The plotline of history has brought all of us face to face with an array of conflicts and challenges both complex in nature and worldwide in scope. From climate change to cyber war to terrorism, this is a time of radical changes as well as radical threats. Yet, each time a major issue arises, a troubling subplot repeatedly takes attention away from the main issues. The inner conflicts of Donald Trump, his family and administration keep taking center stage and adding uncertainty and instability, not just to the country, but to the world as well.
Ever since he was given the role of ‘most powerful man in the world,’ people have questioned if Trump can pivot, become more mature or change in any meaningful way. Having run businesses and played the role of reality TV boss can he grow into the role of a world leader?
It is certainly true that Trump changes his mind on policy issues all the time, often being moved by the last person he spoke to or by a comment made on cable TV. However, when it comes to issues of character the evidence indicates that he will not change. As he says about himself, “I don’t think that I have really changed since the first grade.” In this case, we should take him at his word.
Having been a self-proclaimed disrupter throughout his life, Trump has now opened a Pandora’s Box of personal and political problems that have become a national fiasco and a growing international dilemma. The exaggerated self-importance so characteristic of narcissism now directly feeds his misguided policies of ‘America First.’ Following his leadership can easily lead to an America as isolated and unstable as Trump clearly feels when tweeting at four o’clock in the morning.
The issue is not simply that Donald Trump appears to be a pathological liar, although that disturbing trait continues to be a destabilizing force in his family as well as for the entire administration. The greater problem is that arch narcissists believe that the world is their stage, that they are superior to others and therefore have the right to behave in any manner they wish. Just as lies generate more lies, corrupt attitudes in powerful people lead to the spread of corrupt actions. It is not difficult to imagine Donald Trump imitating Julius Caesar, who said: “It is only hubris if I fail.” Of course, he did fail, but only after establishing a dictatorship, restricting public freedoms and instigating a civil war.
Hubris was the ancient term for what we now call narcissism, “a state of extreme arrogance and haughtiness often involving being out of touch with reality.” Clearly, that is a frequent state for the current president to be in; it can also become a condition that plagues and exhausts an entire nation. What Trump terms “a modern day presidency” appears more like a modern version of hubris on steroids, of narcissism elevated to new heights through the power of mass media. This has become not just a ‘malignant presidency,’ but also a pathological and dangerous one.
Arch narcissists hold the most exaggerated positive views of themselves; but they also have the most adversarial and vicious views of other people. They have the highest levels of cynical hostility and aggression that can impulsively be aimed at anyone whom they perceive as a threat to their self-image.
When placed in positions of authority they will use power primarily in self-enhancing ways. They will impulsively diminish and destroy the reputations and lives of others; but they will also compulsively undermine their own accomplishments. In terms of both psychology and politics, it is important to understand that the fault-line of narcissistic self-importance inevitably leads to self-delusion and to acts bordering on self-destruction.
PSYCHOLOGICAL GROWTH IN THE AMERICAN PSYCHE
One of the original functions of tragic dramas in ancient theaters was to show how hubris in the psyche of powerful rulers and ruling families can produce generations of trauma in a society. Now, we are watching the issues of character, hubris and power play out in real time on twitter and cable news. Whether the lessons come from history, from actors on the stage or from breaking news, people are supposed to learn psychological lessons from the tragedies caused by those plagued with hubris and narcissistic instability.
We may begin with the issue of a narcissistic presidency, but the more serious question is whether or not the American soul can grow and thereby help change the course of history. If we view the current president not simply as the problem, but more as a symptom of a greater illness, then the troubling subplot might serve a purpose in dealing with the great crises facing all of us in the main plot. The question becomes which character are we focusing upon, the personality of the president or the psychology of the country?
We may be at the point where the psychological illness of Donald Trump causes the American psyche to take a turn either for the better or for the worse. The question becomes whether or not the collective American psyche can acknowledge that a great mistake has been made. Not simply a political error, but a mistake in judgment has led us to a crisis of conscience and a turning point in our collective awareness of the damages that can be done to people and to institutions by unchecked hubris and narcissism.
The Greek historian Thucydides might have been speaking to American culture when he stated that: “The secret to happiness is freedom. And the secret to freedom is courage.” Often, deep and redeeming human values such as integrity, compassion, empathy and resiliency only manifest when something or someone threatens their importance and existence.
The threats to freedom always exist in psychological form before they appear as political problems. This is a unique moment of crisis in the political history of America and a critical time in the ongoing drama of the world. Solving some of the issues of the subplot involving false leadership and cynical politics can help shift the pressing issues in the main plotline and allow everyone a chance to grow, both psychologically and culturally.