“This Is What Happens When a Narcissist Runs a Crisis” (Jennifer Senior)

It is not often that I reprint an article from elsewhere, but I think this Washington Post opinion piece by Jennifer Senior is such an intelligent, insightful, honest, and necessary addition to the public discourse about Donald Trump that I thought you would want to read, and share, it. I think you’ll also see how beautifully written it is — and how blistering.

President Trump last year at the White House. His mental health has been questioned since the early days of his administration.

Link to article and photo credit

Since the early days of the Trump administration, an impassioned group of mental health professionals have warned the public about the president’s cramped and disordered mind, a darkened attic of fluttering bats (emphasis mine). Their assessments have been controversial. The American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics expressly forbids its members from diagnosing a public figure from afar.

Enough is enough. As I’ve argued before, an in-person analysis of Donald J. Trump would not reveal any hidden depths — his internal sonar could barely fathom the bottom of a sink — and these are exceptional, urgent times. Back in October, George T. Conway III, the conservative lawyer and husband of Kellyanne, wrote a long, devastating essay for The Atlantic, noting that Trump has all the hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder. That disorder was dangerous enough during times of prosperity, jeopardizing the moral and institutional foundations of our country.

But now we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. The president’s pathology is endangering not just institutions, but lives.

Let’s start with the basics. First: Narcissistic personalities like Trump harbor skyscraping delusions about their own capabilities. They exaggerate their accomplishments, focus obsessively on projecting power, and wish desperately to win.

What that means, during this pandemic: Trump says we’ve got plenty of tests available, when we don’t. He declares that Google is building a comprehensive drive-thru testing website, when it isn’t. He sends a Navy hospital ship to New York and it proves little more than an excuse for a campaign commercial, arriving and sitting almost empty in the Hudson. A New York hospital executive calls it a joke.

Second: The grandiosity of narcissistic personalities belies an extreme fragility, their egos as delicate as foam. They live in terror of being upstaged. They’re too thin skinned to be told they’re wrong.

What that means, during this pandemic: Narcissistic leaders never have, as Trump likes to say, the best people. They have galleries of sycophants. With the exceptions of Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, Trump has surrounded himself with a Z-team of dangerously inexperienced toadies and flunkies — the bargain-bin rejects from Filene’s Basement — at a time when we require the brightest and most imaginative minds in the country.

Faced with a historic public health crisis, Trump could have assembled a first-rate company of disaster preparedness experts. Instead he gave the job to his son-in-law, a man-child of breathtaking vapidity. Faced with a historic economic crisis, Trump could have assembled a team of Nobel-prize winning economists or previous treasury secretaries. Instead he talks to Larry Kudlow, a former CNBC host.

Meanwhile, Fauci and Birx measure every word they say like old-time apothecaries, hoping not to humiliate the narcissist — never humiliate a narcissist — while discreetly correcting his false hopes and falsehoods. They are desperately attempting to create a safe space for our president, when the president should be creating a safer nation for all of us.

Third: Narcissistic personalities love nothing more than engineering conflict and sowing division. It destabilizes everyone, keeps them in control.

What that means, during this pandemic: Trump is pitting state against state for precious resources, rather than coordinating a national response. (“It’s like being on eBay,” complained Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York last week.) His White House is a petty palace of competing power centers. He picks fights with Democratic officials and members of the press, when all the public craves is comfort.

Narcissistic personalities don’t do comfort. They cannot fathom the needs of other hearts.

Fourth: Narcissistic personalities are vindictive. On a clear day, you can see their grudges forever.

What that means, during this pandemic: Trump is playing favorites with governors who praise him and punishing those who fail to give him the respect he believes he deserves. “If they don’t treat you right, don’t call,” he told Vice President Mike Pence.

His grudge match with New York is now especially lethal. When asked on Friday whether New York will have enough ventilators, Trump bluntly answered “No,” and then blamed the state.

And most relevant, as far as history is concerned: Narcissistic personalities are weak.

What that means, during this pandemic: Trump is genuinely afraid to lead. He can’t bring himself to make robust use of the Defense Production Act, because the buck would stop with him. (To this day, he insists states should be acquiring their own ventilators.) When asked about delays in testing, he said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” During Friday’s news conference, he added the tests “we inherited were broken, were obsolete,” when this form of coronavirus didn’t even exist under his predecessor.

