Ball of Thread: Trump’s Narcissism Makes Him Easy to Trigger

This post is part of a Ball of Thread I’m putting together before I attempt to explain how Trump trained Republicans to hate rule of law. See this post for an explanation of my Ball of Thread.

Discussions of Trump’s cultivation by Russia (and other authoritarian countries) always founder on discussions of his formal recruitment.

There is abundant evidence that Russia, like other countries, did at least attempt to recruit Trump. Craig Unger has written two good books on the subject.

But many attempts to describe why and whether that happened, particularly in the hands of pundits, are easily discredited. That’s true, in significant part, because people imagine recruitment is an either/or thing: that people come fully recruited spies one day and from that point forward they are puppets of their handlers. The reality, as I understand it, is a gradual process of creating the preconditions via which people can be persuaded to act in ways that benefit another country.

On top of being an all around annoyance, for example, Jonathan Chait’s consideration of whether Trump had long been recruited was sloppy and made the entire Russian investigation easier to discredit.

And the thing is, such efforts are unnecessary.

All you need to explain Trump’s actions (and all I’ll rely on for this series) is Trump’s narcissism. Trump is such an epic narcissist, and narcissists’ reactiveness and paranoia and pathological need to feed their own ego are so predictable, that the only explanation you need for how Trump could be manipulated is that narcissism. So long as you could reliably trigger Trump’s narcissism, you could fairly reliably trigger a predictable narcissistic response to a given trigger.

Trump’s habit of releasing highly classified documents is a great example. Trump almost blew the Vault 7 investigation by revealing details that made it clear FBI considered Josh Schulte as the prime suspect to Tucker Carlson the day of his first search; Trump did so to try to blame Obama for the compromise. Trump burned an Israeli counterterrorism program by giving it to Russia, which he did to show off. Trump burned the satellite imagery targeting Iran, which he did so to dickwag Iran. Trump attempted to release all the backup materials to the Russian investigation because some dopey advisor convinced him that it would help to disprove his critics. Trump shared details of DOD’s plans to attack Iran with Mark Meadows’ ghost writer because he thought it would help him discredit Mark Milley. A master spy might have asked Trump to release all this intelligence for him. Maybe one day we’ll learn the documents that went missing from Mar-a-Lago were specifically requested. But you don’t even need that master spy request (and if there were a master spy, he might not ask for documents in the form of a request): because all it takes to get Trump to release highly classified documents is to suggest that in some way doing so will harm his detractors.

The Trump Tower Moscow deal — or really, any deal — is another example. It is not important whether the Trump Tower Moscow deal pitched to Michael Cohen (or any of the several other Russian Trump Tower deals) to be real, or plausible. Russia could, with great certainty, dangle offers for free money and the biggest tower in Russia, and Trump was bound to act irresponsibly, as he did.

There certainly could be more: but there doesn’t have to be. All you need to manipulate Donald Trump is to trigger his narcissism.

55 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    Another element to your discussion of recruitment is that the recruiter working gradually may start with ordinary legitimate requests that are not at all illegal, and then moves into murkier territory and at some point crosses the line into getting the target to do something illegal. At this point, while the recruiter may still be offering carrots to the target, there’s also the stick: blackmail and a threat to expose what the target has done.

    And if the recruiter is dealing with a narcissist, blackmail becomes a very very effective threat. “Nice reputation you’ve got here. It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it . . . “

    • Rayne says:

      How it probably looks after the narcissist has been reminded about the leverage over their reputation…

        • Rayne says:

          Oh yeah — all the photos in which Trump and Putin are shown head to toe it’s clear Trump is much taller and bigger than Putin. But this photo and several others taken that day make it clear Putin figuratively knocked the stuffing out of Trump.

        • Benji-am-Groot says:

          Yepper – looks like he does not know whether to spit, swallow or smile in that pic and Putin knows it.

          Speaking of Helsinki in July of ‘18: State Department interpreter Marina Gross and snagging the notes she took – what conceivable reason could there be for that action…I have no time for conspiracy theories but let’s try something linguistic here.

          What if the alleged Pee tape was actually something much less raunchy but equally sinister, like the scenario Peterr mentioned above – it was called the ‘P’ tape as in ‘Putin’ kompromat?

        • TheDevilsAdvocate says:

          On the “pee” tape issue, Obama had slept on that very same mattress some years before. I believe Trump would not sleep on the same mattress that Obama had, so he had the hookers pee on the bed. Then he could get a new mattress delivered since that one was now soiled. I believe it was purely his hatred of Obama that caused it. Its possible the Russians could have put hidden cameras into that hotel room and just happened to catch the act. I do not believe Trump has any sort of a “golden shower” fetish.

