A growing chorus of psychologists and mental health professionals are saying it: Donald Trump is a textbook narcissist. The chronic exaggerations, the need for constant praise, the outsized reactions to insults both real and perceived — the evidence is so abundant, they say, there’s no question.
One one hand, analysis like this violates the Goldwater rule, which cautions psychiatrists against publicly commenting on public figures. Issued by the American Psychiatric Association in 1964 after health professionals rushed to remotely diagnose presidential candidate Barry Goldwater as unfit to be president, it states that it’s “unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination.” The rule, which is taken seriously, has nonetheless been repeatedly broken for Trump long before he became president.
And in the weeks since his election — a short window in which Trump wasted no time proving that everyone who said we shouldn’t take him literally was wrong — some health experts have gone further. Trump’s signs of mental instability, they argue, suggest he’s unfit to serve as president.
John Gartner, who describes Trump’s personality as a toxic mix of narcissism, paranoia, antisocial behavior, and sadism, is a persistent and vehement voice in this group. He’s started an online petition to this effect, which calls on the Internet to bolster the charge that Trump is “psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of president of the United States.” So far, more than 20,000 people have signed. The ultimate goal is to get Trump impeached under the 25th Amendment for being incapable of handling his role as president.
The likelihood is of this happening, of course, is close to nil. Technically the Constitution enables the forcible removal of a president if he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” a designation that requires the approval of the vice president and a majority of the cabinet (who, remember, owe their jobs to the president). It’s meant to be a high bar to clear because it should only apply in situations where there is no uncertainty about the president’s inability to lead, says University of North Carolina constitutional law professor Michael Gerhardt. While a long-term coma would probably apply, slippery charges of mental illness are not enough, he says. The Constitution was built to resist a coup d’etat: “We don’t want people within the administration turning against each other,” Gerhardt says.
Even if you’re deeply concerned about Trump’s presidency, then, you probably shouldn’t root for Gartner’s petition to be miraculously fulfilled. Trump’s removal on these grounds would fundamentally undermine the democratic process.
To be fair, Trump might destroy that on his own. In office for just a few weeks, he’s directly challenged the authority of the executive order, repeatedly attacked the press, spread misinformation by labeling legitimate polls and reports as “fake news,” and issued an immigration ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries that is already being challenged on the grounds it is unconstitutional.
On a personal level, he remains just as aggressive, combative, and volatile as ever. For many, this is deeply concerning, proof that Trump’s election is already a disaster. But for many others, this is why they voted for him in the first place.
Parsing Trump the persona
When it comes to the president, diagnostic labels are “irrelevant,” says Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. “Abraham Lincoln was probably depressed. God knows Richard Nixon was paranoid, but I don’t think those are grounds for critique — certainly not impeachment.”
Back in June, before Trump had secured the Republican nomination, McAdams wrote a cover story for The Atlantic with the purpose of understanding how Trump’s mind works so as to predict how he would lead as president. McAdams believes we’re driven by the narratives we create for ourselves. To understand Trump, he needed to unlock how Trump viewed the story of his own life.
And so he read the books Trump has authored. He pored over old interviews, and worked his way through the countless profiles written in the three decades that Trump has been in the spotlight. He watched old footage, and paid rapt attention as modern-day-Trump decimated his fellow candidates in the Republican primary.
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Taken together, he found a man who scored incredibly high on extroversion, and incredibly low on agreeableness, which worked together to create a “volatile mix. A bold decision maker who wants to make a big splash in the world, who is very dominant, but isn’t too concerned about the collateral damage that might follow.”
He also found a narcissist of towering proportions. His self-grandiosity was so severe it motivated nearly all of his actions, including the decision to enter politics. Most people go through the election process to become president, but with Trump it’s the reverse, says McAdams: “He wanted to become president so he could win the election, the biggest contest on the planet.”
