Roger Kimball is a very intelligent man. The ten months out of the year that I receive my copy of The New Criterion, the magazine he edits, are golden partly because of Kimball’s “Notes and Comments” section in which he dissects with wit and style a selection of the current inanities of the regnant leftist cultural and political scene. If you haven’t read him, you’ll simply have to take my word (or get your own subscription).
But if Kimball is as perceptive as I’m convinced he is, why does he go to such lengths, not only in articles he commissions for The New Criterion, but in pieces he writes for publications such as The Spectator, to defend, promote and lionize ex-president Donald Trump? Case in point: Kimball attended a gathering at Mar-a-Lago in April where Trump treated his guests to a thirty-minute “off-the-cuff talk.” The great Donald was “at the top of his game . . . amusing, informed about the issues, and very much looking forward, not backwards” (The Spectator, Sept. 27).
Now, just how much a man can exhibit a grasp of “the issues” in half an hour, especially when he is forever fighting the temptation to talk about himself, is, let’s say, a thorny question. Many can attest that Trump tended, as Jim Geraghty once noted, to confuse policy concerns with personal concerns. Ever hear Trump say something along these lines: “Premier Jones is a great, a really great, leader because he says good things about me”? If you haven’t, you weren’t listening.
There’s no doubt that Kimball was listening. He knows, along with many of us who voted for him at least once, that Trump is a narcissist. Mulling over Maggie Haberman’s new book Confidence Man, Kimball admits that the ex-president “allows himself to be interviewed by people he knows will write so uncharitably about him” due to “a certain species of narcissism, perhaps, but”—and here’s the kicker—“that is a character trait that Trump shares with almost all politicians (maybe hold the ‘almost’).”
Holding the “almost” is not quite the same as holding the onions. The suggested omission creates a kind of absolute: all politicians are narcissists. It’s also a defense. Yes, Trump is a narcissist, the reasoning goes, but all politicians are narcissists. How could the poor fellow help himself, seeing he became president? But the argument raises a question or two.
First, what is a narcissist? I could consult a dictionary or thumb through an encyclopedia of psychology, but instead I’ll go to the long-deceased Professor Alan Bullock, once of Wadham College, Oxford, author of, among other works, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Although narcissism, he observes, became psychological currency through Freud, referring mainly to parent-child relations, the word has come to “describe a personality disorder in which the natural development of relationships to the external world has failed to take place. In such a state, only the person himself, his needs, feelings, and thoughts, everything and everybody pertaining to him are experienced as fully real, while everybody and everything else lacks reality or interest” (12). Bullock later observes, “Narcissistic personalities are convinced of their special qualities and their superiority over others, and any threat to this self-image—such as being criticized, shown up, or defeated—produces a violent reaction and often a desire for revenge” (348).
The latter quotation about the “threat to self-image” is especially pertinent in assessing Trump. How many times did he engage in Twitter rants against some other public figure simply because he could not ignore an insult or a critique of his actions? All I can say is, the habit became common, irritating, and notorious, so much that even his allies begged for someone to take away the president’s cell phone.
But now that we have some idea of what narcissism is, the second question must be asked: Are all politicians narcissists? Admittedly, we’ve had a spate of such people in the oval office of late. Let’s face it, three in a row is a distressing run. Barrack Obama, Trump and now Grandpa Joe (that is, on the days he can remember who he is) are pictures of self-absorption. What is it the O-bomb told a visiting foreign dignitary, the great thing about being president is he could do whatever he wanted? And when “the One” (Oprah’s preferred tag for Obama) was thwarted, he tended to sulk, pursing his lips and glowering. Biden narrows his eyes and drools before lashing out (remember “dog-faced pony soldier”?). But, given Kimball’s claim, this state of mind is only to be expected from our presidents.
One will have to judge for himself, but I cannot buy the argument that narcissism is part of the presidential package. Let’s start at the beginning. Was George Washington a narcissist? Adams, Jefferson, Madison? How about Lincoln? (Franks S. Meyer had a bone or two to pick with Lincoln, but I don’t recollect his ever labelling him a narcissist.) Good ol’ TR had a pretty high opinion of himself, but there’s something in his energy, self-reliance, and determination that didn’t spell the “n” word. Silent Cal was the embodiment of old New England virtue and modesty. And although I’m no fan of FDR or Truman, they don’t fit Bullock’s definition either. I’m confident that Eisenhower and Reagan, Jimmy Carter too, never descended to the utter depths of psychological egotism—not even close to it. Kennedy? Given his morals, maybe, but plenty of people have immense sexual appetites: cads but not narcissists. LBJ loved power, not himself. Forget the Bushes: too straight by a mile. Only Bill Clinton gets the nod from the pool of recent pre-Obama executives; he managed to be a narcissist, sociopath, and solipsists all in one, the complete package.
Excluding Clinton, what these presidents had, undeniably, was ambition, but that’s a far cry from the narcissism Bullock so capably defines. What disturbs me is that narcissism has almost become part of the executive job description. And what’s worse, too many conservatives, who should find the development appalling, buy into it because Trump’s their man. If Trump can change, he’d better flex his moral muscles and jettison this noxious facet of his character. If he can’t—hear this Roger Kimball, et al.—we’d better find a new guy.
Note: I wrote the observations above on October 4th, 2022, and submitted them to another online publication, which apparently found them distasteful. As the world knows today, the Donald announced his candidacy on November 15th. And what has he done since? He attacked Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida as “Ron Sanctimonious” (albeit on November 7th, the day before the governor’s landslide victory) for no other reason than that he’s a perceived rival. Next, he invited Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, two notorious anti-Semites, to Mar-a-Lago. Although he didn’t know (“informed about the issues”) they were anti-Semites, he was informed of one thing: West had said good things about him on Tucker Carlson’s show. Then Trump unveiled a virtual trading card featuring himself as a superhero. Finally and infamously, he blamed the Republicans’ disappointing mid-terms on the Pro-Life movement. So far as I can tell, Trump is just getting warmed up. Wait till he gets hot!