Liar, manipulator, con-man. Racist, misogynist. Angry, reckless, corrupt. Immoral, amoral, demoralizing. Anyone come to mind? It’s an appalling picture and it’s broadcast whenever Trump is in the news. As accurate as this portrayal is, it misses the point because it fails to identify the underlying problem: Trump is insane.
As has been endlessly said, Trump is a narcissist. This leaves out a lot. All human traits are embedded in a personality type as well as its level of disturbance. The Odd Couple’s Felix Unger and Saddam Hussein were both famously obsessive-compulsive. But here we have another odd couple because Felix was an endearing neurotic and Saddam was … not. Trump is a narcissist, but, as with the circus people who objected to his hostile debate performance being called a “circus,” narcissists might take offense. Trump is no regular narcissist, his type is the most disturbed, “malignant.”
First identified by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, the malignant narcissist is a mega-aggressive megalomaniac: grandiose, sadistic, destructive, abusive, often violent. The so-called presidential debate could have been more accurately billed as a new PDA designation, a public display of abuse. Trump’s hostility was preternatural, his brutality palpable. Viewers were traumatized as though they had found themselves in a theater unexpectedly watching a slasher film and wanting to flee. The malignant narcissist is the picture of evil. Think demagogue, despot, cult leader. Trump has been called all three.
Another facet of the malignant narcissist’s inhumanity is captured in a Trump trope, “He actually doesn’t care about anyone but himself” (Olivia Troye). If we all had a dollar for every time we’ve heard, “It’s all about him,” we could book a few nights at a Trump hotel. This altruistic vacuum has been ascribed to an absence of empathy. The situation is far more pervasive and primitive: Trump needs to be the only one. He doesn’t just lack feelings for others, he needs to annihilate them. “He thinks it’s all about him … The classic narcissism is to annihilate everybody around you…” (Anthony Scaramucci). So when we wonder how Trump can pack supporters into his rallies, endangering their health, “he doesn’t care” doesn’t cut it. It’s more like, “no one else exists”. This is why he told Bob Woodward, “…everything is mine.” More accurately, it’s “Everything is me.”
So what are these supplicating advisors, these hands-waving, cheering voices to him? We living, breathing protoplasm inhabiting his world are not people, we are simply an extension of him and his bottomless needs. Others are emotional protheses supplementing someone with no self. Others must refrain from being “other” and blend seamlessly with his needs. Don’t move out of line, show up, it’s an affront and you’ll pay. When threatened with someone else’s existence, this narcissist is the master of what narcissists do, he tries to take people down, just trash them. The opposite also unexpectedly occurs, narcissists take themselves down. This is a masterful destroyer, all the way around. Everything Trump Touches Dies, Rick Wilson titled his book. It’s like a curse on Trump’s life.
Given this, Trump’s opponent is not just Biden, it’s reality. “Truth” is what suits his needs. Trump about Covid: “Like a miracle — it will just disappear” … “It’s deadly” … and, lately, get it and move on. What is this whiplash? In his omnipotence, he can make of the world what he wants because he is the world. But it’s an unwinnable crusade. Daily life is a series of impending tantrums ready to be thrown if reality steps out of line. And, of course, it always does because “facts are stubborn things” (John Adams).
Journalists have endured years of spectacles, bizarre turns, shocks, like being in an Indiana Jones movie, hanging on and hanging in — and gradually calling Trump out. It took forever for them to call him a liar but they’ve come a long way. Now he’s that lying, cheating, incompetent, racist, homicidal, tax-evading fascist. Still, understanding all of this within the context of his mental status has remained peripheral. David Brooks inched there when he commented, “This is a condition.” George Will referred to Trump as “an accident of nature.” Ironically, Hannity was to the point, saying, “he’s crazy.” Recent references to the 25th Amendment wafted through the airways, bringing to mind the mad King George. Then came the inevitable pull-back: Pelosi referred to steroid-induced emotional instability. Trump has no need of drug-enhancement: His is emotional instability “on steroids” drug-free.
Despite the trepidation, some figures, particularly those who have come to know him in more depth, have made mental status an issue. Tony Schwartz, who helped Trump write The Art of the Deal, has said he could not tell to what degree Trump believed his own lies. Woodward commented that he couldn’t tell how well Trump could discern reality. In other words, Trump comes across as on and off delusional. He can do, say, think what he wants because he is the maker of reality. The crazy talk is relentless. Is he desperate? Conning? Or, maybe it’s like the “Far Side” psychiatrist listening to his patient writing on his pad, “Just plain nuts.”
Trump cannot overcome the truth. The artful dodger has had an amazing run. Despite bankruptcies, tax audits, all manner of incivility and alleged criminal activity, and apparently eating a lot of McDonald’s fish sandwiches — not to mention this year’s three horsemen of the apocalypse, pestilence, famine, and fire — he is still out there, unencumbered by facts or handcuffs, barreling around and over the truth. But, as Launcelot warns in The Merchant of Venice, “the truth will out.” The truth is showing up: Trump is face-to-face with his downfall. The show is over. The masks are coming off, indeed. For our sake, that of our country, and that of history, it’s time to tell it like it is. Trump is mad.
Elizabeth Emily Berlese, Ph.D, is a psychologist-psychoanalyst who practices in Santa Barbara.