What a top FBI profiler taught me about extreme narcissists like Donald Trump
I recently spoke with former FBI agent Joe Navarro about Donald Trump. Navarro was one of the FBI’s top profilers, a founding member of their elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, and author of several books on human behavior, including Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Harmful People.
To be clear, at no time did Navarro diagnose Trump as having a narcissistic or predator personality. He says we should leave formal diagnoses to professionals — but that each of us still needs to be able to identify and protect ourselves from harmful people in our lives. And so he created behavior checklists and published them in his book to let you do just that.
Navarro’s book warns that if a “person has a preponderance of the major features of a narcissistic personality,” then he “is an emotional, psychological, financial, or physical danger to you or others.” As the book The Narcissism Epidemic explained, “A recent psychiatric study found that the biggest consequences of narcissism—especially when other psychiatric symptoms were held constant—was suffering by people close to them.”
It’s even more important for journalists to decide if Trump behaves like a narcissist—as James Fallows explains in his must-read post at The Atlantic, “How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media.” Fallows cites a reader’s note to him “on how journalism should prepare for Trump, especially in thinking about his nonstop string of lies.”
“Nobody seems to realize that normal rules do not apply when you are interviewing a narcissist,” this behavior expert explains to Fallows. “You can’t go about this in the way you were trained, because he is an expert at manipulating the very rules you learned.” He criticizes the New York Times for believing what Trump said when they interviewed him (which is the same point I’ve made). Finally, he warns:
“… anyone who’s dealt with a narcissist knows you never, ever believe what they say—because they will say whatever the person they are talking to wants to hear. DT is a master at phrasing things vaguely enough that multiple listeners will be able to hear exactly what they want. It isn’t word salad; it’s overt deception, which is much more pernicious.”
I’ve been professionally interested in behavior assessment because to achieve and sustain serious climate action, empathy may be the most important quality in a president or political leader.
After all, climate change requires us to take very significant if not drastic measures today in order to avoid catastrophe for billions of others in the future who contributed little or nothing to the problem. Without empathic leaders, the necessary climate action becomes all but impossible.
That is a why the Pope ends his landmark 2015 climate encyclical calling on God to “Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out.”
What I Learned from Navarro’s Work
To leap to the conclusion, people on the far end of the narcissist spectrum lack empathy. And, Navarro told me, “these personality traits are fixed and rigid.” That person doesn’t change. They don’t pivot. Not what you would want in the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.
So, if you come to the conclusion that Trump (or anyone in your life) is on the extreme end of the narcissist spectrum — using the tools Navarro provides — then that person is, as his book explains, “an emotional, psychological, financial, physical danger to you or others.”
Navarro urged me to get his book and go through the checklists and make my own decision. In my scoring, Trump is off the charts. Your scoring may be different.
Interestingly, it was one of the checklists Navarro posted online that motivated me to contact him in the first place. I had been engaged with the question of whether Trump was delusional or a con man (or neither) since late May, when he told Californians suffering their worst drought in a thousand years, “There is no drought.”
As any potential levity about Donald Trump’s participation in the GOP nomination fight was stamped out by the serious and growing concern that he might actually become president — or merely trample our democracy in the process of losing — I kept reading up on the subject. I came across the work of Joe Navarro, who spent a quarter century as an FBI agent and supervisor focusing on counterintelligence and behavioral assessment. Now Navarro writes, consults and speaks on human behavior.
In particular, because few people are professional psychological diagnosticians or FBI profilers—but we all run across people who might be a danger to us or others — Navarro wanted to empower laypeople to be able to decide for themselves if someone they knew had a dangerous personality.
The Cult of Donald Trump?
I came across a 2012 article for Psychology Today Navarro wrote listing “the typical traits of the pathological cult leader… you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible.” Here are just the first 9 of the 50 traits he lists:
1. Has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power or brilliance.
3. Demands blind unquestioned obedience.
4. Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.
5. Has a sense of entitlement — expecting to be treated special at all times.
6. Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives, putting others at financial risk.
7. Is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude.
8. Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.
9. Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.
Navarro writes, “If these traits sound familiar to leaders, groups, sects or organizations known to you then expect those who associate with them to live in despair and to suffer even if they don’t know it, yet.”
And yet they do sound familiar, don’t they?
Navarro had “studied at length the life, teachings and behaviors of” people like Jim Jones (Jonestown, Guyana), David Koresh (Branch Davidians), Charles Manson, and other infamous cult leaders, and concluded: “what stands out about these individuals is that they were or are all pathologically narcissistic.”
Indeed, when I contacted Navarro, he explained that someone could meet most of these criteria and be pathologically narcissistic, but still not necessarily be a cult leader because cult leaders have other traits. For instance, they generally try to isolate people from their families.
In August, GQ interviewed cult expert Rick Alan Ross, “director of the Cult Education Institute and a lifelong Republican,” about Trump. Ross had been watching Trump’s rise with concern and was especially struck by his words at the GOP convention, “I alone can fix it.” Ross said, “That kind of pronouncement is typical of many cult leaders, who say that ‘my way is the only way, I am the only one.’”
Trump shares many key traits with cult leaders, Ross noted, including extreme narcissism, but, “We’re not talking about a compound with a thousand people,” referring to the Reverend Jim Jones. Jones gave cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to more than 900 of his followers in Jonestown—some 300 of them children. “We’re talking about a nation with over 300 million people. So the consequences of Trumpism could affect us in a way Jim Jones never did.”
