Has Donald Trump turned bullying into a political art from? If so, how did he do it?
Having built a successful career as a preeminent narcissist, could his recent success be an instance of two negatives equaling a positive?
In order to explore these questions, the relationship between bullying and narcissism requires a bit of explaining. While even Trump’s supporters would have difficulty dismissing claims that he is a narcissist, or a bully, it seems that it is the combination of narcissism and bullying that has galvanized the Republican electorate, raising the question how (and why) a society that has fostered anti-bullying campaigns over the past decade is looking to elect a bully.
Both bullies and narcissists share a strong sense of conviction. And surely, what attracts many to Trump is his certainty. There is no political ‘double-talk,’ no sense of waffling or political correctness, let alone apology. He is not Christopher Lasch’s narcissist, depending on others to validate his self-esteem. While Trump may ultimately be unable to live without an admiring audience, he does, in fact, glory in his individuality. He has placed himself beyond shame (in the political arena, at least) and this is precisely what makes him so dangerous. In this, he more fits the mold of a ‘rugged individualist’ who sees the world as a wilderness to be shaped to his own design—think robber-barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie—than the stereotype of, say, reality show “mactors” whose desperate need of the spotlight suggests insecurities beneath the surface.
In other words, Trump’s bullying behavior (coupled with his financial independence) allows his vainglory to be writ large, crushing those who stand in the way of refracted grandiosity. Social aggressions can be re-cast when the narrative is one of a mythic lone rebel taking justice into his own hands, or even as David taking on Goliath (America loves an underdog success story).
This suggests that—contrary to popular belief—a very secure sense of self-worth underlies all Trump’s actions (including his candidacy). And in fact, as Twenge and Campbell argue (in The Narcissism Epidemic) the notion that narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem is a myth. On the contrary, many narcissists really do consider themselves awesome. Believing that they are wonderful, superior—the best, even—enables these individuals to dominate (aka ‘bully’) others with impunity. An overblown sense of self is so all-pervasive as to preclude the perspectives of others—or have any concern for the harm one might be doing those who are clearly inferior.
For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way (Sinatra, My Way).
“My way,” for Trump involves paving an ethnocentric glory-road by fear-mongering, on the one hand, and promising a return to ‘the good ole days’ on the other. Trump’s positions, no less than his style of asserting them (which has been compared to the bigoted scare-tactics found in Hitler’s early speeches readily play into narcissistic cultural norms that produced—and continue to tacitly support—bullying. These include 1) an ongoing preoccupation with/valorization of self-esteem, and 2) the belief that self-expression—often paired with ‘authenticity’—is a fundamental entitlement.
These Self-centered values are a double-edged sword, as they give rise to heterogeneity—a tolerance for, if not valuation of, diversity—which quietly whittled away any clear-cut sense of cultural identity. Global heterogeneity challenges American exceptionalism; America’s own diversity challenges white Christian male supremacy. The unique (read esteemed, privileged) position from which denizens of a narcissistic culture tacitly appropriate the world has been repeatedly called into question. Trump’s political platform amounts to a rejection of that question / an attempt to restore a gilded (cultural) mirror, repositioning Americans (you and me) at the center
The point at which the gilding on this mirror overlays its reflective qualities is precisely the point at which Trump’s narcissism bleeds into bullying. His perspective (on anything from Megyn to Mexicans to the military) is objectified and touted as factual, allowing his self, and his platform, to be truly synonymous. Trump does not bother with other points of view—or even with “disagreeable” facts—because he sincerely believes that his candidacy (which is coeval with both personal and political assessments) transcends all other considerations. He denigrates and dismisses detractors no less than the Constitution itself because, as a narcissistic bully, he is convinced that the ends—his ends—justify the means. (And if the ends justify the means, any niggling laws or contradictions can be blustered around, as Trump well knows: “if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”)
The mockery and abuse launched at detractors (anyone “un-American” enough to have alternate points of view) is undergirded by a sense of patriotism that meshes well with the psycho-social elements that conspired to produce the “me generation.” As the baby-boomers became parents, their preoccupation with self-esteem was translated into child-centered parenting, which, in turn, produced a culture of entitlement. (the “me-me generation,” who express themselves/construct their identities on social ME-dia platforms with their, iphones, ipods, iwatches, and imacs). Those who are invested in this entitlement—especially the newly disenfranchised, who can no longer afford the American Dream —line up behind Trump in order to push back against cultural de-differentiation and the de-centering of the “American way of life.”
In short, the public phenomenon that is “Trump” is scaffolded by cultural fears which are tethered to a narcissism writ large—a (privileged) belief in global dominance/respect that we, and our children, are entitled to.
Yet even if we can convince ourselves that this patriotism belies a cultural fact —that “we’re Number One”—we are all, nonetheless, only Trump’s Apprentices.
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