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Why Trump Craves Conflict, According to a Narcissism Expert

Last week it was Hillary, this week it’s the NFL. Who’s next?

Donald Trump continues to make Wendy Behary’s speciality a central theme of American life. A New Jersey-based therapist in practice for twenty years, Behary is the author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed.

While it’s impossible to diagnose Trump with anything like narcissistic personality disorder at a distance, we can notice patterns of behavior. One that’s come through especially strong—always there, but especially over the past few weeks—is a serial need to get into fights, whether it’s on Twitter or during rallies. Relitigating the 2016 campaign—and continuing to attack Hillary Clinton—has been a leitmotif throughout Trump’s operatics, but the conflicts with first Steph Curry, then LeBron James, and now the National Football League bring things to a cacophonous crescendo.

Thrive Global got on the phone with Behary to cut through all this noise, and try to grasp why Trump is so pulled to pugilism, why he acts like he speaks on behalf of the truth, and how to deal with the The Donalds we run into in our professional and personal lives.

THRIVE GLOBAL: First things first: why is Trump constantly getting into fights? I mean, the guy is already president.

WENDY BEHARY: With narcissists, it’s always about control—anything that allows them to be in charge and hold the position of supreme power. It’s another way of compensating for what we know underneath is a lot of insecurity.

TG: The loneliness of narcissists, which we’ve talked about before.

WB: It’s also a way of trying to arouse the approval of his fans and followers. You try to win the approval of those you can by being an all-powerful person in charge. He does it under the guise of the “patriot.” He doesn’t hear the message that’s really incorporated both in the symbolism of the NFL protests nor the unwillingness to partake in his invitation to the White House to the NBA.

No one is kneeling down going into a protesting posture directed specifically at him. It may be directed at his values, or lack thereof. It may be directed at his policy, his mission, but it’s not directed at him. And yet for him this is a very, very personal affront. And like a bully, he stands up and says they should be fired. And he says it in a way that has incredible contempt attached to it.

For narcissists, their eye is on their own agenda. They don’t really see or understand the internal experiences of another or another person’s motives or inclinations because it’s very much about their own singular mission.

TG: What about Curry not wanting to go to the White House?

WB: That’s the greatest insult. This isn’t about going to the White House. This is about going to meet the King—King Trump. You’re supposed to want to go to the “King’s Court.” And the fact that they declined is another narcissistic injury. So it always comes back to it being about him, but he doesn’t say that so much because that would make him look as if he were wounded or actually affected by these reactions. He does it as if he has the nation supporting him and saying it’s an insult to our country and to the people of our country. He speaks as if he’s speaking on everyone’s behalf as if it is the right and just thing.

TG: It’s fascinating how he’s always universalizing, speaking on behalf of the country.

WB: The goal for the narcissist is it takes the edge off the personal piece because he can’t tolerate the idea that this might be something personal. And so instead it has to be somehow embedded in the idea that there’s this very large and universal theme that everyone of course would agree with him.

TG: There’s a sort of dissolution of where the self ends and the rest of the world is.

WB: Because he thinks he is the truth. That’s very well said. But we know it’s all part smoke and mirrors. He doesn’t even know. The sad thing about this situation is that when we understand narcissism and narcissistic personalities, we know that so much of this dimension of personality is used for survival because there’s so much insecurity in the background. They’re not even aware of what they’re doing. And not even fully aware that it’s happening implicitly.

Now, I’m not saying that to let him off the hook, because I still think he’s responsible for his own behaviors. And to examine them and listen to the playback. But it happens so automatically, and that’s what makes it so scary and dangerous. A lot of it is just habit and impulse.

TG: So how do we deal with the Trumps in our personal and professional lives?

WB: They’re all over, these people who are the owners of truth.

I’ve coached the offended the party of the narcissist to learn how to use language that is somewhat nauseating, like ways of saying “Of course you’re smart enough to know what’s best for the kids.”

TG: You can’t turn it into a battle.

WB: It’s almost like handing them an opportunity to be a hero. They love to be heroes and they love to get it right and win your approval. You hand them another version of something that might oppose the way they see it, but you don’t go after it in a challenging, debating, argumentative way. Because then the battle’s on and they love the competition. There’s something to win, there’s a prize. And they’re gonna hang onto their truth because that’s the only way to preserve their ego.

People ask me all the time “What advice do you give to the staffers?” I say “Get yourself some help so that you can stay as sturdy as you can and not personalize these issues if you’re forced into a situation where you have to be at the service of this man.”

But you’re not going to win in a challenge or a competition. You don’t want to take that on. You want to set limits. You want to hold your ground. You want to state your case. And you might even be able to cajole them into thinking it’s their idea too, if you’re really trying to influence moving them in a direction of doing the right thing. 

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