President Trump’s refusal to unequivocally denounce white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, and to assert instead on Tuesday that “there is blame on both sides,” led to widespread condemnation. What it did not do was surprise psychologists.
They see two forces in play. Trump responds to criticism and the damage it does to his self-esteem by lashing out, including by taking an extreme position that is as much as possible at odds with his critics’. And he (perhaps unconsciously) recoils from undercutting his supporters because that would implicitly call into question their judgment, which includes voting for him.
“It’s not a matter of his trying not to offend them, but instead, a matter of not diminishing their value and utility,” said Paul Mattiuzzi, a psychologist in Sacramento, Calif., who does court-ordered mental evaluations and has written about Trump’s narcissistic traits. “If he uses the crowd like a mirror, he has to keep the crowd polished to reflect his power and glory. Maybe he thinks about the crowd as being useful in other ways, but when he talks about them, it is usually for the purpose of self-validation.”
Psychologists scrutinizing Trump’s words and deeds saw in his unscripted “both sides” comment the reaction of someone who is hypersensitive to anything that undermines his self-esteem. In this case, this “ego threat” came when Trump was criticized for not immediately condemning marchers from the “alt-right” (a political grouping that mixes racism, white nationalism, and anti-Semitism): On the day of the violence, he released a video statement condemning “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.” But he took two days to call out “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups” by name.
“His reaction seemed to be, ‘I did what you wanted me to do and you still complain,’” said psychologist W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, an expert in narcissism. “‘You’re treating me unfairly, so fine, now I’ll say exactly what I want to say.’ When he feels mistreated he doesn’t apologize or back down, but hits back twice as hard.”
In this case, in addition to blaming the groups that opposed the white supremacists, Trump also attacked the “fake” media again and said there were “good people” among the white supremacists.
Lashing out in the face of criticism “is what narcissistic people do,” Campbell said. Many psychologists have cited narcissism — an inflated but fragile sense of self-worth combined with grandiosity and an intense need for admiration — as Trump’s defining personality trait. By launching a rhetorical counterattack, the narcissist tries to preserve his feelings of righteousness (I’m right, they’re wrong). Trump placed himself in opposition to his critics, a hallmark of narcissism, even though it meant he fell short of vehemently denouncing neo-Nazis.
An additional factor in play is that Trump reportedly loathes his aides’ attempts to control him or prevent “Trump from being Trump,” and fumed when they convinced him to issue, on Monday, a more forceful and specific condemnation of the white supremacist groups than his Saturday statement.
“I think he was frustrated that he couldn’t be himself, and when he was criticized after his scripted statement” — Trump tweeted, “it will never be enough” for his critics — “he thought, why not just say what I really believe,” said Mattiuzzi.
When Trump went off-script the day after his Monday comments, “he seemed like a man who was cornered,” said Aaron Balick, director of a psychology center in London who has written about the psychology of Trump’s tweets.
“We know that when he feels vulnerable, he seeks the support of his base, taking comfort there,” Balick said. “By condemning his base, he would be undermining his support, so it’s a major conflict for him when he is advised to take a ‘presidential position’ that clearly condemns white supremacy.”
No one is comfortable criticizing friends or allies, but narcissists have a particularly tough time of it. If Trump denounced his alt-right supporters forcefully, spontaneously, and unambiguously rather than because his aides advised him to, he would be implicitly impugning their judgment. One manifestation of that judgment was that Trump deserved their support during the 2016 presidential campaign and still does. If white supremacists are wrong to hold racist, anti-Semitic views and attack counterprotesters in Charlottesville, pointing that out suggests that they might also be wrong to support him.
“These have been his unwavering supporters from the start, and he was unable to castigate them publicly,” Balick said.
As always when experts analyze Trump from afar, there are alternative explanations for his behavior. Trump may have made a strategic, political decision to stand by his core supporters, assuming that those leading the condemnation of resurgent white supremacism are lost to him anyway. He might truly believe the right-wing meme that counter-protesters like those in Charlottesville — those he described as “alt-left” — were “also very violent.”
Or he may be revealing deeply held views toward race: In 1973, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Trump and his father alleging racial discrimination in their housing developments, and he was a leading voice in the birther movement that claimed the nation’s first black president was born in Kenya.
Perhaps, therefore, no deeper psychological excavation is necessary. “Sometimes,” said Georgia’s Campbell, “people say what they believe.”
This story was updated on Aug. 21 with additional comments.