Politics, Social Science, US Election

Is Donald Trump a Narcissist and Is He Fit for Office?

Donald Trump and his alleged narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have been all over the political media. Recently a Democratic Congressman started a petition calling for Mr. Trump to be psychologically diagnosed because of the risk that he has NPD and that this makes him unfit for office.

As someone who has spent a good deal of time researching narcissism, I am asked about Mr. Trump constantly by journalists, friends and even strangers who find out what I do. As much as I appreciate the work professional journalists do, I wanted to address three important questions about Mr. Trump and narcissism without an editorial filter.

  1. Is Mr. Trump narcissistic?
  2. Does Mr. Trump suffer from NPD?
  3. Would narcissism and NPD — if present — disqualify Mr. Trump from being a U.S. President?

Is Mr. Trump narcissistic?

Mr. Trump’s persona, or public image, has clear elements of grandiose narcissism. That is, he appears grandiose and in possession of a strong ego; he is willing to act aggressively to others and can appear emotionally callous rather than warm; and he is self-enhancing or self-promoting. This self-promotion includes bragging, name dropping, and displaying symbols of wealth and status (e.g., flying in a 757 with “Trump” on the side).

In terms of basic personality traits, narcissistic individuals are extraverted (social, energetic, approach oriented) and low in agreeableness (callous, grandiose, and entitled). (Note: I am referring to grandiose narcissism, which is distinct from the more insecure, fragile and introverted form of vulnerable narcissism). Mr. Trump fits this trait pattern when in the public eye. He is certainly “high energy” and focused on winning. And he is grandiose enough to think he can fix America’s problems while callous and reactive enough to pick fights with anyone he sees as a threat.

Mr. Trump’s social media has many examples of narcissistic traits (and, of course, self-promoting social media use in general is linked to grandiose narcissism. For examples of self-promotion:

 

And hostility in the face of threat:

 

He has even sent out tweets that are such clear examples of “communal narcissism”, or self-promotion about kindness and compassion, that I forwarded them to experts in this area. Here is my favorite:

 

And here is a quote from 60 minutes: “I’m much more humble than you would understand.”

Although Mr. Trump has also sent more direct messages of concern which are non-narcissistic:

 

Mr. Trump’s lifestyle brand is also aspirational with high levels of self-promotion. Trump tower, Trump Hotel — even Trump Ice Cream parlor. This personalized branding strategy isn’t unusual. We have founder named brands like Ford, Walmart, Hilton, Marriott (and the Clinton Foundation) but there are also rich self-promoters who don’t use their name as their core brand like Richard Branson or Mark Cuban.

Consistent with this self-branding, like many politicians, celebrities and CEOs Mr. Trump has published books about himself and his successes. It looks like fifteen in all, starting with the bestseller, The Art of the Deal (and the awesomely titled Think Big and Kick Ass). The ghostwriter of the former came out and confessed that there was some self-promoting fiction involved which is consistent with narcissism and the genre.

Mr. Trump is also a reality TV star, which is a high narcissism profession. In the show he played the role of the high status executive who challenges then fires people. His catch phrase, “you’re fired!” is both dominant and callous.

Mr. Trump’s relational lifestyle also seems somewhat narcissistic with a series of beautiful wives and rumors of marital affairs. I actually did my dissertation, published as Narcissism and Romantic Attraction, on narcissism and the use of attractive partners to gain social status and esteem. The big exception to this is Mr. Trump’s relationships with his children. These seem very strong and warm, which is not what you would expect from a narcissistic father.

What about Mr. Trump’s own reflections on his own narcissism? Mr. Trump has not shied away from touting his own ego and the benefits thereof. Including his now well-know quote that he has written and tweeted:

 

This information is important because people who are narcissistic are typically aware of it – they will report being narcissistic and generally think that is a smart way to go through life.

And, finally, Mr. Trump is running for president. And U.S. presidents as a group have estimated narcissism scores higher than even reality television stars. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) is the most popular measure of narcissism. Scores on the NPI can range from 0 to 40 with the average American around a 15. With that in mind, U.S. Presidents are estimated to score a 22 on average and reality TV stars a 19.5.

Given these observations, I would speculate that Mr. Trump is higher on the narcissism continuum than the average person, and even than the average president. I cannot be certain of this — my information is largely based on Mr. Trump’s public persona — but it seems to fit the available evidence.

Does Mr. Trump suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?

