Read: The mind of Donald Trump
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.