          [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please use the same username and email address each time you comment so that community members get to know you. You commented last as “The Devil’s Advocate” — the spaces matter. Please revert to your original name and stick with it. Thanks. /~Rayne]

        • Rayne says:

          Can we not chase this crap? Let’s move on past the prurient unconfirmed stuff and focus on the topic: Trump’s narcissism.

          In fact, think about the nature of triggers and how the right ones can cause people to act reflexively. You know, like prurient material triggers some folks, causing them to miss real concerns like Trump’s intense narcissism.

        • Martin Cooper says:

          As a retired intelligence operations officer, I have no doubt that while Trump confiscated interpreter Marina Gross’s notes, somewhere in the IC there is a transcript of an after action interview with Marina in which she recounts everything she remembers from the Trump-Putin conversation.

          Related: “… people imagine recruitment is an either/or thing: that people come fully recruited spies one day and from that point forward they are puppets of their handlers. The reality, as I understand it, is a gradual process of creating the preconditions via which people can be persuaded to act in ways that benefit another country.” Dr. Wheeler’s comment here is entirely correct.

    • Super Nintendo Chalmers says:

      I once read a book about the Mossad. By the time someone figured out they were being recruited, it was too late. They were already compromised at that point . Dotard being dotard, it must have been extremely easy to manipulate him.

    • Harry Eagar says:

      I don’t know about ‘most spies,’ but some of the most famous — Esterhazy, Hannssen, perhaps Ames — did it for money, and at least Hanssen was not recruited, He volunteered.

      The Cambridge Five and most of the American spies for the Soviet Union in the ’30s and ’40s acted for ideological reasons and seem to have been recruited based mostly on assurances that they would not be exposed.

      Trump, if he’s an agent, might be an unusual type.

  2. zirczirc says:

    Trump’s lawyers may be making arguments in court concerning Trump being immune from prosecution because he was President. But Trump thinks he’s immune because he’s Trump. HIs narcissism also explains why he can switch from bald-faced lies to eye-opening truths regarding his own behavior. In his mind, if he did something, it was, by definition, a perfect thing to do. While he will lie about what he’s done, I think it galls him to do so. He’d rather say what he did and brazen it out. In his mind, if Trump did it, it’s right.


    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      I think this comes close. But to me it seems as if he *truly* believes that through the miracle of becoming president (something he did not expect, could not perform, and never lived up to) Trump now thinks he should retroactively be considered “washed clean in the blood of the Lamb”–miraculously transformed into a divine and untouchable being, the One his followers see.

      He doesn’t believe in God. But he believes he himself might be a god.

      • Fancy Chicken says:

        It’s as if Trump is trying to revive the Roman cult of the emperor and his family.

        From what I understand, he has been sharing of late a number of vids and memes comparing himself to Jesus or being the chosen one of God.

        I worry that the stress of his 91 felony charges, the very possible dissolution of his business in NY state which is a central pillar of his self construct while running a campaign will push his narcissism over the edge creating a true psychotic break or descent into dementia (his father did have Alzheimer’s at his end but I’m not sure when it’s onset was) that will push him into going full on messiah and openly calling for his cult followers to eliminate the Enemy.

        Because his narcissism powers so many of his dangerous and destructive actions as Dr. Wheeler outlines and there is not nearly enough discussion about Trump’s mental health or it’s import is minimized, I think a Constitutional crisis is just the beginning of the permanent damage Trump can do politically and to individual lives.

        Treating Trump as a rational actor is a foolish misstep by the media and those who are trying to minimize his destructive capabilities.

        • 0Alexander Platt0 says:

          I’m not sure I agree that Trump’s mental health, precarious as it may be, is particularly germane to his political story. The man is openly running on a platform of fascism and white nationalism and a large minority of the country will vote for him on that basis. How does speculating about psychological disorder change that in any way?

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Would his mental health worry you if he regains the White House? If it leads to more extreme behavior, even by Trump’s standards, as he tries to get there? Or leads him to overreact to losing, by inflaming his followers to further violence and sustained efforts at insurrection? Those are expressions of his “political story” that might worry a few people.

        • timbozone says:

          It provides a framework to understand how Trump is triggered and manipulated. It also provides a warning…if you’re opposed to being manipulated and abused and/or ruled by a narcissistic personality.

        • iamevets says:

          Do you mean the church of golf? i have never heard that he goes to church regularly. what is your source?

        • Matt___B says:

          I think Chirrut left out the snark tag: /s. This line comes from a brand new “infomercial” (I’m being kind) that the Trump 2024 campaign just put out that uses this line as a throwaway amid all the other propaganda that is attempting to keep the fervor high among his evangelical voters…

          Unfortunately, I was involuntarily exposed to this in a YouTube commercial prior to an MSNBC news clip (ironically). For a few moments, I couldn’t tell whether it was part of an MSNBC story or a paid segment…

        • Chirrut Imwe says:

          I will be more careful to cite my sources in the future. “God Made Trump” did turn my stomach, but that line made me do a spit take.

