Special Election Edition: The Appeal of Narcissism

The Psychology of Leadership

Donald J. Trump, businessman and celebrity icon, set his sights for high office years and years ago. Mr. Trump is a 70-year-old real estate entrepreneur who artfully parlayed his name into a brand worth millions and billions worldwide. His face is as or more familiar than his rival’s, Hillary Clinton, and as we know, familiarity breeds liking.

Mr. Trump has all the trappings of a transformational leader. He promises big changes away from the status quo. Trump’s ideas are big, he gestures big – that is, expansively, and he uses a big voice to promote himself. Even Trump’s hands are big by his account. His height, broad shoulders, square jaw, erect posture, furrowed brows and frown convey dominance, confidence and masculinity. It makes you feel in control to be on his team. No wonder: Trump’s impression management (verbal and nonverbal “spin”) projects the status of the alpha male who can shake up the “natural” order and get things done.

Though Mr. Trump is criticized for his unabashed self-promotional style, such narcissistic tendencies are a perfect fit for today’s anxiety-ridden electorate. Like corporations, the country seems to be willing to tolerate a narcissistic leader during times of perceived crisis. And let’s face it: narcissists are unusually attractive at first glance. They tend to be sociable, confident, witty, charming and well-dressed. Narcissits express a positive emotion that is contagious and a tonic for our emotional wounds. Only later does the narcissist’s self-centeredness and lack of empathy reveal itself. Nevertheless, organizations in crises seem willing to overlook the negatives as they feed off of the infectious confidence and positivity narcissistic leaders exude.

Mr. Trump began his campaign with less positivity, and it did not hurt him. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump readily accepted the “mantel of anger,” and cleverly so. Trump’s stump speeches radiated and fueled the anger his followers shared. To his credit, Trump figured out that voting is emotional, not logical. Trump’s contagious expression of anger not only empowers individuals (anger being an “approach” emotion), it also truncates the motivation of his followers to investigate the details of policy. That is: anger some voters, make others fearful and you will get a difference. Angry voters will spend less time considering a candidate’s specific policies than voters made to feel fearful. Voting is emotional, not logical, and Donald Trump is a master at taking the affective temperature of his audience and raising it. As an actor and celebrity, Trump is expert at this kind of self-monitoring. He adapts to his audience and feeds off of them in what appears to be a very genuine way. Trump, without an enthusiastic audience, deflates like a struck balloon and is not the Trump we have come to know.

Trump can seem like us and not like his Beltway rivals. His language is plain, direct and not cluttered with obscure policy details. In times of perceived crisis, followers tend to seek leaders who appear to represent the typical, not the elite. Trump projects himself as an average guy who made good in business, and fuels the appeal of that formula by enhancing the sense of existential threat to the nation from outside its borders. 

Trump is expert at the “inside” game of identity politics. His stump speeches identify and cultivate the “we” versus the “they.” Trump glorifies removing protestors from his rallies; they represent the “they.” He transforms the individuals in the room into important elements of a movement, as special and as belonging to something larger and more important than the self. This is a mark of a charismatic leader. For better and for worse, leaders who play the inside game cultivate exceptionally devoted followers. 

Mr. Trump reassures us that our future presidents will derive from the traditional, blue-eyed, blond-haired offspring of Nordic stock, albeit with dashes of orange. His ideas for the future echo the reassuring familiarity of the past when coal was king, advanced, formal education was not required to make a good wage and everyday life was predictably mono-cultural. For those left behind in an increasingly segregated, complex society, this can be a most powerful message, especially when projected by the powerful figure of

Donald Trump.