This sounds an awful lot like one of the three sentences that Homer Simpson swears will get you through life: “It was like that when I got here.”

Most people, even the most hotheaded and difficult ones, have enough space in their souls to set aside their anger in times of crisis. Think of Rudolph Giuliani during Sept. 11. Think of Andrew Cuomo now.

But every aspect of Trump’s crisis management has been annexed by his psychopathology. As Americans die, he boasts about his television ratings. As Americans die, he crows that he’s No. 1 on Facebook, which isn’t close to true.

But it is true that all eyes are on him. He’s got a captive audience, an attention-addict’s dream come to life. It’s just that he, like all narcissistic personalities, has no clue how disgracefully — how shamefully, how deplorably — he’ll be enshrined in memory.

Bacterium

NSU: German History X, a crime drama produced in Germany and introduced to US audiences as a Netflix “original,” chronicles the growth of the ultra-right National Socialist Underground (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund) terrorist movement, which began to gather its destructive energy in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Though based on real events still playing out in Germany’s Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof or BGH), the Netflix series is nonetheless billed as “a work of fiction, not a documentary” and is told in three, movie-length episodes. The first episode focuses on three perpetrators who, after founding the NSU, go on a killing rampage across Germany that spans many years and that takes the lives of eight Turkish immigrants, one Greek immigrant, and a German policewoman. The second episode centers around the 2000 murder of Turkish florist Enver Simsek, one of the ten victims, and shows with heartbreaking poignancy the impact his violent, senseless death had on the wife and children he left behind. The third episode exposes the police investigation of the crimes for what it was: drawn out, cruelly executed, badly bungled, politically charged, and morally ambiguous.

While the second episode is one of the most unflinching—and wrenching—portraits I have seen of a very particular and, but for this episode, ineffable kind of suffering immigrant families are made to endure wherever a climate of xenophobic, nativist sentiment exists, it is the chilling story of the three young, right-wing reactionaries that I cannot quite shake.

It would be simplistic to say that these three were disaffected, uneducated thugs with a misguided belief that immigrants, Jews, and other so-called minorities had taken away their jobs, had overrun their country, and had somehow usurped their birthright. It would also be simplistic to say that one of them behaved as she did because of a weak, neglectful, alcoholic mother or that all three were looking for ways to feel powerful and visible because they actually felt impotent and unseen.

But there are no easy answers here: Just as there is no explaining the why of a Hitler, perhaps there is no explaining the why of these three neo-Nazis. Evil exists, and who but God knows why.

Yet I am left with an uneasy feeling about these perpetrators, who came of age during a turbulent time of reunification in Germany. While two of the three are now dead and the one still standing is in prison, their strain is alive and spreading infection not only across an increasingly right-shifting Europe but also across this country, where racist, anti-immigration sentiment has once again found a witting mouthpiece for its message of hate in none other than a Republican presidential candidate.

An ocean might separate the US from the current tumult in Europe, where right-wing nationalism has taken firm political hold in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland, and elsewhere. But Donald Trump’s racist populism provides just the right kind of bubbling broth needed to grow a thriving culture of extremist microbes right here at home.

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“It’s all about crossing that line.”

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I am a big fan of British crime shows and will watch just about anything produced by the BBC. The mayhem I get to see allows me to exercise the darker side of my nature so I don’t actually have to go out and commit a homicide. I admit, though, that I have given it thought.

After watching all eight episodes of the British crime series Marcella, which just came out on Netflix, I am persuaded that I need to be more selective about my viewing choices.

Throughout, I kept wondering what an innocent who accidentally landed on this planet would think about the human race if this show were its only exposure to people on Earth. Perhaps it would think that

  1. Nowhere is one human safe from the inevitable treachery and betrayal of every other human.
  2. Most humans want to kill or maim other humans.
  3. Humans, especially men, prefer to harm others with knives and guns, but glass shards will suffice when these are not available.
  4. Most men are sadistic, and violence is as natural to them as breathing.
  5. Immigrant men are especially brutal and remorseless, particularly if they are from Eastern Europe.
  6. Among humans, there is one asexual, shy man who is made the butt of every joke.
  7. Most men are murderers, but a scattering also are adulterers.
  8. Most women and gay men are mentally ill, some extremely and violently so.
  9. Women who are not mentally ill are cold, cruel, and aloof.
  10. Humans appear to die prematurely and preternaturally.
  11. A human has psychic powers (or access to CCTV footage) and knows exactly where all other humans have been or are going to be at each moment.
  12. A man who marries an older woman would actually rather have sex with her beautiful daughter’s dresses.
  13. One must steer clear of the thin human wearing a hoodie.
  14. Every human being is inextricably connected to every other human being.

