The Narcissistic Charisma of Donald Trump

I grew up in a household defined by parental narcissism. I only figured this out roughly a year ago while on the road. Browsing random things on my phone, I stumbled on various pages describing theories and self-help literature revolving around what are called “adult children of narcissists”, or ACoNs. Going through various message boards and articles, I managed to untangle much of the complicated series of nonsensical events and outbursts which gave my upbringing much of its dada trainwreck aftertaste.

Eventually the time came when it was clear the situation was not going to get better and I had to cut my father off entirely for the good of the both of us. Searching online for guidance on how to confront this situation, I googled “adult children abandoning parents.” Bizarrely, I found that all of my results turned up websites and message boards relating to organized support and legal action groups put together by groups of parents claiming they were abused and neglected by their narcissistic children. Going through these threads, I noticed, insofar as you can diagnose such a thing based on a pattern of logic presented in message board posts, that most of the posters were in fact pathological narcissists. Their stories about their children had the consistency of Swiss cheese. They had projected the accusations of narcissism onto their estranged children. They’d come to a mutually reinforced unconscious conspiracy of enabling-as-solidarity.

It was utterly fascinating. A community based on shared support of a pathology.

A short while later I ended up at the home of a friend whose mother was an ardent watcher of Fox News. We ended up in his living room watching her watch TV. I noticed that the appeal of the network’s shows was similar to that of traditional hero narratives in the sense that Otto Rank and later Ernest Becker had framed them-they maintained the position of the viewer as the hero in their own personal narrative against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary inherent in their living situation. His mother was very much like Bill O’Reilly in her behavior. She couldn’t have conversations without constantly interrupting the person she was speaking with and making vague aggressive accusations against groups of people she had no direct knowledge of. She chose these people specifically because she had no knowledge of them and could more comfortably create a self within a closed feedback loop of a gerrymandered space of not-knowing. Attempts at introducing unknown variables into conversation were met with temper tantrums.

Marshall McLuhan once said “Charisma is looking like a lot of other people.” On TV and the internet, charisma becomes to the heroic presentation of common psychological profiles defined by decisive forward motion. Trump’s lack of concern about releasing policy papers is telling, as is his unorthodox choice not to apologize for social gaffs. He represents “self”, pure for its emptiness, decisively pushing forward. He is Nietzschean will to power without the complications. America wants to be sure of and proud of themselves, not right about things. Much as Americans will drift into the fantasy self of the heroic character in a TV program, or one of the actors in a pornographic film while handling themselves, so they see their projected fantasy self in Trump. Trump is the popular collective wish of one morning waking up on a giant pile of money. Like the male pornographic film performer (think Ron Jeremy), his clumsy ugliness is part of what makes the fantasy seem accessible.

A different friend once told me a short brilliant anecdote of dysfunction in his own childhood. “My dad was really drunk and started screaming at my mother. He shouted ‘You’re a fucking retarded Pollack!!!’ at my mother and stormed out. The thing is, he’s Polish, she isn’t.”

Most literature in the 20th century psychological tradition analyzing the roots and causes of fascism emphasizes the comforts fascism provides to the wounded narcissistic identity. Because the greatest fear of the pathological narcissist is the possibility of confronting the void of the self, a void which they’re constantly attracted to contemplating but can only contemplate in the projection of this wounded self into paranoia regarding their surroundings and always under the guise of talking about something else, the vague “national identity” becomes a perfect means for both their own projection and the construction of remarkably simple and cleanly efficient propaganda.

Fox News uses very simple psychological techniques to funnel the empty self-affirmation of a mentally ill populace toward the desired targets. Fox News is simply another manifestation of the desire in the TV viewer to see a recognizable version of their self in a position of exciting heroic swashbuckling. Endless websites, articles, and organizations attempting to point out blatant lies that Fox has told miss the point-the viewer goes to Fox to outsource the difficult work of bridging cognitive dissonance. They watch Fox because Fox is willing to confidently lie to them and never back down.

Donald Trump is the child of this dynamic; as a brand he represents little beyond the presentation of white wealth. That he represents little else is his public relations strength. His unapologetic nativism symbolically represents, for the victim-identity obsessed white population of this country, the most appealing redemption narrative-the one where they have to admit no wrong doing and can shift blame entirely onto the powerless.

I’m not sure a better object representing collective narcissism could be conceived than a giant wall built around a country that has no actual invaders.

