What if Trump’s Behavior Isn’t a Moral Issue?

What if it’s about mental illness, and the moral issue lies with us?

Michael Stelter, CNN’s media reporter, recently spoke out about the issue he acknowledges the press has been tip-toeing around since Trump’s election. It’s time, he suggests to directly address Trump’s mental stability. While Stelter’s reporting itself tip-toes around the issue, falling short of naming “narcissism”, it at least approaches this elephant in the room and the challenges the press has encountered in not knowing how to report on it.

Since his election, I have been writing about Trump’s narcissism and the problem in the media of approaching his lies from a moral position assuming he knows how not to lie. The press’s own inadequate understanding of narcissism has long been half of the problem; its fear of reporting about the President’s mental illness has handily made up the other half.

Trump’s behavior amply reflects the behavior of those diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, (malignant/anti-social). NPD is a formidable mental illness that arrests someone’s ability to relate in empathic, ‘human(e)’ ways. When reporting on Trump’s behavior, however, our fact focussed (liberal) news media has been caught in a subjective, moralistic tizzy about something Trump can’t control. Those who understand narcissism know this: Narcissists cannot help but tell lies, exhibit grandiose behavior and distort reality; this behavior comes with a personality disorder.

Short of diagnosing, let’s speculate for a moment that Trump does suffer from a mental illness that leads him to distort reality, act impulsively and in his own interest — what role does the media play in addressing this? As Stelter suggests, it’s something many people are talking about, but it hasn’t seriously broached public dialogue in the news — until this report. Stelter is pointing, finally, to the elephant in the room. He understands, along with others, the importance of honestly facing this troubling situation and what it means for the country’s safety and security. However, fear in the press of the consequences of taking this “subjective” step remains more than palpable.

If there is still hesitancy about directly diagnosing the president, the public should at least be more informed about the mental illness diagnoses in question. That means more reporting about what NPD (one of the most viable options) looks like.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not a joke or a subjective epithet to mockingly throw at someone. We are all, to some degree, narcissistic at our ego-ic core, but when narcissism is severe it takes the shape of a personality disorder. As such, it is no less serious, intractable or easy to treat than any of the other personality disorders described in the DSM 5, (Suspicious — paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal and antisocial. Emotional and impulsive — borderline, histrionic and narcissistic. Anxious — avoidant, dependant and obsessive-compulsive). However, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is often overlooked because its symptoms are more congruent with our mainstream culture’s focus on unlimited success, idolatry and, when evident in men, a patriarchal masculine ‘ideal’. Many people with NPD can, after all, appear highly functional according to our society’s standards and ideals — the trouble is, the ‘success’ comes along-side what is often catastrophic, interpersonal functioning.

Below is the DSM 5’s (Diagnostic Statistical Manual, used by professionals to define mental health issues) definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder engenders a “persistent manner of grandiosity, a continuous desire for admiration, along with a lack of empathy. It starts by early adulthood and occurs in a range of situations, as signified by the existence of any 5 of the next 9 standards (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

A grandiose logic of self-importance — A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love — A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions — A desire for unwarranted admiration — A sense of entitlement — Interpersonally oppressive behavior — No form of empathy — Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her — A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes.

The first DSM was published in 1952 and has evolved and developed since based on the increasing skill, broader assessments, and deepening understanding of the psychological professions. All of the personality disorders listed in the DSM5 receive enough “factual” credence that insurance companies will assess treatment and issue reimbursements using their DSM codes. The diagnosis may be subjective, the mental illness isn’t.

An individual afflicted with NPD goes through life endlessly and voraciously consuming people, places and things in an effort to allay the hollow sensations of a highly brittle self-regard. Narcissists never get enough. Enough fame, love, admiration, wealth. Never enough. Those who live in the shadow of people with NPD, know with painful, infuriating familiarity the feeling of being used-up, gaslighted and of living with a self-doubt that grows where reality gets distorted and self-care abandonned. Importantly, narcissists, do not know they are lying, they do not know they distort reality, they do not know the relentless pull they inflict on those around them. And it is useless to hang out hoping they might; they are constituionally resistant to self-reflection, growth and change. Furthermore, the empathic capacity that defines our humanity is somehow, and often irreversibly, broken in them.

