Opinion | The Narcissist in Chief Brings It All Crashing Down


“It should be absolutely no surprise that this is where we are,” Jennifer Chatman, a professor of management at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley who has written extensively about narcissistic leaders, told me. “It’s never a pretty transition when they have to go.” They’re too entitled. They’re too in the habit of sowing distrust. They have disdain for rules — which in fact made them terrible leaders in the first place, prone to cheating and stealing and grift. “They leave their organizations in terrible shape, both from a structural and cultural point of view.” As Trump has left the Republican Party. And the country at large.

Charles O’Reilly, a management professor at Stanford and a frequent collaborator with Chatman, reminded me that Adam Neumann, the disgraced, extravagantly grandiose former C.E.O. of WeWork — his ambitions included becoming the world’s first trillionaire and living forever — presented an I.P.O. prospectus that was patently bonkers in a last-ditch effort to save his company. It sounded awfully reminiscent of Trump’s deluded lawsuits. O’Reilly added that most boards fail to stop such leaders, swooping in only when the company is falling apart, because they have too many incentives (money, power) to see them succeed. It sounded an awful lot like Congress. And every former White House official who’s finally speaking up.

You know where else you can find letter-perfect predictions of the president’s current behavior? Self-help books dedicated to helping people break up with the rotten narcissists in their lives. Seriously. I started burrowing into them in the last few days, more on a daffy hunch than anything else, and it turned out I could basically open any page — and I mean any page — and find something relevant to the president’s current behavior: That narcissists lurch between the role of victim and tormentor; that they are minor Shivas, destroyers of worlds; that they howl on and on about betrayal.

But it was this common thread that stood out: Pathological narcissists make a point of saying that their former partners would have been — and will be once again — nothing without them.

It rhymed with something a White House official recently said Trump was spewing about Pence: “All day, it was a theme of, ‘I made this guy, I saved him from a political death, and here he stabbed me in the back.’ ”

I do not by any means wish to suggest that Trump’s disordered personality is the key to understanding his presidency. It is, in some ways, almost tedious, exactly what makes him boring and uncomplicated, as shallow as a spoon.

But I also think it’s impossible to understand Trump’s behavior without looking at him through the prism of his pathologies, which at this moment are threatening lives. He may have made a robotic statement on Thursday that condemned Wednesday’s violence and implicitly conceded the election. It’s too late. Trump remains a domestic security risk, and he’s made us a target for our enemies. They know that a fragile, unbalanced man is at the helm, his nerves as combustible as dry leaves. He’s desperate, and he’s angry, and he’s baitable. It makes us unsafe. We need to get him out.

You needn’t be a particularly astute observer of the Trump presidency to understand that his incendiary, hateful policies and rhetoric and mirthful disregard for the law would one day end in violence. But you needn’t be a particularly astute observer of character, either, to see that a man who feels no empathy, exploits ruthlessly, lies reflexively, seeks success at any cost and lives in terror of seeing it vanish would never go quietly.

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