Insofar as Trump would, in an earlier culture paradigm that the majority of commentators are still using to analyze the present, a parody of a traditional candidate, a cultural actor even more ludicrous than Reagan the cowboy actor was, he makes perfect sense in the context of the present. The political process has been dangled in front of the public as a lighthearted extension of the popular culture for so long, a toy that wasn’t supposed to played with, that Trump’s treatment of it as a toy that he can play with strikes a chord with those who admire him ironically. The importance of the sale and presentation of the item sold, be it a toilet cleaner or a presidential candidate, has come to far outweigh the traditional “use value” of the object itself.

As Slavoj Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, the experience of the consumer and the resolution of the neurotic condition created by the obvious irrationality of capitalism that cannot be acknowledged mixed with the desire to live an ethical life is now a dialectic tension that expands the surplus value of certain products. While Zizek mostly focuses on it in the context of “ethical consumerism” associated with the middle to upper class US left, the same cultural logic is pushing the response on both sides. Neurosis is defined by the urgency of its need to be resolved or sated. Trump and the modified fascism he represents offers the hope that this neurotic condition of the wounded narcissistic identity of his numerous followers can be repaired in projecting their empty selves into the exuberant narcissism of a man who does in fact understand their deepest problems from the inside.

God help us all.

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5 comments

  1. I liked this but I do have reservations over your use of Nietzsche’s will to power. I don’t think its as straight forward as it being a tactic by an unthinking bully or narcissist, rather, I believe, with help from others, that its a combined theory of, on the one hand, a metaphysical-ontological description of being (wilfulness is being’s character) and, secondly, as a tactic to escaped the suffocating social structures of Nietzsche’s time. A certain brusqueness was required. I could be very wrong, of course!

  2. Reblogged this on Writers Without Money and commented:

    Donald Trump has long been a toxic presence in the United States. Dismayingly, he is now the Republican front runner for President. Dan Levine explains some of the reasons why.

  3. Interesting analysis. Karl Marx claimed religion is the opiate of the masses. I claim television is the new opiate. As someone who has no television, I feel disengaged to some extent from the hullabaloo surrounding this election. I see Trump’s popularity as driven largely by media focus, because the media loves a good show.

    I belong to a senior citizens’ political discussion group, and the election coverage is big news to these geezers. Most are Yankee urban escapees from places like New York and Pittsburgh. And, pardon my reverse provincialism, but I find these people incredibly naïve about how life really works. They have their favorite TV networks, such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, but they are so TV focused that they ignore or discount political concerns locally that affect them directly.

    Your write-up reinforces my longstanding belief that we have lost the art of conversation, if we ever had it. It seems the common denominator in narcissists is they don’t understand give-and-take, the willingness to listen with an ear to understanding the others’ point of view, and to respond thoughtfully to what is said, such that all participants learn and grow.. Television has merely institutionalized this one-way communication strategy, in which the audience is a passive mass of human protoplasm in need of social engineering by the TV producers.

    Traditional schools, in which the teacher does most of the talking, are also guilty of this. This trains “receptive” language more than “expressive” language, so learning feedback loops are blocked. That’s one reason I like the freedom of individual expression the internet allows, and why I prefer reading and writing blogs.

    The commercial media’s hate and fear mongering appeals to people’s baser instincts, to manipulate people by their insecurities, in order to sell advertising. As long as it chooses to insult people’s integrity and intelligence with that kind of programming, it has no place in my life.

    1. Thanks for reading and the long thoughtful comment!

      The point about the opiate having shifted from religion to television is pretty astute and very much in the spirit Marx made the original comment in. I’ve written a fair amount on TV on this blog so far and that sums up my stance pretty nicely-it’s the space of fantasy used to pivot against but also inform the reality of the watcher. Stan and I talk about the psychological mechanism of “a place elsewhere” a lot on this blog, and for the moment the internet is basically a TV that can tailor this imagined place elsewhere to custom parameters.

      As for narcissism, my background in psychology is that of a non-professional and my readings have focused heavily on psychoanalysis and its followers. The two main books I’m inferring in the early part of the article where I point to fascism as perceived repair to the ego are Reich “Mass Psychology of Fascism” and Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom.” Both very good books. Narcissism has numerous definitions and a history worth looking over. I’m not using it in the popular vernacular sense of “selfish”, but closer to the clinical sense of “cannot perceive self directly and perceives themselve through their interaction with other people.”

      For more on the space of daydreams and the place elsewhere, I have two other articles, lemme find them.

  4. […] as with toxic narcissism in all its forms, the playground taunt “I know you are but what am I?” isn’t just the mature […]

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