As we’ve noted before, Donald Trump is a textbook narcissist.
Here are the diagnostic criteria from the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard reference for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. We opted for it rather than the subsequent fifth edition, which uses a lot more words to say the same things:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
One consequence of the disorder, which typically proves intractable to treatment, is a never-ending stream of hastily improvised statements designed to buttress the narcissist’s delusions of grandeur and bearing only tangential relationship to the truth.
In other words, an endless stream of bullshit.
But what does it mean to have a narcissist in the White House?
For a partial answer we turn to University of Florida sociologist and journalist
If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past week or so, you know that over the weekend America was introduced to the concept of “alternative facts.” After Trump administration Press Secretary Sean Spicer rebuked the media for accurately reporting the relatively small crowds at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Spicer wasn’t lying; he was simply using “alternative facts.”
News outlets are still working through the process of figuring out what to call these mischaracterizations of reality. (“Alternative facts” seems to have been swiftly rejected.) Many outlets have upped their fact-checking game. The Washington Post, for instance, released a browser extension that fact-checks tweets by the president in near real-time.
Other outlets have resisted labeling Trump’s misstatements as lies. Earlier this year, for instance, the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief Gerard Baker insisted that the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t label Trump’s false statements “lies.”
Baker argued that lying requires a “deliberate intention to mislead,” which couldn’t be proven in the case of Trump. Baker’s critics pushed back, raising valid and important points about the duty of the press to report what is true.
As important as discussions about the role of the press as fact-checkers are, in this case Baker’s critics are missing the point. Baker is right. Trump isn’t lying. He’s bullshitting. And that’s an important distinction to make.
Bullshitters, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote in his 1986 essay “On Bullshit,” don’t care whether what they are saying is factually correct or not. Instead, bullshit is characterized by a “lack of connection to a concern with truth [and] indifference to how things really are.” Frankfurt explains that a bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
In addition to being unconcerned about the truth (which liars do care about, since they are trying to conceal it), Frankfurt suggests that bullshitters don’t really care whether their audience believes what they are saying. Indeed, getting the audience to believe something is false isn’t the goal of bullshitting. Rather, bullshitters say what they do in an effort to change how the audience sees them, “to convey a certain impression” of themselves.
In Trump’s case, much of his rhetoric and speech seems designed to inflate his own grand persona. Hence the tweets about improving the record sales of artists performing at his inauguration and his claims that he “alone can fix” the problems in the country.
Likewise, his inaugural address contained much rhetoric about the “decayed” state of the country and rampant unemployment (a verifiably false statement). Trump then proceeded to claim that he was going to rid the country of these ailments. The image of Trump as a larger-than-life figure who will repair a broken country resonates with his audience, and it doesn’t work without first priming them with notions of widespread “carnage.”
A stinky, slippery slope
There are several problems with Trump adopting the bullshit style of communication.
First, misinformation is notoriously hard to correct once it’s out there, and social media, in particular, has a reputation for spreading factually inaccurate statements and conspiracy theories.