As I’ve written, if Trump simply follows through on his repeated campaign pledges to kill the Paris climate agreement and all domestic climate action, then he will ruin a livable climate for billions and billions of people for hundreds of years.
That doesn’t make Trump a cult leader, of course, but it does make him very dangerous.
Navarro told me that in the past year, many people have contacted him to comment on Trump’s personality after they came across the behavior checklists he published on narcissistic personality. Understandably, he declined to make a judgment about Trump. He would like to “personally observe” Trump before making any such pronouncement.
Does Trump Behave Like a Narcissist?
As you may have read, the question of whether a psychologist should publicly diagnose someone they haven’t personally observed has a long history. A bunch of psychiatrists responding to a survey offered harsh diagnoses of Barry Goldwater, which ultimately led the American Psychiatric Association to issue a rule that “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
Yet some psychiatrists became so concerned about a Trump presidency last November that they broke the rule and were quoted in a Vanity Fair piece, “Is Donald Trump Actually a Narcissist? Therapists Weigh In!”:
“Textbook narcissistic personality disorder,” echoed clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis. “He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example of his characteristics,” said clinical psychologist George Simon, who conducts lectures and seminars on manipulative behavior. “Otherwise, I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”
Are such diagnoses untenable and/or meaningless? Not necessarily, says psychiatrist Dr. Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in an article in Slate in October, “It’s OK to Speculate About Trump’s Mental Health.”
She argues we used to diagnose people by spending a lot of time talking to them. Now the “gold standard” is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), which bases diagnoses on observations. For instance, these are the nine diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in DSM-V (“Five are needed to be eligible for the diagnosis”):
· A grandiose logic of self-importance
· A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty or idyllic love
· A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
· A desire for unwarranted admiration
· A sense of entitlement
· Interpersonally oppressive behavior
· No form of empathy
· Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
· A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes
One of Satel’s main points is that even an official NPD diagnosis by a professional should not necessarily be disqualifying for a presidential candidate.
Interestingly, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in August that Trump’s behavior “is beyond narcissism.” In mid-October, he listed “a dazzling array” of “reasons for disqualification: habitual mendacity, pathological narcissism, profound ignorance and an astonishing dearth of basic human empathy.” And so despite how much he despises Hillary Clinton, he could not bring himself to vote for Trump.
Coincidentally, Krauthammer, a trained psychiatrist, “contributed to the creation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently referred to as the DSM-5.”
Ultimately, Fallows himself writes, you don’t need a “medical diagnosis” to realize “there are commonsense meanings for terms to describe behavior,” and “in commonsense terms, anyone can see that Trump’s behavior is narcissistic, regardless of underlying cause.”
The “Warning Signs of the Narcissistic Personality” Checklist
The bottom line is that the degree of narcissistic tendencies — and the related lack of empathy — matters when assessing potential leaders.
Two key reasons Navarro developed his extensive checklists for dangerous personalities are 1) DSM-V has too few criteria to discriminate between degrees of narcissism and 2) he wants to empower individuals to be able to identify these dangerous personalities, because we will never get official diagnoses for the overwhelming majority of people in our lives.
Navarro actually has behavior checklists for four key personality types in his book: the Narcissist, the Paranoid, the Unstable Personality, and the Predator. You can see a short version of the “most central” criteria for each type in this 2014 Psychology Today interview.
Navarro, however, directed me to his book for the full checklists. Given my interest in Trump, he pointed me toward the checklists for both the predator and the narcissist. I focused on the latter.
There are 130 “warning signs of the narcissistic personality.” The behavior checklist “will help you determine if someone has the features of the narcissistic personality and where that person falls on a continuum or spectrum (from arrogant and obnoxious to indifferent and callous to abusive and dangerous).”
If you find someone has 15–25 of these features, they’ll “occasionally take an emotional toll on others and may be difficult to live or work with.” Someone who scores 26–65 “has all the features of and behaves as a narcissistic personality. This person needs help and will cause turmoil in the life of anyone close to him or her.” Lastly, Navarro warns:
“If the score is above 65, this person has a preponderance of the major features of a narcissistic personality and is an emotional, psychological, financial, or physical danger to you or others.”
Personally, no matter how many times I go through this checklist and give him the benefit of the doubt, I get a score for Trump of over 90. I suspect a great many people would score over him well over 100.
Of course, I’m not asserting that my assessment of his behavior means anything whatsoever. It doesn’t. Nor am I suggesting anything about his followers.
What I am trying to do is to persuade you to download Navarro’s book and do the assessment yourself. That way you can assess for yourself whether or not his behavior is so pathologically narcissistic, so devoid of empathy , that the only viable response to his election is to actively oppose him and his divisive and destructive agenda. As a side benefit, you’ll end up with an important book you can use to identify and protect yourself from the various harmful people you will come across in your life.
If you’re a journalist, you’ll be able to assess whether you need to alter your strategy for interviewing and reporting on him. Again, the key lesson for dealing with a narcissist is “never, ever believe what they say.”
It has been crystal clear for a while that the election of Donald Trump would be catastrophic for humanity, that it would jeopardize the health and well-being of billions and billions of people in the coming decades and centuries. Now that he has been elected, it appears he may move even faster than we thought to destroy the Paris climate agreement, the world’s last, best hope to preserve a livable climate.
If you have any remaining belief that somehow Trump is not a threat to our very way of life — if you have the tiniest belief that his pattern of behaviors suggests he could grow into the presidency, as some others have in our history—you should do the checklist. As Navarro told me, “the purpose is to warn people that these traits are fixed and rigid” and that those who possess them in the extreme are a danger to everyone they have power or influence over.