Updated on December 4, 2019 at 10:55 a.m. EST
Senator Ted Cruz once described Donald Trump as “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” That characterization echoes what many psychological researchers and therapists have long concluded. Although the American Psychiatric Association strongly discourages mental-health professionals from assigning mental-illness labels to public figures, some clinicians have even suggested that President Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. In a recent article in The Atlantic, George T. Conway III argued that Trump exhibits all the classic signs of NPD, and that for that reason, among others, he is unfit for office.
But Trump is stranger than any diagnostic category can convey. Narcissism is a psychological construct with profound implications for an individual’s well-being and interpersonal relationships. Personality and social psychologists have done hundreds of studies examining narcissistic tendencies, revealing certain patterns of behavior and outcome. In some ways, Trump fits those patterns perfectly. But in at least one crucial respect, he deviates.
Back in June 2016, I wrote in this magazine about how narcissists “wear out their welcome”:
Psychological research demonstrates that many narcissists come across as charming, witty, and charismatic upon initial acquaintance. They can attain high levels of popularity 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. When narcissists begin to disappoint those they once dazzled, their descent can be especially precipitous. There is still truth in the ancient proverb: Pride goeth before the fall.
Nearly three years into Trump’s presidency, how does this generalization about narcissism hold up for him? On the one hand, many of the people who have staffed Trump’s administration have learned that he is not the “stable genius” he claims to be. Disappointed and beaten down, they have left in droves. On the other hand, Trump has retained the loyal backing of many voters despite scandal, outrage, and chaos. How is this possible? Why has Trump followed the predictable course for narcissism in one way, alienating many who have served in his administration, and defied expectations in another way, by continuing to attract an adoring core?
At its mythic heart, narcissism is a story of disappointment. The ancient source is the Greek tale of Narcissus, a beautiful young boy who falls in love with his reflection in a pool. Captivated with his beguiling image, Narcissus vows never to leave the object of his desire. But the reflection—forever outside his embrace—fails to reciprocate, and as a result Narcissus melts away (in one version of the story), a victim of the passion burning inside of him. The lover’s inconsolable disappointment is that he cannot consummate his love for the reflection, his love for himself.
A real-life narcissist, by contrast, manages to take his eyes off himself just long enough to find out if others are looking at him. And if the narcissist has admirers, this makes him feel good. It temporarily boosts his self-esteem.
Likewise, his admirers feel a rush of excitement and allure. They enjoy being in the presence of such a beautiful figure—or a powerful, creative, dynamic, charismatic, or intriguing figure. They bask in his reflected glory, even if they find his self-obsession to be unseemly. As time passes, however, the admirers grow weary. Once upon a time, they thought the narcissist was the greatest, but now they suspect that he is not. Or maybe they just get tired of him, and disgusted with all the self-admiration. They become disappointed, for very few narcissists can consistently provide the sufficient beauty, power, and greatness to sustain long-term unconditional devotion. In the end, everybody loses. The former fans loathe themselves for being fools, or else they blame the narcissist for fooling them. And the narcissist never attains what can never be humanly attained anyway: supreme and unending love and adoration of the self.
During the time when the young Donald Trump was laying plans for the construction of Trump Tower in New York City, the social critic Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism, in which he lamented the American preoccupation with self-glorification. According to Lasch, the 1970s narcissist saw the world as “a mirror of himself,” and had “no interest in external events except as they throw back a reflection on his own image.” The narcissistic person is adept at manipulating others for his own ends, Lasch wrote, but he has no genuine feeling for other people, because he is too caught up in the love affair with himself.
Lasch’s cultural critique dovetailed with clinical writings from Otto Kernberg and other psychoanalytic theorists of the time, who detected dark and malevolent features of narcissism in a number of their most difficult patients. Kernberg wrote that “malignant narcissists” often exhibit a superficial but seductive charm, a “glittery fascination” in the eyes of others. At the same time, they are interpersonally ruthless, incapable of expressing empathy, and suffering from fragile self-esteem. They have an impoverished inner life, to the point of feeling empty inside, and they are roiled by anger, resentment, and grandiose fantasies of revenge.