Why narcissistic leaders win
Since then, McAdams has watched as Trump’s particular brand of narcissism fortified his base. What some see as a personality disorder, his fans see as the personality of an “outspoken” candidate whose plainspoken agenda has “instilled hope in people.”
“The characteristics that many people critique as being pathological,” says McAdams, “are the tickets to his success.”
Keith Campbell, a professor and head of the psychology department at the University of Georgia, agrees that Trump’s narcissism helped win him the election, particularly his use of social media and combative anger to speak directly to his core voters. “When people want change, they want narcissism,” he says.
After two terms of an Obama presidency, many people were desperate for change. Over the past eight years, globalization has continued to transform the job market, the inequality gap has widened, and ISIS has ravaged the Middle East. You could argue these factors are beyond any single politician’s control, but that didn’t stop Trump from seizing upon these fears during the campaign, promising he’d reverse the tide.
It’s hardly irrational that people want forceful leaders in “scary” times, says Campbell. And in fact, narcissism — which he believes contains both good and bad elements — has been shown to translate into effective leadership. Using a variety of criteria, including detailed analysis from historians and scholars, Campbell and other researchers ranked each president, from George Washington to George W. Bush, in order from most to least narcissistic. In general, narcissism was associated with “superior overall greatness,” including a higher percentage of the popular vote and more legislation initiatives, perhaps because narcissistic leaders are comfortable with manipulation and taking risks. Lyndon B. Johnson, whose unflagging belief in his own abilities and his comfort with aggressive, antagonistic tactics helped pass sweeping legislation, including the Civil Rights Act, led the pack (followed by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon. Meanwhile Millard Fillmore, James Monroe, Grover Cleveland, and Ulysses S. Grant brought up the rear.)
The political is personal
But Trump’s focus on his personal image may undermine any potential benefit of his aggressive risk taking, says McAdams. While much of Lyndon B. Johnson’s self-regard centered around his ability to initiate policy, Trump’s brand of grandiosity is focused on how he is perceived as an individual: “More than anything else, Donald Trump wants to promote Donald Trump.”
The need for adulation and respect as Trump the Person is his most powerful driving force, which makes his actions unpredictable. It’s a mindset that explains why he keeps asserting he actually won the popular vote (he didn’t), and why so many of his attacks, via public comments and Twitter, are direct, vicious, highly personal takedowns that are only tangentially related to politics. (An extremely truncated list of recent targets: Meryl Streep, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Schumer, The New York Times, John Lewis.) He appears to interpret any criticism of his actions or policies as a personal attack, and lashes out in kind.
This kind of anger worked on the campaign — it gave his supporters a pugnacious champion, and that’s “deeply cathartic,” says McAdams — but it’s unlikely such erratic vindictiveness can fuel policy initiatives, which require long-term commitment and strategy. Instead, every day is new battle — Trump against the world. In order to maintain this mindset, he has to “create chaos daily.” We’re reminded of this every time Trump signs a rushed executive order, or goes off on another Twitter rant late in the night.
“If you asked me what Trump is going to do next week, I don’t know,” says Campbell. “Which is scary.”
Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor and co-author of the book The Narcissism Epidemic, doesn’t see any of this ending well. Despite its real advantages, narcissism is a disease “that hurts other people.” Narcissists always put their needs first at the expense of the collective good, a strategy that, in the long-run, ends poorly for them as well as those around them. “They take too many risks, alienate people, and fail for that reason.” Twenge is quick to specify that this is a general pattern she identified long before Trump entered the political arena; it just happens to apply perfectly.
When asked to predict how Trump’s presidency will go, Twenge instead relates the “classic example of a narcissist in a bar.” At first, he attracts all the ladies, because he’s bold, charismatic, confident, and speaks his mind. “He doesn’t let anyone tell him what to do, which can be very exciting.”
In the short-term, it’s magic. In the long-term, the charm wears off. “Three months later you realize he doesn’t care about you at all,” says Twenge. “If you extend that analogy to our country…”
She doesn’t need to finish the sentence.