Before he ran for President, Donald Trump admitted he is a narcissist in his book “Think Like a Billionaire.” Narcissism is normal for business executives. Michael Maccoby wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in 2000 called “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” which described narcissists as grandiose risk-takers who often make catastrophic mistakes, but also have amazing successes that benefit society.
Narcissists succeed in business because they have a set of useful personality traits. They are visionaries, so they can promote a brand to millions of consumers. Their visions give them self-confidence, helping them translate an idea into a product. They have attractive personalities – charisma – helping them persuade millions of people to believe them.
Yet, there are negative effects. Narcissists tend to divide people into allies and enemies; they often lack empathy for other people; they tend to be vindictive against perceived enemies; worst of all, they tend to believe that rules do not apply to them, so they act like they are above the law.
Countries succeed by teaching citizens: (1) if they work hard, they will reap rewards; (2) if they make mistakes they will be punished; (3) if they work hard enough they will enter the elite. Countries fail by sending the opposite messages.
The negative effects of narcissism limit the political ambitions of narcissistic people. Corporate leaders with no previous political or military experience rarely become President. Wendell Willkie lost the 1940 election to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This makes Donald Trump unique as the first business leader without any prior political or military experience to win the Electoral College without winning the popular vote.
Alexander Hamilton feared such a skilled self-promoter would run for president intending to make money, not to promote the public good, and voters would not be able to tell the difference. Millions of voters were vulnerable to Trump’s charisma and charm. These voters were mostly from states that lost jobs and community over the past 40 years. In the book “The Fractured Republic,” Yuval Levin demonstrates that the 21st century is characterized by decentralization and social isolation, in contrast to the 20th century’s centralization and consolidation.
A good way to understand these voters is to consider the rice experiments pioneered by Dr. Masaru Emoto. Put water into three clear cups and put rice into the water. Label one cup "hate", one cup "love", and one cup "neutral." Over the course of three weeks, express affection to the “love” cup, anger to the “hate” cup, and ignore the “neutral” cup. The rice in the “love” and “hate” cups will get bigger, but the rice in the “neutral” cup will dissolve. The rice cups symbolize us. The “love” cup represents receiving love and affection from other people. The “hate” cup represents receiving anger from other people. The “neutral” cup represents being ignored. Social isolation is like being in the “neutral” cup. It is much worse to be ignored than to receive negative attention.
Too many citizens now experience isolation, the equivalent of the "neutral" cup. For many citizens, Trump’s charisma and mass rallies helped them move into the "love" cup. Most Trump voters did not believe Trump could build a wall, but they loved attending the boisterous rallies. Trump's rhetoric also appealed to white, working-class citizens in the industrial states. These citizens wanted to bring back both jobs and community. Like all narcissists, Trump connected voters through the cult of his personality.
However, the negative effects are apparent whenever narcissistic leaders decide to identify an enemy. They ask supporters to attack the enemy, thus turning compassionate citizens into bloodthirsty mobs.
There will be future candidates for president who act like Trump. The best way to stop them is to reconnect with people in our communities. The framers of the Constitution used federalism, the separation of powers, and the Bill of Rights to limit the impact of government. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin also believed in the power of public education to teach citizens about limits on government.
However, public education has been dismantled over the past 40 years. Voters now believe that education is a private good, not a public good. As a result, millions of citizens are misinformed by talk radio, cable news networks, social media, and fake news. Arizona is one of the worst states in the country in terms of funding public education, ranking 49th.
Sometimes charismatic leadership is useful, but we can help voters to resist narcissism and misinformation by educating them and ending their social isolation. We can start by restoring funding for public education. This will require treating education as a public good, not a private good, and raising taxes accordingly. Ideally, public education emphasizes civic engagement through civic organizations. Strong communities are the best tools for solving our problems, not narcissistic leaders.