Much of the public and social media commentary lately concerns Trump’s character. Especially after recent speeches and the ABC interview, two repetitive themes keep coming up in describing his personality and leadership style: authoritarianism and narcissism.
When using such labels it is critical for the public to have an accurate understanding of these characteristics. Only then can we answer whether both of these traits can be present at the same time. And, more importantly, only with such understanding can we assess the vital question, from my viewpoint, whether or how we can best respond to someone of both character structures.
Let us begin with authoritarianism, a phrase that gets tossed around often in lay public, social media, and news coverage without a complete and accurate understanding. An evidence-based definition of authoritarianism at a minimum has three facets to it:
(1) absolutist and directive thinking
(2) grounded in either or both a preference to maintain current power structure (be it social, economic, or political) or unquestioning deference to authority which…
(3) yields a certain level of (what I will gently call) a lack of consideration of “non-traditional” minority (be they ethnic, religious, economic, sexuality or otherwise) perspectives.
Take that in for a minute. The authoritarian personality is complex. For the interested reader, see here for more on the background of authoritarianism. The science demonstrates that this personality structure, likely not much of a surprise, underlies issues such as social hate and stigma, political oppression, and other civil rights issues, often in the name of (read: misuse of) religious or legal ideology.
How to respond to the authoritarian? The language this personality type typically understands is strength, assertiveness, and unfortunately, violence. Passive approaches such as civil disobedience like the recent Women’s March on DC, tend to be walked over. And no, you cannot ignore this personality type either. So, the answer to responding to the authoritarian personality is seemingly easy: act with equal disregard for rules of decorum and decency.
Notice I said seemingly easy. Two problems. First — and luckily — most people have some level of a moral compass that will not allow them to stoop to such levels. Second, there exists a certain potential paradox: narcissism. Pathological narcissists – those well beyond simple arrogance or over confidence – do not care how you respond to them. This type of narcissist, according the medical and psychological perspectives, is defined by extreme sense of self-importance, obsession about brilliance and success, lack of empathy, egotism, and resentment (see here for more detail). They repeatedly, almost desperately, show you their accomplishments and demand your deference and respect. In the face of not doing so, they may stoop to insults or more over-the-top efforts to brag. The narcissistic personality structure underlies issues such as violence proneness (say for example, sexual assault), impulsivity, and yet a striking sense of self-awareness.
What is potentially more concerning from the standpoints of safety and predictability, is the fragile narcissistic subtype, defined by enviousness, competitiveness, and excessive reactions to perceived slights (for instance, silencing dissenting popular or fact-based opinions). Only speculation, one example of a perceived slight that may be the pivotal turning point toward our current leadership came in 2011 when President Obama publicly joked about our new President at the White House correspondents’ dinner. Such a perceived slight could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in his intention to run for president.
What can be done in response to this type of narcissism? In day-to-day life, valuable advice for dealing with personalities like narcissism has been offered. In a great read called Dealing with the Crazy Makers in Your Life: Setting Boundaries on Unhealthy Relationships, Dr. David Hawkins offers very clear advice: set boundaries. Walk away. In gambling terms, the only winning hand playing with pathological narcissism is not to play at all.
Unfortunately, if all of the public commentary is accurate, and this personality is our leader, the option not to play is out of the question.
Where does this leave us? In a paradox. If both personality types do presently occupy our leadership, it leaves us with the need to respond to two very identifiable and related, yet distinct, personality styles. This is, in American political history, uncharted territory. And while I value being solution-focused, I honestly have no idea how to effectively respond.
This is where we are. And we are in this together to figure out how to respond.