Narcissistic presidents get us into longer wars — according to science
President Bush flashes a "thumbs-up" after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast, in this May 1, 2003 file photo. Six months after he spoke on an aircraft carrier deck under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," President Bush disavowed any connection with the war message. Later, the White House changed its story and said there was a link.

Although Donald Trump's soon-to-be impeachment attorney Alan Dershowitz sad in 2019 that the then-president would never refuse to step down after losing an election, psychologists and other mental health experts who spoke to Salon prior to the 2020 election repeatedly made the opposite prediction. Because Trump displays a large number of narcissistic traits, they foresaw that he would react to a loss as if it were "psychic death, as psychologist Bandy X. Lee said at the time.

As we all know now, the mental health experts were right.

"Pathological narcissism ... means that one is incapable of considering the interests of the nation over one's self-interest, and will be dangerously violence-prone."

Now, as Americans sort through the wreckage of the extemporaneous coup attempt that resulted from Trump's braggadocio, a new study in the Journal of Conflict Resolution (JCR) by researchers from Ohio State University and Ripon College reveals a different way in which presidential narcissism has directly changed the course of history — and cost lives.

The study found that presidents who displayed more pronounced narcissistic traits keep America in wars for longer than their less narcissistic counterparts. Indeed, as Salon learned when reaching out to experts, these presidents may also bring out the narcissistic traits of their own supporters to get them to support said wars.

Led by Ohio State political science doctoral student John P. Harden, the JCR study reviewed every president from William McKinley (who oversaw America's rise to superpower status in the late 1890s) to George W. Bush by cross-referencing a wide range of known facts about those presidents' personalities with a dataset of narcissistic traits. It found that the the eight presidents who were on the more narcissistic end of the spectrum (Lyndon Johnson foremost among them) spent an average of 613 days at war, while the 11 presidents who were on the lower end of the narcissism spectrum (with McKinley as the least narcissistic) only averaged 136 days at war for their terms.

Speaking to Salon by email, Harden noted that the researchers have been criticized for not including either Barack Obama or Donald Trump in their analysis. "It is also notable to me that most people don't seem to care if [Joe] Biden is in the data," Harden said. Harden explained that "a pro of this approach is that it minimizes bias."

"The study proves for sure that trait-level grandiose narcissism impacts interstate war duration," Harden told Salon. "While I began supporting the claim that narcissism impacts foreign policy in a prior article, this JCR article goes a bit further in demonstrating narcissism can impact something as overwhelming as war duration." Although scholars of international relations tend to downplay the role of individual personalities in determining sweeping global events, Harden argued that his research joins a larger field "suggesting that view may be far too simplistic to account for movement in global politics."

Dr. David Reiss — a psychiatrist and expert in mental fitness evaluations who contributed to the book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President" — told Salon by email that the conclusions make so much sense "they are almost a tautology." He praised the authors for using biographies and other historical research to analyze presidents in lieu of actual psychological evaluations, which made their conclusions seem reasonable.

"It is not surprising that the behaviors of those who fit those qualifications — exhibited a lack of caring for others, lack of modesty, and lack of straightforwardness, etc. in executing their duties as POTUS" [President of the United States] corresponded with increase lengths of wars, Reiss added. Indeed, "since a POTUS' entire legacy is going to be very much tied to any war/conflict in which they involve the country, it could be expected that narcissist traits (whether minor or severe) will be amplified in a situation that is recognized as going to directly impact the person's historical legacy."

"It follows that to the extent to which Trump supporters invest their own narcissism in Trump's persona . . . any type of 'defeat' or setback will be very poorly tolerated," Reiss pointed out.

Dr. Bandy X. Lee — a psychiatrist who also co-authored "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" and was one of the first prominent psychiatrists to draw attention to Trump's narcissistic traits — argued in writing that while narcissism itself is not inherently dangerous among political leaders, "pathological narcissism by definition makes one dangerous and unfit to be in the office of the presidency, not to mention many other, far less consequential positions. It means that one is incapable of considering the interests of the nation over one's self-interest, and will be dangerously violence-prone. This holds even more true for psychopathy, which may be defined as the extreme end of narcissism."

Lee added, "I believe that this points to the great importance of basic mental health considerations with regard to our senior national leaders, most importantly the U.S. president. Indeed, mental capacity is commonly assessed and universally required for senior positions in the military and business leadership. The same should apply to the commander-in-chief."

In addition to being narcissistic themselves, the presidents who commit to longer wars may also get citizens to support those lengthened wars by stimulating their own narcissistic traits.

Dr. Jessica January Behr, a licensed psychologist who practices in New York City, said it would be reasonable to assume that "based on the dataset" that many people who will support these wars "may be motivated at least in part by their own narcissistic traits."

Behr added: "In addition, identification with the presidents or other leaders in power who support and prolong war, may be narcissism-by proxy or a type of Stockholm's syndrome on mass scale."

"My general inclination is that citizens will support a narcissist because of their overweening confidence, their willingness to simplify complex issues into dubiously simple solutions, and their tendency to report that a war is going well even if it is not."

Narcissism by proxy refers to a condition in which a person — or a group of people — think and act in ways that benefit a narcissist's own goals despite not necessarily being narcissists themselves. Often, those affected by narcissism by proxy wind up adapting narcissistic behavior while acting on the narcissist's behalf. Some psychologists believe that narcissism by proxy explained the cult-like devotion that some of President Trump's adherents expressed towards him.

Harden offered a somewhat different take on the intersection between a leader's narcissism and their ability to win support among the masses.

"This is an interesting question," Harden wrote. "My general inclination is that citizens will support a narcissist because of their overweening confidence, their willingness to simplify complex issues into dubiously simple solutions, and their tendency to report that a war is going well even if it is not. For these reasons, citizens may support war under a narcissist leader largely because they are not fully aware of the costs and consequences."

Harden concluded, "So, in a way — yes — pro-war sentiment is fueled by a narcissistic leader's behavior."

To the extent that Trump's Big Lie could be described as analogous (at least in the minds of those involved) to a war, the study's conclusions offer ominous implications about America's ability to move past Trump's coup attempt.

"It follows that to the extent to which Trump supporters invest their own narcissism in Trump's persona, 'success' and 'legacy' (which Trump actively encourages and strongly triggers others to do), any type of 'defeat' or setback will be very poorly tolerated," Reiss pointed out. "This is likely to lead to a range of dysfunctional acting out behaviors" unless the people acting out someone else's narcissism develop self-awareness, which rarely happens among narcissists.