Repeat after me: Disengage
Like a lot of alarmed American progressives, I’m reeling over the reality of a Trump presidency and the Democrats oh-so-painful disconnect from the working class base. But there’s a third frontier that’s working me: the Press. The Press’ embroilment in un-believable statements from the White House show me daily their ensnarement in the high-stakes antics of Donald Trump’s narcissism. Jeffrey Frank at the New Yorker describes the effect of leaving us “speechless” — he may actually be pointing to one of our best hopes for resistance.
In the last 48 hours, I have witnessed more than a dozen journalists address the quandary of the Trump Administration’s mis-truths, “lies”, or “alternate facts”. The press’ role as guardians of “objectivity”, (journalism’s sacred cow), is getting slaughtered, oh-so-publically. Regular headlines appear — almost hourly — full of ‘fact checking’, questions about whether to call the President a “liar”, how not to get politicized around the “truth”. Understandably, given the circumstances, the press appears ungrounded, thrown off base and, as David Greenberg writes in a recent Politico article, “The Perils of Calling Trump a Liar”, “it’s not exactly clear what to do”.
To be sure, the media has been slow to catch up with the erosion of the “collectively held truths” of the Walter Conkrite era; that world was part of a pre-identity politics, pre-internet, pre so-deeply-ideologically-divided America. However, President Trumps’ egotistical flare-ups resulting in a spiral of reporting on “facts” and “truth” have capitalized on this unsteady state and point to a critical need — as critical as ever — for the press to face this situation squarely. By squarely, I don’t mean writing and reporting more “ferociously” on the “facts”, (as David Remnick of the New Yorker has suggested), but by facing the truth of what it means to have a president with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House.
Greenberg’s confusion about journalism’s future is at least honest, but may, itself, be a symptom of the psychological embroilment arising between a narcissist (Trump) and those he ensnares in his egoic ambitions (those on the receiving end of his attacks). After all, the President’s psychological profile is designed to confuse. If this probable fact is not acknowledged, any questions about how to report on “lies”, whether they are “lies”, or the status of “alternate facts”, is like moving chairs around on the Titanic. Narcissists are in the very business of skillfully fabricating lies. Entering into debates over them is a sink hole journalists will fall into again and again, bound, not only to fail, but also, as long as they are reporting on these matters, to obfuscate the very stories that Americans need to be hearing. So what is it about reporting on Trump that could lead to this confusing embroilment?
First, something on Trump and the diagnosis. Since Trump’s nomination, a number of psychiatrists have spoken up with directed concerns about his fitness to govern. Characteristics of NPD as described in the DSM5 include a: “grandiose sense of self importance, pre-occupation with fantasies of unlimited success, a need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, lacking in empathy and taking advantage of others to achieve own ends.” The culmination of these symptoms adds up to difficulty discerning the difference between reality and fiction. The defenses used by narcissists to secure their elevated self-image are like unconscious weapons that manipulate others’ awareness into a submission to their agenda. On CNN on Sunday morning, Doris Kearns Goodwyn reflected on the amount of time the press spent on stories last week about “facts” and described the President’s behaviors as like that of a magician, who’s sleight of hand manages to make the visible invisible — even to, or perhaps especially for, the journalists under the spell. While prominent psychiatrists and Trump’s biographers have shared their assessments of Trump’s mental illness, few seem to have prepared the press for exactly what this state of affairs means. For journalists, a crash course in these matters would be well advised — especially if they aim to ensure the very “objectivity” they so cherish.
Consider the following: President Trump is doggedly (mad-doggedly!) identified with a highly elevated self-image that must be preserved at all costs. In his mind, he is a “winner”, “honorable”, “loyal” and “true to his word”. Given this, he needs to locate (project) any of his own disloyal acts, failures or lies, outside of himself. For those with severe cases of NPD, this need is not a passing game (though it might be enacted that way). It has the power behind it of a life/death drive, rooted in the feeling that survival itself depends on ensuring that the other “dies” with the traits in tow that have been ‘ejected’ on to them. Brian Stelter from CNN mused at a panel on the press at NYU last week: “He seems to feel the need to have a bogeyman, an enemy, someone to point to as the culprit, the people who were getting in the way of making America great again.”
