’s repeated and persistent efforts to derail the investigation. And persistent, Trump was. He tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the investigation, to violate ethics rules and unrecuse himself, so that he could get rid of the special counsel and limit the investigation to future election interference only. Trump tried to get his White House counsel to have the acting attorney general remove Mueller on a ridiculous pretext, prompting the counsel to threaten to resign. Trump tried to encourage witnesses to refuse to cooperate with the very government that Trump himself heads. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in his efforts to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump “did much more than this, but all of this is more than enough: He committed the crime of obstructing justice—multiple times.” Trump even obstructed justice about obstructing justice when he tried to get the White House counsel to write a false account of Trump’s efforts to remove Mueller.
All in all, Trump sought to impede and end a significant counterintelligence and criminal investigation—one of crucial importance to the nation—and did so for his own personal reasons. He did precisely the opposite of what his duties require. Indeed, he has shown utter contempt for his duties to the nation. How else could one describe the attitude Trump expressed when, sitting next to Vladimir Putin in late June, he was asked whether he would tell Putin not to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election? Trump smirked, wagged his finger playfully at Putin, and said, “Don’t meddle in the election.” Putin smirked too. The Russian president was in on the joke—the punch line being how Trump treats America’s interests versus his own.
What constitutional mechanisms exist for dealing with a president who cannot or does not comply with his duties, and how should they take the president’s mental and behavioral characteristics into account? One mechanism discussed with great frequency during the past three years, including within the Trump administration, is Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. That provision allows the vice president to become “Acting President” when the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But it doesn’t define what such an inability entails; essentially, it lets the vice president and the Cabinet, the president himself, and ultimately two-thirds of both houses of Congress decide.
Certainly it would cover a coma. Had the amendment been in effect in 1919 through 1921, it presumably could have been used to deal with President Woodrow Wilson. A severe stroke had rendered Wilson paralyzed on the left side, but he could still speak, and he could still sign documents with his right hand. Nevertheless, although Wilson had “relatively well preserved intellectual function,” the stroke rendered him “subject to ‘disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, and defective judgment.’”
Sound judgment, of course, is what a president’s job is all about. And as Jeffrey Rosen has explained, “nothing in the text or original understanding of the amendment” would prevent the vice president, the Cabinet, or Congress from deciding that Trump has disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, defective judgment, or other behavioral or psychological issues that keep him from carrying out his constitutional duties the way they were meant to be carried out.
The problem is one of mechanics. Section 4, quite understandably, was designed to be extremely difficult to implement. The vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can determine that the president isn’t able to carry out his duties; if so, the vice president immediately becomes acting president. But if the president doesn’t agree—and you know what Trump’s view will be, no matter what—then a constitutional game of ping-pong starts: The president can certify that he is capable, and he can reassume his authority after a four-day waiting period, unless the vice president and the Cabinet, within that period, recertify that the president can’t function. (As a new book on Section 4 explains, this waiting period exists in part because “a deranged President could do a lot of damage if he could retake power immediately,” and, in particular, he “would also be able to fire the Cabinet, which would prevent it from contesting his declaration of ability.”) If that happens, the vice president continues as acting president, and the whole matter gets kicked to Congress, which must assemble within 48 hours and decide within 21 days: If two-thirds of both houses agree that the president can’t function, then the vice president continues as acting president; if not, the president gets his authority back.
No matter how psychologically incapable of meeting his constitutional obligations Trump may be, that route is virtually certain not to work in this case. Would a vice president and department heads who have shamelessly slaked Trump’s narcissistic thirst at Cabinet meetings by praising his supposed greatness, and who of course owe their jobs to Trump, dare incur his wrath by sparking a constitutional crisis on the basis of what they must surely know about his unprecedented faults? Doubtful, to say the least. They would know full well that, if their decision weren’t sustained by Congress, the first thing that Trump would do after reassuming power would be to fire every department head who sought to have him sidelined. (He can’t fire Vice President Mike Pence, of course.) Which brings up the ultimate question upon which successful invocation of Section 4 would turn: whether two-thirds of both houses of Congress would vote to remove Trump. That’s harder than impeachment, which requires only a simple majority of the House in order to bring charges of impeachment to a trial in the Senate (which in turn can convict on a two-thirds vote).
And so it turns out that impeachment is a more practical mechanism for addressing the fact that Trump’s narcissism and sociopathy render him unable to comply with the obligations of his office. It’s also an appropriate mechanism, because the constitutional magic words (other than Treason and Bribery) that form the basis of an impeachment charge—high Crimes and Misdemeanors, found in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution—mean something other than, and more than, offenses in the criminal-statute books. High Crimes and Misdemeanors is a legal term of art, one that historically referred to breaches of duties—fiduciary duties—by public officeholders. In other words, the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense for a president coincides precisely with whether the president can execute his office in the faithful manner that the Constitution requires.
