The question the Times wouldn't ask: Long ago and far away, Rhonda Freeman published a lengthy discussion of the disorder known as malignant narcissism.
Her piece was written for Psychology Today—and actually, it wasn't that long ago. Johnson's report appeared in February 2017, the first full month of Donald J. Trump's tumultuous term in office.
Below, you see part of Johnson's description of the malignant narcissist. Again and again, she almost seems to be describing a well-known public figure of the present day:
JOHNSON (2/22/17): This condition reflects a hybrid or blending of narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders. Psychologist Erich Fromm termed the disorder in 1964. Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg later delineated the symptoms of the condition and presented it as an intermediary between narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders.According to Johnson, the person afflicted with this condition will lash out or humiliate others for even the simplest infractions.
Individuals with this profile can form connections with others. However, they process information in ways that can hurt society in general, but also the people who love or depend on them. Family, co-workers, employees, and others in their lives often have to walk on eggshells to appease a fragile ego and minimize the occurrence of their unstable, impulsive, or aggressive behaviors.
They lash out or humiliate others for infractions of even the most frivolous nature (for example, you gave an opinion that differed from theirs; you demonstrated confidence, and it made them look bad; you told a joke that involved poking fun at them).
For some, their grandiosity and protection of their fragile "true self" can be at such extreme levels that they will lie and give the impression that simply because they say it, that makes it reality. Many will become angered if their lies are challenged with truth or facts. Of course, this can create problems for the people close to them, as this pattern of behavior can easily veer into gaslighting.
Malignant narcissism is a blend of two disorders that pose problems interpersonally for their victims—narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders. It is not uncommon for others to feel anxious, intimidated by, and fearful of people with this condition. The combination of poor empathy coupled with aggression, hypersensitivity, and suspiciousness can bring pain to others.
Those who interact with malignant narcissists often consider them jealous, petty, thin-skinned, punitive, hateful, cunning, and angry. Given their shallowness, they are not regulated emotionally and have beliefs that swing from one extreme to the next.
Their decisions can hurt others, because they rank relationships and people based on superficial standards and categories. They want to land on top, even when pretending to be altruistic or engaging in an activity that should not be "all about them." They often view the world through a primitive binary lens (for example, winner/loser; smart/dumb; rich/poor; pretty/ugly; black/white)—all the while sustaining the belief that they are superior. This is likely associated with problems processing emotional information, which reflects faulty neurobiology.
People who suffer from this condition will lie, and will then become angry if their lies are challenged with facts.
Co-workers and employees often have to walk on eggshells due to the unstable, impulsive, aggressive behaviors of people afflicted with this condition.
The beliefs of people with this condition may swing from one extreme to the other. People who interact with them will regard them as petty, thin-skinned, punitive, angry.
People who suffer from this condition will typically want to land on top, even when they deal with something which shouldn't be "all about them." Through thick and thin, they sustain the belief that they are superior.
In the mind of the person with this condition, the world is made of winners and losers. Or so Johnson said.
For people who don't support President Trump, this may sound like a comically accurate portrait of our sitting president. Indeed, Johnson almost sounds clairvoyant, so accurately did she describe the ways President Trump is being described, this very day, by those who don't support him.
Who knows? Johnson may have been thinking of President Trump when she composed this portrait. At any rate, the last remark which we have posted brings the eternal note of sadness is, or so it says around here.
Johnson says that the destructive traits of people suffering from this condition are likely due to "faulty neurobiology." We don't know what that means, in part because topics like these are so rarely discussed within our mainstream discourse.
What exactly does it mean to diagnose someone this way? In what way is such a person in the grip of a mental "illness?"
What's the difference between a person with a major "personality disorder" and a person who simply has terrible values? Does this syndrome have some sort of biological cause? Can a person with this syndrome "help himself?" Where does this syndrome come from?
