Trump’s Caught the Press in His Narcissistic Web

The president’s pathologies entrap us all, but the press needs to figure out a way to escape the loop.

Trump speaking in a room full of reporters.
President Donald Trump speaks during a post-election press conference in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 7. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump loves to blame the press for chaos of his own making. His anger when the media accurately reports on his own rhetorical abuses has been the centerpiece of his presidency, but in recent weeks, the president has taken it to new heights. Just a day after a rabid anti-Semite massacred 11 mostly elderly Jewish worshippers in a synagogue, Trump tweeted, “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame.” The following Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders concluded her scheduled press briefing by telling the assembled reporters: “You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country, when 90 percent of the coverage of everything this president does is negative, despite the fact that the country is doing extremely well, despite the fact that the president is delivering on exactly what he said he was going to do if elected,” she said. “And he got elected by an overwhelming majority of 63 million Americans who came out and supported him, and wanted to see his policies enacted.” This attack on the press came with a gooey caramel center of lying (the president was not elected by an overwhelming majority of anyone: he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million).

Major news outlets scrambled again to “fact-check” and “debunk” an obvious lie. And journalists of all sorts went a little batshit, as is reasonable when blamed for a massacre of innocent elderly Jews. This Wednesday, the cycle repeated again when the White House revoked the press credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta following the nastiest exchange between a president and a reporter in modern memory. The White House then fabricated a claim that Acosta had “put his hands” on a White House staffer, despite video evidence to the contrary. Journalists reacted in horror to the banishment, and the press became the story yet again.

Has the press really been too touchy in its responses to Trump’s attacks? Jon Stewart recently accused the media of being “narcissists” who always take the president’s bait for the wrong reasons. Says Stewart: “They take it personally. And now [Trump’s] changed the conversation to not that his policies are silly or not working or any of those other things; it’s all about the fight.” Ezra Klein, in a long meditation on the same problem, notes that Trump has just this one play: He demonizes and/or blames problems created by his own words and actions on the press. As Klein writes:

We cover Trump’s statements as outrageous and aberrant; we make clear where he’s lied or given succor to violent paranoiacs; we fret over the future of the free press. And then Trump and his loyalists point to our overwhelmingly negative coverage and say, “See? Told you they were the opposition party.”

This cycle doesn’t only apply to the press—political opponents and even weary civilians can find themselves swept up in the drama—but journalists are caught in a hellish Catch-22. The problem is not that journalists are especially narcissistic, as Stewart says, but that Trump is pathologically so. Trump indisputably meets the criteria for severe narcissistic personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Many psychiatrists and psychologists have said as much, although they can’t formally diagnose him because they haven’t personally examined him, which triggers the Goldwater rule.

We say, Goldwater rule be damned, the writing is on the national wall. The “logic” of a narcissist is always bent, and Trump is no different. He sucks the media into what we might call a faulty causal loop. Psychologists who specialize in narcissism have a name for this phenomenon: DARVO, which stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” It’s both effective and infuriating: Every time Trump kicks someone and the press calls him out on it, he screams, “OW, they’re attacking me.” This loop traps the media in an antagonistic relationship with their own profession, which is precisely to report on what a president does and says. DARVO is at once causally backwards yet impossible to logically rebut. Even reasonable responses end up looking like a form of tail-chasing.

The challenge for the press is similar to the broader problem we all face: how to grapple with a man whose only concern is himself? We think it’s time to stop wondering what motivates Trump and focus instead on what compels people to react so strongly to him. The linguist known for his work on discursive “framing,” George Lakoff wrote about Donald Trump, “We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.” Trump succeeds because he taps into our unconscious (but felt-as-normal, i.e., familiar) emotional mechanisms, reinforcing patterns usually set during childhood and adolescence.

Trump “reminds” many people of the parental dynamics of authority they grew up with. In itself, this is not unique; most successful politicians tap into those feelings. But Trump’s case is wildly extreme; his tapping-in sets up a pathological call and response. The press responds to his call—and thereby reopens some of its own narcissistic wounds, both those inflicted in real time by Trump and those laid in by prior life experiences. Like the rest of us, journalists come out of families of origin. They work in a highly competitive culture in which aggressive self-promotion teeters on the edge of narcissism, in a culture that rewards clinical-level narcissism (as long as it is mostly male). It must be said (and Trump is living proof) that journalism isn’t the only profession that rewards narcissism. The most successful CEOs in this country register high on the scale of clinical narcissistic personality disorder characteristics.

But here’s the rub: Compared with all personality disorders, people with NPD rarely seek treatment, because one of the criteria of the disorder is not believing that anything is wrong with them. Far from suffering from their own narcissism, they benefit from it through their ability to emotionally manipulate those around them. The people who do show up in therapists’ offices are usually the narcissists’ victims: family members, employees, people who are at the receiving end of chronic abuse which can range from mild disregard to full-out angry tirades. They suffer what psychologists call “narcissist wounds”: scars to normal self-esteem and the ability to believe in their own reality-based perceptions.

And reality-based perceptions drive good journalism. Given that most journalists and reporters want to report factual events, it’s not surprising that many fall into the time-suck of disproving one lie after another while also trying to defend their reputations as professionals. Putting people on the defensive and forcing them to explain themselves over and over again is how clinical narcissists manipulate their victims. So how is a good journalist to avoid getting stuck on the narcissist’s causal loop? MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow offered up a partial model when, in 2017, she stopped allowing her show to cover Trump’s fleeting tweets or efforts to engage the media in conflict and instead focused her coverage on what he actually does. Protesters in Pittsburgh offered the media another model of resisting Trump through their silent disengagement and shunning when he came to Pittsburgh despite the thousands of pleas that he wait a week. The press largely ignored the president’s conduct that day.

Trump’s lust for media attention means that journalists are in a uniquely difficult position. They must keep telling the truth about what he does and says, but not on his terms, and not defensively. His tantrums deserve little spotlight and even less panelist punditry. The press should expect the calumnies that will come every day, week, and month until Trump is finally out of office. The only thing they can do to defang this “enemy of the people” claptrap is realize that it isn’t personal—for the malignant narcissist, nothing matters except himself—step off the causal loop, and refuse to play the narcissist’s boring game.