  3. Upisdown says:

    The Trump Tower Moscow deal sounds so ancient now. Whatever became of Felix Sater?

    So many Trump criminal associates, so little time.

  4. tomstickler says:

    Is there any evidence that Trump ever reported a recruitment attempt to any relevant US intelligence agency?

    • P J Evans says:

      Would he even recognize it as a recruitment attempt, given that he believes he’s perfect in every way?

      • says:

        would he ever REPORT it to law enforcement or our intelligence agencies?

        Besides his deep paranoia and ardent disagreements with IA perspectives on Russia, rewind the George Stephanopoulos’ Oval Office interview.

        Y’all being way too charitable. The man has no moral compass.

  5. boatgeek says:

    This is a story about how a group of middle schoolers figured out how to manipulate Trump.

    Every year, there’s a national middle-and-high-school rocketry competition. It’s all about flying an egg to a specific altitude and landing a specific amount of time after liftoff. Back when there was such a thing, the winners were routinely invited to the White House science fair.

    For reasons that I don’t fully understand, there are several really fruitcake-y evangelical “Christian” schools that participate in the competition and do reasonably well on average. Apparently they believe in just enough science to get jobs with the military-industrial complex. Anyway, about a week before the national flyoffs in May 2017, there were a few stories about how one of those schools had named their rocket “Trump” because it was going to be victorious over all just like Trump was. They even put “TRUMP” on the side of the rocket in gold. About as classy as you’d expect. The team got an invite to the White House the day before the flyoff.

    The takeaway: A group of middle schoolers (and their adult advisors) figured out that they could get special favors from Trump by putting his name in gold on their rocket. Who knows what secrets he gave them! Lovers of schadenfreude will want to know that the TRUMP rocket was disqualified after its first flight, likely because it broke apart or broke the egg.

  6. sohelpmedog says:

    One would think that Trump being so susceptible to manipulation that his domestic political opponents could take him down, but so far, they haven’t.

    [MODERATOR’S NOTE: FINAL REQUESTSEE YOUR PREVIOUS COMMENT. You are at risk of being banned. /~Rayne]

  7. Bears7485 says:

    It occurs to me that many people support Trump because they’re raging narcissists who are living vicariously through him; they can’t say and act the way he does without direct consequences.

    • c-i-v-i-l says:

      I think there’s a good fraction who are sociopaths rather than (or, for some, in addition to) narcissists, and who are similarly living through his cruelty and vows of retribution. Some psychologists/psychiatrists have characterized Trump’s narcissism as a particularly dangerous form, malignant narcissism, which combines narcissistic personality disorder, paranoia, antisocial personality disorder, and sadism (see, for example, those interviewed in the documentary “Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump”). He certainly seems to fit the bill from my perspective.

      • Discontinued Barbie says:

        Dr. Brandy Lee wrote a book about what is happening psychology with his followers. She talks about social contagions and how mentally sick people make others around them sick as well. They don’t get better around healthy people, the healthy people become sick too. She and her group studied other cult leaders and fascist leaders. Her interview with Bill Moyers was extremely enlightening and helped explain the behavior we are seeing. What really stopped me in my tracks, was when she explained that Trump is the symptom to a larger problem that these folks are primed to be susceptible to a fascist leader. That is was what really scared me.

        Here is the link to the interview. It is worth the listen and helps you understand the psychology behind the cult.

    • Matt___B says:

      I agree. And it’s often overlooked. It explains the lasting power of Trump’s “base”. Pandora’s box has been opened and out flies Trump’s base, who has now been given blanket permission to follow and emulate the narcissist-in-chief.

      And the problem will remain well after their beloved role model fades into obscurity, (whenever that is), because permission to be that way has already been granted and sanctioned by the Big Authority Figure. A dysfunctional psychological virus, as it were…

  8. Badger Robert says:

    The written apologies for Trump are not for mass consumption. But they do create a shield in which so called TV journalists can suspend their moral judgement and then treat advocacy of fascism as the same as the defense of democracy. They can pretend to not have an opinion.
    Then the use of war rhetoric becomes common place. Which leads to war, civil war or foreign war.
    iThe last civil war in the United States led to the death of at least 2.5% of the population, In today’s urbanized nation the deaths would likely be caused by starvation, and the rapid decline of hygiene and medical care.
    People who treat that prospect as a game, and as a road to personal advancement don’t want to recognize that there will be consequences.

