Can Don­ald Trump change his spots?

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By René J. Muller René J. Muller is a psy­chol­o­gist and the au­thor of “Do­ing Psy­chi­a­try Wrong.” His email is muller­renej@aol.com.

By any cri­te­rion, Don­ald Trump is a patho­log­i­cal nar­cis­sist. This means that he over-iden­ti­fies with a self-cre­ated, rigidly held self-image, which is usu­ally cred­ited to a de­fense against a se­ri­ous psy­chic in­sult that oc­curred early in life. In the at­tempt to make his day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ence match that ideal image, Mr. Trump has be­come the cen­ter of his own world, where ev­ery­one else is a mere satel­lite. His kind of nar­cis­sism is con­sid­ered patho­log­i­cal be­cause his lack of con­cern for any­one but him­self leads him to think, feel and act in ways that di­min­ish and dam­age ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing he touches.

Dur­ing the elec­tion, Mr. Trump put on what could be con­sid­ered a “clinic” of patho­log­i­cal nar­cis­sism. From his opin­ions, he cre­ated his own facts. Truth for him is what it needs to be at any given mo­ment. A day later, the need may be dif­fer­ent so that what was “true” be­fore takes a 180-de­gree turn. To some ex­tent, we all cre­ate our own worlds, but Mr. Trump does so with lit­tle or no re­gard for the ef­fect his ac­tions will have on oth­ers. Only he counts. We have had nar­cis­sists at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment be­fore, but none so vir­u­lent as this man has shown him­self to be.

In Fe­bru­ary 2015, at the start of his cam­paign for the presidency, Mr. Trump told a re­porter that, as pres­i­dent, he would act dif­fer­ently than he had as a busi­ness­man, re­al­ity TV mogul and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. But how dif­fer­ently?

The gra­cious Don­ald Trump we saw and heard on elec­tion night was a win­ner, if un­ex­pect­edly. But how would he re­act if, as pres­i­dent, he lost a ma­jor bat­tle with Congress, or was hu­mil­i­ated by a for­eign power? Could he au­then­ti­cally han­dle the kinds of in­sults to his self-image that would typ­i­cally re­quire him to make a highly de­struc­tive re­sponse in the ef­fort to salve his nar­cis­sis­tic wound? Mr. Trump’s ten­u­ously held sense of self de­pends on a con­stant ex­ter­nal reaf­fir­ma­tion of the rigid self-image that is at the core of his be­ing. He with­ers with­out at­ten­tion, par­tic­u­larly me­dia at­ten­tion. Could he sur­vive the ma­jor set­backs that are in­evitable in any presidency?

The “Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders” (DSM-5) con­sid­ers patho­log­i­cal nar­cis­sism a per­son­al­ity dis­or­der, which is de­fined as “an en­dur­ing pat­tern of in­ner ex­pe­ri­ence and be­hav­ior that de­vi­ates markedly from the ex­pec­ta­tions of the in­di­vid­ual’s cul­ture.” The key word here is “en­dur­ing.” In the process of a con­tin­u­ous self-cre­ation, patho­log­i­cal nar­cis­sists re­peat a ha­bit­ual pat­tern of thought, emo­tion and be­hav­ior as they in­ter­act with oth­ers and deal with events they en­counter. This pat­tern, ac­cord­ing to the DSM-5, is char­ac­ter­ized by grandios­ity, need for ad­mi­ra­tion and lack of em­pa­thy. (I should point out that there are healthy it­er­a­tions of nar­cis­sism.)

That said, what we know about the psy­chobi­ol­ogy of the self tells us that we are psy­cho­log­i­cally and bi­o­log­i­cally “plas­tic,” which is to say ca­pa­ble of chang­ing. Patho­log­i­cal nar­cis­sism is a deeply en­trenched dis­tor­tion of the self, but one that is al­ways played out with oth­ers. The change in en­vi­ron­ment that Don­ald Trump will ex­pe­ri­ence when he be­comes pres­i­dent in Jan­uary of­fers him pos­si­bil­i­ties for pos­i­tive change.

Once in the White House, Mr. Trump could dis­cover a higher pur­pose. This epiphany would re­quire a struc­tural change in his be­ing: a shift from the kind of self-grat­i­fi­ca­tion that fo­cuses only on his needs to one that ben­e­fits oth­ers and the world. So far, ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing in Mr. Trump’s life has been about serv­ing and grat­i­fy­ing Don­ald Trump. But he can­not suc­ceed as pres­i­dent if his be­hav­ior con­tin­ues to be shaped by his nar­cis­sis­tic tem­plate. He will not get away with short-sell­ing the United States and other na­tions, or reneg­ing on prom­ises he made dur­ing the cam­paign to cer­tain groups (blue-col­lar workers, blacks, Lati­nos).

We — and Don­ald Trump — are in un­charted ter­ri­tory. No one knows the lim­its of what Friedrich Ni­et­zsche called the “will to power,” our ca­pac­ity to use our free­dom to ac­com­plish a de­sired goal. The ques­tion is, now that for the first time, Mr. Trump is ex­plic­itly be­ing asked to work for oth­ers and not just pur­sue his own en­rich­ment and grat­i­fi­ca­tion, will he rise to the chal­lenge? Even a mod­er­ate over­com­ing, and blunt­ing, of his nar­cis­sis­tic pathol­ogy would mean bet­ter lives for us all.

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