Why did Donald Trump fire FBI Director James Comey so abruptly, in such humiliating fashion, with no plan to communicate the reasoning behind the move and no list of replacements ready?
It is the question that launched a thousand think pieces. Even Trump surrogates were not prepared to answer it. Sean Spicer literally hid in the bushes (sorry, among the bushes).
The thing is, the answer is pretty obvious. The implications are terrifying, but the motivations are not complicated.
Trump did it because he was mad.
He was mad that people on his TV keep talking about the Russia investigation. He was mad Comey didn’t back him up on his ludicrous claims that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, even when people on his TV were criticizing him for it. He was mad Comey hasn’t been more loyal, convinced Comey was to blame for his bad ratings. So he fired Comey.
In short, what if Trump is exactly as he appears: a hopeless narcissist with the attention span of a fruit fly, unable to maintain consistent beliefs or commitments from moment to moment, acting on base instinct, entirely situationally, to bolster his terrifyingly fragile ego?
We’re not really prepared to deal with that.
There are nine traits used to identify narcissistic personality disorder (things like “requires excessive admiration” and “has a grandiose sense of self-importance”). Fitting five or more is considered sufficient for diagnosis. All nine describe Trump’s public behavior with eerie accuracy.
But a disorder, by definition, inhibits normal functioning, impedes success. And Trump is inarguably successful. He’s one of the most powerful people in the world. Whatever kind of personality he may have, some psychiatrists argue, he can’t have a disorder. He’s doing well for himself.
Whether you see this as evidence of Trump’s fitness or evidence of the power of inherited wealth in America, I’m not sure it makes much difference from a citizen’s point of view. Whether or not Trump has NPD, he clearly has the NP part.
Like all extreme narcissists, he feels a gnawing sense of inadequacy and thus requires constant adulation, admiration, and reinforcement for his oversize, hypersensitive ego. Like all extreme narcissists, he is exquisitely attuned to offense, to any hint of being the dominated party or the loser, and incredibly vengeful when he feels he’s been crossed (which is frequently).
Like all extreme narcissists, he sees every interaction, every situation, as a zero-sum contest in which there will be winners and losers. Like all extreme narcissists, he is prone to building a fantasy world in which he is always on top, always the winner. And like all extreme narcissists, he sees other people only through the lens of how they reflect or affect him.
But Trump is not merely a narcissist. There are other things going on.
Many narcissists are quite well-regulated. Using other people to one’s advantage takes not only in-the-moment charm but an ability to think ahead, as in a game of chess. Succeeding requires fooling other people, and fooling other people requires an ability to hold a complex social map in one’s head, to sustain a consistent performance over time.
Trump does have some crude cunning to manipulate people in the moment. He can sense what they want and what will elicit their approval.
But he lacks any ability to hold beliefs, commitments, or even deceptions in his head across contexts. (On Twitter, I compared him to a goldfish.) He is utterly unable to step back and put his gut emotions in larger perspective, to see himself as a person among people, in social contexts that demand some adaptation. He is impatient with attempts to influence him to take a larger view — he demands one-page memos, for instance.
Matt Yglesias says that Trump lies all the time. And it’s certainly true that he says false things all the time. But even to say “lie” seems to suggest a certain self-awareness, an ability to distinguish performance from reality, that Trump shows no signs of possessing.
Trump does have consistent attitudes, and that has given his actions some consistency. Above all, he is utterly terrified of, and hostile to, weakness.
Fear of weakness helps explain why Trump mocked John McCain for being taken prisoner, why he mocked a disabled reporter, why he’s been so consistently racist. Somewhere in his reptile brain, he views being captured, disabled, or persecuted as weakness, as being dominated.
It also explains his fondness for autocratic strongmen — the ones who dominate.
But these attitudes, these instincts, do not seem to yield persistent beliefs or principles. Trump is highly attuned to dominance and submission in the moment, but each moment is a new moment, unconstrained by prior commitments, statements, or actions.
Trump defies our theory of mind because he appears to lack a coherent, persistent self or worldview. He is a raging fire of need, protected and shaped by a lifetime of entitlement, with the emotional maturity and attention span of a 6-year-old, utterly unaware of the long-term implications of his actions.
This makes him, as many others have noted, extremely vulnerable to being manipulated by whoever happens to talk to him last, whoever butters him up and makes him feel important. (And that includes the TV.)
It’s one thing when that involves a wild Twitter accusation or the firing of a staff member. All Trump’s crises so far have been internal and self-inflicted, more or less.
But what will happen when he gets into a confrontation with North Korea, when Kim Jong Un deliberately provokes him? Will his response be considered and strategic? Will he be able to get information and aid from allies? Will he be able to make and keep commitments during negotiations?
There’s no sign of hope for any of that.
More likely he will prove, as he has in literally every confrontation of the past several years, congenitally unable to back down or deescalate, even if doing so is clearly in everyone’s best interests.
More likely he will be desperate to maintain face and will listen to whatever his security staff whispers in his ear.
More likely he will make rash and fateful decisions with insufficient consultation and no clear plan.
That’s who he is: a disregulated bundle of impulses, being manipulated by a cast of crooks and incompetents, supported by a Republican Party willing to bet the stability of the country against upper-income tax cuts. We need to stop looking for a more complicated story.
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