Trump – cult leader?

trump2Even before Donald Trump was accused in the media of treating women badly, it was already being claimed that he was showing signs of being a full-blown narcissist. Whether or not he does completely fulfil all the criteria for this personality disorder, is not for me to cast a final opinion. I would however comment that all the earlier speculation on this topic does seem to get extra traction from his past and present remarks about women. Also we have the witness of a variety of women who have come forward to speak of the experiences of their encounters with him. Our interest in looking at Trump in this way arises from the fact that the same personality disorder is also thought to afflict many people who run cults or extreme religious groups. If this were to be true, then we might expect to see parallels between Trump and the leaders who are of particular interest to this blog. To put the question another way, does Trump’s behaviour, both past and present, remind us of the charismatic leaders who misuse their power such as Michael Reid at Peniel Brentwood?

Everyone will have noted that Trump has denied all the attacks on the women who have accused him of unwanted intimacies. At the point of writing nine women have alleged that he used them sexually and inappropriately. Are we to believe the women or Trump’s denials? The probability that he actually did the things he was accused of by the women is strengthened by the way that they fit well with the off-hand remarks made by him on the 2005 tape. These were laughed off as ‘locker-room banter’. But for those of us who take an interest in the incidence of narcissism see these words as a classic example of one of the nine criteria for the NPD diagnosis, a sense of entitlement. People of power who suffer from the disorder routinely believe that lesser mortals are theirs to use and exploit in whatever they wish. Empathy for their victims is absent. Any feeling for the embarrassment, shame and disgust that the women so treated might have felt will be totally absent. Women, in the eyes of the narcissistic predator, are expected to feel flattered that the great wonderful powerful person should take an interest in them, even if just to abuse them. Sadly, the dynamics involved in such encounters mean that some women do act out the part of a compliant star-struck victim, as we have recently seen in the sordid tales of some footballers and their sex-fuelled encounters. In this situation we may suggest that the victims coming forward may be a very small minority of the total number treated badly by Trump. The humiliation of victims is one of the reasons why so most do not want to tell their story at the hands of a power-hungry un-empathetic narcissist.

When we look at the other criteria of narcissism, there seem to be many that fit Trump very well. If, as we suspect, Trump is eventually shown to be a blustering liar in his response to the stories told about him by his female victims, this will fit the category of ‘arrogance and haughty patronising behaviour’. We must acknowledge that the very act of seeking such high office will require a candidate to have considerable self-confidence and appetite for success which goes beyond the norm. But the really destructive part of the disorder, and this is as true of religious leadership in certain settings, is that the narcissist begins to feed off all the adulation being given him so that he no longer has any real sense of who he is. Many of the political set-pieces that have placed Trump in front of his supporters have resembled religious rallies. To experience the breathless adoration of your supporters must be like a drug, a powerful narcissistic feeding. The damaging part of the experience is that it undermines self-criticism, realism and generally the ability to know yourself as you truly are. In short you learn to live a lie. The complete failure to deal with any of his accusers on the part of Trump by admitting any part of their accusations is also a sign of a refusal, typical in narcissists, to face reality, even in part. One of our UK politicians, Jeremy Corbyn, seems to be on the way to believing that cheering crowds are a sign of his popularity. The crowd may cheer him but that crowd is not the full face of public opinion.

Although writing about a politician in another country is probably a somewhat risky task, I nevertheless want to consider how narcissism in leaders is a danger for any institution. A leading churchman, particularly in a non-denominational setting, will be like a political leader who has reached the top of a ladder of power. I wrote in a couple of blogs back about ministers who contrive to have constitutions of the churches they serve changed so that they will have complete power and control. A congregation may be a very small unit when compared with a complete country but the dynamics of narcissistic power will work the same way in both. Leaders and led can so easily be caught up in a destructive cycle which leaves both damaged.

What are these dangers for institutions? A narcissistic leader who receives a lot of gratification from listening to the praise of followers (think political/religious rally) may start to believe his own rhetoric about his importance. Just as Mugabe regards himself as the Father of the Nation, so a religious leader may start to present his ideas as a direct revelation from God. In short narcissism helps to transform simple power into tyranny. Checks and balances that exist in healthy institutions like parliaments or committees are done away with because they may impede the leader in pursuing his narcissistically fuelled vision. Thankfully there exist in the States as in the UK enough constitutional checks to presidential power but the damage to the system could still be enormous in the hands of a maverick, as Trump appears to be. In the church equally destructive forces can be released when a leader genuinely believes that he alone has the ability and the authority to interpret the words of Scripture for his church. Amid all his rhetoric there may be one or two good emphases but history indicates that the narcissistic leader will mix in other stuff which goes under the category of ‘weird’ or dysfunctional. The ability to be right all the time in religion or politics is given to virtually no one. The moment anyone starts to believe in their personal infallibility is the beginning of decline and the probable eventual collapse of an institution. Peniel, the church in Brentwood began to become a place of tyranny and decline the moment that Michael Reid took for himself unfettered power over his congregation. That was also the moment when his narcissism seemed to become the dominant feature of his personality.

The new facets of Trump’s character that have been revealed in the past two weeks will probably ensure that he does not become the next American president. While narcissism clings to leaders everywhere, it is seldom that one detects such a full-blown example of the disorder in a single individual. World peace and order would be put under severe strain were Trump to win the election. His apparent a admiration for Putin is another extraordinary piece of narcissistic behaviour. Trump appears to believe that his own status is enhanced through his admiring and identifying with another powerful leader. Putin’s public popularity in his own country is not hard to understand. When a society and the individual lives within it are going through a crisis they need to project onto an individual who is seemingly successful and strong. Similar dynamics seem to occur in some congregations. Just as children find their status involves identification with their parents, so some members of congregations need to project onto and identify with their leaders. It feels, as we have said many times before, like a cosy way of satisfying relational needs on both sides. But neither leader nor led are easily able to escape the trap that they have made the for themselves. Narcissist and followers are stuck in a mutually harmful relationship which does nothing for their maturity or growth. To answer the question which we posed in the title. The answer seems to be that Trump has used the gifts common to the narcissistic/charismatic personality to draw many people into his disordered world-view. Let us hope that for the sake of America and the world, that it is not a majority of the American people!

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “Trump – cult leader?

  1. I may have mentioned before the behaviour of a priest I knew who was eventually de-frocked. (It’s nearly always sex or money, in this case it was money!) For many years previously he had been showing signs of narcissism. He simply got rid of anyone who disagreed with him. Church Wardens, Treasurers, anyone who might reasonably be presumed to be part of the checks and balances within the church was simply removed if they didn’t do his bidding. The church failed to act. It was known. I was only one of many people who received an abusive letter. The Archdeacon simply told me there was nothing they could do. I’m sure there would have been, had the will been there.
    It also strikes me that what these guys need is the Jester! The one whose job it is to whisper in his ear, “Thou too art mortal”. In church terms, the prophetic voice.

  2. English Athena,

    I think that even the Jester’s words of wisdom would fall on deaf ears.

    I’ve lost two friends over this election — not that they were truly friends in the deeper sense. It seems that Evangelicals consider Trump to be a “baby Christian,” and apart from any of his other traits or behaviors which he continues to manifest, I’m expected to encourage his new life in Christ by voting for him. I think of Bonhoeffer’s writings about cheap grace (and sadly also of the era under which his life was taken). The confirmation bias just amazes me — even though I understand the process of thought reform. And it’s all driven by fear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.