How Donald Trump’s Narcissism Masks His Extreme Insecurity
Jerrold Post and Stephanie Doucette on the President's Unprecedented Lack of Intellectual Curiosity
The goal of a narcissist like Trump is achieving unlimited power, wealth, fame, and beauty. Donald Trump’s appearance is an important aspect of his self- worth; in his constant search for admiration and attention he focuses more heavily on appearance rather than substance. When asked what he believed made him so popular, Trump replied, “Honestly, it’s my looks. I’m very handsome.” When it was remarked Trump did not act in the manner that a president would, he replied that he looks the part, saying, “Do I look like a president? How handsome am I, right? How handsome?”
In fact, Trump has long thought that appearance was important for a presidential candidate. In a 1981 segment of Rona Barrett Looks at Today’s Super Rich, after being asked if he would ever consider running for president, Trump remarked how television has ruined politics to the point that not even Abraham Lincoln could be elected, saying, “He was not a handsome man and he did not smile at all.”
However, underneath Trump’s vanity is a deep sea of insecurity. It has been reported in an interview in the New York Times with Trump’s doctor that he uses a prostate-related drug, Propecia, to prevent male-pattern baldness. For years Trump has been sensitive to comments made about his hair, tweeting in April 2013, “As everybody knows, but the haters and losers refuse to acknowledge, I do not wear a ‘wig.’ My hair may not be perfect but it’s mine.” Trump made a similar statement in his 2004 book Trump: How to Get Rich, stating, “I do not wear a rug. My hair is 100 percent mine. No animals have been harmed in the creation of my hairstyle.”
Trump has also reacted very negatively to comments made during the election regarding the size of his hands. In one broadcast, while holding up his hands for viewers to see, Trump stated, “Look at those hands, are they small hands? And, he referred to my hands—’if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” Trump has often taken remarks about the size of his hands to be disparaging remarks about the size of his genitalia, previously stating, “My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.”
It is as if every thought that passes through Trump’s tumultuous mind must be expressed. The early morning twitter storms, which led the journalist David Brooks to characterize him as bipolar and manic, are perhaps the most vivid illustration of this. As a narcissist, his thoughts are particularly important, very valuable, and not easily opposed or given up. And it as if by merely having the transient thought, it will become actualized. There is a kind of royal imperative to the thought, and without consulting anyone, “it shall be done.” Consider announcing the transgender policy thought without first consulting with the military, which had been working on this complex issue for years. He has the big ideas and lets his subordinates sweat the details. And the rapidity with which his ideas change! It does seem that there are no core ideas, apart from the centrality of Donald J. Trump.Underneath Trump’s vanity is a deep sea of insecurity.
In his early-morning tweet storms, Trump gives voice to a policy idea, and then, in an inversion of the traditional manner of staffing out policy positions, tasks his analytic units with developing an intellectual framework for the policy.
A striking example of this was the announcement on Trump’s twitter account that the United States would be withdrawing its troops from Syria, as mentioned in the previous chapter. First General Joseph Votel, CentCom commander, who was quite bitter about being bypassed, submitted a letter of resignation, and took a farewell tour. Shortly thereafter, on December 20, 2018, General James Mattis, the secretary of defense, who also had been bypassed, sent President Trump a letter of resignation in which he stated:
One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.
Characterized as a “stinging rebuke” by Joseph Fuchs on CNN, the letter not only emphasizes the value of our network of alliances, stressing the importance of NATO after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but also the importance of consulting with our allies.
Making it clear that it was not acceptable to him in his role as secretary of defense to be bypassed in major military decisions, Mattis wrote in his letter of resignation: “Because you have the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
When asked in an interview during the election if he reads, Donald Trump responded, “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy (sic), I guess, than ever before.” During this interview, the reporter noted that Donald Trump’s office was bare of any books, with not even a computer on his desk. The only reading material to be found was a stack of magazines with Trump’s face on the cover. Trump has an overwhelming lack of curiosity. When questioned about his lack of knowledge over critical policy issues, Trump argues that the details are either unimportant or that it is only the media out to “get him.” In discussing an interview Trump had with Hugh Hewitt in his book Crippled America, Trump wrote:
During the show, he started asking me a series of questions about an Iranian general and various terrorist leaders. “I’m looking for the next commander in chief to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard yet?” What a ridiculous question! I don’t think knowing the names of each terrorist leader more than a year before the election is a test of whether someone is qualified. We’re not playing Trivial Pursuit. Every question Hugh asked me was like that—although I noticed he didn’t ask too many questions about our economic policy or about reforming the tax system—things I’ve spent my life mastering. Instead, he asked these “gotcha” questions that proved nothing except that he was able to read some names and pronounce them correctly. Does anybody believe George W. Bush and Barack Obama could name the leaders of all terrorist organizations? (Not that they are the standard!)