The phrase high Crimes and Misdemeanors was dropped into the draft Constitution on September 8, 1787, during the waning days of the Constitutional Convention. The discussion before the Convention’s Committee of Eleven was extremely brief. The extant version of what became Article II, Section 4 provided for impeachment merely for treason and bribery. George Mason objected, and proposed adding “maladministration.” Elbridge Gerry seconded Mason’s proposal, but James Madison objected that it was too vague. Gouverneur Morris chimed in, arguing that having a presidential election “every four years will prevent maladministration.” Mason moved to add, according to Madison’s notes, “other high crimes & misdemeanors (against the State).” The motion passed, eight to three. And so, as a result of that brief exchange, Article II of the Constitution of the United States provides that “the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
As Yoni Appelbaum has observed in this magazine, “constitutional lawyers have been arguing about what counts as a ‘high crime’ or ‘misdemeanor’ ever since.” One of the most compelling arguments about the meaning of those words is that the Framers, in Article II’s command that a president faithfully execute his office, imposed upon him fiduciary obligations. As the constitutional historian Robert Natelson explained in the Federalist Society Review, the “founding generation [understood] ‘high … Misdemeanors’ to mean ‘breach of fiduciary duty.’” Eighteenth-century lawyers instead used terms such as breach of trust—which describes the same thing. “Parliamentary articles of impeachment explicitly and repetitively described the accused conduct as a breach of trust,” Natelson argues, and 18th-century British legal commentators explained how impeachment for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” was warranted for all sorts of noncriminal violations that were, in essence, fiduciary breaches.
Just as the Framers viewed the presidency as fiduciary, they understood the offenses that might disqualify the incumbent as breaches of that fiduciary duty. And that may well be why the discussion of Morris’s suggestion was so brief—the drafters knew what the words historically meant, because, as a House Judiciary Committee report noted in 1974, “at the time of the Constitutional Convention the phrase ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ had been in use for over 400 years in impeachment proceedings in Parliament.” Certainly Alexander Hamilton knew by the time he penned “Federalist No. 65,” in which he explained that impeachment was for “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
What constitutes such an abuse or violation of trust is up to Congress to decide: First the House decides to bring impeachment charges, and then the Senate decides whether to convict on those charges. The process of impeachment by the House and removal by trial in the Senate is thus, in some ways, akin to indictment by a grand jury and trial by a petit jury. In other ways, it is quite different. As Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz explain in their recent book on impeachment, “the Constitution explicitly states that Congress may not end a presidency unless the president has committed an impeachable offense. But nowhere does the Constitution state or otherwise imply that Congress must remove a president whenever that standard is met … In other words, it allows Congress to exercise judgment.” As Tribe and Matz argue, that judgment presents a “heavy burden,” and demands that Congress be “context-sensitive,” and achieve “an understanding of all relevant facts.” A president might breach his trust to the nation once in some small, inconsequential way and never repeat the misbehavior, and Congress could reasonably decide that the game is not worth the candle.
So the congressional judgment in the impeachment process necessarily includes the number and seriousness of offenses, and even extends well beyond those calculations. Congress must also, in particular, weigh the chances of recidivism; that possibility is precisely why the Constitution provides for removal as the principal sanction upon conviction on impeachment charges. As Charles Black Jr. explained in his classic 1974 book on impeachment, “We remove him principally because we fear he will do it again.” Or as George Mason put it during the Constitutional Convention, “Shall the man who has practised corruption … be suffered to escape punishment, by repeating his guilt?”
In short, now that the House of Representatives has embarked on an impeachment inquiry, one of the most important judgments it must make is whether any identified breaches of duty are likely to be repeated. And if a Senate trial comes to pass, that issue would become central as well to the decision to remove the president from office. That’s when Trump’s behavioral and psychological characteristics should—must—come into play. From the evidence, it appears that he simply can’t stop himself from putting his own interests above the nation’s. Any serious impeachment proceedings should consider not only the evidence and the substance of all impeachable offenses, but also the psychological factors that may be relevant to the motivations underlying those offenses. Congress should make extensive use of experts—psychologists and psychiatrists.
- Is Trump so narcissistic that he can’t help but use his office for his own personal ends?
- Is he so sociopathic that he can’t be trusted to follow, let alone faithfully execute, the law?
Congress should consider all this because that’s what the question of impeachment demands. But there’s another reason as well. The people have a right to know, and a need to see. Many people have watched all of Trump’s behavior, and they’ve drawn the obvious conclusion. They know something’s wrong, just as football fans knew that the downed quarterback had shattered his leg. Others have changed the channel, or looked away, or chosen to deny what they’ve seen. But if Congress does its job and presents the evidence, those who are in denial won’t be able to ignore the problem any longer. Not only because of the evidence itself, but because Donald Trump will respond in pathological ways—and in doing so, he’ll prove the points against him in ways almost no one will be able to ignore.