Megalomania: A condition or mental illness that causes people to think they have unlimited power or importance.
I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a physician. But certain psychological deficits are self-evident. I don’t, for example, think I need to be a professional to analyze an individual who is schizophrenic. I know that someone who is consistently delusional and not in touch with reality is beset with that form of mental illness.
Megalomania is less well known and understood by lay people like myself, but it isn’t a condition that is impossible to recognize, and it certainly can be evident in someone who exhibits its symptoms so manifestly as Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has been characterized as a showman, a salesman, a charlatan, a demagogue, and all of those descriptions are apt. But he also appears to be a megalomaniac. And that condition is what makes his potential capture of the presidency so scary.
Megalomania has been called “narcissistic personality disorder,” since Heinz Kohut so labeled it in 1968 in “The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists nine symptoms of the condition. Consider the perception you have of Mr. Trump as you read them.
o Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others.
o Fixation on fantasies of power, success, intelligence and attractiveness.
o Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions.
o Needful of constant admiration from others.
o Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others.
o Exploitive of others to achieve personal gain.
o Unwillingness to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes or needs.
o Intense jealousy of others and belief that others are equally jealous of them.
o Pompous and arrogant demeanor.
Obviously some symptoms are more easily associated with Trump’s image and persona than others, and a professional diagnosis might find that he is not quite so clearly pathological as to qualify for this particular disorder. But several of the symptoms (fixation on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness; self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions; sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others; and pompous and arrogant demeanor) seem right on point, don’t they?
The argument can be made that anyone who runs for president has to be possessed of some of the same symptoms, and I don’t deny that point. You pretty much have to have an exceptional view of yourself, if not delusions of grandeur, to see yourself as possessed of the unique blend of unusual talents, that are required to competently fulfill the responsibilities of that particular office. And, it must also be conceded that almost every serious presidential candidate claims talents that would indicate far more than competence.
But Mr. Trump is a more dramatic candidate in this regard than almost any previous presumptive nominee (at least since the end of WWII). And, of all those who have held the office (or been a nominee for it) he is most plausibly defined by this particular character disorder.
Consider how devoid his speeches (and his entire campaign, for that matter) are of substantive policy expertise. His campaign is characterized by one-liners, almost like a spoof of a real presidential campaign. It recalls “Ideocracy,” Mike Judge’s bitingly clever 2006 sci-fi satire of a country where Trump-like pronouncements are commonplace in a nation that expects (and gets) nothing more from its leaders.
Comparisons to Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, two recent presidents who were, shall we say, “light on substance,” are not fair to those gentlemen. They, whatever else might be said of them, had a core belief system that attracted and elicited serious substantive policy directions. Both men also surrounded themselves with policy experts (again, notwithstanding the often misguided perspectives of those experts) who allowed the presidents to guide and lead the nation toward specific policy objectives.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, seems to lack any ideological core or center. Instead, his entire justification for his candidacy seems to be based on his assertion that he is best suited to lead the nation. Ah, you say, but doesn’t Hillary Clinton make the same claim? Yes, she does. But few, if any, who oppose Ms. Clinton do so because they don’t know what her ideological views are or would claim that her candidacy lacks substantive depth.
Hillary may not be completely candid or transparent, as some would claim, but no one argues that she is superficial. If anything, she is too much a policy wonk and too little the charismatic candidate her husband always was. She may be flawed, but she isn’t shallow. And it is hard to imagine any world leader taking advantage of her, if for no other reason, than that she is fully conversant in all areas of international policy.
Not so, Mr. Trump, who is both scary and offensive to our allies and unimpressive to our adversaries. And that fact presents the real fear in a Trump presidency: that the United States would lose its place as the leader of the industrialized world. For our allies, the fear is that the United States would no longer represent a legitimate perspective on world order. How would a Merkel or Cameron or Putin react to a country led by someone who professes the kind of actions (building a wall, denying the legitimacy of climate change, instituting some kind of religious immigration test) Trump would presumably pursue?
The country would still be militarily and economically powerful, but it would suffer in those areas where a president can and should make a difference: in leading the world towards a saner nuclear policy, for example, or in directing the battle against rogue terrorist organizations, or in seeking to preserve the global environment.
Donald Trump may not be a megalomaniac. He may just be a supremely gifted showman or a glorified charlatan, or maybe he’s just a very skilled demagogue. But unless he can establish the basis for his candidacy as something more than his belief that he is better, in every respect, than anyone else, he can’t be taken seriously.