Questions like these are rarely discussed in our upper-end discourse. Within our occasionally unimpressive public culture, "sociopaths" are Hannibal Lecter, and everyone else is some version of normal.
Because these topics are discussed so rarely—because our perceptions in this area are so strongly shaped by Hollywood—we the people have little ability to discuss or analyze such topics. When someone like President Trump comes along, we possess few tools which help us discuss his highly peculiar behavior.
Should Trump be pitied as a person who is suffering from an "illness?" Or should be he assailed in moral terms, or perhaps as a "moron?" Within or primitive public discourse, such questions don't even exist.
What does it mean to be suffering from a (major) "personality disorder?" Our unimpressive mainstream culture rarely visits such a place.
That leaves us poorly equipped to deal with the question of Donald J. Trump. We liberals tend to lash out in anger at his behavior, even as people like Dr. Gartner say that he's in the grip of a syndrome which lies in or near the realm we refer to as mental "illness."
So it goes, this very day, among us "beaten children of the Earth." So it goes as we try to discuss the destructive behavior, and the apparently dangerous impulses, of President Donald J. Trump.
It's too late to develop the capacity to discuss Trump's peculiar behavior. At best, we may slowly develop the ability to discuss some similar public figure at some point in the distant future.
For today, though, we'll leave you with one final question. It steams from the editorial in which the New York Times decreed that journalists shouldn't discuss President Trump in psychiatric terms.
The editorial appeared on January 10, 2018. The editorial board was so immature and childish that day that they chose to publish their editorial under this childish headline:
Is Mr. Trump Nuts?Then as now, the journalists couldn't put on their big boy [sic] pants and use their grown-up words. For current examples of such behavior, see Tuesday's report.
The editors wanted to know if Donald J. Trump was "nuts." Having displayed this second-grade level of sophistication with respect to concepts of mental health, the editors started like this:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (1/10/18): Is Donald Trump mentally fit to be president of the United States? It’s an understandable question, and it’s also beside the point.According to this childish group, Trump's behavior was so alarming that it "cried out for explanation." But any such (psychiatric) explanation would have been "beside the point!"
Understandable because Mr. Trump’s behavior in office—impulsive, erratic, dishonest, childish, crude—is so alarming, and so far from what Americans expect in their chief executive, that it cries out for a deeper explanation.
It’s beside the point not because a president’s mental capacity doesn’t matter, nor because we should blindly accept our leaders’ declarations of their own stability, let alone genius. Rather, we don’t need a medical degree or a psychiatric diagnosis to tell us what is wrong with Mr. Trump. It’s obvious to anyone who listens to him speak, reads his tweets and sees the effects of his behavior—on the presidency, on the nation and its most important institutions, and on the integrity of the global order.
It would have been beside the point because "we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis to tell us what is wrong with Mr. Trump." All we have to do is look at his public behavior.
Who needs an explanation? the editors said. We can see the way he behaves. Why should we go beyond that?
For us, the possible answer to that question is obvious. We'll state our answer in the form of a question:
If Trump is suffering from some major psychiatric disorder, might that make it more likely that he will behave in disastrous, unimaginable ways when the chips are down?
A person who simply has horrible values may pull himself back from the brink. But at the moment of truth, might a genuine sociopath throw the world over the edge?
In the end, at the moment of truth, might a person with the postulated disorder be crazily dangerous in a way which is hard to conceive? Might he be more crazily dangerous than a person who simply has horrible values?
Might his behavior go beyond anything we could imagine? We don't know the answer to that, and the childish editors—"Is Mr. Trump Nuts?"—weren't inclined to wonder or ask. They could conceive of no need to ask a specialist, someone with lifelong experience in such tragic realms.
They saw no need for further discussion, or for "expert" opinion. But so it has gone, for decades now, within our upper-end discourse.
Our high-end journalists just aren't super sharp. Our lives have long been in their hands.
All next week: Fumbling efforts to discuss Tara Reade's accusation