Contemporary researchers tend to focus on two core features of narcissism: grandiosity and vulnerability. Grandiosity comes across as unabashed hubris, boasting, and the projection of one’s perceived magnificence onto the world. Vulnerability manifests as defensiveness, emotional fragility, resentment, and the derogation of enemies. The grandiosity is more apparent early on, and it can serve to attract others. With time, the narcissist’s vulnerability becomes apparent too, which tends to push people away.
Picking up the vulnerability theme, research shows that people high in narcissism tend to show more anger and hostility when challenged or insulted, compared with people low in narcissism. They show sharper mood swings, oscillating between exuberance and negativity. As they rage against those who cross them, they make enemies. Many narcissists rise to positions of leadership in various kinds of groups because group members are initially impressed with their confidence and strength, but research shows that many of them turn out to be bad leaders, incompetent and unethical. In matters of romance, narcissists often have little trouble attracting mates—the peacock with the brightest plumage is hard to miss. But their romantic relationships turn out to be highly volatile and unstable.
In love, leadership, or social life more generally, the predictable narcissistic arc thus resembles yet another ancient Greek myth: the story of Icarus. He flew high and magnificent, until the sun melted the wax in his wings. Then Icarus plummeted to the sea below.
Trump’s relationship to the important players in his administration seems to have followed that rise-and-fall arc over time. He filled his Cabinet and the White House staff with early supporters such as Jeff Sessions and Hope Hicks; military generals such as Michael Flynn and John Kelly; Tea Party conservatives such as Mick Mulvaney; nationalist firebrands such as Steve Bannon; and even a few establishment Republicans such as Reince Priebus. The day before his inauguration, he announced, “We have by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.” In the first full Cabinet meeting, televised to the world, each participant (beginning with Vice President Mike Pence) began with a little speech proclaiming how proud or humbled or honored he or she was to serve in this great and historic administration, basking in the reflected glory of their leader—all except Secretary of Defense James Mattis, it should be acknowledged, who kept his dignity and praised the American armed forces instead. This kind of sycophantic love fest would make most people cringe, but narcissists love it.
The majority of those advisers and officials are now gone. As national-security adviser, Flynn lasted 24 days. Chief of Staff Priebus was gone in six months. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price made it eight months. Anthony Scaramucci held the position of White House communications director for all of 10 days, following the 49-day tenure of Sean Spicer, who was preceded by Mike Dubke (88 days), who was preceded by Spicer the first time (45 days). In less than three years, six different people have held the position of White House communications director.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution shows that the turnover rate in the Trump White House is higher than that of any other recent administration. “It’s historic, it’s unprecedented, it’s off the charts,” the study’s author, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, remarked in an interview with NBC News. In just 32 months, Trump’s rate of change has surpassed that of “all of his predecessors who served four-year terms.”
The study focused on the top 65 positions in the executive office of the president, which includes jobs such as national security adviser, chief of staff, press secretary, and director of national intelligence. The study found that 51 of the 65 positions (78 percent) have turned over since Trump took office, and that 16 of those positions (25 percent) have turned over twice or more. Of the 15 Cabinet positions in the presidential line of succession (which are not included in the 65 executive-office positions), nine have turned over at least once. Tenpas attributed the high rate of change to “the president himself.” She said: “In all of my studies, I’ve never seen a chief executive who fires staff more frequently and more publicly than President Trump.”
After she left her role as a top White House aide, Omarosa Manigault Newman wrote that Trump, as both a businessman and president, “chooses people who are very loyal, who subscribe to the fame and charisma that is Donald Trump’s magnetism. And I was one of those people.” But Trump’s charisma faded for her. She eventually recoiled from his self-centeredness and the disregard he expressed for other people. “Nothing has more meaning to Donald than himself.”
