Sympathy for the Narcissist
Can we stop maligning people with a highly stigmatized mental illness?
I’ve been fighting with people about narcissism since the day Trump declared his candidacy. So many left-leaning people seem to relish mental illness as an explanation for his actions. Calling Trump a narcissist seems to satisfy a deep need many people have to understand him as an aberration, an evil defect taking advantage of a system that otherwise works and is fair: If he’s a narcissist, then he’s almost inhuman. Absolutely evil. And all we have to do is get rid of evil people like him, and then we can return to normal.
Of course, the “normal” way of doing things was never any good. Normal American life created Donald Trump. The normal American outlook preaches that there are people who are good and people who are bad, and we can discriminate against the bad ones with a clean conscience. Trump and his allies believe things like that. Our threadbare social welfare system is predicated on that belief. It’s a very reactionary, conservative perspective, yet many liberal people embrace it when the subject becomes “evil” people, narcissists, and Donald Trump.
You can’t actually diagnose a public figure with a mental illness from afar. There’s a reason the American Psychological Association banned psychologists from doing so back in the days of Barry Goldwater. For all the stories we hear about Trump hurling coffee pots at walls and harassing teenage girls, we can draw conclusions about the kind of person he is. But we can’t really know why he is that way. And when we throw explosive terms like “narcissist” in his direction, a lot of blameless people with mental illness get caught in the blast zone.
The anti-narcissist industrial complex blossomed during Trump’s presidency. Discourse about the evils of “narcissists” has made its way into countless op-eds, self-help books, and mental health infographics on social media. A growing number of left-leaning people became interested in the pop psychology concept of “narcissistic abuse,” which is conceptually distinguished from regular abuse only in the sense that the victim has branded their abuser a narcissist.