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A fragile ego: When Trump’s mythos collapses it may drag fervent followers into his narcissistic downfall

In President Biden‘s speech on September 1, he spoke tough truths that had to be said out-loud. This country is under attack from within. And the attack is led by a madman. Donald Trump may be about to throw America into a crisis that could make January 6th look like a romp in the park. It has to do with something called “narcissistic collapse.”

Trump is a classic extroverted, grandiose narcissist of such severity that numerous professionals in the psychology field have pointed out how he could easily be diagnosed as suffering severe Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Narcissists of this type are often at the top of their fields, driven to over-achievement by a deep underlying sense of inferiority and shame. In Trump’s case, this probably came from his having a criminal psychopath as a father and a mother who so disliked him that she sent him off to military school at a young age and went, alone, to Scotland during the summers when he was home from school in New York.

He grew up filled with shame, lying and cheating to “win” the love and approval of others, stealing from his family and people he did business with to physically build around himself the trappings of success.

NBC taught him how to do television and turned him into a star, and he leveraged that into politics where he gets constant daily affirmation from people often damaged the same way he is. On the outside, he seems rich, powerful, and successful.

Deep down inside, though, he knows he is a failure. He had failed at school; he failed repeatedly at business; he failed at marriage; he pissed away the entirety of the more than $400 million he stole from his father’s estate and still had to be bailed out by the Russians; he had even failed at being a child loved by his parents and siblings.

His narcissism is his defense against this history of failure and the inevitable shame associated with a lifetime of it. And his narcissism is of the most severe variety — the grandiose form — where he makes grand claims to the effect of, “I, alone, can fix it,” and, “I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and my people would still love me and vote for me.”

This is the behavior of criminals and mobsters: in his father and Roy Cohn — both mobsters and narcissists themselves — he learned from the best.

When narcissists are publicly outed as failures, particularly if the outing is public and high-profile, it often provokes a condition called narcissistic collapse.

For a narcissist like Trump with considerable power, the ability to harm organizations/institutions, or who can meaningfully threaten damage to other people, this is the moment of maximum danger for those around him.

Hitler, another classic narcissist with a similarly unloved and miserable childhood, confronted his failures in the last weeks of World War II. In the movie Downfall, which portrays Hitler’s final days, you can see and hear him disintegrate.

My dear departed friend Armin Lehman was the 15-year-old Hitler Youth soldier portrayed in the film who handed Hitler the news the war was lost. He wrote a book about his experience, In Hitler’s Bunker: A Boy Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of the Fuhrer’s Last Days, which we discussed extensively when he was first writing it and during the three years Armin and I traveled the world together, mostly across the US, Europe, and the Far East.

Hitler, in those final weeks — Armin told me and the historical record verifies — actually welcomed the destruction of Germany by American and Soviet bombs and tanks.

He had not failed: his narcissism would not let him confront that.

Instead, in his mind, the German people had failed, his generals had failed, his soldiers had failed. They had failed Germany, but, more importantly they had failed him — and he wanted them punished for failing him.

When he was finally pushed into full-blown narcissistic collapse — the final days that Armin spent with him — he succumbed to the fate of many severe narcissists who experience a failure so undeniable that it provokes full-blown narcissistic collapse: he killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself.

In the final stages of narcissistic collapse, long before suicide becomes an option, first comes the blaming and the attempt to punish others.

We see this now with Trump blaming the FBI, the courts, and his “political enemies” in the “deep state.” Along with the blame, though, often comes a murderous rage.

Americans are most familiar with this dynamic/process through stories of long-suffering wives of narcissist husbands who finally proclaim their intention to leave him. In a rage, the narcissist kills her, often followed by his own suicide. Sometimes he will even kill their children as part of his narcissistic breakdown.

This is the danger America faces today, because Trump’s businesses are in crisis just as he is increasingly exposed as a thief, liar, and traitor to his nation. His business manager is probably going to prison. His lawyer turned on him. His wife lives a mostly separate life.

His elaborate façade of competence and invulnerability is being punctured and shattered in real time for the world to see, and he has already moved from denial to the early stages of lashing out and making threats.

Most recently, he threatened the Department of Justice with the “anger” of his followers, a claim amplified by his Congressional factotum, Lindsay Graham, who then predicted that white supremacists would “riot” in the streets if Trump were indicted for his crimes.

It is a prediction we should take seriously, in no small part because many of Trump’s most loyal followers are narcissists themselves, which is why they resort to wrapping themselves with Trump paraphernalia to build their own “tough” identity through association with him. Strapping on a few big guns helps them feel strong, too.

Just like the key to his sense of self is others’ perception of his wealth and success, the key to their sense of self is their fealty to Trump. And their belief that he reciprocates it.

But he doesn’t, and when a person’s sense of self — their core identity — is threatened, they often react as if their very life is at stake.

When Trump’s mythos collapses, when Trump himself collapses, many of his most fervent followers will also suffer narcissistic collapse. When that happens — and there’s a reasonable chance it will happen — all bets are off.

Right now the odds are that Trump and his fragile ego will maintain his narcissistic façade intact through much or most of the coming times. He will bluster his way through court proceedings and media inquiries, proclaim his victimhood as he has charged with crimes, and up the rate of rallies he is doing so his followers can keep massaging his wounded self-esteem and make him feel loved.

But at some point — probably, depending on how this all plays out, when or if he is charged with a crime — he will confront the inevitable truth that he is a fraud and a failure, and has been one his entire life. A fraud and failure who sold out his own nation just for money, power, and glory. Who not only committed treason, but has now lost the entire game.

That will be his Fuhrerbunker moment, his abused-wife-is-leaving moment, his Jim Jones-in-the-jungle moment, when he will fully turn on America and lash out, trying to destroy whatever he can in and of this nation.

That is when he will call his people to murderous violence.

That is when stochastic terrorism could rear its ugly head in a widespread way across the country, with “lone wolf” murderers picking off perceived “Trump enemies.”

That is when the “civil war” — violent attacks on politicians; Democratic and “disloyal Republican” celebrities; and authority-figure government employees like police, judges, and members of the FBI — predicted and fretted about by so many, will be closest.

I will leave it to actual professionals in the fields of psychology and psychiatry to tell us how best to deal with — or even head off — this possible eventuality.

From my perspective, it seems the best thing would be to incarcerate him as quickly as possible to minimize the damage he can do, allowing his narcissistic followers to retreat into the fantasy that he is merely a martyr. It might buy some time.

But I cannot claim to have the answers; I just know the history. And I know that we should have a conversation about this — and hopefully those within our government are doing that right now — as part of our national dialogue about recovering from the damage inflicted on America by Trump and his MAGA Republicans over the past six years.

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About The Author

Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann is a progressive political commentator and a best-selling author of more than two dozen books in the fields of psychiatry, ecology, and economics. This column is published with permission, and more of his daily articles can be found on The Hartmann Report.