I had an odd inquiry from a member of the press recently. She wondered if I were the narcissism expert hired by the Clinton campaign to help in debate prep. I wasn’t. But that inquiry did start me thinking: Assuming that candidate Trump is a pretty narcissistic character—a showman, attention-seeking, materialistic, self-promoting—how would he act in a debate? And how could he be derailed?
Narcissism—a personality trait including an inflated sense of self, a lack of empathy, and a tendency toward self-promotion—sounds bad to people. In reality, however, narcissism is a trade-off. This is especially true in leadership positions, where narcissism is a double-edged sword with a “bright side” appearing as boldness, charisma and strength, and a “dark side” appearing as hubris, demagoguery and unethical behavior.
The bright and dark sides of narcissism often involve the same characteristics. Boldness and self-confidence are inspiring, but can lead to risky and poorly thought-out actions. Aggression and power are off-putting when they seem uncontrolled, but are praised when channeled to confront a major problem. And context matters as well when deciding whether narcissism is bright or dark. When times are dangerous or uncertain, we want powerful narcissistic leaders to guide us to safety, but when times are good, we want more management-focused leaders to keep things running smoothly. And, of course, if the culture is becoming more narcissistic as Jean Twenge and I argue in The Narcissism Epidemic then a reality TV star president makes perfect sense.
One major bright side of narcissism is that it is well suited for public debate. Debates allow the narcissistic individual to be the center of attention, to compete, show off his or her skills, and hopefully vanquish a rival. While many people choke under the pressure of a live audience, narcissists seem to perform better.
So, how would these ideas translate into the upcoming debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Trump will want to maximize his narcissistic bright side (strength, charisma, energy, boldness) and hide his dark side (callousness, hostility, instability). A debate in front of an audience of millions is an incredible opportunity for him to self-promote so he will be energized and engaged. Clinton will have the opposite goal: cloak Trump’s bright side and unveil his narcissistic dark side. Rather than seeing a bold, visionary fighter, Clinton wants the audience to see Trump as a petty, unstable, self-absorbed bully.
Here are four specific strategies I would predict Trump would use based on the research literature.
• Trump will present a “bold and broad” message rather than focus on details. In many research studies, psychological power is linked to a broad or global view of the present and future as well as an orientation towards action rather than analysis. Trump’s message will be self-promoting. He will focus on his status and success.
• Trump will deflect criticisms he receives. When faced with negative feedback, narcissists usually dismiss it as being another person’s fault or unimportant. Sometimes the person providing the negative feedback will be attacked as well. Trump seemed to do this in the primary debate where he went after the moderator, Megyn Kelly. Another tactic along these lines is memory distortion. Trump’s failures in the past will be rewritten to make the present Trump look smart and successful.
• Trump will also note the instability and chaos in the world. Strong, narcissistic leaders are in demand when there is crisis. So it is in Trump’s interest for the world to seem dangerous and chaotic. This week supplied terrorist attacks in the Northeast and riots in the South that seem like good material for making the case for instability.
• Finally, Trump may also try a “communal shift.” That is, he will add some warmth and caring to his message, especially targeting women and children. This will be intended to obscure fears he is a dangerous demagogue and make him appear instead a caring but strong leader—to borrow from the other Mr. T, Trump will want to appear tough on the bad guys but tender with the women and children. That said, his message will be primarily about dominance, strength and winning.
So, how should Secretary Clinton counter Trump’s strategy? Here are four research-based tactics designed to thwart Trump’s “bright side” appeal and reveal his narcissistic “dark side.”
• The most straightforward way to bring out the worst in a narcissistic individual is through ego threat: Say “you aren’t that good” or “you can’t do that.” Narcissism plus ego threat often elicits anger and aggression, which might make the narcissist look unstable, childish, or like a bully. We have seen this play out throughout Trump’s campaign and it has worked nearly every time. He gets defensive about his small hands; he attacked the parents of a slain war hero; and he even went after a debate moderator. If I were Team Clinton, I would scan through Twitter and create a database of all the threats that had set Trump off. I would distill those down to one or two key ego threats and then pepper them throughout the debate. The goal would be to make Trump seem erratic or dysregulated, angry, and ideally to get him to “punch down” at someone—that looks weak and insecure. Everyone loves a fighter (bright side) but everyone hates a bully (dark side).
• Another tactic would be to take the debate to the level of policy detail rather than bold vision. This “wrestle in the weeds” strategy has the potential to deflate Trump’s apparent power. People don’t look like bold leaders talking about details; they look like managers or wonks. Bold leaders look like Napoleon on horseback, Washington standing in a boat, or Joan of Arc leading troops into battle with sword unsheathed. And people especially don’t look like bold leaders when they haven’t mastered the details in question.
• Focusing on economic growth and stability would be another good tactic. Use phrases like “job gains” and “economic progress.” This message will diminish the appeal of a bold, narcissistic leader because there simply wouldn’t be a need for a change agent. If people believe things are stable, they will want an experienced insider at the wheel rather than an erratic outsider.
• Finally, if Clinton wants to try some risky psychological jujitsu, a little selective puffery might work. One of the most straightforward ways to manipulate narcissistic individuals is through flattery. Complimenting Trump would be confusing to him—and perhaps also the audience—and this might throw him off his game. Trump seems to like compliments almost as much as he dislikes criticism. Putin was smart enough to use this strategy, so maybe Clinton will be as well.
In short, if I were Team Clinton, my goal would be to make Trump look angry, unstable, ill-informed, and scary. I would want his narcissistic dark side out there for all to see. Trump is a political Godzilla. He crushed the entire Republican primary field with a tiny team and a Twitter account. We love Godzilla when the chips are down and Mothra is attacking because we know Godzilla is the right monster to save us; we hate Godzilla when he breaths fire at weak humans and knocks down city blocks; and we want Godzilla safely back on the screen where we can watch him for entertainment when calm is restored.