Reasonable Doubt

Trump Is a Mental Health Story

Reporters need to stop covering him as if he’s strictly a political one

Credit: JIM WATSON / Contributor/Getty Images

InIn the 818 days since the 2016 election, the Washington Post has used the word “unprecedented” in reference to President Donald Trump, or his associates, about 657 times­ — or almost every day. On just one day in January, for example, readers learned of Trump’s “unprecedented steps” to slow immigration, his “unprecedented decision” to hold onto his business in the White House, and his “unprecedented assault” on the census.

There is a breathlessness to the coverage that, oddly, does not diminish with time. The word “remarkable” appears almost as often in the Post, averaging every other day since 2016. We read about the “remarkable rift” between the President and his former National Security Adviser (Dec. 1, 2017), Trump’s “remarkable ignorance of U.S. history” (July 19, 2018), and his “remarkable tweetstorm” against his former lawyer (Dec. 4, 2018).

If something happens that often, it can’t be all that remarkable. Why do journalists keep using these words? Simple. Because any time news breaks, we call political scientists, pollsters, former White House staffers, and opponents for analysis, little of which is remotely illuminating. The problem is, we try to cover Trump as a political matter. And by doing so, we’re potentially missing a big part of the story.

Imagine if Trump had a seizure during a press conference. Would reporters ring up the folks at Brookings and the Cato Institute for comment? Would we analyze new polling data to help us understand if there is a clever political strategy behind his behavior?

“His behavior is not remarkable. It’s predictable. It’s exactly what we’d expect. He just continues to be a consistent version of who he appears to be.”

No. We’d call physicians, who would tell us that they can’t formally diagnose the president without seeing him, but they can say that a seizure is generally caused by an uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain. They could then explain that a seizure might be caused by epilepsy — and what might happen if epilepsy goes untreated. This context would not be inappropriate or biased; it would demystify the president’s behavior and help us prepare for what comes next, with significantly less drama and noise.

So, I tried an experiment the other day. To make sense of Trump’s behavior, I did not call foreign policy experts or pundits. That would be like calling an astrologer to explain a flu pandemic. Instead, I called Wendy Behary, who wrote the book Disarming the Narcissist and has treated hundreds of narcissistic clients, including surgeons, Wall Street executives, and other powerful people, in her private practice in New Jersey. It was one of the most useful conversations I’ve had about Trump in months.

Unlike the Washington Post or the New York Times, Behary has never once been surprised by Trump’s behavior. “His behavior is not remarkable. It’s predictable. It’s exactly what we’d expect,” she says. “He just continues to be a consistent version of who he appears to be.”

So far, most of the mainstream stories about Trump’s narcissism have been about whether mental health professionals should diagnose him from afar. That’s a worthy debate. But journalists are not psychiatrists. We are not bound by the rules of the American Psychiatric Association. We are bound by a duty to inform the public, without fear, drawing upon any source that may prove useful.

At this point, it’s not biased to acknowledge that Trump behaves in ways that most mental health professionals recognize as symptomatic of a larger problem. It’s not unreasonable to ask them to help explain and even predict his behavior. In fact, it may be more biased not to do so.

What if we got new sources to help us through this “remarkable” time? This doesn’t mean bashing Trump. To the contrary. In order to treat her narcissistic clients, Behary has learned to empathize with them. This isn’t easy to do, she admits, but it is essential — so that she doesn’t mistake them for being strategic or simply evil. “Narcissists don’t set out to harm people,” she says. “They will harm you — but it’s to protect themselves. It’s not personal.” Taking narcissists personally is a very common waste of time and energy.

Narcissists, for example, need admiration the way addicts need substances. They believe they are truly special and yet not appreciated for their gifts, which can lead them to act entitled, as if the rules do not apply to them. In their quest for recognition, they sometimes exploit others, contradict what they’ve said, and break their promises — all the while arguing for (and often truly believing in) their new, alternative facts. Once we know this, Trump’s tendency to revise history becomes unsurprising and explicable.

It’s a painful way to live, because no amount of adoration will ever be enough. After every victory, feelings of envy, anger, and frustration squirm back to the surface. Now, Behary says, Trump is “unraveling.” This, too, is predictable, which is why we need to talk about it, out in the open. As the bad news stacks up for Trump, including Republican losses in the midterms, a divided Congress, and continuing legal investigations, he is likely experiencing profound mental agony.

In this agitated state, narcissists are notoriously bad at negotiating, as it turns out. (They are good at bullying, which is not the same thing.) Catherine Conner, a family law attorney and mediator in Northern California, understands this better than political scientists, because she has helped hundreds of people craft child custody agreements and divorce settlements. A crisis, such as a divorce, may intensify narcissistic tendencies and make negotiation impossible, she says.

“The only way to create an agreement is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and come up with a package that might appeal to both of you,” Conner says. “If they are incapable of seeing the world through anyone else’s eyes, they won’t be able to do this. They will just remain stuck on their vision of what should be, convinced that everyone will see it their way.”

This would explain why Trump was reportedly shocked that the Democrats did not agree to his border-wall terms. He was unable to see the situation from their point of view. When this kind of intransigence takes hold in Conner’s cases, the parties are sometimes forced to rely on judges to make the decision.

In Trump’s case, if he is unable to compromise before the government shuts down again in two weeks, the courts might have to get involved. Or Trump might just turn the government back on in order to be the hero. “Narcissists are so good at showing up as Messiahs,” Behary says. If he’s at risk of losing the support of his fan base, which he needs in order to stop the pain, he will swoop in to save the day. Because that’s what narcissists do.

Typically, when all else fails and narcissists are unable to get the attention and affirmation they need, they play the victim. If the investigations continue to intensify, and if Trump begins to lose the affection of his base, Fox News pundits, and Republican leaders, he may resign, Behary predicts, based on all the narcissists she has treated for decades. “He’ll point the finger and say, ‘I was making America great again, and the Democrats stopped me.’”

Trump may not behave this way. Human behavior is complicated. But isn’t it useful to know how other people like him tend to behave, generally speaking? So let’s stop living in the past, under the old rules of journalism and politics. Let’s start talking about mental health with the directness and care that our readers deserve. If journalists want to help the public understand the world in which we live, it is time to find new pundits — the kind who have seen this all before, who can empathize with the president and his opponents, and who do not benefit from perpetuating the chaos.

Author of The Smartest Kids in the World (2013) and The Unthinkable (2008) Journalist for Time Magazine, The Atlantic; Emerson Senior Fellow

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