During the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election, I wondered how anyone might be drawn to an individual like Donald John Trump. From the beginning, something seemed deeply off. Five years later, as new material excoriating Donald Trump’s many misdeeds piles up at a rapid pace, new language—words like ‘malevolent, malignant and evil’—are now being used to describe his actions.
Human evil occupies an awkward space in the American lexicon. We prefer words like narcissism, and narcissistic personality traits are common in the history of American presidents. But narcissism does not capture the entirety of presidential behaviors we’ve seen over the last half decade, and certainly not in the run up to the 2020 election. The danger inherent in defaulting to the more comfortable description of Trump’s behavior lies in its embrace. In fact, when the President is called narcissistic or subject to a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), many supporters actually celebrate the diagnosis and seem eager to emulate it.
But what if we’re missing a core distortion? What if there is something more ‘malevolent’ going on with Donald Trump?
Dr. Mary L. Trump’s recent book lends clinical expertise and a family insider point of view to the commonly-held opinion of the President as a narcissist, while adding signs of antisocial and dependent personality disorders. Observations of such comorbid symptoms led social psychologist Erich Fromm in 1964, to coin the experimental diagnosis “malignant narcissism,” describing it as “the quintessence of evil“.
In 1983, Harvard psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote about the “quintessence” (or embodiment) of evil more extensively. You might remember him for his most popular book, “The Road Less Traveled” (1978). But in his book I prize most, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” (1983), Peck differentiates narcissism from something more disturbing he observed in clinical practice.
Peck derived a four-item list of criteria to define “human evil” and distinguish it from mere narcissism. Though a man of complex Christian faith tradition, he’s not describing spiritual evil such as we find in the pages of Scripture. This is something else – something purely human.
In his book, Peck introduces four symptoms of human evil: “In addition to the abrogation of responsibility that characterizes all personality disorders, human evil would specifically be distinguished by…”
- Consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior, which may often be quite subtle. Peck says, “They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection.” Furthermore, they “routinely bolster group cohesiveness in times of failure by whipping the group’s hatred for foreigners or the ‘enemy.’”
- Excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury. Evil people are “unable to acknowledge their own imperfection. They believe that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are psychologically perfect human specimens.” Peck goes on to say, “evil deeds don’t make someone evil”, it is someone’s “absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness.”
- Pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability, contributing to a stability of lifestyle but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives. The people Peck identifies as evil are “unceasingly engaged in an effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” He says, “While they lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good.”
- Above all, they lie constantly, not only to others but also to themselves— insisting on verification despite factual evidence to the contrary. Peck calls it, intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of a mild schizophrenic-like disturbance of thinking at times of stress. Therapists who treat them “feel overwhelmed by the labyrinthine mass of lies and twisted motives and distorted communication.”
Who does this bring to mind?
In my clinical practice I’ve had more than a few clients with NPD. But none has exhibited the additional criteria Peck designates for human evil. Though easy enough to identify in historical figures who left a trail of destruction behind them, this kind of malevolence is not common. No one I know talks like this President. If so, it would be profoundly alarming—in a client, an employee, or a parishioner.
What can be done about people of the lie? Peck offers two competing ideas that demand an agile response. First, despite their persuasive expertise in substituting untruth for truth, we must cease indulging their deceptions. Secondly, though they rarely seek help, we should strive to “heal or contain” them through psychotherapy. Drawing on his Christian faith, Peck maintains that love heals, yet to love people of the lie requires “an almost godlike compassion.” So we must be agile enough to pray for love that heals, even while we refuse to embrace the behaviors.
For those holding their nose while holding on to Trump in 2020, here’s the danger. POTUS is neither understated nor covert while continuing his divisive impact on America. This will not change if he is re-elected or retakes the presidency by other means. The DSM-V tells us that within personality disorders; “impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.” It’s hardly a stretch to apply the same observation to Peck’s criteria for human evil.
Perhaps we understate Forty-Five with words like ‘dishonest, incompetent, and petulant’. Instead we might be served in this season to acknowledge that we face tweets, public behaviors, and policy directives more accurately described as ‘wicked, malevolent, and evil.’
What if human evil resides in the White House?