Does his potentially high level of trait narcissism mean that Mr. Trump is suffering from the psychiatric condition of NPD? Narcissistic personality disorder is a combination of extreme and inflexible trait narcissism (mostly grandiose but with some vulnerability) accompanied by significant impairment in love and work. Basically, the question is whether or not Mr. Trump’s narcissism is sufficiently extreme, inflexible and clinically impairing to be diagnosed as a personality disorder.

It is hard to make a convincing case that Mr. Trump is suffering a clinical level of impairment from his narcissism. He has a billion dollars; his kids appear to have positive relationships with him and to be decent people; he has gone through several divorces but seems to be happy with his third wife and new son. Professionally, he just ran as an outsider against a large group of Republican challengers and won the nomination for US president. He has a large business that has had ups and downs but that seems to be doing OK.

To be clear, diagnosing a personality disorder needs to be done by a licensed professional using well-validated assessment tools. I am not claiming that I can diagnose Mr. Trump from a distance. What I am saying is that the burden of proof should be on the people making the claim of NPD. It seems like a stretch to me, but there could be impairment that is hidden from view or is manifested primarily by the suffering experienced by others that is caused by Mr. Trump’s narcissism.

This is not to say that Mr. Trump’s narcissism doesn’t appear to harm him at times. From my perspective he seems overly reactive in response to ego threats. I am not sure if he is taking advice as well as he should from others. But, on balance, his narcissism has probably been a bigger boost to Mr. Trump’s political success than a hindrance. This proposition is based on research showing that high levels of grandiose narcissism are useful for leadership emergence.

But what about Mr. Trump’s “erratic” behavior like late night tweets, or saying things out loud that others only think, like “you can get the baby out of here”? This type of behavior isn’t associated strongly with narcissism (although you could make the case that only someone who thinks he is above social convention would say such things.) It possibly is linked to another trait cluster that is related to narcissism: hypomanic personality, or a persistent low level of mania. Hypomanic personality is associated with high energy levels, social vitality, impulsivity, low need for sleep, and grandiose thought patterns. This is pure speculation on my part, again, as I don’t have any evidence about Mr. Trump that isn’t available publicly. Hypomanic personality, like narcissism, is a bit of a trade-off. It is great for energy, drive, and creativity, but can be challenging because ideas are adopted and then changed or dropped without explanation. And sometimes ideas are expressed without full processing.

The other question I ask myself is: how much of Mr. Trump’s apparent erratic personality has to do with social context? There is something in social psychology called the fundamental attribution error. Basically, when we (at least in the West) see people act we tend to think that their actions reflect something about their character. For example, when someone trips and falls we are more likely to say the person is clumsy than the sidewalk must be cracked. In Mr. Trump’s case, we see inflammatory messages via Twitter and might think he is impulsive or “nuts”.

This attribution is not made for other politicians not because they do not have hostile thoughts — most probably do from time to time — but rather because they have a large team in place to keep them “on message.” This message discipline is maintained by using tightly controlled channels, like teleprompter speeches, television advertising, interns running the social media accounts, and interviews with preset guidelines. This controlled, “on message” style used by most politicians keeps them from looking erratic — boring and safe, but also sane.

Along these same lines, most politicians also use an “attack dog” to say nasty things about their opponents. In the present race, for example, Senator Warren has been playing this role by attacking Mr. Trump on Twitter, for example:

 

This strategy has kept Secretary Clinton from looking hostile. Mr. Trump is waging a different style of campaign where he is giving unfiltered speeches and being his own attack dog. This makes him appear more erratic and mean (although one could argue who but an erratic and mean person would forgo a teleprompter and attack dog) but also unlike a typical politician, adding to his outsider image.

Would narcissism and NPD — if present — disqualify Mr. Trump from being a U.S. President?

So, assuming for the sake of argument that Mr. Trump is high on the narcissism continuum, what does this mean for him as a U.S. President? As noted, US presidents are, on average, rated as being high in narcissism, especially in the modern era when mass media and then social media became crucial for campaigns. Furthermore, the most narcissistic presidents tend to be pretty good at the job despite ethical lapses. And they are seen as highly charismatic leaders.