Witness, also, how President Trump readily accuses others — sometimes within a matter of minutes (during the debates) — of the very behaviors he has just committed. His attacks on Hillary Clinton for reckless use of a private email server while he still uses his android in office are a case in point, attacks on the press as the “most dishonest people on the earth” during a week when the President claimed things that are patently un-true (“Largest audience of inauguration ever”?), another. New York Times Headline: “Amid Turmoil in His Government, Trump Calls Democrats ‘A Mess’.
Many have noted this behavior in Trump, but also his dogged difficulty in being able to just “let it go”. His cloying, stubbornness could be explained by “projective identification”, a term first coined by the famous analyst, Melanie Klein, then developed by R.D. Liang who did notable worked with schizophrenics in the mid-60s. This admittedly, long-winded term refers to an insidious form of projection in which the narcissist needs the person/people they have projected onto to ‘take on’ the projected quality. Trump needs the press to be the “failing” press. He can’t let go because he needs to keep the failure outside him, in them, his life depends on bringing the other to this state of distress, self-questioning, and exasperation. Hence the endless, whining tweets about the “failing NYTimes”. This behavior is enacted unconsciously, far from innocuous, however, it can be a form of intra-psychic weaponry. Colloquially referred to as gaslighting, exposure to is not for the faint-hearted — or the naïve. Choosing someone they are close to, or who’s approval they feel dependent upon, (witness the “frenemy” relationship Trump enacts with the NY Times), they can engage this defense in shockingly intuitive ways, often identifying an Achilles heel in their victims and then firing. (In this case, with the “failing”, “dishonest” members of the Press, Trump has hit in the achilles heel of their “pride”, their “sacred cow” — objectivity.)
For those analysts, psychotherapists, family members and co-workers who have been exposed to this maddening defense, the effect of ‘the trap’ can be abusively disorienting. People can begin questioning what they are sure is true about themselves or their actions, feel a glue-y sense that they can’t shake the narcissists’ preoccupation with them and, themselves, move on. They can find themselves defending things that in no way need to be defended, stuck in a mind-numbing state, unclear about how to exit this fugue of the narcissist’s making. With this context, no matter how many journalists’ heads spin trying to resurrect the value of “facts” and the “truth”, Trump’s tweets will remain an unconscious, barrage of psychic attacks designed to keep him on top.
To the extent the press may have an experience of being ensnared, they now have to ensure they escape the trap. While it is more than understandable that they would want to report on the issue of “facts”- they would be wise to stop. Really. Just stop. Instead of reeling with disbelief, grabbing in all directions — from history to ethics — looking to find a way out of the confusion, ensnared in an un-necessary professional identity crisis, they need to get to the REAL news. Consider from last week: Trump’s meeting with Unions, Mexico’s perspective on the wall, the impact of the Dakota Pipeline ruling on a week when the Iowa pipeline just delivered a 138 gallon spill, or perhaps, most critically, solid reports on views from the base in both red and blue states. All this would be good reporting on context that would educate viewers about issues, but instead, we’ve seen so many, understandably “hoodwinked” journalists exasperated with what to do about “facts”.
How is this crazy-making situation corrected? One approach is to point to the elephant in the room. Start drawing on experts in the field who can speak directly to the issue of Trump’s mental illness. Goodwyn’s reference to Trump as a magician, waving a wand over the press, is the closest I’ve seen this week to someone doing that. Kudos to her. If not a comprehensive naming, maybe a more wisened-up media could point to things like how Trump “repeatedly locates in others the offenses that he has only recently committed himself. …Interesting, huh?” — Name it –
It could be argued that this route, while a highly unusual step for the press because of its directness, is worth the leap given the profession’s self-recognized state of “emergency”. There is a strong case that the psychological context here can’t afford to be ignored. It is THE story. Not a soft-science side-bar, or a subjective assessment that doesn’t qualify. Mental illness is as much a reality to contend with as physical illness might be, were it to compromise his capacity.
