As November quickly approaches, discussion surrounding one of the most polarizing presidential elections in decades has intensified, from fervent whispers to a cacophonous roar of partisan rhetoric and armchair philosophizing. While voters differ passionately on the candidates’ respective platforms and personalities, there is one topic on which they all seem to agree: Donald Trump is far from a traditional candidate. For some, this outsider status marks Trump as an appealing alternative to the status quo, while to others his bluster and bravado stand as a stark reminder of a culture caving in to the clarion call of craven self-interest and celebrity obsession.
At the very least, the public outcry both for and against a Trump presidency is one of the most fascinating psychological phenomena of the modern political era. To that end, Asheville-based publishing house Chiron Publications recently released A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump, an edited volume examining the problem of systemic narcissism in contemporary culture through the lens of Trump’s campaign thus far.
“It is and it isn’t about Trump,” says Chiron Publisher Dr. Steve Buser. “Narcissism is epidemic, and because the topic is so critical at this point in time, we fast-tracked everything. From the authors to the copy editors to the cover designers, everybody heard the call that this is a clear and present danger. It had this archetypal energy propelling it.”
With Trump’s scheduled campaign stop in Asheville on Monday, this concise primer on narcissism in its myriad forms is a timely addition to the conversation regarding his controversial candidacy. This to-the-minute topicality was central to the intent of Buser and Len Cruz, psychiatrists whose practice (innerQuest Psychiatry) on Hendersonville Road in South Asheville also functions as the headquarters for Chiron, a publishing imprint the duo inherited from noted Jungian analysts Drs. Murray Stein and Nathan Schwartz-Salant in 2013. In their roles as Chiron’s principal editors, Buser and Cruz accomplished an almost unheard-of feat of publishing, by taking A Clear and Present Danger from concept to completed book in just under four months, a process that typically takes between 18 and 24 months, according to Buser.
“Steve promises we’ll never do that again,” jokes Cruz, with Buser adding, “We’re exhausted now.”
Buser and Cruz recruited 18 accomplished authors from the Jungian world and beyond to contribute a diverse array of articles to this anthology — including Chiron co-founder Schwartz-Salant, whose segment deals deftly with the distinction between healthy and malignant presidential narcissism. The book’s segmented structure allows for a multifaceted depiction of narcissism writ large, as some contributors take up Trump’s public persona, while others evaluate narcissism on deeper levels that will remain relevant long after the 2016 election. Other chapters deal with narcissism as expressed through the arts (such as Dr. James Hollis’ examination of narcissistic themes in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground), through popular culture (Dr. Kathryn Madden’s look at the growing cult of celebrity, from reality TV to Twitter) and through historical antecedents (UNCA professor Dr. John McClain’s explication of Mussolini’s appeal), among many other pertinent perspectives on narcissism.
Chiron focuses on works dealing with Jungian (or analytic) psychology, a school of psychotherapeutic practice developed by C.G. Jung alongside, and in counterpoint to, Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis. Analytic psychology is distinguished from psychoanalysis by several key concepts, including Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. This idea is of particular relevance to A Clear and Present Danger’s discussion of Trump’s appeal, as several chapters in the book suggest that the candidate’s aggressive posturing and grandiloquence resonate with a series of deep psychological wounds inflicted on the American populace through years of warfare, economic turmoil and perpetual threats of terrorism. That being said, Buser and Cruz were careful to ensure the book would be accessible to readers with little to no prior knowledge of Jung’s work and advised contributors to avoid excessively academic prose.
A Clear and Present Danger elucidates the problems of narcissism within our culture by examining both Trump’s self-aggrandizement and the underlying psychology of narcissistic character traits in a broader societal context. Not all the articles deal specifically with Trump, but they share a common theme regarding the dangers inherent to unchecked narcissism. The book takes great pains to establish its position, not as a diagnostic evaluation of Trump as a person, but as an interpretation of his political persona and its ramifications for the American collective unconscious. After a magazine solicited diagnostic opinions from some 12,000 psychiatrists regarding Sen. Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign, the American Psychiatric Association deemed such behavior unethical in the absence of personal examination of the subject, and the resultant “Goldwater Rule” remains in effect to this day. The book opens with a disclaimer refuting any assertions of diagnosis but does cite examples of Trump’s behavior that could potentially be considered indicative of narcissistic personality disorder.
“What I think is a broader subject than just this political season is that narcissism is antithetical to community building, to cooperation and collaboration. I think the danger is not just Donald Trump and what he symbolizes, it’s that narcissism is always going to be in opposition to community,” Cruz explains.
The problem of epidemic narcissism is not limited to the confines of Trump or his campaign, he argues, but has pervasive effects that can be seen throughout modern societies on a global scale, as possibly evinced by the advent of the selfie-stick. Taking its name from the myth of Narcissus (the most familiar version of which can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses), narcissism in its clinical definition is a set of personality traits that are considered a normal outgrowth of an individual’s early psychological development that can become warped and maladaptive in some cases. Characterized by an unrealistically inflated sense of self-worth and a callous disregard for the well-being of others, examples of malignant narcissism can be seen in many places, from abusive spouses and overbearing bosses to profoundly evil dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler. A Clear and Present Danger certainly makes a case suggesting that Trump expresses such traits, but ultimately leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.