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Here’s Looking at You, Narcissist

narcissus

“Narcissus,” by Caravaggio

There’s one word that seems to doggedly follow the Republican nominee for president, and no, the word isn’t Whuuuuuuhhhh???????

Last week, on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, Jon Stewart called Donald Trump “a thin-skinned narcissist.”

The author David Cay Johnston said of Trump in a Guardian article, “He’s a world-class narcissist.” (The title of the article was “Trump: The Making of a Narcissist.”)

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote, “There’s sort of a gravitational narcissistic pull that takes command whenever he attempts to utter a compound thought.”

On Vox, Ezra Klein called Trump “a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante.”

After reading a New York Times interview in which Trump suggested possibly not honoring NATO commitments, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, said: “I call it a narcissistic foreign policy from Donald Trump, and it’s the idea that, you know, the world needs us.”

Bryan Cranston — Bryan Cranston! — said in The Daily Beast, “He’s a supreme narcissist.”

And all that was over the course of just four days!

But the word association is nothing new. Back during the nomination fight, Ted Cruz said of Trump, “He’s a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” (Cruz had some payback at the Republican National Convention last week. After he pointedly refused to endorse the nominee, Rep. Chris Collins, Republican of New York, called Cruz a “narcissistic individual.”)

This is the point where I would normally take a critical tack on the use of the word, and dissect the misprisions and ulterior motives of those who have been using it. I find that hard to do in this case, as the diagnosis by Bryan Cranston and all the other nondoctors seems 100 percent on the money. Indeed, a November article in Vanity Fair quoted five psychologists or therapists who agreed, in the words of one of them, that Trump is “textbook.” Said another: “He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example of his characteristics.” (In fairness, the author of the article, Henry Alford, didn’t disclose if in his research he encountered any psychologists who disagree.)

Here are the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the latest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), as summarized on the Mayo Clinic’s website:

Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance

Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it

Exaggerating your achievements and talents

Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate

Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people

Requiring constant admiration

Having a sense of entitlement

Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations

Taking advantage of others to get what you want

Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

Being envious of others and believing others envy you

Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Otto Kernberg, in his 1975 book Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism, filled in the picture, observing  that narcissists

present an unusual degree of self-reference in their interactions with other people, a great need to be loved and admired by others, and a curious apparent contradiction between a very inflated concept of themselves and an inordinate need for tribute from others. Their emotional life is shallow. They experience little empathy for the feelings of others, they obtain very little enjoyment from life other than from the tributes they receive from others or from their own grandiose fantasies, and they feel restless and bored when external glitter wears off and no new sources feed their self-regard. … Very often such patients are considered to be dependent because they need so much tribute and adoration from others, but on a deeper level they are completely unable really to depend on anybody because of their deep distrust and depreciation of others.

Yep.

Narcissist and narcissism comes from the Greek mythological character Narcissus, who was transfixed by his own reflection in a pool and stared at it until he died. Introduced as a psychological concept by Havelock Ellis, it was taken up by Freud and thereafter became an important part of psychoanalytic discourse. Narcissistic personality disorder was first listed in the DSM in the third edition, published in 1980. That was a notable moment for the popularization of the concept and term. The year before, the historian Christopher Lasch had published The Culture of Narcissism, to much attention (Lasch was called to a Jimmy Carter summit on the national morale). In 1983, in Fatal Vision, Joe McGinness drew on Lasch to argue that Jeffrey MacDonald was capable of murdering his wife and children because he was a “pathological narcissist” unhinged by amphetamines.

Since then, the terms have been in ever wider use. An Amazon search for books containing narcissist yields 1,265 results, including Disarming the Narcissist, Divorcing the Narcissist, and Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare. (All or virtually all books on the subject are about dealing with a narcissist as opposed to alleviating one’s own narcissism, since narcissists rarely feel there is a problem.) The graph below shows the percentage of “narcissism” (green — and note the Lasch-inspired bump in 1979) and “narcissist” (black) relative to all articles published in The New York Times.Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 10.18.31 AM

The incomplete data for 2016 show -ist at .09 percent and -ism at a robust .15 percent. One wouldn’t want to fall victim to a mathematical fallacy and predict that the numbers will rise to infinity. But it seems to say that the terms will be very much in the air for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, clinical epithets are being thrown at presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as well. But they tend to be vague and/or dubious ones, like “enabler” and “pathological liar.”

As for Trump, with three months to go till Election Day, we will undoubtedly hear him being called many other names. Tony Schwartz, coauthor of The Art of the Deal, told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker that if he were writing the book today, he wouldn’t use that title. His nominee for a replacement?

The Sociopath.

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