On this last point I would have to agree.

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“Daddy, why doesn’t the sky fall on us?”

Recently I learned about Quora while reading a blog post by a woman whose writing I admire. In no time, I was signing up with the question-and-answer website and soon after was receiving daily digests of sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling questions that were accompanied by sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling answers. Here are some examples of the questions you would receive if you signed up:

  • According to the theory of evolution, why do we die?
  • What is the sickest thought you have ever had?
  • What is it like to marry a doctor?
  • How do I become an interesting person in real life?
  • What’s the creepiest thing you have heard a child say?
  • What are some bad experiences of guys who have a very hot wife?
  • How does knowing the Latin origin of a word help me in any way?
  • Why would my teen daughter keep urinating on towels in her room when her bedroom is right next to the bathroom?
  • Is “Please find attached my resume” grammatically correct?
  • How would a dog react if I tried to lick its face?
  • If you smell marijuana being smoked by a neighbor in their backyard, should you notify the police?

And Quora is not the only website of its kind; there are heaps of them: Ask.com, ChaCha, Google Questions, WikiAnswers, and Yahoo! Answers, to name several. What I find more interesting than the actual questions asked and answered on these sites, however, is the fact that such sites exist at all. So, I thought I would do a little thinking out loud about the appeal of reading random questions and answers, the latter of which, I’m sorry to report, are not always based in fact—and are not always grammatical.

Peter Baskerville, who bills himself as “Teacher, Edupreneur, and Father of Three” and who has been “Top Writer” for Quora each year since 2012, maintains that the site (and, by extension, others like it) “fills a massive learning-needs gap that currently exists for the people of the planet.”

As an educator and as a longtime proponent of online teaching and learning, I think I might have a sense of what Baskerville means by a “massive learning-needs gap,” though I am hard-pressed to understand how knowing what it’s like for a man to have a “hot wife” is going to help me become a better-informed global citizen. But that’s just me.

No, I think our interest in reading random questions and answers has more to do with our ever-increasing hunger for bite-sized, distractive information parading as essential information and with our brains’ shrinking capacity to identify what is genuinely important; to think deeply about a topic; or to make creative, thoughtful connections between seemingly disconnected ideas.

We have arrived at this moment in history with the attention spans of four-year-olds on a road trip who, from the back seat, call out absently to their parents in the front: “Mommy, can I still play with my dolls when I go to Heaven?” and “Daddy, why did you marry Mommy?” and “Mommy, will I turn colors after I die?” and “Daddy, what is a fish stick?”

The personal is political.

Digital painting based on Based on The Last Supper, ca. 1520, Andrea Solari, after Leonardo da Vinci, oil on canvas, in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Tongerlo Abbey.

Generally, I do not write about politics, but my often deeply personal writing is always deeply political, if by “political” one means rooted in larger forces, both seen and unseen. That is to say I am incapable of separating who I am, what I believe, and what I have lived from the historical, social, economic, and cultural influences that have shaped me.

As a young girl and then as a grown woman, I suffered considerable emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. Even a few doctors had their way. Yet, while it is true that I have been badly wounded by these abuses, my deepest scars come from the violence my soul has had to endure. Those who are violent, even if it is emotional violence, are incapable of seeing the humanity that animates their victims, and they lack the capacity for self-awareness and self-honesty. How else could they justify the pain they inflict?

I grew up in an extended family of arrogant, self-deluded misogynists not unlike Donald Trump; even the women hated women (or, more precisely, they hated themselves). So when I listen to Trump speak hatefully and cruelly about women — and speak grandiosely and with high regard about himself — I have to admit that I feel right at home. Although he is as much a victim of history and culture as my family is and was, he nevertheless is a bankrupt and soulless human being who, if elected president, God forbid, would have me waxing nostalgic about those very dark Reagan and Bush days. And, while I am as left of left as they come, last night I was giddy to learn of Ted Cruz’s victory in Iowa because perhaps it means that Trump will soon be down for the count — though Cruz is only slightly less reprehensible than his rival.

