Trump’s destruction: A neuroscientist explains what happens when a narcissist begins to lose power
The list of people close to President Donald Trump who have recently turned on him just keeps growing. His personal lawyer and longtime companion, Michael Cohen, has already implicated him as a co-conspirator in felony crimes. Last week, two Trump loyalists were granted immunity—National Enquirer publisher David Pecker and Trump organization CFO Allen Weisselberg—in exchange for potentially damaging information on Trump. If that weren’t enough, a doorman at the Trump World Tower whose hush contract expired is claiming that Trump had an additional affair which resulted in an illegitimate child. Needless to say, things don’t look good for The Donald. As the possibility of impeachment looms over the president, and as more damaging information comes out, we should be prepared for the erratic and impulsive behavior to which we’ve grown accustomed to get worse.
Given that he holds the most powerful office in the world, knowing what to expect from him is of considerable importance. If we can predict how Trump might react, we can better prepare for damage control and countering any destructive behavior or attempts to create further division and chaos. To do this requires looking to the field of psychology.
While the exaggerator-in-chief is well known for his habitual lying, the most common psychological diagnosis he’s been given by experts in the field is narcissistic personality disorder. While any diagnosis should require a full mental examination before accepted as clinical truth, the mountains of behavioral evidence for Trump’s narcissism arguably provides more justification for the label than any standard clinical test. At this point, the claim can hardly be debated, and even staunch supporters would admit that Trump thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. It takes a special kind of narcissist to shamelessly compare their book to The Bible in front an audience full of conservatives. His narcissism knows few limits, and it’s hard to imagine even the man himself denying such an obvious fact.
So, the question becomes, what happens when a narcissist is being threatened with the loss of power and control? The answer is something psychologists call “narcissistic injury.” The phrase was coined by none other than Sigmund Freud in the 1920s, and it occurs when a narcissist feels that they have been disrespected, belittled, or their true self revealed. This often happens when they are experiencing a “fall from grace,” which is why understanding the phenomenon is so important at present.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines narcissistic injury as “vulnerability in self-esteem which makes narcissistic people very sensitive to injury from criticism or defeat.” The manual goes on to say “Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty.”
A common initial reaction to injury is for the narcissist to lash out and place the blame on others. Perhaps this explains Trump’s latest barrage of attacks toward his own attorney general, who of course is a fellow Republican with a similar political ideology and agenda. Even though Jeff Sessions did the reasonable and standard thing when he recused himself from the Russia investigation, as it would have been a massive conflict of interest had he not, Trump still sees his whole predicament in regard to the FBI probe as Sessions’ fault. But unfortunately, petty attacks toward old allies aren’t all we have to worry about.
When a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth is badly injured, their whole identity begins to fall apart, and they often respond with what is referred to as “narcissistic rage.” When this happens, the lashing out, bullying, threats, and erratic behaviors rise to new levels. Rather than accepting the blame one deserves for their own actions, narcissists tell themselves that others are responsible, and that they deserve to be punished. They often become obsessed with revenge, which comes in many forms, such as verbal or even physical abuse. Modern technology like social media provides the narcissist with the perfect medium for attacking perceived enemies, and Donald Trump has certainly taken advantage of it. But his threats have gone beyond personal enemies. When the possibility of impeachment became a reality for the president, his instinct was to tell the world on national television that if such a thing were to happen, it would cause the economy to crash. “I think everybody would be poor,” he told Fox News last Wednesday, trying to strike fear into the hearts of all Americans.
Narcissistic rage can also manifest itself as intense anger, outbursts, and extreme aggressiveness. As Donald Trump begins to feel more and more like his downfall is imminent, we should expect his behavior to become progressively chaotic, and a total meltdown is likely. When this happens, in a desperate attempt to regain control, he will likely call on his remaining loyal supporters to wreak havoc on the nation in his name. Let’s just hope by the time that happens the number of loyalists will have dwindled to numbers so small that the damage would essentially be negligible. If Trump continues to attack and humiliate his fellow Republicans, and if more of his trusted allies decide to turn against him, we may see just that.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.