Conway argues that narcissistic personality disorder is crucial to framing the way we understand both this president and his presidency, which is true.
But it is also crucial to understanding the electorate’s response to Trump — particularly the traumatized majority that opposes him.
“We wake up each day much like the kid of a narcissistic parent wakes up, in the sense that we don’t know what the crazy parent is going to do,” said Brian Baird, formerly a Democratic member of Congress, and before that, a professor of psychology with a private practice in Washington State. “Yet we have to somehow go to work each day and act like things are normal.”
And there’s the rub: You can no sooner quit your president than you can quit your family. If you look at the children of pathological narcissists, noted Baird, their symptoms look a lot like many of ours: “Anxiety, foreboding, depression, anger, frustration, fear, bewilderment at the state of the universe.” Their minds have been annexed; they doubt their perceptions. “What they know to be real,” he said, “is itself challenged by this person’s actions and statements and deeds.”
(Online, in fact, there’s a shadow universe of children of pathological narcissists, who argue that “what’s happening on a national level is activating and retraumatizing a lot of people who have been gaslighted in the past,” in the words of the writer and memoirist Ariel Leve.)
Naturally, there are limits to how far one can take this analogy. Trump got 46 percent of the vote in 2016, and polls say that roughly 43 percent of Americans still support him. They most likely feel emboldened by the president, not traumatized by him. But the distressed-children model would explain why congressional Republicans who privately despise the president still support him in public. “They live in fear that the narcissist will turn on them,” said Baird. So they try to manage the unmanageable. They keep two sets of books, function with two different brains, and buy in — at least partly — to Trump’s grandiose message: You’d be worthless without me.
Journalists have a different problem. If pathological narcissists derive their power from attention, we ought not to give it to them. But under ordinary circumstances, almost anything that comes out of the president’s mouth is considered news. Maybe it’s time, in earnest, to re-examine this notion. An Australian journalist, recently writing for The Guardian, noted that we often render Trump more coherent than he in fact is, spinning word salads into orderly sentences, rendering caprice as deliberate policy.