If you’ve watched the past three-plus years of the Donald Trump circus looking for some glimmer of hope he’ll get owned, some sign he’ll finally be proven to be an amoral con man and a fraud, I am here to disabuse you of that notion. Because no one with power or authority seems to understand how to deal with Trump’s unique brand of asshole behavior, it’s not likely he’ll ever be checked until the next election—if then.
Why am I so sure? I’m the child of two narcissists.
When you’re a child of narcissists, you get very good at noticing patterns in behavior. You learn to recognize the signs leading up to “meltdowns” (public tantrums over the tiniest of slights that are held up as great injustices), “dressings down” (forcing someone to listen to a complete accounting of all the ways they’re terrible), and “wagon fixing” (teaching someone a lesson for imagined slights by doling out an outsized punishment). You learn this because it is necessary for your survival, to keep out of the line of fire, or at least out of the shrapnel zone. Narcissists as parents are all about wielding control over people, and they don’t care what kind of asshole they have to be to do it.
Now, I’m not weighing in on the president’s mental health or trying to diagnose him with narcissism from afar—that's a controversial topic even among psychiatrists, and I’m no professional. But children of narcissists are hyperaware of asshole games being played because we’ve had the most experience with it, and often, we know how best to handle it.
If I can’t technically call Trump a narcissist, he sure looks like an asshole. And assholes will do what’s needed to elicit behaviors from the people around them to ensure they get what they want.
Most people without proximity to narcissism can be easily snowed by assholes. Assholes know how to finesse situations to their advantage. This doesn’t always mean by yelling or forcing people’s hands. A lot of times, it’s just about making their opponent feel like they don’t have any moves left. Consider the many vendors who have tried unsuccessfully to sue Trump over unpaid bills. He relied on their unwillingness to take him to court, or their lack of resources to see the fight through to the end. He was frequently right.
This is where the media comes in: Trump has finessed his situation (being the president) into a situation where media have no real moves left. The press needs eyeballs, and to can’t just ignore the guy in the White House, so they have to report on the circus.
Sometimes, coverage takes the form of fact-checks, but no one should hold out hope that that will prod Trump into admitting he was wrong or showing any kind of remorse. Children of narcissists will tell you that their biggest fantasy growing up was that their parent would somehow realize they were wrong, and make things right with their child. Ask any child of a narcissist if this ever happened (it didn’t).
Why doesn’t this work? Democrats, and even some Republicans, apologize all the time when caught out by the media. The answer comes down to a simple truth: Assholes are incapable of being shamed.
I’ve never seen either of my parents show legitimate remorse for anything they’ve ever done (and the list includes my dad running over my foot with his car by accident). Shame is a consensual activity. For someone to be shamed, they have to accept your reality that they have committed a bad act. In order for someone to accept someone else’s reality, they have to hold that person in high enough esteem. Assholes make sure no one ever hits the bar. If you object to asshole behavior, you’re “crazy,” “a whiner,” “doing it for personal gain,” etc.
There’s no evidence anyone has ever successfully shamed Trump. Not over his alleged sexual assaults, not over images of migrant children being locked in cages, not over his family’s documented history of dodging taxes.
The media and Democrats alike may be used to a more traditional model of public politics, where extremists can be brought low by Have you no sense of decency, sir?–style moments. In the past, it was assumed that when someone was caught out in an obvious lie, they would retreat and admit fault.
Except Trump’s answer to, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” is pretty clearly a solid no.
That brings us to tantrums. Most adults would rather die than have someone witness them melt down. But if you can’t be shamed, tantrums become a powerful tool. I’ve seen my mother have a four-hour stomping fit, slamming doors and going nonverbal, because she simply didn’t want to attend a family dinner. If anyone asked her why she was behaving that way, she reacted like they were supposed to know why and be very sorry they caused her to have to do these things. Children of narcissists will tell you their tantrum coping skills are legendary, because they’re well practiced.
Assholes view tantrums as another means to an end. You might compare them to a crying baby, but babies get results. Babies get people to drop everything and cater to them. When you’re the president, of course, your tantrums can be on a much bigger scale—your tantrums can shut down the government and leave 800,000 workers without pay for weeks.
The media can’t ignore a news event as consequential as the government shutdown, but they could follow advice psychologists give about tantrums when it comes to Trump’s smaller fits of pique. That means not amplifying Trump’s tweets and on-stage rants. It means not including them on shows, or embedding them in articles, or using their content as uncritical headlines for stories. Even when the purpose of such stories is to explain why Trump is wrong about something, the narrative inevitably shifts to be whatever the president wants it to be.
What good is having power if you can’t hold it over people to get what you want? Growing up, my parents would refuse to pay for things they didn’t want to pay for and tie it to some “moral failing” of mine they wanted to control. My mother wanted to give my pet away so she could renovate the room his cage was in, so she entrapped me in a situation where I was forced to lie, then insinuated I was “a sneaky kid, and there’s nothing worse on this earth than a sneaky kid.”
Assholes will always know the extent of leverage they have and they will always, ALWAYS use the threat of it to get what they want.
Trump loaded the White House with his purported friends, but more importantly, these were people he had experience with, and most importantly, leverage on.
He has controlled the White House with the implicit threat that he would fire anyone who didn’t play ball with him. Those with independent streaks have by now been mostly cast off.
Wielding rejection is the most classic case of asshole behavior. But it’s also the one that’s the most exploitable by the press. This White House is one of the leakiest administrations of all time, and for all the turnover, Trump hasn't been able to stop people from gossiping to reporters. It's those leaks, and his inability to stop them, that should scare Trump—grifts don’t work if you can see the trick being pulled.
Assholes can be and do get defeated, but expecting a true Watergate moment—where the president steps down to prevent the country from falling further into chaos—is not based in reality. Media outlets and Twitter personas do a disservice to everyone when they hype up the cinematic ending that’s never ever going to arrive. Understanding what others know about aberrant behavior and how to navigate it might be the only way to hold the president even minimally to account.
The number-one most sobering realization you have when you are in therapy for narcissistic parents is that they will never change. But the best realization you get out of that is you can free yourself of their control over your emotions. Assholes usually don’t change, because there’s too much benefit to the way they do things. But the country does not have to feel beholden to the asshole.