Most who join the Trump bandwagon say they have been wronged. They feel left behind and bullied by big government. Their freedom is in jeopardy. They don’t have jobs, having lost out to “foreign” workers who are empowered by big capitalists who move business off shore. Or they have jobs that barely pay a living wage—nothing like their parents’ generation and, therefore, their own expectations. Or they fear that job loss is just around the corner. In short, they have lost the dignity of good work, lost the secure ability to support their family, and they feel vulnerable all the time.
That’s the external side of things. The psychology of their condition is equally troubling—and infuriating. With the economic and social vulnerability comes insecurity and a loss of identity. They don’t know who they are anymore. They don’t fit their own definition of manhood—and the majority of Trump supporters are men. For those who went to war, long the definition of manhood and courage, the return, without their team, the soldiers who ‘had their back,’ can be disorienting and infuriating. Who did they fight this war for, anyhow. Much as the British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, says that mothers hold their children, giving them a sense of belonging and connection, so the army teams metaphorically held each other. And, as Putnam so poignantly wrote, the structure of American society no longer provides that sense of belonging. The men, veterans and just guys “bowl alone.” As we say about children who lack true family support, these men are “at risk.”
These are Trump’s people and their vulnerability expresses itself most often in anger, which momentarily hides their vulnerability. When you are angry—for that moment in time—you often feel strong. You get pumped up and you find external targets for your rage. In today’s America, the targets have been easy to find: immigrants and Muslims, bankers and effete northeastern intellectuals or “media types.” When there is someone who models and stokes anger as well as Trump does, it is contagious. When you see someone who seems to bully the enemy, then he becomes a hero. He is the leader they believe they need. As I wrote in my essay on eighth grade bullies, these men and their passions are ripe for mobilizing.
Rather than elaborate again on the theme of mobilization, though, I’d like to take a moment to better understand their internal struggles. Many, many of the Trump people suffer from what psychologists call “narcissistic injury.” So what is narcissistic injury.
Let’s begin with narcissism, itself. Here are some definitions. 1. “Excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.” 2. “Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.” 3. “Self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects.” Sound familiar? I think it captures Trump the way Matisse captures dancers with a few brush strokes.
Now let’s take this a step further. Here is a description of a “narcissistic personality disorder”: “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” What then? He lashes out, as Trump has done with countless ‘enemies,’ the latest being Judge Gonzalvo Curiel, who presumes to sit on the Trump University fraud case.
Narcissistic rage is a reaction to narcissistic injury, which is a perceived threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth. (Google def). Where does the disorder or injury come from? Some powerful, usually repeated childhood experiences in which the child’s need for love and nurture is unfulfilled, and the existential insecurity that follows that unfulfilled child through life. For much of the time, people can control the fear, but certain kinds of events set it off. Rokelle Lerner, author of The Object of My Affection is In My Reflection, identifies three triggers. 1) The threat of losing the primary source of narcissistic supply, be that a job or a relationship. 2) A failure of old strategies to work, for example, someone challenging their power or trying to take control away from them. 3) An unexpected situation in which their “robust sense of self dissolves and they become desperate.”
The narcissist is in constant search for affirmation and admiration to calm his fears. When activated, his “frantic need” for “narcissistic supply,” the “constant ego-stroking that sustains…the underdeveloped sense of self and confirms his grandiosity, entitlement, and superiority.” The confirmation is like a drug that is essential to his well being. When you interrupt the supply by neglecting him, paying too much attention to others, criticizing or blaming him or not giving him special treatment, you threaten his sense of superiority and call his entitlement into question. That triggers the a narcissistic injury.
I trust that I don’t have to draw each of the parallels to the Republican presidential candidate. But, as I suggested earlier, his narcissistic needs require a response from others. Just as a tree, when it falls in the forest, needs someone to listen in order to know that is has fallen, Trump needs his followers in order to believe he has a self.
What often follows narcissistic injury is rage and blame and, sometimes, violence. We all recognize this response. We see it in husbands and wives, children and friends, and bosses when they have been hurt. Narcissistic injury flows readily among us. But the degree and the expression of the injury varies immensely. When you need the rage to relieve yourself, and you need it often, you know that the situation is dangerous. Like admiration when it comes, rage and blame are like drugs for the narcissists. This is why Trump can’t get enough of his own ranting, and his followers need it almost equally. They both need the supply.