It was the toughest day of his own life, Trump began. In the ancient Greek legend, the beautiful boy Narcissus falls so completely in love with the reflection of himself in a pool that he plunges into the water and drowns. The story provides the mythical source for the modern concept of narcissism, which is conceived as excessive self-love and the attendant qualities of grandiosity and a sense of entitlement. Highly narcissistic people are always trying to draw attention to themselves. Repeated and inordinate self-reference is a distinguishing feature of their personality.
What does Donald Trump really want? What are his most valued life goals? Narcissus wanted, more than anything else, to love himself.
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People with strong narcissistic needs want to love themselves, and they desperately want others to love them too—or at least admire them, see them as brilliant and powerful and beautiful, even just see them, period. The fundamental life goal is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see. Accordingly, some experts insist that narcissistic motivations cover up an underlying insecurity.
But others argue that there is nothing necessarily compensatory, or even immature, about certain forms of narcissism. Consistent with this view, I can find no evidence in the biographical record to suggest that Donald Trump experienced anything but a loving relationship with his mother and father. Narcissistic people like Trump may seek glorification over and over, but not necessarily because they suffered from negative family dynamics as children.
Rather, they simply cannot get enough. Ever since grade school, Trump has wanted to be No.
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Attending New York Military Academy for high school, he was relatively popular among his peers and with the faculty, but he did not have any close confidants. As both a coach and an admiring classmate recall in The Trumps , Donald stood out for being the most competitive young man in a very competitive environment. His need to excel—to be the best athlete in school, for example, and to chart out the most ambitious future career—may have crowded out intense friendships by making it impossible for him to show the kind of weakness and vulnerability that true intimacy typically requires.
Whereas you might think that narcissism would be part of the job description for anybody aspiring to become the chief executive of the United States, American presidents appear to have varied widely on this psychological construct. In a Psychological Science research article, behavioral scientists ranked U. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton were next. Millard Fillmore ranked the lowest.
Correlating these ranks with objective indices of presidential performance, the researchers found that narcissism in presidents is something of a double-edged sword. In business, government, sports, and many other arenas, people will put up with a great deal of self-serving and obnoxious behavior on the part of narcissists as long as the narcissists continually perform at high levels. Unlike Trump, he basically ignored his kids, to the point of refusing to acknowledge for some time that one of them was his.
Psychological research demonstrates that many narcissists come across as charming, witty, and charismatic upon initial acquaintance. They can attain high levels of popularity and esteem in the short term. As long as they prove to be successful and brilliant—like Steve Jobs—they may be able to weather criticism and retain their exalted status. But more often than not, narcissists wear out their welcome.
Over time, people become annoyed, if not infuriated, by their self-centeredness.
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When narcissists begin to disappoint those whom they once dazzled, their descent can be especially precipitous. There is still truth today in the ancient proverb: Pride goeth before the fall. The president of the United States is more than a chief executive. He or she is also a symbol, for the nation and for the world, of what it means to be an American.
It is largely through the stories he tells or personifies, and through the stories told about him, that a president exerts moral force and fashions a nation-defining legacy. Like all of us, presidents create in their minds personal life stories—or what psychologists call narrative identities—to explain how they came to be who they are. This process is often unconscious, involving the selective reinterpretation of the past and imagination of the future.
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A growing body of research in personality, developmental, and social psychology demonstrates that a life story provides adults with a sense of coherence, purpose, and continuity over time. In middle age, George W. Key events in the story were his decision to marry a steady librarian at age 31, his conversion to evangelical Christianity in his late 30s, and his giving up alcohol forever the day after his 40th birthday party.
By atoning for his sins and breaking his addiction, Bush was able to recover the feeling of control and freedom that he had enjoyed as a young boy growing up in Midland, Texas. Extending his narrative to the story of his country, Bush believed that American society could recapture the wholesome family values and small-town decency of yesteryear, by embracing a brand of compassionate conservatism.
On the international front, he believed that oppressed people everywhere could enjoy the same kind of God-given rights—self-determination and freedom—if they could be emancipated from their oppressors. His redemptive story helped him justify, for better and for worse, a foreign war aimed at overthrowing a tyrant.
In Dreams From My Father , Barack Obama told his own redemptive life story, tracking a move from enslavement to liberation. Obama, of course, did not directly experience the horrors of slavery or the indignities of Jim Crow discrimination. Obama had already identified himself as a protagonist in this grand narrative by the time he married Michelle Robinson, at age What about Donald Trump?
What is the narrative he has constructed in his own mind about how he came to be the person he is today? And can we find inspiration there for a compelling American story?
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Our narrative identities typically begin with our earliest memories of childhood. Rather than faithful reenactments of the past as it actually was, these distant memories are more like mythic renderings of what we imagine the world to have been. For Obama, there is a sense of wonder but also confusion about his place in the world. Donald Trump grew up in a wealthy s family with a mother who was devoted to the children and a father who was devoted to work.
All five Trump children—Donald was the fourth—enjoyed a family environment in which their parents loved them and loved each other. Instead, it is saturated with a sense of danger and a need for toughness: The world cannot be trusted.
Fred Trump made a fortune building, owning, and managing apartment complexes in Queens and Brooklyn. On weekends, he would occasionally take one or two of his children along to inspect buildings. You have to be tough. He trained his sons to be tough competitors, because his own experience taught him that if you were not vigilant and fierce, you would never survive in business.
There were ex—drill sergeants all over the place. Military school reinforced the strong work ethic and sense of discipline Trump had learned from his father. And it taught him how to deal with aggressive men, like his intimidating baseball coach, Theodore Dobias:.
Trump has never forgotten the lesson he learned from his father and from his teachers at the academy: The world is a dangerous place. You have to be ready to fight. The same lesson was reinforced in the greatest tragedy that Trump has heretofore known—the death of his older brother at age Freddy Trump was never able to thrive in the competitive environment that his father created. Alcoholism contributed to his early death. The greatest risk for the warrior is that he incites gratuitous violence in others, and brings it upon himself.
Trump loves boxing and football, and once owned a professional football team. In the opening segment of The Apprentice , he welcomes the television audience to a brutal Darwinian world:. The story here is not so much about making money. As president, Donald Trump promises, he would make America great again.
They keep beating us. We have to beat them. Economic victory is one thing; starting and winning real wars is quite another. In some ways, Trump appears to be less prone to military action than certain other candidates. He has strongly criticized George W. David Winter, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, analyzed U.
And, as noted, his extroversion and narcissism suggest a willingness to take big risks—actions that history will remember.
Tough talk can sometimes prevent armed conflict, as when a potential adversary steps down in fear. But Trump has kept this same kind of story going throughout his life. Even now, as he approaches the age of 70, he is still the warrior. Going back to ancient times, victorious young combatants enjoyed the spoils of war—material bounty, beautiful women. Trump has always been a big winner there.