In January, I noticed a bumper sticker on an SUV parked in my neighborhood: Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again.
I grumbled, but reassured myself that Trump would not win in Oregon.
A second sticker appeared in March. Donald Trump 2020: Finally, Someone With Balls.
This slogan confirmed my thoughts about the first: Toxic masculinity underlies much of President Trump’s appeal. Liberals cry, but real men have the balls to battle.
For many years, I worked as a psychologist treating abusive men. I established a feminist-informed treatment program for court-mandated batterers. Most of the men I treated had a patriarchal belief system and thought they were entitled to certain privileges because they were men. I especially worried about patriarchal men with narcissism and antisocial behavior, since they became aggressive quickly.
President Trump reminds me of them.
Antisocial narcissists have an elevated likelihood of killing spouses. My experiences as a psychologist suggest that for every abusive man who murders, there are dozens more who dominate while stopping short of murder. Some of the most powerful abusers I saw were rarely physically violent; like Trump, they relied on intimidation, verbal abuse and economic blackmail.
Psychologist John Gartner has famously concluded that Trump is an antisocial narcissist, while therapist Diane Jhueck noted how the powers of the presidency amplify Trump’s danger. Trump’s narcissism has been well-documented: His decisions are based primarily on self-interest, his attacks on others motivated by thin skin.
Trump’s antisocial behavior is discussed less than his narcissism, but is no less obvious. Consider the thousands of lawsuits he has been involved in, including dozens in which he failed to pay ordinary contractors and workers. In 2019, New York state found that Trump misused his charitable foundation, to the tune of two million dollars, to further his political and business interests.
Antisocial traits are also shown by continuous lying.
Patriarchy is deep-seated in our culture: Many young males are raised with ideals that include aggression, submission to authority and insensitivity to others. Male hostility is often encouraged in American homes—so Trump’s aggression seems normal to many.
Donald Trump’s father emphasized competition and toughness, raising his son with the mantra, “You are a killer; you are a king.” If you weren’t aggressive in Fred Trump’s world, you were a loser.
Donald was sent to military school at 13, further instilling chauvinism while removing him from the influence of his mother. (A Trump classmate reported the only female role models at the military academy were the ones in Playboy.)
Aggression and self-promotion were rewarded, while wealth boosted his sense of entitlement—a blueprint for raising a toxic man who controls others through aggression. Trump was raised to be loyal to himself and his family and aggressive to anyone with competing needs; his entitled upbringing and disordered personality produced an undersocialized aggressor who prefers conflict to cooperation. On a moment’s notice, he becomes a teenage bully tweeting insults.
Because he cooperates infrequently, people do not stick around for long; Trump has the highest staff turnover of any U.S. president. He responds harshly toward politicians and journalists he should collaborate with. As described by Philip Zimbardo and Rosemary Sword, Trump pursues personal desires, not collaborative ones.
The antisocial men I treated relied on verbal abuse, since it allowed them to dominate without risking jail. Trump is verbally abusive most days. Hillary Clinton is a “nasty woman,” John McCain a “loser,” and Nancy Pelosi a “third-rate politician.”
Trump’s December 2019 rant against Greta Thunberg seemed diagnostic: “Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend!”
This tweet would be inappropriate coming from an adolescent, let alone a mature adult. Undersocialization is in plain sight.
Many antisocial men control others by being charming and persuasive, since charisma frequently gets them what they want. Serial killer Ted Bundy is an extreme example of the charismatic antisocial man; more common is the sweet-talking con man who swindles investors out of their life savings. When charisma doesn’t get results, antisocial men like Trump become aggressive.
When hostile men intimidate others, it often results in compliance or submission. (After all, who wants to deal with an angry, belittling man?) Too often, Trump’s aggression yields a short-term reward, so it continues unchecked.
Patriarchs are often allowed to bend the rules. Due in part to permissions that have existed for centuries, Trump has gotten away with sexual assault, bullying and nonstop lying. In the patriarchal mindset, criminal aggression is tolerable in a leader when it is in the service of good. In Trump’s case, “good” means restricting reproductive rights and advancing a repressive version of Christianity. (It is ironic that many supporters of Trump’s aggressiveness proclaim faith in Jesus, the prophet of peace.)
It is hard to understand how so many people are enamored with a man so fixated on himself. Many followers are taken in by Trump’s charismatic presentation. Some conservatives endorse his radical politics because they are impressed by the passion he generates; others fear his wrath. Trump’s authoritarian dominance is so strong that conservatives, who normally value stability, often let him destroy long-standing American traditions and institutions.
The scariest antisocial narcissist is a malignant one—with traits like paranoia, sadism and a thirst for power. Psychologist Erich Fromm described malignant narcissism as the “most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity.” Men like Hitler and Stalin are examples. Malignant narcissists have neither conscience nor empathy to restrain them, so they attack those who get in their way, using any means society permits.
Some psychologists and psychiatrists believe Trump is a malignant narcissist. Paranoia is seen in his characterization of the press as the enemy of the people and his embrace of the deep state conspiracy theory. Psychologist John Gartner observed Trump’s sadism displayed at rallies, like when was delighted when followers assaulted a protester. Sadism is also displayed when Trump coldheartedly retaliates against people like Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.
Malignant narcissists do not like it when limits are placed on them—but limits are sometimes needed. Jail is the only way to contain some domestic violence offenders. The checks and balances of American government are supposed to contain presidents, but submission to Trump’s authority keeps that from happening often enough.
The Senate’s refusal to investigate Trump’s abuse of power during the impeachment trial is just one example of how malignant narcissism is given a green light. Republican leaders rarely challenge his irrationality or hostility—they seem more likely to repeat his lies on Fox—while patriarchal leaders like Franklin Graham and Ralph Reed inform worshippers that Donald Trump has been chosen by God to advance conservative causes. Malignant narcissists need containment—not reasons to believe they are favored by God.
As shown by his irrational responses to COVID-19, Trump sees the world through selfish eyes. He is concerned primarily about how the pandemic affects him, and this tunnel vision has slowed his comprehension of the crisis. Since the outbreak, he has persistently substituted his judgements for those of public health experts, a dangerous approach. Consistent with his history as a failed businessman, Trump’s botched response to COVID-19 shows he is an incompetent chief executive.
President Trump has a dangerous combination of narcissism and antisocial traits, along with toxic patriarchy that entitles him to have his way. He overpowers political subordinates while tearing down boundaries that contained prior presidents. Encouragement from the patriarchal right intensifies his craving for power.
In my years of working with abusive men, I never saw a more effective bully. Donald Trump’s personality disorder is not adequately contained, but containment is sorely needed.