Can a Narcissist Comprehend the Meaning of Treason?
Since the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki — now dubbed the “Helsinki Humiliation,” at which President Donald Trump pledged allegiance to a foreign power who means us no good (Russia), while failing to defend his own nation’s intelligence agencies in their unanimous findings of that foreign power’s ill will toward us (interfering in the 2016 presidential election, with every sign of doing it again) — the T-word, treason, has edged into the conversation (also here, here, and here). (Full press conference here).
Former CIA director under President Barack Obama, John Brennan, characterized Trump’s Helsinki performance as “nothing short of treasonous,” while Republicans, though not calling it treason, still cannot defend this debacle. Sen. John McCain calls it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
But whether we are properly in the realm of treason, and thus in the realm of impeachment, may be moot until another question is addressed: Can a narcissist even “get” the meaning of treason, can he comprehend it?
Recall during the presidential campaign and upon Trump’s election, various members of the psychology profession, while hesitant to pronounce on his psychological fitness for office without personally examining him, ventured nevertheless to describe Trump as “remarkably narcissistic,” as one Harvard psychologist put it. Others in the profession generally agreed: Trump presents a case of excessive self-love.
In the year-and-a-half since, we members of the public have learned what it’s like to live with a narcissist — doing so without benefit of clinical training, forced to become armchair psychologists in order to “get” our president. Half of us, those on the left, find the experience unsettling in the extreme, like being trapped on a runaway rollercoaster, with Trump in his excessive self-love knocking off every last guardrail.
Norms of American democracy: What are they to the Narcissist-in-Chief? We have seen Trump blow through just about every norm heretofore attaching to the office of president. Rather than itemizing those lost norms — like severing one’s business from one’s service in office, like acting as a uniter rather than divider — we might better ask: What norm has Trump left untouched? Same goes for foreign policy. We have seen Trump threaten nuclear war with North Korea (“fire and fury”); insult and undercut our closest allies; blow through international accords (Trans-Pacific trade, Paris climate, Iran nuclear); and, just prior to Helsinki, again attack NATO, the military alliance that has kept the peace for 70 years.
But then, by definition, a narcissist in his self-love doesn’t do alliances or accords, he doesn’t do norms. Nor for that matter can a narcissist truly be a public servant, because he serves only himself. This gets to the internal dynamics of a narcissist — and here I am deep into armchair psychoanalyzing, but again, what else is a concerned citizen to do?
Observing Trump in operation for 18 months now, we have seen that, in his “mind,” he is never ever wrong and is always brilliantly right, in all ways he is the best and the greatest and the shrewdest, and if anyone — like the press, for example — says otherwise, he brands them “the enemy.” Even when shown to be wrong, as in the combined intelligence findings of Russia’s election meddling, Trump may concede a smidgen, but he couches that smidgen in such qualifying language that, presto, he’s immediately back to his erroneous, self-serving view.
So vast is the vasty deep of Trump’s self-love, and so all-consuming his need for self-justification of that vast love that, for Trump, truth of necessity gets pulled and manipulated, quickly becoming rationalization and — no other word for it — lying. Moreover, in this maw of self-justification, other things are sacrificed — things dear to the conscientious public, like….conscience. And honesty and honor and duty. And ethics and morality. In Trump there is no sense of the rightness or wrongness of things; a thing is wrong if it defies His Rightness. We might spare ourselves trying to parse Trump’s method leading to any one debacle — “What was he thinking?” — because for Trump, it’s all about self-justification.
Which is how treason may come into it. In addition to levying war against the United States, the U.S. Constitution, in Article III section 3, defines treason as “adhering” to America’s foreign enemies and giving them “aid and comfort” (also here). In that Helsinki press conference, Trump may not have been consciously thinking so much as engaging in full-on self-justification — of his legitimacy as president, which legitimacy may have been aided by a foreign enemy. Thus his aiding in return, seen in his denying his own intelligence agencies’ findings, and his adhering to Putin, seen in his explicitly absolving Putin of blame for election-meddling. It must also be noted that undercutting one’s allies is aiding and comforting the enemy.
It may be that Vladimir Putin is as narcissistic as Trump and that the aiding and comforting and adhering may by now be going both ways, along with the mutual self-justification. (Julia Ioffe notes in The Washington Post that the two share a “surreal” world-view.) Finally, this bit of armchair psychoanalyzing: This excessive self-love of the narcissist does not feel much like love, actually, but more like excessive anxiety and insecurity.
It’s instructive here to remember the Greek myth of Narcissus, a youth so enamored of his beautiful image that ultimately, unable to find love in another, he killed himself. We might also note that it was Nemesis who egged him on in his self-love, also that the root of the word “narcissism” is narke, meaning stupor.
It remains to be seen if the “Helsinki Humiliation” will be pegged, retrospectively, as an early marker on the path to Trump’s downfall. But whatever transpires going forward, it’s useful to bear in mind the personality (we can’t speak of character) of the man: As a narcissist, Trump obeys the laws of the self, not the laws of the nation.
So: If it should come to a legal showdown over Trump’s businesses, or if it should come to impeachment for treason, which is a Constitutional matter, the Narcissist-in-Chief would likely respond: What law? What Constitution?
Of course, ignorance of the law, or of the Constitution, is no defense. Buckle your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.