It’s unlikely, however, that the press would report on the President’s mental health — at least not this early in the his tenure. Their doing so would run against all the mores that tend to move them in a more conservative direction at times of national in-security. Maybe, if the circumstance of possible impeachment arose, but barring that, this move steps into the territory of “subjective assessment” and a resulting lack of professionalism from which journalists readily recoil. (Having worked in news journalism in D.C. during the second Gulf War, I can vouch for a culture of respectful questioning of authority, traditional practices and deference to the government when big transition is afoot. I saw at that time the speed with which military experts poured out the woodwork on air, driving out the many voices from different quarters.)
In spite of the proclaimed “liberal bias” in mainstream journalism, then, in times of national distress the press is just generally reticent to take big risks like naming a President’s mental illness — publicly. A more likely path, and honestly the one that is essential before all else, is for journalists to collectively make themselves aware of Trump’s antics. They should do this — and soon — and then disengage. Disengage by simply focusing their stories as much as possible elsewhere. Disengage from those who uphold the distortions by moving on to the next person — don’t react.
This disengagement is no small feat — embroilment is disorienting, “confusing”. Plus, with journalism’s sacred cow on the chopping block, it’s hard to walk away from being accused of the very thing you take pride in. Nonetheless, the first step in disengaging is to know — to be awake to — what is going on. The second — in the space of that self-awareness, is to disengage. Don’t get hooked. Move on.
And this is the good news. Good news for the innovators in the profession at least. Disengaging from the President’s “war with the media” coincides with an unprecedented opportunity for journalism to re-invent itself. The self-proclaimed state of “emergency” the profession now faces is rife with opportunity to redefine focus and regain widespread credibility. It’s time for the press to move in the direction of much higher quality, more contextual, bottom-up reporting at a time when the nation needs it more than ever. It’s a matter of shifting weight, choosing not to play into something, and showing the courage, even when its the nation’s President, to do that.
Many of the best articles I’ve read about how the media should tactically proceed in this “war on journalism” have pointed to the critical value of seeking out new sources, reporting on the potential impact of Trump’s policies, sources outside the typical channels, stories that meet Americans — whether they voted as democrats or republicans — where they are, their check-books, their hearts. New sources include leaders in local communities, researchers and academics who’ve worked on the ground and have meaningful ways of explaining things effecting citizens’ lives. These new voices aren’t easily accessible through inside-the-beltway, (now digital) rolodexes, but that’s the creative opportunity in the heart of this chaos. A focus on the agenda the President at the exclusion of the impact of that agenda on Americans leaves us tragically uninformed. Ironically, by being bound to “government sources” and focussing almost exclusively on executive agendas (and tweets!), the press has the same problems that the Democrats faced in the election — a disconnection from the gut level at the country’s base. Here is one populist “truth” we might want to give to Trump — Democrats AND the Media have become sorely out of touch with Americans.
Riding the turbulence of this first week of the Trump presidency, a panel of editors recently met at NYU expressing urgent concern about their work in this climate. Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen cited the “need to rebuild media literacy in the United States”, suggesting that what this might look like is: “fundamentally changing the tone and tenor of how we do journalism about people’s lives and trying to rediscover that sense of empathy.” Ms. Polgren, I doubt whether members of the news media have the credibility with the American public to earn a role as ‘teachers’ of literacy. However, they do have the opportunity at this critical moment in our history to walk towards a new frontier in American Journalism. Repeat after me: Disengage.
Karin Swann-Rubenstein is a writer with degrees in Communication, Political Science and Psychology. She is committed to bringing these three professions into interdisciplinary dialogue.