Why narcissists go fascist: how Trump helped me connect the dots between attachment theory and authoritarianism

Photograph of Donald Trump at the age of three.
Tiny Tyrant: was Donald Trump born to be bad or was he made that way?

The nature vs. nurture question is as old as time; and it is more germane to our political conversation than ever before. Was Donald Trump always destined to be a terrible human being, or did a traumatic childhood pervert his tiny soul?

I’m not a psychiatric expert, merely a developmental trauma survivor with an insecure attachment style who has done a lot of reading and thinking about attachment theory and narcissism. But here’s what I see…

Attachment theory and shame

One of the things that makes humans different from other mammals is that our young are defenseless for years after they are born. Even as full-grown adults, we don’t have fangs or claws to protect ourselves from predators. Our survival adaptations are primarily relational. We rely on each other. The relational survival mechanisms that keep us safe and connected to our parents when we are very small are what academics call “attachment style.”

Primary attachment is based in attunement between parent and child. Parents who can successfully attune teach their children that their needs are worthy of being met. Children who grow up this way are securely attached and go on to have healthy adult relationships. Children whose needs are not met in this way develop adaptations that allow them to get their needs met, but those adaptations are very difficult to change and they may not be as adaptive in adulthood.

Shame researcher turned self help mega-guru Brené Brown came up with another way of explaining all this, which she outlined in her blockbuster 2010 TED talk.

In the course of her research on shame, Brown found that there was a group that were especially resilient to shame. When they messed up an assignment or lost their temper with a loved one, they were able to own their mistake and make changes over time. When they got their hearts broken, they were able to grieve without feeling bad about feeling bad.

What these folks had in common was a deep knowledge that they were worthy of love and belonging even when they were messy, needy, or otherwise inconvenient. To them, vulnerability wasn’t excruciating, it was just necessary. Brown called these people the “wholehearted.”

I think wholeheartedness is another way of describing secure attachment. When these folks were little, their attentive-enough caregivers gave them the consistent message that their vulnerability, mistakes, and human foibles would not get them abandoned. As a result, they can be vulnerable without falling into intolerable self-loathing.

Insecure attachment and narcissism

If secure attachment is what teaches people to deal with vulnerability without getting bogged down in shame, then what happens to people with insecure styles? How do they cope with their own mortality? How do they deal with the vulnerability of their partners? Their children? Refugees? The homeless?

There’s a whole spectrum of healthy and unhealthy mechanisms for dealing with vulnerability, and at the far end of that spectrum are people who are are sometimes labeled as having “personality disorders” by the psychiatric community.

Some clinicians hold that these folks never learned to tolerate shame, which would explain why they are unable to be vulnerable. They do everything they can to avoid feeling exposed. In their fear of getting their hearts broken, they manipulate and control their partners. They cannot stand the vulnerability of their children and rage at them over minor mistakes. They create chaos in professional situations and then deflect blame onto others. The more successful they are at burying their shame, the harder time they will have in seeking help.

Donald Trump is an extreme manifestation of this kind of insecure attachment. He cannot ever be vulnerable or admit fault. He will lie or allow others to take the fall for his errors and misdeeds and then go out of his way to get praise and admiration. He has absolutely no ability to generate a feeling of worthiness from within himself and therefore no capacity to examine his own shame and make changes to his behavior. This is narcissism.

What does all of this have to do with fascism?

Fascism is the fear of vulnerability writ large. In a fascist society, the dear leader is always right. Accepted reality is constantly in flux depending on what the leader needs to have be true in that moment to justify what they choose to do next. The leader never has to be vulnerable, and so they never have to experience the intolerable self-loathing that they never figured out how to rescue themselves from.

Indeed, the 14 warning signs of fascism can all be thought of through the lens of defense mechanisms against vulnerability:

Warning signHow it protects from vulnerability.
Powerful and continuing nationalismThe state is an extension of the dear leader, who can do no wrong and is all-powerful.
Disdain for human rightsRecognizing the humanity and rights of the vulnerable is to recognize that anyone can be made vulnerable at any time.
Identification of enemies as a unifying causeThere is someone "out there" to blame for all our problems. We will deflect any shame we may feel about our problems onto others.
Supremacy of the militaryIf we pump enough resources into our fighting forces, we will always be the strongest and nothing will ever be able to hurt us.
Rampant sexismThe desire women engender makes men weak. Nobody should need the sustenance and nurturance that mothers provide. To accept the divine, feminine, creative force is to accept the circle of life and the vulnerability and mortality that comes with it.
Controlled mass mediaControlling the flow of information means that the leader does not ever need to be wrong.
Obsession with national securityThe leader/state is obsessed with self-protection from all who would challenge them within and without.
Religion and government intertwinedAll forms of power must be centralized in one place. Nobody may practice their own form of worship. All worship is directed to the infallible leader by the infallible leader.
Corporate power protectedPower is consolidated in the hands of corporate leaders who will prop up the top abuser to protect their own advantages; protecting themselves from vulnerability as well.
Labor power suppressedTo acknowledge that the "lower class" labor force is human is to acknowledge that any human being can fall on hard times and need to do less prestigious work.
Disdain for intellectuals and the artsAsking questions, challenging accepted dogma with new ideas, and creative self-expression are all forms of vulnerability that also challenge the inerrancy of the leader and, by extension, the state.
Obsession with crime and punishmentShame and blame can be deflected onto a few "criminals" and other bad guys who can then be discarded, sacrificed, or abused.
Rampant cronyism and corruptionEconomic power is consolidated with the state, which decreases the vulnerability of the powerful.
Fraudulent electionsThe voices of everyday people (the vulnerable) are not respected because to see them as human with a right to select their own leaders would be to acknowledge that the leader might be fallible.

To be continued…

I’ll be writing more on this topic because I’m constantly thinking, reading, and refining these ideas and looking for solutions. I’m curious to hear what everyone reading thinks and what your questions are about this line of thinking. Does it make sense to you? What pieces need more explaining? What could be explained more simply?


Influences

Many other folks aside from Brené Brown have influenced this thinking. Following the work of psychiatrist and political commentator Propane Jane on Twitter over the past year has been particularly crucial.

As has the work of therapist and speaker Rokelle Lerner.

And the writings of attachment researcher and clinician Dr. Sue Johnson and anarchofeminist writer Starkhawk.


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