Donald Trump, Covid-19, and the Narcissist’s Lust for Sacrifice

It’s no secret that Donald Trump is a poster child for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Psychiatrists and pundits have raised that alarm since he announced his candidacy in 2015. They warned us that he was self-absorbed, entitled, insecure about how others see him, grandiose in his self-assessment, emotionally and intellectually immature, devoid of empathy, prone to temper tantrums, a pathological liar, and hopelessly addicted to being the center of attention. Although other presidents have had problems with narcissism, candidate Trump posed a unique threat as the first man to seek the office solely on the basis of his narcissistic appeal. His astonishing rise from joke to juggernaut left political analysts flummoxed in 2016. At the time, I tried to explain the Trump phenomenon in terms of sociobiology, using ideas I had developed to make sense of cults. Central to my thesis was something that has been largely overlooked in recent discussions of the president’s behavior but that Covid-19 may soon make painfully obvious: the narcissist’s pathological lust for sacrifice by others as proof of loyalty.

Wikimedia: Andrés Nieto Porras

Like blood to a vampire, costly sacrifice by others nourishes an insatiable craving at the core of the narcissistic personality. The spouse who must scuttle his career advancement to support his partner’s higher education; the preacher’s kid who must abandon her dream of studying music in college to play the church organ for her father; the devoted mother who gives cyanide to her baby and then drinks it herself at the direction of her cult leader: these and countless other examples reveal a pattern of escalating demands for sacrifice that characterizes nearly every relationship with a narcissist.

By the time of the Jonestown massacre on November 18, 1978, the followers of Jim Jones had been subjected to years or even decades of abuse and extortion from their leader. These sacrificial offerings took many forms, including sexual submission, public humiliation, sleep deprivation, physical punishment, and financial exploitation. Long before they gave their lives, members of the cult had given Jones nearly everything else they had, either willingly or as victims of his deceit. Jeannie Mills, one of the few to escape Peoples Temple before the move to Guyana, painfully recalled the sacrifices she and her husband had made:

Our life savings were gone. Jim had demanded that we sell the life insurance policy and turn the equity over to the church, so that was gone. Our property had all been taken from us. Our dream of going to an overseas mission was gone. We thought that we had alienated our parents when we told them we were leaving the country. Even the children whom we had left in the care of Carol and Bill were openly hostile toward us. Jim had accomplished all this in such a short time! All we had left now was Jim and the Cause, so we decided to buckle under and give our energies to these two.

— Jeannie Mills, from p. 230 of her memoir, Six Years with God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple

Mills also described the physical beatings, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, that members of the cult endured as punishments for violating Jones’s capricious rules. On one such occasion, her husband was sickened to the brink of vomiting and left the room where this spectacle of public humiliation was in progress. For the first time — away from the jeers and screams but near a loudspeaker connected to Jones’s microphone — he could hear the Reverend’s reaction to the victim’s pain. Jones was quietly giggling with glee as a five-year-old child was brutally beaten with a board for not sharing his candy. Such sadistic cruelty knows no bounds in a cult like Peoples Temple.

A recent Facebook meme.

What’s most shocking, however, is how easily some people fall under the spell of a narcissist. There seems to be a distinct personality type that is in some sense complementary to the narcissist: a “follower type” who feels a powerful need to belong, enjoys working and sacrificing for a cause, fears ostracism, and easily falls into the role of the fawning, obedient child to a domineering and selfish leader. Elsewhere I have tried to explain the origin and interplay of these personality types as a product of biological evolution — a pattern of social behavior burned deeply into human nature by millennia of tribal conflict in our distant prehistory. In that ancient context, sacrifice can be understood as a costly, hard-to-fake signal of loyalty to the group and its leader. In a modern cult, however, where an unrestrained leader controls every aspect of his followers’ lives, sacrifice typically escalates to cruelty, dysfunction, and, in extreme cases, annihilation.

In May of 2016 I predicted that, even without such absolute control, Trump would find a way to satisfy his lust for sacrifice on a national scale:

[S]acrifice need not be voluntary to bring joy to a narcissist. If recent polls hold up through election day, Trump will have extracted a grievous sacrifice from the Republican Party — all for his self-aggrandizement. And if he wins the presidency, we will all make that sacrifice.

Copyright 2016 by Steve Sack, reproduced by permission

Like cartoonist Steve Sack and other commentators at the time, I trusted the polls and expected a wipeout for Republicans in the general election. But Trump won the presidency, and, as I predicted, we have all sacrificed. Although the GOP was not flayed on the electoral altar in November 2016, Trump still managed to cut out its heart. As I noted two years later:

[Trump] has now hijacked the once-proud party of Lincoln, transforming it into an institution guided only by loyalty to its leader. The degeneracy is so complete that many thoughtful conservatives have publicly renounced their membership in the Republican party.

He could do this only because Republican politicians now cower under the threat of a primary challenge enforced by his cult-like following. Even the most outspoken critics of candidate Trump, like Senator Lindsey Graham, must now at least pretend to be loyal members of the Trump cult if they want to stay in office.  Trump has exploited their cowardice to advance his strange agenda, the only coherent goals of which appear to be self-aggrandizement, dismantling his predecessor’s legacy, and inflaming the passions of his followers. By electing him we have sacrificed the dignity and decorum of the presidency to his crude and childish rants, his pathological lying, and his nutty conspiracy theories.

Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator courageous enough to vote to convict Trump.

More ominously, however, we have sacrificed the integrity of our Constitution and institutions of government, which utterly failed to restrain president Trump in the wake of the Ukraine scandal. For more than two centuries and against all odds, our experimental republic somehow avoided the seductions of authoritarian rule, until Trump shoved us all down that slippery slope last January. But even that great national sacrifice is now eclipsed by Trump’s response, or lack thereof, to Covid-19.

The president’s only thought about the pandemic appears to be how it will affect his prospects for re-election. His initial reaction was simply to deny and obfuscate: we have only fifteen cases, soon to be zero; the flu is much worse; it’s the Democrats’ new impeachment hoax. In the first critical months, Trump resisted widespread testing rather than promoting it. In March he suggested that we should do nothing and just let the epidemic wash over the country, a strategy that likely would have killed well over a million Americans. The abject failure of Trump’s leadership during that time is well documented.

My main interest here, however, concerns the president’s recent and reckless push to reopen the economy and to portray sensible precautions, like wearing face masks, as signs of liberal weakness and subservience. Although he requires all White House staff to be tested and wear masks, he refuses to wear one himself, even when specifically told to do so, and ridicules his political opponent for wearing one. By example, he has spawned a dangerous trend of bare-faced defiance among his most loyal followers. He champions the cause of armed right-wing protesters who clamor for ending the lockdown. He threatens to withdraw the Republican National Convention from Charlotte if the local authorities insist on masks and social distancing for the event. He is itching for another mass rally where he, but not the audience, will be at a safe distance from others. He denounces the idea of universal voting by mail for the November election, making baseless claims that it promotes fraud and favors Democrats.

Bathers defy social distancing norms at Lake of the Ozarks.

The great paradox here is that Trump’s denial of the risk and his push for reopening disproportionately endanger the lives of his most loyal followers, many of who seem eager to please in their role as political cannon fodder. Most Trump voters are in the vulnerable age group and tend to live in rural areas with relatively poor health care. Moreover, red state governors are the ones most likely to lift restrictions without adequate testing and contact tracing. It is entirely plausible that, just when Trump most needs to eke out victories in swing states by razor-thin margins, his critical voters will be too sick to help him.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump cares only about pumping up the stock market as his path to re-election. That may be true, but I suspect something else is going on here. Trump craves the fawning admiration of his followers, but he would love it even more if they were risking their lives to show it. His narcissistic lust for sacrifice is blinding him to the self-defeating nature of the strategy he has chosen. Not only is he unfazed by the prospect of an increasing death rate, he would enjoy it. After all, he has a lifelong history of cruelty. Like Jim Jones on that fateful day in 1978, Trump would feel visceral pleasure at the costly and pointless sacrifice, all for the cause of propping up his fragile ego.

As I write these lines, the news has turned to the tragic death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests and riots. Rather than try to calm the situation, Trump has inflamed it — relieved, no doubt, at the distraction from recent headlines about reaching 100,000 Covid-19 deaths in America. Trump did not create America’s racial problems, but he is pouring salt on the wounds, further disrupting our already-inadequate response to Covid-19. Meanwhile, the virus has five months to replicate before election day.

My prediction about the outcome of the 2016 election was wrong, but I’ll make a new one for 2020.  I think the Covid-19 pandemic will get worse during the coming months, and a rising body count may trigger the re-imposition of lockdowns. Most voters will remember Trump’s ridiculous behavior throughout the pandemic — denying its reality; lashing out at reporters, even when they ask softball questions; suggesting toxic disinfectants as possible cures; peddling false conspiracy theories; blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility for anything. All but his most die-hard cult followers will see him for the incompetent failure he is, and he will be trounced.

If he loses in November, as now seems likely, I predict he will exact one final sacrifice from the nation. At a time of global crisis, when our country most needs unity and clear thinking, he will denounce the election as rigged, blaming his loss on some bizarre and imaginary conspiracy, thus further poisoning the minds of his followers against their fellow citizens. He will deliberately weaken our confidence in the electoral process, figuratively raising a middle finger to American democracy, and he will enjoy it.

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Posted June 2, 2020; Filed under: Ideas Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments on “Donald Trump, Covid-19, and the Narcissist’s Lust for Sacrifice

  1. I fear even worse. That he will try to stay by using the armed services. Fortunately he has offended enough of the officers that I think they will ignore him. I hope.

    1. It is, or should be, shocking that we now seriously worry about a defeated president refusing to leave office, but that’s how far our democracy has degenerated. I agree that it’s a real possibility. Four years ago I would never have thought such a thing could happen in America in my lifetime. But there is reason for hope, not only because of the integrity of some military leaders, but also because Trump probably never expected or wanted to be president. A defeat in November would give him a good excuse to go back to Mar A Lago and spend all his time watching TV and tweeting — not that different from what he does now, but without the hassles of daily briefings and the White House Press Corps.

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