In the long run, it is tough to work with, or to love, a narcissist. Some can survive it all, perhaps because, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, they lurk behind the scenes. Trump pays virtually no attention to them. He has no interest in education or housing and urban development. But for those who are part of the everyday action in the White House, whose portfolios or reputations place them within the orbit of the chief executive, life is precarious. They live at the whim of an impulsive, self-centered man whose fragile self-esteem soars and then threatens to plummet from one moment to the next. Their boss demands constant praise and unquestioning fealty. For most, the end result is frustration and disappointment.
Trump’s turnover rate is unprecedented—and so are his approval numbers. They are as stable as his administration is volatile. In every other presidency, approval ratings have fluctuated as a function of events over time. For example, Richard Nixon’s approval ratings plunged 40 points from the days following his reelection in late 1972 to his resignation in the wake of Watergate a couple of years later. George H. W. Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed to nearly 90 percent at the time of the U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War, but fell to below 40 percent just a year later, likely thanks to the early 1990s recession.* Ranging from the low 60s to about 40 percent, Barack Obama’s approval ratings fell gradually during his first term, rose steadily from 2012 to 2013, fell again from 2013 to 2014, and then climbed from then on.
Trump’s ratings run closer to a straight line. That line is consistently lower than what other presidents have shown: Trump’s approval ratings have generally hovered in the low 40s. Unlike all other presidents, he has never exceeded a 47 percent approval rating. But he has rarely dipped much below 37 percent.
He has a sizable core of support that refuses to shrink. In fact, a recent poll of voters in six battleground states showed that 90 percent of Trump’s supporters from 2016 approve of his performance as president. The support persists despite the constant upheaval in his administration; despite Robert Mueller’s investigation and the impeachment proceedings; despite repeated accusations of sexual misconduct and financial irregularities; despite the roughly 13,000 documented instances of Trump publicly uttering a blatant falsehood (usually via Twitter); despite countless cruelties and insults and instances of shockingly “un-presidential” behavior; and despite his initiating some policies that do not even have a scintilla of support among his loyal Republican allies, such as caving to North Korean demands, betraying the Kurds in Syria, and cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If Trump actually did shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, as he once famously joked, it’s possible that his approval ratings wouldn’t budge at all. A CNN reporter recently interviewed six loyal Trump supporters in Pennsylvania. When one woman admitted that there was virtually nothing Trump could do to lose her vote, the interviewer asked how she might react if the president were to shoot somebody. She responded that she would want to know what the victim had done to deserve being shot.
Some of Trump’s hard-core supporters can point to specific policies or perceived achievements that keep them on the president’s side. Many conservatives strongly endorse Trump’s judicial selections. Anti-abortion enthusiasts hope that Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh will help strike down Roe v. Wade, or at least sharply reduce the number of abortions in the United States. Wealthy voters may be happy about Republican tax cuts. Many in the business community may applaud Trump’s deregulatory agenda. Voters who hated Obama may delight in Trump’s efforts to undo nearly everything Obama did. For many white working-class Americans, Trump’s promise to bring back heavy industry may give them hope for better jobs. His anti-immigration crusade, as well as his implicit endorsement of white racism, represents their last hope, they may suspect, for keeping America white and Christian.
Those who can’t point to specific achievements may remain loyal supporters because they hear relatively little that is expressly negative about their hero. If the president shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, would Fox News even cover it? Trump supporters and Trump detractors live in different worlds. They may not speak to one another about politics, knowing that such a conversation is likely to end badly. They get their news from different sources. They stay faithful to their respective political tribes.
But the crux of the matter—the secret to Trump’s success with the base—may be that if bad news can’t quite pierce the Trumpist bubble, neither, in a way, can Trump. The millions of American voters who adore the president do not have to interact with him directly. Unlike the White House staff, they do not have to endure Trump’s incendiary outbursts or kowtow to his unpredictable whims. As anonymous members of a television audience, they can gaze upon their hero from afar.