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On devolution

god_jack sanders_photo by Marilyn SandersToday I caught the last moments of a Terry Gross interview on NPR. In it, she was speaking with Jack Miles, general editor of The Norton Anthology Of World Religions and professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the author of God: A Biography, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. What I heard was of great interest, but most interesting of all was a seeming throwaway line I might have missed had I not gone back to read an online transcript of the discussion and reflect on what had been said.

“I have no confidence that the world [awaiting] us — given global warming, given the threat to the human habitat — is a world of ever-increasing knowledge…,” says Miles. “We may be at a peak now from which we will decline. Who knows?”

I think I can honestly say it never occurred to me that human beings would stop evolving; in fact, I have often taken comfort in the belief that we could grow out of our smallnesses and stupidities to become the enlightened band of sisters and brothers we were meant to be. But one glance at the day’s headlines, and I have to wonder if we are, in fact, on a slow, steady slide downward.

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Three years!

Tomorrow it will be three years since I wrote my first blog post. To celebrate, and as a way of offering you my gratitude for reading and supporting my work, I thought I’d unearth and reprint “The hay who wore a toupée,” one of the pieces I wrote in January 2012:

“When I was a child, I think I thought that words were more reliable than grown-ups but not as important as horses. Grown-ups were always gone or leaving, but words were right where you left them. Horses were passion, though, and nothing trumps passion. Just as I can’t remember a time when I was read to I can’t remember a time when I did not read. Any words would do so long as they were companion enough. I especially loved stories of young girls with a heap of derring-do. My favorite was Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library, and I smile now to think of the reason. At such a young age I couldn’t possibly have understood why a mystery novel about a grown-up who keeps trying to steal a book would have taken me so completely. Probably as soon as I mastered cursive I wrote my first poem. This is how it went: On a bright sunny day/he galloped away/his mouth full of hay/wearing a toupée.”

2015 — and you

Netherlands New YearEarlier, I sat down to write a poem for you about the new year, but an hour or so into the process I realized it wasn’t going to be very good. It felt stiff, contrived, and I knew I should scrap it. I’ve never been able to create on command, and I’m always surprised by where the mysterious act of creation takes me — whether I’m writing a poem from thin air or drawing an actual tree in front of me.

From the time I was very small, people have had all kinds of advice about what and how I should write. “Write about what you know,” some have said. “Write about what you don’t know,” a few others have suggested. Upon reading a novel I wrote years back, my brother asked, “Can’t you be a little more cheerful?”

Well, no, I can’t cajole myself into being upbeat. Whatever emerges almost always appears to have its own heart and mind, while I just seem to get taken along for the ride. But, if I could will myself to write something meaningful for you about 2015, it might have some of these sentiments in it: evolve; love yourself and others; live authentically and simply; be kind (or at least stop being unkind, as a friend of mine says); be honest; surround yourself with people who genuinely care about you. Leave suffering and unrequited longing behind you, if you can.

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May I have a word?

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I started this blog nearly three years ago, and, at the time, I had no expectations about what I should do or about how I should do it. I knew only that I wanted to write in a disciplined, thoughtful way because I saw that, for me, a careful, dogged approach to the craft and art of writing was the only path to developing myself.

Though I have done many things in my life — teaching writing among them — I always seemed to run from this slow, steady approach to my own work. Early on here, I began to write sections of a short story and to post them each week. This felt very risky, but your “likes,” “follows,” and comments gave me the confidence to keep on with it. I have since had the piece published — thanks in large part to your support. I now find myself very caught up in writing poetry, which has been a wonderful surprise for me, and I am once again grateful for your responsiveness to this work. I thought you might all want to jump ship if I stopped posting short pieces of nonfiction regularly, but so far only one person has jumped, and perhaps for other reasons.

I often have felt quite sad during the holiday season because the essence of its holiness seems lost on many of us — as does a true sense of wonder and gratitude for the life we each have been given, with every day a chance for renewal and for giving and receiving loving kindness. By staying with me over these years, you have shown me much loving kindness, and I am very grateful to you. During this season, may you all find and keep the peace and love you so deserve.

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