In terms of past Presidents, we have leaders like Bill Clinton, Nixon, LBJ, FDR, “Gentleman Boss” Chester Arthur and Andrew Jackson — all rated as being high in narcissism and also generally successful, but ethically suspect. Andrew Jackson, a narcissistic early president, had the spine to take on the big banks — maybe one of the only presidents to do that successfully — but also sent Native Americans on the trail of tears. FDR was the other president willing to fight Big Banking and he also sent U.S. citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps. LBJ, one of the most narcissistic US presidents in history, got a tremendous amount of legislation passed. He was also in many ways a cruel and intimidating bully. And after reading about Mr. Trump and President Johnson, it is hard to imagine the former being more narcissistic than the latter.

On the flip side, we have relatively low narcissism modern presidents like Carter and the senior Bush. Both are highly respected men and ex-presidents, but neither, fairly or not, is celebrated as a great president and both only served one term. Carter was portrayed as a kind-hearted micromanager (here is an SNL skit where his caricature talks a teen down from a bad acid trip); and Bush senior, who was portrayed in the political comic Doonesbury as a voice without a body, was widely seen as a “wimp”.

And what about Secretary Clinton or President Obama? Both seem to have somewhat flat personalities but there remain touches of narcissism. One of the first phrases you learn when you study Latin is veni, vidi, vici — “I came, I saw, I conquered.” This was spoken by Julius Caesar to the Roman senate about a battle in what is now Turkey. Beyond his stature as a general, Caesar is known for his efforts to shift the Roman Republic into an Empire.

Secretary Clinton channeled Julius Caesar while bragging about her overthrow and assassination of a North African leader, Muammar Gaddafi, saying “We came, we saw, he died.” Note: she did say “we”, but still bragging about a horrid assassination using Caesar’s famous phrase is not something humble, warm people usually do.

Secretary Clinton is also well known for fighting “bimbo eruptions” — a term used for her husband’s consensual or allegedly nonconsensual relations with other women. Again, this is behavior on Secretary Clinton’s part that was politically astute but morally shaky. You could argue that destroying these women served the greater good of allowing the Clintons to do well by the American people and the world through their political expertise and charity work. Or you could argue that attacking women who report being raped is problematic.

President Obama has similarly bragged about his military prowess. He reportedly said in light of the long term drone wars that he has fought, “I’m really good at killing people.” He also was known as President Selfie taker until that honor was taken over by Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who fully mastered the art of the political selfie. And recently President Obama is said to be resisting selfies with others.

My point here is not to say that everyone in politics is narcissistic, but that narcissism and political aspirations go together. This is partly because modern campaigns are basically celebrity marketing operations and partly because narcissistic individuals like power, status, admiration and control which is something that comes with political power. Just go to Washington DC, stand on a corner near congress, and watch powerful politicians and other high ranking individuals walk around followed by gaggles of young interns.

And, importantly, narcissism works for becoming a leader. This is especially true in times of instability and crisis, when narcissistic leaders’ projected strength and confidence is even appealing. And, as a corollary, narcissistic leaders should promote a chaotic vision of the current political state along with a path to move beyond it.

Conclusion

Mr. Trump displays narcissistic traits and perhaps some hypomania. Narcissism is a mixed bag for US presidents (and leaders generally), but modern presidential narcissism is correlated with presidential greatness. We cannot say Mr. Trump suffers from NPD — I doubt it, but this is a question for clinical diagnosis. And, even with a diagnosis of NPD, Mr. Trump could be a great or terrible president. For example, hypothetical NPD sufferer Mr. Trump could put his entire ego into being a great president, thus aligning the success of the nation with his own ego gratification, but in the process alienate his wife, children and grandchildren. On the other hand, hypothetical NPD sufferer Mr. Trump could use the presidency to line his own pockets and inflate his power at the cost of selling out the nation.

What Mr. Trump’s apparent level of narcissism along with his outsider status suggest is that he will make changes if elected to office. Whether that change would be seen as good or bad depends on the observer’s political orientation and, of course, luck. In research on narcissistic CEOs, for example, you see a willingness to take big public risks. You see a similar overconfidence associated with narcissism generally. Sometimes this risk-taking pays off and sometimes it is a disaster, so you only want to risk having a narcissistic leader if you really want a change.

Therefore, if you think things are good — and you want the current political, military and economic course to continue — then voting for Secretary Clinton is the best and lowest risk option. She was part of the current administration and past behavior is one of the best predictors of future behavior.

If you think the country is in a crisis and that the current political, military and economic environments are flawed or even counterproductive, and, further, if you think that the direction these policies are taking the country is sufficiently wrongheaded that it is worth the risk of changing them, then you should vote for a change agent like Mr. Trump. In this case, his narcissism is likely more of a help than a hindrance to change, but you will see both upsides and downsides.