However, even a few months into his presidency Trump was still vastly unaware of even the major details of a number of terrorist organizations. In an address given by the president in the Rose Garden in late July 2017, Trump stated that Lebanon was “on the front lines” fighting Hezbollah (whose leader is Hassan Nasrallah), seemingly unaware that Hezbollah is currently a party within the Lebanese parliament.Trump has an overwhelming lack of curiosity. When questioned about his lack of knowledge over critical policy issues, Trump argues that the details are either unimportant or that it is only the media out to “get him.”
In Trump’s Think Big, he discusses what he considers to be his “Formula of Knowledge”:
The Formula of Knowledge is the best way to learn because learning from someone else’s mistakes is faster and easier than making them yourself. For example, you don’t have to go through an early 1990s real estate crash like I did to know what to do in that situation. Because of the way things go in life, lots of times life forces you to learn from your own mistakes, but it is much better if you can learn from others’ mistakes rather than your own.
Trump advises his audience to learn from the mistakes of others, while seemingly admitting that he doesn’t do so himself; rather he learns from his own mistakes, including the real estate crash of the 1990s. This is an attitude he has carried with him into his presidency. Trump has already acknowledged that he has not read any presidential biographies (a stark contrast with his predecessors, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush), nor does he plan to read any soon. As discussed by Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University,
They [the four aforementioned former presidents] were all people who had read about the past, they were invested in thinking of themselves in the trajectory of other presidents. That’s not who [Trump] is. . . .He’s not someone who reads deeply, he’s not someone who even identifies, necessarily, with the long trajectory of presidents.
He has an overwhelming lack of curiosity, not only about the history of American presidents, but of American history in general. In the past Trump has made numerous inaccurate comments on American history, including stating that abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still alive, as well as praising two bitter American rivals Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay.
In addition to his lack of intellectual curiosity, Trump has a relatively low vocabulary and poor grammar. Although he is not the first president to be called out for this issue, as former President George W. Bush was throughout his presidency, according to studies, Trump’s grammar and vocabulary are well below that of any recent president. While during speeches on average a president or presidential candidate will speak at a 6th to 8th grade level, Trump’s grammar and vocabulary is below that of a 6th grader; indeed, some studies have likened his vocabulary to that of a 3rd grade level. According to Maxine Eskenazi, a scientist in the Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute, “we would expect that we could see the word ‘win’ fairly frequently in third grade documents while the word ‘successful’ would be more frequent in, say, seventh grade documents.” Among his most tweeted words are “great,” “win,” and “loser.”
There has also been much speculation concerning Trump’s inability to retain information, including information during his intelligence briefings, with one Washington Post article stating, “President Trump consumes classified intelligence like he does most everything else in life: ravenously and impatiently, eager to ingest glinting nuggets but often indifferent to subtleties.”14 Top intelligence officials, including former CIA director Mike Pompeo, have discussed the intelligence community’s efforts to deliver information to President Trump in a manner he can best understand, which is largely through visuals like maps, charts, pictures, and videos.It is very difficult to convey new information to President Trump, as he seeks to establish the superiority of his knowledge to anyone trying to bring him new information.
It is very difficult to convey new information to President Trump, as he seeks to establish the superiority of his knowledge to anyone trying to bring him new information. Trump regularly boasts about his intellect and the superiority of his knowledge on a wide range of subjects. When he was asked a question about the major shortfall in senior state department positions and to identify which experts he consults with in developing foreign policy, he responded: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” Then when he was asked on Morning Joe who he consulted with on foreign policy consistently, he responded: “I know what I’m doing, and I listen to a lot of people. But my primary consultant is myself. And I have a good instinct for this stuff.” In the same interview when he was questioned if his foreign policy was neo-isolationist, he responded, “I wouldn’t say that at all.”
Excerpted from Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers by Jerrold Post and Stephanie Doucette. Copyright © Jerrold Post and Stephanie Doucette 2019. Reprinted with permission from Pegasus Books.