Erich Fromm, a Holocaust survivor who became a well-known psychologist, wanted to understand something. He, his family, and his people suffered unthinkably at the hands of Hitler. Fromm looked around at Stalin, Mao, Franco and Mussolini.
He wondered, “How does a human being become such a source of cruelty and destruction?” Fromm created a diagnosis that was, of necessity, something more than a medical or psychological category, and therefore is rarely if ever included in medical textbooks. It’s more than a clinical disease because it includes a moral dimension; those who suffer from it can become the source of intolerable evil.
Fromm entitled this disorder “malignant narcissism.” Fromm taught that this disorder had four main components: narcissism, sadism, paranoia and the absence of empathy. Let’s explore.
The first component, narcissism, afflicts many folks. Narcissism is the condition of incessant self-regard. Sometimes artists or actors or politicians or preachers have this trait. It’s well-captured in the funny lyric that goes: “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” It’s the condition of only wanting to be around people who are fascinated by “my great self.” They can sometimes be fun companions, but they make terrible spouses, because emotionally they just can’t count to two.
Sadism is the condition of taking pleasure by inflicting pain. Most of us, when we discover that we have hurt someone, feel terrible. Not these guys. They’re the source of most of the intentional cruelty in the world.
Paranoia, the third of the four ingredients in this toxic stew, usually manifests in the endless suspicion of those around me. When fear-filled people get into power, they endlessly fire people, and will frequently swagger to mask their constant distrust. Paranoia also underlies hatreds of whole groups — people of a religion or race who are going to take over if we good folks aren’t careful.
And finally, malignant narcissists have no empathy. They are confounded by anyone around them who is hurting. They confuse suffering with weakness. If they have charm, it is always reserved for new people who they can seduce and use. Those who live without empathy can never emotionally register the existence of another person. Every relationship is, to them, strictly transactional.
Fromm’s work may not have scientific precision, but it is filled with the wisdom that comes from great suffering and honest observation.
Let’s take a moment to examine our president in the light of these insights. Is he a malignant narcissist?
That he is a narcissist is clear every day. He constantly, anxiously praises … himself. In the depth of the great depression, FDR wanted weekly reports on the average weight of the men whom he knew had been starving and whom he employed in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was restless until he knew they were regaining weight. That is an other-focused leader, someone who cares. Trump, who now sits at that same desk, daily checks his polls and then announces that the anonymous “many people” are declaring him the greatest president ever.
I see a streak of sadism in Donald Trump. The glee with which he dispatched his rivals by insulting whatever weakness he would detect in them was alarming enough.
Far more sadistic is the caging of children in the Texas desert, the hauling of 2-year-olds into court and the ripping of infants from their mothers’ arms.
The injustice of firing Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for the “sin” of following the law and appearing when subpoenaed was, yes, cruel. But then to fire Lt. Col. Vindman’s twin brother (for, apparently, the sin of breathing), showed us the relish Trump has for hurting others for no cause whatever. Trump’s behavior has a reptilian quality — the sudden strike against random bystanders.
The paranoia that bedevils those with malignant narcissism shows up in his constant theme about how his terrible opponents are going to ruin all our lives. Fear is behind the folly of a wall to keep out all those scary brown people. Paranoia is on view in the constant firings, the refusal to trust any news, the denial of support to allies. Fear produces the self-isolation that haunts him. Paradoxically, fear is why he does his constant rallies, where he can briefly experience the adulation his condition demands. He is an un-nurtured soul.
Lack of empathy, the fourth quadrant of malignant narcissism, has been on view since that hapless phone call to a grieving widow on the day her young soldier husband was buried. A gifted athlete kneels in supplication to all of us to help with the violence being unjustly visited upon his people. And Trump’s response? “Fire the sons of b***hes!” The babies and small children trapped in cages, as their mothers plead for safety? Zero tolerance! His heart is concrete.
It is a sobering thought that in a time of relative peace and prosperity, we freely elected a man showing all the signs of malignant narcissism. It is an even more sobering thought that this disordered human being has sole power over the nuclear codes.
Fromm was asked what the prognosis is for those diagnosed with malignant narcissism. He replied, “They never get better. They only get worse.”
We are surely not the first country to be attracted to a malignant narcissist; nor will we be the last. We, like all nations, are made up of humans; choosing such a leader is something humans occasionally do. Millions of us wanted a change but didn’t see the dangers lurking behind his confident appearance. Now we have seen.
We are and have been a wonderfully resilient democracy. Our last defense against the consequences of this self-inflicted wound is the coming election. We had hoped that honorable people like Robert Mueller or Adam Schiff could contain him. They can’t. It’s up to us. Our survival as a democracy is at stake. Please join with all of us who see the danger of the hour we are in, and help us peacefully vote Trump from this office, whose demands he can neither understand nor fulfill.
The Rev. Jeff Black lives in Saranac Lake.