March 14, 2017

Narcissism, Authoritarianism, and America’s 45th president

I recently sat down with Dr. Craig Malkin, a fellow psychologist who specializes in narcissistic personality disorder and who wrote a book called Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists, to talk about the mental health of America’s new commander in chief. Please click on this image to watch the video, and you can read below if you’re curious to learn more:

Malkin Screen shot

A lot has been said in the news lately about Donald Trump’s mental health.

Words like narcissism have been used, and you may have heard that a psychologist named John Gartner, who’s an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, initiated a petition declaring Trump a “malignant narcissist” and calling him unfit to govern.

In the run up to the election I tiptoed around the subject of Donald Trump’s mental health for the same reason that many clinicians did: Because it’s technically a violation of the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics to diagnose a person that you have never directly treated.

It became part of our ethics code, and was dubbed the “Goldwater Rule,” after Fact Magazine published a two-part series of articles in 1964 about the Republican nominee for president Barry Goldwater – the second of which was titled “What Psychiatrists Say About Goldwater.”

Goldwater later sued them for libel and won.

However, ever since the election many clinicians like me have struggled with what we consider to be a greater sense of ethics that need to be upheld – the ethical obligation to use your professional knowledge to call attention to something that could impact the public safety or the greater good.

John Gartner himself has said that he thinks the “Goldwater Rule” is being ethically trumped (no pun intended, truly) by what we call the “duty to warn.”

Those are not the words that I would choose – because the duty to warn applies to something VERY specific (at least in California), which is the duty to warn a specific individual about a stated harm to their safety (e.g. if a patient tells you that he’s going to kill his girlfriend, you go from being required to maintain a patient’s confidentiality to being required by law to violate it, because another person’s life is in danger).

Regardless of what terms we use, I wanted to find a way to discuss these very complex issues with a fellow clinician who could help me unpack it, so I reached out to Dr. Malkin.

In the interview we didn’t diagnose Donald Trump – but instead discussed why his mental health has been in the news and what in general has certain clinicians feeling alarmed.

We talked about:

  • The different kinds of narcissism and what makes “malignant” narcissism particularly disconcerting (hint: it’s closer to psychopathy on the continuum and suggests a total lack of empathy or remorse)
  • How the debate about inauguration crowd size is (as Dr. Malkin puts it) “laughably Freudian”
  • Why lies matter from the standpoint of diagnosis
  • Why it’s hard to diagnose someone you haven’t treated (and why you shouldn’t do it)
  • What it says about the mental health of the country that so many people voted for Trump or support him – and how we understand the “split” that exists in this country right now
  • What it really means when we say “fake news” – and the grave danger of attacking the truth itself
  • The implications of all of the above on what we call an “authoritarian” leadership style

And more…

Dr. Malkin has a beautiful and empathic approach to bridging the divide in this country, which has to do with the idea of “seeing the person underneath the hat” – whether that’s a “Pussy Hat” or a “Make America Great Again” hat – so if this issue feels divisive to you, please be sure to watch this interview to the end to see that we (Dr. Malkin and I both) are standing with every American in our approach to thinking about this very delicate and complicated issue.

Final note: Dr. Malkin mentions the “Robbers Cave” experiment, which is a reference to a psychological study that was conducted with two groups of twelve year old boys at Robber’s Cave State Park, in Oklahoma in 1954. In the study, each individual group of boys was encouraged to solve problems with one another, which resulted in them bonding – but then the two groups were pitted against one another and it resulted in anger and name-calling. The researchers determined that the take-away from the experiment is that people find commonality and kinship when they’re forced to work together to complete a goal or task.

If you have any thoughts or questions, you can find me in the private Facebook group that I have set up for subscribers of my newsletter list. I only send out emails once or twice per month.

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