Donald Trump: Presidency attracts narcissists, but apparent authenticity is the ace up his sleeve

In a climate where politicians are seen as weak and ineffectual, authenticity is ‘trumping’ narcissism alone.

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A year out from the nomination, Republican Party candidate Donald Trump is breaking every conventional rule of presidential campaigning: until recently holding a comfortable lead over his nearest party rival, and polling strongly in a hypothetical matchup against Democrat Hillary Clinton. 

This race is also most likely the first time that a presidential candidate has been called an outright narcissist by an opponent, as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal recently did to Trump. And this is in addition to the enormous number of media reports calling Trump out for the trait.

Two questions spring to mind: objectively speaking, how legitimate is the labelling of Trump as a “narcissist” by critics when compared to other candidates who have sought to become president? And for all the attacks accusing Trump of self-centeredness, why don’t voters seem to care, or at least not enough to hurt him in the polls? He remains a strong favourite to win the nomination by Republican-leaning voters.

Here is what we know from the research on narcissism and US presidents: it works. Narcissism – especially the grandiose form associated with a combination of dominance, self-promotion, and callousness – is basically a job requirement for the modern US presidency. The level of grandiose narcissism in US presidents has increased markedly since the days of George Washington. 

Research has estimated that the average US president’s narcissism is about a standard deviation beyond the average citizen – and even higher than that of the average reality television star. We also know that narcissism in US presidents is linked to ratings of greatness. Highly narcissistic presidents like Lyndon Johnson are leaders who make big changes. Less narcissistic presidents like Jimmy Carter are rated as mediocre (but, in the case of Carter, also regarded as admired ex-presidents because they are seen as moral and caring).

Calling Trump a narcissistic presidential candidate is like pots calling kettles black.

 

It makes sense that narcissism is an important trait for a presidential bid. You have to want to be the leader of the free world. You have to want it so badly that you are willing to drag your family through major stress and abuse – and even put them in harm’s way - like having your wife stand by your side while you confess to marital improprieties as Bill Clinton did, or publicly calling your grandmother a racist like Barack Obama.

You also need to be a master of mass media, a skill associated with narcissism. Franklin Roosevelt figured out radio. Ronald Reagan was an actor and expert of television. Barack Obama smartly adopted social media like Facebook. Today, Donald Trump is a master of Twitter with over 4.6 million followers – far more than rival Ben Carson with close to 800,000, and one-time favourite Jeb Bush with around 350,000. 

The downside of Presidential narcissism is that while it’s great for making bold changes, it can also lead to major ethical lapses in office. The price of action – doing something over nothing - is often drama. So if you want drama, and action, pick a narcissistic president.

So, what does this mean for Trump? Calling Trump a narcissistic presidential candidate is like pots calling kettles black.

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A volunteer for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election campaign tapes up posters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

People are drawn to narcissism in leaders and mates, but generally consider narcissism a negative quality. This is why narcissistic individuals generally try not to announce it - and you only find out later that your new boss or significant other is a self-involved nightmare. Trump, of course, seems to do the opposite with his proclamations of “people love me” and “show me someone without and ego, and I’ll show you a loser”. Both the polls and TV ratings for Trump’s debates and appearances suggest that America can’t get enough of him.

On the campaign trail he’s constantly pointing to his accomplishments as an entrepreneur and self-made billionaire businessman. At a time when voters are wary of big business and Wall Street, Trump – who has a building with his name on it right on Wall Street itself – isn’t seen as part of the problem but rather the guy to solve it. 

What could account for the fact that Americans would afford a self-made billionaire entrepreneur different consideration than a candidate like Mitt Romney - the 2012 Republican presidential contender whose rich guy, big business image dogged him throughout his campaign?

A possible answer to this paradox is Trump’s apparent authenticity. His Twitter feed is an a near-compulsive stream of consciousness consisting of everything from his critique of opponents and journalists to short, pointed videos which – like his “Make America Great Again” campaign gear - look like they were thrown together in about 10 minutes. We’re a long way from President Barack Obama’s slick 2008 election campaign with its ubiquitous Teleprompters and stage management. 

And Trump flaunts his money. He flaunts his political actions. He says outright that he has paid politicians because he “understand[s] the game”. And he flaunts his narcissism. Trump might be a boor, but at least he is an honest one. He appears to respect us enough to treat us like we’re not idiots.

However, some have also floated the idea that perhaps Trump’s authenticity is itself an act. The argument is that Trump is too impulsive, defensive and un-PC to act appropriately on the campaign and so straight-up Machiavellian that it must all be an act – that Trump is a Francis Underwood who pretends to be a political amateur.

Trump’s political act can be real or fake - but it can’t be both. How easy would it be to fake authenticity – and how would you be able to tell if this was the case?

In the case of most professional politicians, you have a highly controlled image presented to the public. It’s often only later that we find the uncontrolled images – the Watergate tapes of President Richard Nixon, for example. In the case of Trump, though, he has a decades-long track record of behaviour that is highly public and seems moderately crafted. And the image he has is one of a tough, somewhat unpolished, alpha male business leader who likes making deals, taking risks, and having relationships with attractive women. Lots of this seems to check out with the data – it might well be an inflated image, but it is hard to say it is the opposite of the truth. It is implausible that Trump is a sock-puppet beta male being controlled by a rich donor base.

Another way to test authenticity is what psychologists call the augmentation principle. When an individual does exactly the opposite of what is called for in the situation, we believe him or her. So, a job candidate who says that he is lazy is seen as more honest than one who says he is hardworking; or a man on a dating website who says that he likes beer and football is seen as more honest than one who says he likes long walks on the beach.

Well, if you surveyed 100 political strategists, it’s likely precisely none of them would recommend that Trump’s image is ideal for a Republican candidate. And nobody would craft this image to run for office. They instead would tell Trump what they tell all candidates: buy a dog, maybe a ranch, hide the mistress or mister, and take some family photos at the ranch with the dog and maybe a Bible. Maybe shoot a goose, or go to McDonald’s, or something else that makes common people want to “have a beer with you”.

In the case of Trump, his unpolished, un-PC behavior signals authenticity and strength. People might not like it, but they sense that it’s real. They also know that he is not easily swayed by political pressures. In a country where politicians are distrusted, and seen as weak and ineffectual in the face of a fragmenting social and economic structure, authenticity is ‘trumping’ narcissism.

W. Keith Campbell is a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. 

Rachel Marsden is a syndicated columnist and lecturer at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. 

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