If they want to get a little closer, they can attend a Trump rally. In the local sports arena or civic center, they can sit just a few hundred feet away from the president, cheering and chanting. They can express their love for the him in the presence of thousands of others who love him too. They can laugh at his jokes and partake of the anger and disgust he expresses toward his enemies. Excitement fills the arena. What outlandish thing will he do? What will he say to capture the headlines of the next day? A Trump rally is a safe space for Trump supporters. They can sit back and enjoy the performance, because whatever he says cannot directly threaten them. He will be gone tomorrow.
The relationship that Trump enjoys with rally-goers may mirror the one he established more than a decade ago with viewers of The Apprentice. In her article “From Apprentice to President,” the cognitive scientist Shira Gabriel argued that viewers of Trump’s reality-television show formed “parasocial bonds” with the host. These “one-sided psychological bonds with specific media figures such as favorite celebrities” leave the viewer feeling that she truly knows the star and enjoys a special relationship with him. After statistically controlling for a range of other factors, Gabriel found that American television viewers who established parasocial bonds with Trump as the host of The Apprentice were disproportionately likely to vote for him in the 2016 presidential election, even if they were Democrats. They were also more likely than others to report that they believed Trump’s promises to bring back factory jobs to the United States, build a wall on the Mexican border, and defeat America’s enemies in the Middle East. If it were not for The Apprentice, Gabriel argued, there would be no President Trump.
Trump’s biggest fans have a parasocial bond with an icon—whereas his advisers and staff must work through a real-life social bond with a difficult human being. Trump’s biggest fans believe that they have an up-close-and-personal relationship with Trump—but they never actually see the man up close.
Other charismatic presidents, such as Ronald Reagan and Obama, probably established parasocial bonds with their supporters, too. The relationship between Trump fans and Trump may be more resilient, however, because of the peculiar nature of the president’s narcissism.
Generally speaking, politicians work hard to present themselves to the American people as regular human beings whose emotional lives and personal stories may resonate with their fellow citizens. Trump is strangely different, and he revels in that. He is a stable genius who admits to no faults. He has no inner doubts. He has never made a mistake. He has never failed. As one of the countless examples of Trump setting himself apart from every other human being on the planet, consider this statement he made on The Tonight Show in 2015: “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”
The fact that Trump will not admit to error sets him apart from most narcissists. Research shows that highly narcissistic people often create heroic stories of their own lives wherein they have triumphed over their limitations and failures, against all odds, to become the awesome people that they believe they are. Trump has never talked about himself in that way, even when urged to do so. Instead, he suggests that he has always been perfect, like the flawless image of Narcissus in the pool.
“I am the chosen one,” Trump told reporters in August, in response to questions about obtaining a trade deal with China. In claiming this almost superhuman status, Trump may somewhat inoculate himself against critical press. His supporters adore him as something like a larger-than-life force, a beautiful persona reflected in the pool. Should they encounter new negative information about the president, they may judge it against the “evidence” of their acquaintance with the president’s persona—and discount it. The contrast is simply too great between what the “fake news” claims, and the infallible presence onscreen.
The president’s raging narcissism has created chaos in the White House, and it has driven away scores of advisers, staff members, and others who had hoped to serve productively in his administration. As is usually the case with narcissists, Trump has worn out his welcome. He has disappointed and alienated many of the people with whom he has worked closely, as narcissists eventually do.
But Trump’s unusual brand of narcissism has simultaneously worked to solidify his loyal base of support in the American public at large. Those who admire him from afar may enjoy an extraordinarily durable parasocial relationship with a reflected persona that is deeply familiar to them. They know in their heart who Donald Trump is. They continue to admire his wonderful and unchanging essence, beautiful like the boy in the pool, even if they know very little about what it is like to encounter Donald Trump as a real human being.
* This article originally suggested that the U.S. economy was still in recession in 1992.