There’s a lot of talk about Trump and narcissism, but it’s only a form of name-calling, and it doesn’t explain anything. Trump is a despicable, disgusting person because of what he chooses to say and do, not because of something he “has,” like a cold. Also, most people making the narcissism case don’t seem to know exactly what narcissism is.
Here’s what the science shows. Narcissism can be sub-divided into two distinct, independent types: vulnerable and grandiose. The former is harder to spot. It’s stealth, closeted narcissism. The person acts weak and fragile but secretly thinks he’s better than you. He deflects praise but deep down believes he richly deserves it. This isn’t Trump, obviously. Trump’s in the grandiose category. There’s nothing stealthy about his self-regard.
These types, while distinct, share four features. I like to think of them as the four E’s: entitlement, exploitiveness, exhibitionism, and low empathy. These four elements make up narcissism’s core. Trump thinks he can grab women’s pussies anytime he feels like it. Check, entitlement. He also thinks, despite the fact that he has no experience, no qualifications, and vanishingly little knowledge, that he deserves to be President. More entitlement. Trump hires workers then refuses to pay them. He buys pageants so he can ogle semi-nude women. Check, exploitiveness. Trump’s most at home in front of large, adoring crowds. He can’t corral his baser instincts, can’t stay on script, because the size of the crowd means more to him than the prospect of winning. Check, exhibitionism. Trump can’t apologize for his hurtful speech because he doesn’t understand the feelings of others. They don’t exist. Only his needs do. Check, low empathy.
Recently Newt Gingrich said there were two Trumps, Big Trump and Little Trump. He called the latter “frankly pathetic.” Newt is wrong (as usual). There’s no Big Trump. There’s only Little Trump. Big Trump is a carapace. Big Trump is fraudulent, defensive, a smokescreen. Big Trump is only Little Trump’s armor. Trump is Little. That’s the best and only way to think of him. There’s nothing Big about him. The real mystery of Trump’s personality is the question of what made him so Little—so fragile, so pathologically reactive, so sensitive to criticism. The first debate, a debacle for Trump, came down to one moment. For fifteen minutes or so Trump seemed fine—measured, focused, clear. Then very deliberately, and very strategically, Clinton poked Little Trump. She said his father gave him millions of dollars, without which he’d be nothing. At this Trump collapsed. The rest of the night he flailed, rambled, lied, interrupted, winced, and sniffed. Game over. Fake Big Trump crashed and burned. Injured Little Trump couldn’t make him work right.
Trump’s a narcissist. But that’s like saying he’s a carpenter. It doesn’t shed light. It’s a word for what he says and does. The better question is why he says and does what he says and does. What made him so Little? I don’t want to know enough about Trump to try answering this question. My guess is the same as Clinton’s: it boils down to daddy. Little Trump knows this all too well. Big Trump doesn’t and can’t. Big Trump knows nothing. That’s his job. He exists to know nothing.
Possibly, Trump could win by being more Little—in other words, more real, honest, sincere, human, flawed. But that’s what he’ll never be. He’s incapable. He’s not going to change. He spent his life pretending to be Big.