There is one thing we are not discussing about Donald Trump. Please, I don’t want to alienate any reader here who finds it in their heart to admire him. My worry is that a close look at his behavior from the angle I’m about to attempt will irk you because you identify so closely with him. But stay with me, and try to practice an objective reading, because I’m not going to rant and condemn, neither you nor him. My hope is that you’ll just listen as you would to someone you care about, either within or outside your family, who had a different experience than you did.
Over time and with more frequency, persons connected to the professional world of psychiatry have publicly wondered aloud if our president is unhinged. Specifically, what always comes up is narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve written about narcissism before, how it’s not only widespread but inevitable in a narcissistic culture. Not the point this time, but for quick review, here are the hallmarks as put forth by the Mayo Clinic:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
According to the profession, you need only line up with five of these traits to get the diagnosis. Those who follow Trump in horror may find the list all too familiar. But what if you were a child and your father acted this way, it was cast by your family as normal/okay, and passed on under the guise of “being confident” and having an “urge to succeed?”
If you grew up in a family where dear old dad was a narcissist, the Donald can affect your sleep with nightmares and your waking hours with pessimism in a way that’s hard to shake. Yes, Trump World gets pretty personal for me. I long to swear off MSNBC where they track every move of his but feel, for self-defense, that I need to stay informed.
I tried to block out my dad too when I was a juvenile living in his house, and it got me put in a mental hospital when he was fed up with the young woman I was becoming. True, I was mouthy and critical and anti-authoritarian…just like him, always up against the administration of one university or another! But when the tables were turned, by his daughter no less, his rage knew no limit.
My father once wrote about our relationship in a letter, “I will not stoop to negotiation.” I was in college at the time, and the big bestseller written by two Harvard dudes was called Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. My adviser was also the university ombudsman, a professional negotiator who could listen better than anybody I’ve ever met, who went on to establish a Peace and Conflict Studies minor in the Humanities program. To top it off, I was involved in groups where the use of consensus process was passionately pursued.
It seemed like my father, an educated, published, successful man who could have been the peer of any of these negotiators, was living in a parallel universe. He would not lower himself to listen, to find common ground, to put the shared goal ahead of his own ego and agenda. He had to have the WIN.
I often wonder if Trump’s children, as we keep calling these grown men and women, have found a way to “negotiate” somehow with their father: does it take kid gloves or dancing around or is there a free zone where they get to demur directly and pointedly? The latter is unlikely, for we are ever treated to reports of how the president didn’t listen to Ivanka again.
Narcissists don’t see where they end and other people begin; their children are extensions of the great Themselves they are obsessed with. I know there are many like me who had fathers like this, many who suffered a lot worse and still do. The prevalence of narcissistic parents is hard to pin down statistically, but the advice books and the hours in therapy attest it’s epidemic.
So…why is it there seems such a large slice of the population that quietly supports impeachment, yet we are taking such baby steps to get there? It’s as if we are deer in the headlights, stunned by the outrage and outrageousness of Donald Trump, thrown back to our child selves who don’t see any way out.
I don’t want to strain the analogy, but his base, in conjunction with white supremacists and other foul folk, plus a Republican Party angling for their own advantage, must loom like structures beyond the home that our child-selves see as tacit approval, keeping Dad in place to do his angry deeds. It can make your head spin as the world chugs along like all this is normal. When we had Michelle Obama to remind us that when they go low, we go high, at least there was a principled figure to light a different path. I marvel that I’m even saying this, but the absence of a strong First Lady in the White House is really bugging me! Many mothers go along with Donald Dads, fearing that if they cross him, they’ll be the next target.
I know how hard it is to speak out about a parent who invades your tender sense of self with criticism and contempt, dismantling your pride while bolstering their own grandiose image. My siblings and mother have spoken privately to confirm my reality but they will never approve these words in the blogosphere. They will focus bitterly on finding the thing they feel casts them in a bad light, they will claim mistruths, or simply ignore me, knowing the tactic of indifference is more hurtful than engaging, all the while their silence screaming this: the man is long dead, why can’t you get over your stuff?
Likewise, when Hilary Clinton tried to say how it felt to have Trump, two days into exposure as a pussy-grabber, literally stalking and breathing down her neck at the candidates’ debate, I felt a waft of fresh air via truth of a more emotional power. But the moment was quickly dashed by a hideous review entitled, “Poor Hillary, Intimidated in the Debates by Big, Bad Donald Trump,” (Fox News) slamming the honest expression of Hilary Clinton’s feelings while lauding the father figure. Who, by the way, will not stoop to negotiation: “build the wall or I’ll shut down the government.”
I wish I had a prescription for how we rise above. Awareness is a powerful tool though, and if we can admit we are under the spell of our national narcissistic dad, who so easily shames and paralyzes us, we can then compare that to the reality. He’s not our dad, he’s the president. He has the nuclear codes. I don’t want to die this way: Earth obliterated in a radioactive plume because Trump got mad. Right now, no one seems to know how to stop him. But together, if we pursue the power of a child’s emotions examined fearlessly and transformed with care into adult resolve, we can find a way.