Donald Trump’s malignant narcissism is legend. It has fueled all of his personal and political behavior. After four years, many of his supporters are now a reflection of him and his pathology — they are grandiose, superior, misguided, racist, and xenophobic. And Trump has taught them to be as outwardly aggressive and defiant as he is.
Collective narcissism refers to the feelings of greatness or supremacy of a group of people organized by race, ethnicity, religion, or some other distinction. The members of the group are bound together by their sense of entitlement and empowerment. Collective narcissism leads to negative attitudes and retaliatory hostility against another group that is perceived as threatening. It also lends itself to conspiracy theories about the severe malevolence of the competing group.
Trump’s staunchest supporters have a collective narcissism that their leader has helped to create and galvanize. They view others — especially people of color, Muslims, and immigrants — as threatening groups. Trump’s supporters believe they are justified in being hostile and disparaging and devaluing because they themselves are the “real” Americans, in opposition to this “threat”. Collective narcissism and nationalism are closely linked.
Supporters look up to Trump because of his grandiosity and his loud bravado. They see him as charismatic and all-knowing. He is going to lead them to the promised land — he is their cult leader. Their devotion to him is intense. In return, Trump relishes his supporters because they give him the praise and adulation and the unconditional respect he so desires. They fill up his insatiable need for narcissistic supply. He uses them to keep his self-image intact, even if he may well secretly abhor them.
So the narcissistic connection between Trump and his supporters is a bond that is irrational and incredibly strong. It is rooted in the illusion of shared grandiosity and superiority. It promises a paradise of contentment and comfort, where all questions about life are answered. And that explains why their connection is so difficult to disrupt. Trump and his supporters are mutually invested in maintaining their collective narcissism at all cost.
The mistake we make with avid Trump supporters who won’t accept the election result is viewing them as the enemy to be despised and dismissed. That just rankles their sensibilities and they become even more entrenched in their posture of incensed entitlement over others. Attacking a tightly knit group of people who have a shared sense of power is doomed to failure.
There is a far better strategy to disrupt and transform the narcissistic connection of Trump and his supporters. Based on political and social psychology, here are some of the basic steps.
Trump being defeated in the election was the essential first step. Constitutional guardrails need to make sure he is removed from power on January 20, 2021. The leader of the collective narcissism will be stripped of his bully pulpit. His official voice will be silenced. Trump’s embarrassment and humiliation will serve to diminish his influential role in the eyes of many.
Second, we must stop giving oxygen to Trump’s tweets, comments, and behavior. The media must drastically curtail their coverage of him. Without constant attention, Trump’s force will dwindle and his impact on others will shrivel.
Slowly over time, supporters will be deprogrammed from Trump’s malignant narcissism. Truth and facts and critical thinking will again be the norm. Frank and open explanation — over months and months — will be the key to mutual understanding.
Third, great attention must be given to our new president. Joe Biden will be the adult in the room whose temperament, moral compass, and skill set are aligned with the American people. He will be the father figure we need to confront the pandemic, our economic downturn, and the recent undermining of democratic institutions. Biden’s emphasis will be on science and the truth. There will be no more lies and conspiracy theories and magical thinking.
Fourth, unity, inclusiveness, and honesty must be our national theme going forward. Our country is great when divisiveness and chaos are kept to a minimum. Our country is best when we are a cohesive whole with a common set of values and purpose.
Fifth, all Trump supporters must be invited to join us in our mission of unity. Extending a welcoming hand is important. We cannot be mired in our own hurt feelings and exasperations. We cannot be petty and vindictive. Biden professes a desire to be president for all Americans — both supporters and non-supporters. We must follow his example in reaching out genuinely to others.
Sixth, it must be clear that groups whose ideologies include racism, xenophobia, terrorism, or fascism are not invited to join us. They are toxic and corrosive. They must be disavowed and rejected without exception.
Seventh, no group in America should be encouraged to feel superior or entitled over another group. No matter their anxieties, white Americans cannot aim to demonize and destroy other groups. Trump spent four years stoking the fears of white Americans and reinforcing their growing collective narcissism. That was unhealthy for our country. And it must be counteracted in a purposeful and methodical way.
Eighth, Trump supporters have many grievances and concerns. Our leaders must attend to their sociocultural and economic issues. They cannot be ignored or even glossed over. These Americans must feel listened to, understood, and valued. They want to be seen and heard. They want to count. Their sorrows and resentments must have weight.
Debunking collective narcissism is our challenge now. It is a phenomenon that has been fueled and energized by Trump. It is as unhealthy and destructive as Trump’s individual malignant narcissism. The collective narcissism of Trump and his supporters must be transformed for the overall mental health of the country.
If we have learned anything in the past four years, it is that collective narcissism is insidious and dangerous. And it grows in intensity and negativity if it is not checked. It is a cancer that metastasizes.
Unity and inclusiveness and honesty must be our mantra going forward. It is the ultimate anecdote for the destructiveness of collective narcissism. It must define the heart and soul of our country— it will be our new normal.
We must never again hand over our country to a malignant narcissist, a man who does not care a whit about the people he stirred up into a frenzy of blind and deadly loyalty.
Donald Trump might be incurable. But collective narcissism can be dismantled and transformed.
It is our challenge now.
Alan D. Blotcky, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama