Donald Trump has grown an empire of wealth and power, but is it enough? He admits that it isn’t the money that motivates him (The Art of the Deal, 1987). What drives narcissists are their fears of feeling weak, vulnerable, or inferior. Consequently, for male narcissists in particular, achieving power is their highest value — at any cost. Trump is “certain about what he wants and sets out to get it, no holds barred” (Trump on Trump).
There is great disparity between what narcissists show the world and what goes on inside. Despite their big egos, they’re frightened and fragile — just the opposite of their grandiose, powerful façade. They must work hard to keep up their image, not only for others, but for themselves. In fact, their immodesty and exaggerated self-importance are commensurate with their hidden shame. Shame is paradoxical in that it hides behind false pride. Its defenses of arrogance and contempt, envy and aggression, and denial and projection all serve to inflate and compensate for a weak, immature self. Like all bullies, the greater their defensive aggression, the greater is their insecurity.
Shame fuels their needs for admiration, attention, and respect. “If I get my name in the paper, if people pay attention, that’s what matters” (Donald Trump: Master Apprentice, 2005). Trump wants “total recognition” as when “Nigerians on the street corners who don’t speak a word of English, say, ‘Trump! Trump!’” (New Yorker, May 19, 1997). Praise and success never fill a narcissist’s inner emptiness, nor compensate for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. Despite being the topic of countless headlines and magazine covers, he complained to Scott Pelley in his 60 Minutes interview that his business doesn’t get enough respect.
To gain recognition and validation of their worth, narcissists brag and exaggerate the truth. They imagine themselves to be more special — more desirable, more intelligent, more powerful, more invincible — than others. “Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent” (Fortune, April 3, 2000). “My I.Q. is one of the highest!” (Twitter, May 8, 2013). “All the women on ‘The Apprentice’ flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously” (How to Get Rich, 2004). “It’s very hard for them to attack me on looks, because I’m so good-looking” (NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Aug. 9, 2015). Trump announced his grandiose, unrealistic ambitions to Scott Pelley to force businesses to close foreign plants, to compel the Chinese to devalue their currency, and to build a cheap, impenetrable wall paid for by Mexico. (Estimates are $28 billion a year.)
It’s all or nothing with narcissists. For Donald Trump, there are winners, like himself (TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, 2005), and losers, and he “doesn’t like to lose” (New York Times, Aug. 7, 1983). “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser” (Facebook, Dec. 9, 2013). Trump must stay on top and thrives on the challenge. “You learn that you’re either the toughest, meanest piece of [expletive] in the world or you just crawl into a corner … Guys that I thought were tough were nothin’” (New York magazine, Aug. 15, 1994).
Losing, failing, being second aren’t options. “Life to me is a psychological game, a series of challenges you either meet or don’t” (Playboy, March 1990). He “lies awake at night and thinks and plots” (New York magazine, Nov. 9, 1992). These high stakes make for vicious competitiveness, where offense is the best defense. “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition” (The Art of the Deal, 1987).
Narcissists have a “my way or the highway” attitude and don’t like to hear no. Others’ limits make them feel powerless as they did as a child, which is very frightening. They can throw a childlike tantrum when others don’t comply. When their imagined omnipotence and control is challenged, they manipulate to get what they want and may punish you or make you feel guilty for turning them down. (Lancer, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People)
By projecting their aggression outward, the world appears hostile and dangerous. “The world is a pretty vicious place” (Esquire, January 2004). People who are seen “as out for themselves” (Playboy, March 1990) become adversaries to defeat or control. To keep safe, they push others away, fending off threats and humiliation, and they do so aggressively. Women “are far worse than men, far more aggressive … ” (The Art of the Comeback, 1997). “You have to treat ’em like [expletive]” (New York magazine, Nov. 9, 1992). Nevertheless, narcissists are exquisitely sensitive to any sign of disrespect or imagined slight that threatens their self-concept. When Trump says, “The rich have a very low threshold for pain” (New York magazine, Feb. 11, 1985), he includes himself.
Trump learned to attack from his father, who “taught me to keep my guard up” (Esquire, January 2004). When attacked, narcissists retaliate to reverse feelings of humiliation and restore their pride. “If someone screws you, screw them back. When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can” (How to Get Rich, 2004). “If somebody tries to push me around, he’s going to pay a price. Those people don’t come back for seconds. I don’t like being pushed around or taken advantage of” (Playboy, March 1990).
He told Scott Pelley that his father was “a tough cookie” — a strict, “no-nonsense kind of guy” (Playboy, March 1990). There are many ways parents can shame their children and instill the belief that they’re not worthy of love. Scolding feelings and needs or emphasizing high expectations convey conditional, tough love, which makes a child feel unaccepted for who they are. Sadly, the implication is that without success (or for a female narcissist, often beauty), no one would care about me. “Let’s say I was worth $10. People would say, ‘Who the [expletive] are you?’” (Washington Post, July 12, 2015). Instead, they must earn their parents’ acceptance. Ted Levine, Trump’s high school roommate, described the kind of pressure to excel that the boys were under. “He had to be better than his father. We were sent here to be the best of the best, and we knew what our job was.”
To compensate for insecurity and shame, narcissists feel superior, often expressed with disdain or contempt. Arrogance and putdowns bolster their egos by projecting the devalued parts of themselves onto others. Trump has disparagingly and publicly labeled various people a “dog,” “bimbo,” “dummy,” “grotesque,” “losers,” or “morons.” Narcissists’ invectives are made worse by their lack of empathy, which enables them to see people as two-dimensional objects to meet their needs. “It really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of [expletive]” (Esquire, 1991). Objectifying others demonstrates how insensitively they were treated growing up.
“Not the quarry, but the chase; not the trophy, but the race” inspires Trump. “The same assets that excite me in the chase, often, once they are acquired, leave me bored. For me … the important thing is the getting, not the having” (Surviving at the Top, 1990). Conquest and winning reaffirm a narcissist’s power. “It’s all in the hunt and once you get it, it loses some of its energy. I think competitive, successful men feel that way about women” (TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, 2005).
Victory also bolsters unexpressed feelings of insufficiency. Trump so hinted, saying, “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’” (Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life, 2008).
However, power and love don’t easily coexist. “Intimacy requires vulnerability, letting down one’s guard and being authentic to get close emotionally — all signs of weakness that are frightening and abhorrent to a narcissist. Rather than give up power and control, which risk exposure of their false persona, many narcissists have short relationships or are distancers when more than sex is anticipated” (Lancer, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People).
Love relationships are about connecting — something herculean for a narcissist. “For me, business comes easier than relationships” (Esquire, January 2004). “I’m married to my business. It’s been a marriage of love. So, for a woman, frankly, it’s not easy in terms of relationships” (New York magazine, Dec. 13, 2004). “I was bored when she (Marla) was walking down the aisle. I kept thinking: What the hell am I doing here? I was so deep into my business stuff. I couldn’t think of anything else” (TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, 2005).
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist and would like help making it work or deciding whether or not to leave, learn effective strategies for Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People.
©Darlene Lancer 2015