When a narcissist needs a friend

Understanding Trump (yet again)

4 minute read
Putin and Trump: Brothers beneath the skin. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
Putin and Trump: Brothers beneath the skin. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Why, after suffering global humiliation at his summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin last week, would President Trump compound his embarrassment just four days later by inviting Putin to Washington for a follow-up summit this fall? Why make nice to his country’s prime nemesis just before an election?​

That question has mystified pundits and talking heads but not faithful readers of Broad Street Review. In two columns last year, I made a half-dozen uncannily accurate predictions about Trump’s presidential behavior, all based on textbook theories of narcissistic personalities.

Two of those predictions may help explain Trump’s otherwise inexplicable invitation to Putin.

“In any given situation,” I wrote last fall, “Trump will take the action that makes waves or creates headlines, even if it makes no moral, political, or practical sense. How else to explain his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, his decision to exclude transgender citizens from the military, his singular refusal to condemn white racists in Charlottesville, and his current attempt to deport 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants? From a narcissist’s perspective, how can you attract attention if you simply endorse conventional wisdom?”

Trump’s gesture to Putin — against the advice of every advisor in his camp, not to mention common sense — would seem at first glance to fall into this category.

Handling criticism

But another of my predictions may be more applicable here, albeit far less obvious.

“He will never give up his children as advisors,” I predicted four days after Trump’s inauguration, “because he views them as extensions of himself; consequently, they’re the only people he trusts.” Since I wrote those words, Trump has bid farewell to such supposedly trusted advisors as Michael Flynn, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci, Steve Bannon, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, Scott Pruitt, Hope Hicks, Rob Porter, Dina Powell, Tom Price, Sebastian Gorka, and Mike Dubke. But Ivanka, Donald Jr., Eric, and of course Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner remain in their respective advisory positions.

What does this have to do with Putin? Stay with me.

If you are a narcissist, according to the Mayo Clinic’s definition, “you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation.” At such moments, when the whole world seems aligned against him, the narcissist instinctively seeks refuge with anyone who makes him feel comfortable. His blood relatives fit that description. But so does Vladimir Putin.

In a biography published in 2000, Putin proudly confided to one of his interviewers that as a young man he avoided the Soviet youth movements but was instead a shpana — a young tough or punk. American political scientist John Mearsheimer described Putin as “a first-class strategist” more usefully understood “with reference to his hypermasculinity and the role of affect, or emotion, in his political choices” as well as his preference for action over policy. This is a man after Trump’s heart — and one who understands how to manipulate Trump’s heart. In Trump’s shoes, wouldn’t you rather have Putin by your side than, say, a sensible advisor like Dan Coats?

One man’s reality

Tony Schwartz, who spent 18 months with Trump in the 1980s while ghostwriting The Art of the Deal and says he has spent much of the past year with psychiatrists who are trying to understand Trump, told CNN last week that the president is “a person who is far outside the norms of ordinary behavior… This is a man who has simultaneously been unleashed because he has pushed away all his critics, at least internally, but at the same time feels under siege. The collective or total amount of pressure he feels, I think, in a very predictable way has taken a guy and made him in ways more grandiose and more out of touch with reality. He lives now within his own version of reality almost 100 percent of the time. And that reality has almost nothing to do with reality in the way that most of us know it.”

Hmm. A man who’s lost touch with reality, who feels himself under siege, whose circle of friends is limited to those he can use or who want to use him, whose allegedly loyal friend and lawyer Michael Cohen was tape-recording his phone conversations with Trump for his own self-protection.

When a narcissist feels besieged, he wants his family nearby. But blood relations, no matter how loyal, provide only so much reassurance. Putin may not technically be family, but he and Trump are brothers under the skin. At least Trump thinks so. Who better to invite to Washington at the very moment Trump’s façade is threatening to collapse?

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