 

W. Keith Campbell is Professor of Psychology at University of Georgia. He has written several books on narcissism including The Narcissism Epidemic. More information can be found at wkeithcampbell.com

 

Filed under: Politics, Social Science, US Election

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W. Keith Campbell is Professor of Psychology at University of Georgia. He has written several books on narcissism including The Narcissism Epidemic. More information can be found at wkeithcampbell.com

11 Comments

  1. Jake Snake says

    To be clear, diagnosing a personality disorder needs to be done by a licensed professional using well-validated assessment tools. I am not claiming that I can diagnose Mr. Trump from a distance.

    —————-

    I’m not any fan of Trump, but the disclaimer is hilariously dishonest. Of course this is a diagnosis; the disclaimer is a very lumpy figleaf intended to feign compliance with professional association guidelines against doing exactly what the author has just done.

    • Anon says

      There is no “diagnosis”. The author just says that he might be higher than average on the narcissistic spectrum, which all presidents are, and pretty much all celebrities…? Did you not read the article?

      • Jake Snake says

        Yes, I read the pious declaration about not making a diagnosis, inserted in the middle of a diagnosis.

      • DEEBEE says

        Diagnosing at a distance is full of risks, but you seem to be sick

  2. I think he’s precisely claiming that those who do diagnose him are the ones deviating from professional guidelines, especially since Trump has certain forms of success which don’t correlate with NPD.

  3. Does his potentially high level of trait narcissism mean that Mr. Trump is suffering from the psychiatric condition of NPD? Narcissistic personality disorder is a combination of extreme and inflexible trait narcissism (mostly grandiose but with some vulnerability) accompanied by significant impairment in love and work. Basically, the question is whether or not Mr. Trump’s narcissism is sufficiently extreme, inflexible and clinically impairing to be diagnosed as a personality disorder.

    It seems like a stretch to me, but there could be impairment that is hidden from view or is manifested primarily by the suffering experienced by others that is caused by Mr. Trump’s narcissism.

    This highlights a key problem with modern thinking about psychiatric conditions. The truth is that narcissism, even to “clinical” levels, isn’t a disorder. As you made clear here, narcissistic traits are continuously distributed in the population, as you. People considered to have a “disorder” or those who score above some arbitrary cutoff.

    And this whole notion of social “impairment” is silly. Do people who have historically lived at sea-level but have trouble at high-altitude have a “disorder”? Of course not, they’re just outside the environment to which they’re adapted.

    It’s more helpful to think of disorders in Darwinian terms. See my piece:

    Features and Bugs – The Unz Review

    • Anon says

      Diagnoses of “personality disorders” are just a short-hand, a label, to identify someone who is handicapped somehow in terms of relationships or work.

      It’s not an organic mental disorder like schizophrenia, which is a real, bonafide brain disorder.

      But yeah, I agree with you that it would be good if we could diagnose PDs without using inventories and statistical measures…

      • It has never been proven that schizophrenia is an organic condition. it’s merely the presumptive hypothesis of scientific opinion.

        Personality Disorders are not just labels. They are conditions that have distinct symptoms. I believe that DJT has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And I disagree with the author that he cannot be diagnosed as such until he demonstrates impairment in his business function. He inherited a large fortune from his father that has insulated him from the impact that his personality has upon his business judgement. He has a record of making business decisions for ego reasons. (He allegedly bought his Miami club because they refused him membership.) The economic effect of such business decisions is that his business has underperformed benchmark indices since the time of his inheritance. Just because he is rich does not make him successful. If he’d put his inheritance in a S&P500 index tracker, he would be several times richer than he is today. So his personality disorder does impair his performance.

  4. Ell Ess says

    By applying the medically determined narcissistic traits to Donald Trump’s personality there is only one conclusion that can be reached – Trump has all the classic signs of a narcissist. In measuring his behavioral traits with those that define a typical narcissist, Trump is off the charts. It is a frightening reality that he is even running for the most powerful position in the world. It is even more frightening to imagine what would happen if he won.

  5. Cara Murray says

    If Trump doesn’t have NPD, then nobody does. If his sons, who mutilate and kill elephants, lions, and other animals that are on the brink of extinction, are “decent” folk, then I don’t know what a decent person is. Dr. Campbell, you disappoint me.

  6. Pingback: How To Make Trump Less Of A Dick, With Science | Gizmodo Australia

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