Costs of Narcissism
“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters.” – Donald Trump, November 2017
The problem with being Trump is the same thing that explains the enormous fame and success of Trump: a naked neediness, a certain shamelessness, an insatiable hunger to be the largest, loudest, most honkingly conspicuous presence in any room… – Jeffrey Kluger, “The Narcissist Next Door” (2014)
Narcissism ranges from mild displays of self-absorption to grandiose forms, marked by an insatiable hunger for attention and admiration. Among the host of associated behaviors, none is socially desirable: promoting yourself, showing no compassion, acting aggressively, refusing to apologize, lying reflexively, lacking remorse, blaming others for your shortcomings, ignoring behavioral norms, dismissing and raging against critics, and denying reality (practicing a sort of magical thinking that celebrates imagined successes while ignoring real failures).
Long before Donald Trump took the presidential oath, his story surfaced in psychology texts and classrooms as an instructional example of narcissism. Powered by social media, an ideal venue for self-promoters, he won over many voters – even as he showcased the downsides of narcissism.
“Americans have become inured to the incivility, exhibitionism and celebrity obsession” brought on by rising rates of narcissism, note social psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in their 2009 book “The Narcissism Epidemic.” Characterizing narcissism as “the fast food of the soul,” they warn that “it tastes great in the short term, has negative, even dire consequences in the long run, and yet continues to have widespread appeal.”
Trump’s election “in some way normalizes narcissism more,” Campbell – a psychology professor at the University of Georgia – told me in a recent interview. In the campaign, Trump’s “strong man leader” persona drew in those who lacked trust in our current system and those challenged by economic instability. But now his constellation of self-serving behaviors further erodes that trust and stability – prompting voters’ remorse in some people
Over time, narcissism undermines relationships. Narcissists see any acknowledgment of interdependence as a challenge to their individual status and self-proclaimed superiority. Trump has already taken a wrecking ball to long-standing international alliances and undercut members of his own party and cabinet.
The resulting interpersonal strife is ugly, but there is a greater danger. The narcissistic world view, favoring superiority and dominance, tends to disregard the commons – the air, waters, land and wildlife – on which we collectively depend.
As early as 1949, wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold reminded Americans that we were part of a larger “biotic community” and should adopt an ethic extending “social conscience from people to land.” By the 1970s, the U.S. had begun codifying this awareness in laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.
Narcissism undercuts that vision of participating in a larger whole, severing ties between people and land. As narcissist in chief, Trump is overseeing an unprecedented rollback of air and water pollution rules and clean power provisions – seemingly oblivious to the human repercussions. The president appears unaffected by the plight of Americans who lack clean drinking water, fear losing homes to sea-level rise or contend with health problems linked to fracking.
“We can be ethical,” Leopold observed, “only in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love or otherwise have faith in.” Narcissism gets in the way of empathic experience, a felt sense of connection.
With an archetypal narcissist enthroned in the White House, the United States may be hitting “peak narcissism,” a demonstration so intense that we realize how damaging self-aggrandizement can be. Unwittingly, Donald Trump might actually perform a vital public service. His example could act as a vaccine, helping more Americans to resist virulent narcissistic tendencies and to extend the bounds of community.
There may already be a renewed interest in the common good, Campbell notes, based on some initial studies done since the Great Recession began in 2008. He sees that “increase in communalism” manifesting in different ways, such as the depth and breadth of compassionate responses to the country’s recent spate of natural disasters.
“Think like a mountain,” Leopold counseled his readers in his thought-provoking book “A Sand County Almanac.” That image might imply grandiosity, but he meant just the opposite. Leopold had not started his career as a conservationist but came to an ecological way of thinking circuitously – having seen that killing off predators led to overpopulation of deer, which led to overbrowsing, which led to population crashes and to erosion, “with rivers washing the future into the sea.” Thinking like a mountain was a way to place ourselves in a larger context, and recognize that efforts to dominate often backfire.
Thinking like a mountain requires humility, compassion and patience. It’s a challenging practice, but it just might lift us from the sinking swamp of narcissism.
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.