For those who depend upon or love such a narcissist, all of these truths make up a very hard reality to wake up to. Fighting them, however, will eventually make you mad. You simply cannot expect someone with NPD to function like an ordinary human being. They may look and appear normal, be successful and ‘functional’, but their mental illness renders them ‘in-human’. They are not evil, they are not a moral ‘scourge’ or ‘outrage’. Rather, they need help — a lot of it — help they are likely to indignantly not believe they need and, hence, to not get.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in short, is a thing. It is real. Those who have seen it up close and recovered from its shadow, know this. As have the psychological professions — for over fifty years.

Is the Media in a Double Bind?

Stelter acknowledges the double-bind the press faces as an institution that focusses on ‘facts’ in a nation that increasingly appears to be seeing the ‘truth’ of Trump’s mental illness.

However, if the press is hesitant to make ‘subjective’ claims, what about its role in asking questions? Many are lying in wait …

What if our president does suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder? What are the ramifications of having a president with this mental illness? How might mental illness impact how the President governs and our resulting safety as a nation, from our economic policy to international affairs? What role does the media play in educating Americans about his possible mental illness? Even if journalists can’t actively diagnose, how might they report on Trump’s behavior differently if his questionable mental fitness was more honestly and courageously acknowledged?

Short of “diagnosing” there is much, in other words, that can be done and the public should be informed. Journalism has existed in the past when the world has witnessed erratic, grandiose leaders — but at those times, however, they didn’t have the benefit of the 65 years of accrued knowledge in the psychological/psychiatric professions. Now is the time for the press to creatively grapple with that accrued knowledge. After all, research leading to theories about climate change has barely been around for that long, but we need and expect to hear about it in the news. When it comes to the environment, our planet is at stake. Equally so, when it comes to theories about the President’s questionable mental fitness, the stakes are perilously high: our democracy, our purchase on the truth and our mental health as a nation is at risk.

The Need for Knowledge, Awareness, and Courage

This is a critical and important juncture in the history of journalism. How does it report not just on outer events, but real factors that affect our inner life — especially when the inner life is the life of a leader with his hand on the levers of power. How does it draw on decades of knowledge from psychology that’s not viewed as a ‘hard science’ but is hardly irrelevant? This is knowledge, after all, that’s informed the foundations of our entire marketing industry, much of the entertainment industry and the personal lives of many journalists themselves.

Personally, I know this juncture of truth-telling well. I’ve written elsewhere about my personal journey ‘learning’ about mental illness the hard way. I grew up placing far too much expectation in the hope or belief that the narcissist in my life (my father) would change or could know better. I spent years holding the assumption that he might know how to operate according to a moral code that included empathy and truth-telling. Those hopes and expectations eventually almost drove me mad.

It was only in learning about narcissism, becoming aware of my own embroilment in its seductive vortex and having the courage to take bold steps to accept it and disengage that I got my life back.

Narcissism is complicated but understanding it helped me reclaim my truth and my sanity. Our country — now reeling in what can only be described as insane ways — needs this reality check.

In the past few weeks, more and more Republicans are standing up to speak out about Trump’s mental instability. They are finding courage to face the fear that has, until now, enlisted them as Trump’s enablers, his “flying monkeys”. These are the very Republicans that many commentators on CNN and other news outlets have criticized for selling their souls.

Stelter is right. It’s time for our nation’s reporters to look themselves in the mirror. America needs to understand narcissism and it’s time for the press to step up to the role. Time to take some new, courageous steps in journalism. Time to begin finding new ways to tell the truth.

Thank you, Brian. I hope CNN and others support you in keeping it up.

My article from 2016 on the unconscious effects of narcissism on the press and how journalism might effectively regain its sanity is here. A more recent article shares a personal account of coming to ‘see’ narcissism and the parallel critical task being asked of American journalism today.

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