A neuroscientist explains why Donald Trump’s narcissism is now a major threat
Former President Donald Trump. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On March 18, former president Donald Trump said he believes that he will likely be arrested on charges relating to hush money paid to a porn star.

He is already calling on his supporters to protest his arrest, and while that is not exactly surprising, it is something we should be deeply concerned about. Trump embodies the qualities of a textbook narcissist, and when narcissists feel threatened, they frequently experience what is called narcissistic rage, and become aggressive and obsessed with revenge. Given the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol, which Trump helped incite, we should be vigilant to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

It is no secret that Trump has a narcissistic personality. I doubt the man himself would deny his narcissism — if he were speaking honestly and in private.

In a Vanity Fair article published before Trump became president, developmental psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University called Trump “remarkably narcissistic,” and clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis called Trump a classic case of “textbook narcissistic personality disorder.” The article cites more than a few mental health professionals who believe Trump fits all the criteria for having pathological narcissism, and over the years many similar articles would follow, such as this 2016 article in The Atlantic by Northwestern psychology professor Dan McAdams, and this New York Times article by Jennifer Senior, titled “We Are All at the Mercy of the Narcissist-in-Chief.”

Even some Republicans have come out and attested to Trump’s narcissism. For example, this CNN article claims that “Paul Ryan was convinced Donald Trump has narcissistic personality disorder,” and Ty Cobb, a lawyer who was a member of the Trump administration legal team, described the ex-president as a “deeply wounded narcissist.”

We are all familiar with narcissism — a term derived from Greek mythological figure Narcissus, who fell in love with himself after he saw his own image as reflected in a pool of water. Most of us have known a narcissist at some point in our lives. But what characteristics does a narcissist have exactly? Dan McAdams writes:

“People with strong narcissistic needs want to love themselves, and they desperately want others to love them too — or at least admire them, see them as brilliant and powerful and beautiful, even just see them, period. The fundamental life goal is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see.”

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When Trump was president, his narcissism was constantly on display for the whole world to see. He bragged about his crowd sizes. He called himself a genius. He’s since embraced the idea that he’s second only to Jesus Christ.

It should, however, be emphasized that Trump is likely a special kind of narcissist, one psychologists call a “vulnerable narcissist” — a person who tells himself he is superior but, deep down, is extremely insecure. These narcissists have low self-esteem and crave affirmation.

While this insight explains a lot about Trump’s character and previous behavior, it is relevant to the present moment because narcissists who experience a “fall from grace” experience narcissistic injury, which can lead to them lashing out and trying to inflict damage on those they feel did them wrong.

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.”

Narcissistic injury can prompt narcissistic rage, which manifests as intense anger, outbursts and extreme aggressiveness. If Trump is arrested, it will almost surely send him into an episode of narcissistic rage. We should be concerned about this possibility, because the last time there was an event that could’ve triggered narcissistic rage — when he lost the presidency to Joe Biden — he refused to concede the 2020 election, fought to retain power and directed his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, to march to the Capitol building, which they later attacked. Many politicians’ lives were put in jeopardy, including his own vice president, Mike Pence. We all are familiar with all the destruction caused on that day, but the damage could conceivably be a lot worse if Trump loyalists with a proclivity toward violence believe their political messiah is facing incarceration.

But that’s not all we have to worry about. Trump is running for president again and is actively campaigning for the Republican nomination in 2024. So far, his only semi-serious GOP challenger is Nikki Haley, his former ambassador to the United Nations. As wild as it sounds, Trump is still about as popular as ever with the American right.

Trump getting elected a second time is a terrifying thought, but if he loses, the result could be just as dangerous. A second loss would almost certainly end his presidential ambitions. The demise of Trump’s political career, with little hope for reclamation, could prompt the world’s most notable narcissist to become further unhinged. Jan. 6, 2021, could be superseded in history booked by another, even darker date. Home-grown terrorism isn’t implausible.

We must remember that just a couple of years ago, the notion of Americans storming the Capitol building, injuring scores of police officers and attempting to hunt down members of Congress and the vice president would have sounded absolutely bonkers. Hardly anyone would’ve taken it seriously — except, perhaps, for those who were familiar with Trump’s narcissistic personality and his vulnerability to be sent into a fit of narcissistic rage.

As a neuroscientist and psychology researcher, I saw the potential for such a thing long before Trump got elected into office. In January 2016, I wrote an article for Raw Story titled “Trump has a mental disorder that makes him a dangerous world leader,” which was explicitly about the dangers of his narcissism.

Then, in 2018, I wrote another opinion piece called “Trump’s destruction: A Neuroscientist explains what happens when a narcissist begins to lose power,” focusing on the potential for him to exhibit narcissistic rage. My prediction wouldn’t come true until about two years later.

Based on Trump’s patterns of behavior and the events that are likely to transpire in the near future, I believe it is likely that history will repeat itself, but this is one time I don’t want to be right.

We must be vigilant so that another violent and destructive event, or series of events, does not happen. At the moment, it is unclear exactly how to prevent such a thing, but by cultivating an awareness of the potential disaster, we can begin to plan for it. If we do not, we can expect to be victims of Murphy’s Law, which says “What can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Let’s do what we can to make sure America gets it right this time.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.