A Man of False Promise

I read that Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Republican Congressmen.  No doubt he will promise or appear to promise many things to them, and suggest that they will be great partners if they trust him.  His rhetoric is filled with phrases like “believe me” and “trust me.”  But those who do trust Trump are bound for disappointment and sorrow.  And it is a sorrowful day that even these most obstinate, oppositional congressional “leaders” feel that have to give it a try.  If not, the demonic Democrats lurk on the horizon.

Trump’s promises are familiar to most of us.  They sound like the husband who says he’ll really try to get home on time, take more time with the kids, say what’s on his mind—from now on.  But he never does.  It sounds like the alcoholic and the drug addict who understand deeply, not only that his health is at risk, but that he has been letting down others; and they couldn’t, in good conscience, do that again.  But they do.  They do it again and again.  It sounds like the abuse victim—not the abuser—who says that she’s finally learned her lesson.  She knows that all of his sobbing regrets and meaningful promises aren’t worth the air he breaths.  No sir, she won’t go back to her man.  But she does.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the victim or the victimizer.  Neither can or wants to believe that the other doesn’t want to reform, that there isn’t a kinder, gentler, more generous side to the offending party.  Maybe it’s almost impossible to believe such a thing.  Maybe it goes against so much of what we believe.  Some degree of trust, however small, appears to be our default setting.  How could we go on in our lives if we became that cynical.

The willingness to believe Trump is not a trivial matter.  If people were more skeptical, he might not get away with his swaggering lies.  Unless, of course, he was always dealing with new people.  There is a powerful marriage that is formed between the liar, the cheater, and the cheated–if they continue together.  They need one another.  Trump’s jilted partners have continued to believe that they can make a good deal, that a relationship with him will pay off in the end.  Some need the broken deals so that they can be better than he is.  Some, like Marco Rubio and Chris Christi may have a masochistic streak. Who knows.

There is one way, however, that Donald Trump is different than all of these intertwined pairs—husbands and wives, parents and children, addicts and enablers, abusers and abused.  They usually do feel guilty and have regrets.  Trump does not.  I find it almost impossible to believe that he wakes up in the morning promising to himself or to anyone else that he will stop lying, that he needs people to trust him and understands that he has to earn their trust.  I don’t believe that Donald Trump believes that he has to earn anything.  He has been given things, like his inheritance.  He takes things, like money from vulnerable people in search of an education; or from almost anyone who thinks they can make an honest deal with him.

The picture of Trump tramping into Congress could be funny if it weren’t pathetic.  We know he’s going to make a deal or two.  We know he will go back on the deals the first moment that it is convenient, or the moment someone pierces his very thin skin and offends him.  We know how indignant the Congressmen will be.  We know that their indignation will threaten and enrage Donald Trump.  Then revenge becomes the only possible path for him.  I think that all of those Congressmen know this.  If not, they are even less conscious and observant than I thought.  And that’s not much.

Like the abused women and children, the Congressmen think they are dealing with at least a rational person.  They think that he understands that it is in his interest to deal fairly with them.  Their ego can accept nothing less.  He thinks it’s in his interest to appear to deal fairly with them.  They can’t quite bring themselves to believe that they can’t strike a deal of mutual interest.  He can’t govern without Congress, can he?  Never mind that Mussolini and Putin managed this very readily.  He couldn’t really have so little respect for promises, could he?  Of course he could.

This fundamental willingness to lie, this fundamental lack of concern for and about others—this, and we need to believe it—is the true Trump.  He is a narcissist, concerned almost exclusively about his own enhancement.  And he cannot even feel, really feel, anyone else’s pain enough to change.  What’s more, he is constantly afraid that people will get the upper hand on him.  When these fears emerge, he is convinced that he’s not making them up, that others really are plotting to hurt him, to take him down.  At such moments, Trump sees conspiracies everywhere.  The idea of African plots that install presidents in the White House is only the best of a frequent Trump narrative.

In a couple of essays to follow, I’m going to discuss what narcissism is.  The term has been bandied about a great deal in relation to Trump but I want people to understand it with a little more clarity and depth, particularly when expressed as a narcissistic personality disorder.  And I will also write about how integral lying and paranoia is to that kind of disorder.

For now, this is what we need to know: Trump is a narcissist, a liar, and a conspiracy monger.  He cannot and does not really want to be anything else.  He is not to be trusted.  His word is not his bond.  Anyone who acts on the opposite assumption will suffer the consequences.

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Trump and the injured souls of men

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.