  9. Badger Robert says:

    And yet, it works. The messages are mainly delivered by electronic media to passive consumers. The lines are simplistic and highly repetitive. As noted elsewhere, the passive consumer is attracted to the image that Trump incurs no consequences, and that suggests that the listener or viewer may also have a life in which there are no consequences.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I don’t think Trump is at all an unusual type for a foreign intelligence operation. I think he fits the profile. What’s improbable is his staying power and that he expertly tapped into the American psyche. He was helped by billionaires, who hate the left, and their lavishly funded right wing network, from media, to think tanks, foundations, university depts and entire universities. I think it was also unexpected that he was so successful, given his decades of failure, that the entire Republican Party chose to follow and emulate him, with virtually no surviving outliers.

    • FL Resister says:

      ‘It can happen here’ should be a clarion call for all reputable journalists when the lies are so blatantly obvious.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Trump is a cornucopia of frailties that would make an agent recruiter’s mouth water. His narcissism makes him easy to manipulate. His wealth created opportunities to manipulate him: reason to be abroad; reason to socialize with foreign politicians, financial institutions, potential investors and customers; reason to move money hither and yon. His inability to make money, but willingness to spend it created vulnerabilities that would have been easy to manipulate. His vanity and lasciviousness would have created endless opportunities for compromise, as would his massive ignorance, obtuseness, and sociopathy. His OpSec is so full of holes, you could drive a fleet of T-34s through it.

  12. Vinniegambone says:

    Can not conceive how, where, and by whom, a civil war, and actual shooting war would begin, and how or whom would conduct it. There is only one standing military in this country. A war takes two sides. Even if he became commander in chief and controlled the military, the 80 million who voted for him are not, could not take up arms against Trump’s USA military.

    I do believe however he will declare war on selected segments of the population. That there will be swaths of violence of American on American . And he will definitely weaponize the DOJ. I believe there can be will be concentration camp equivalents established. There will be no seceding of states, no battlements. The best, and it is not gonna cut it, there will be lot’s of protest and marching in the streets, but that’s it.
    There is, will not be an Abraham Lincoln, because, once he is in power and would be Abe will be murdered as soon as he becomes known. Oh there will be acts of war, but there will be no civil war of the states. The two sides are too interwoven now.

    Trumpers like the idea of a civil war, and many are just fine if not eager for violence by Americans (them) on other Americans (us).
    But what the “war” would look like, no one seems to want to predict, encourage, or to be able to oppose because we (I) have no concept of how it would unfold.

    The closest thing we have will happen November 3rd,2024. If he wins it won’t be long before living in America will become as dangerous and lawless as living in Haiti and for the same reason- there will be no one able to stop them.
    What tricks are Putin/ Saudi’s planning now?
    Look for October surprises every single month.

    • Vinniegambone says:

      Sorry, mistake, meant the 80 million who voted against Trump. If he wins in 2024, Biden’s supporters are just going to take it on the hop, hunker down, and hope he and his implode. Eventually, as things spiral out of control Trumpers will realize they made a big mistake, and the pendulum hopefully swings.
      Trump won’t bring us rule of law; he will bring maul of law.

    • Badger Robert says:

      There will be catastrophic consequences. They are unpredictable. But tyrants destroy nations.

    • BriceFNC says:

      Agree with your promoting awareness of Putin manipulated October surprises every single month…I am currently skeptical about the Hamas attack being directed via Putin through Iran. I am surprised that the worldwide oil market failed to respond to Iran moving a battle ship into the Red Sea after a month or more of increased tension following Houthi drone and missile attacks.

      Also agree with your thesis concerning our interwoven states acting to deter secession-or the direct conflict of the 1860’s. The confederacy has become highly dependent upon the billions of dollars transferred to them annually from blue states!

  13. Obansgirl says:

    Is there hope? What about love? I am an observer on this site and I’ve never felt so defeated. But thank you EW for the terrific investigative reporting.

    • P’villain says:

      Many of us are there with you. Everywhere I go, I converse with good people struggling to control their anxiety. For my own benefit, I have adopted the motto, “2024 – A Work in Progress,” and I am reading lots of William Saroyan’s early work. Best wishes in your own struggle.

      • Matt Foley says:

        I struggle with anxiety over this malignant MAGA cancer. But I have hope that justice and reason will prevail.

        He mocked John McCain’s war injury the other day. There is no bottom to the MAGA sewer.

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          By now he has dragged so many so far down with him via such execrable (but for Trump throwaway) actions as insulting McCain, that many will find it difficult if not impossible to face their own shame at this degradation. I doubt most would have imagined themselves capable of such behavior before Trump.

          If you want the security of a dirty bully on your side, you must dirty yourself. He insists on it so as to keep you in his thrall. Because it works.

  14. bgThenNow says:

    I can’t get out of my mind the way he shoved all the world leaders aside to get to the front in that famous (hideous) video clip. I was listening to the radio earlier about the increase of autocracy around the world in ostensible democracies. The manufactured fear or whatever else is going on is not just happening here. What makes masses of people think electing these monsters will make anything better? It is discouraging. At best.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      That image gets put right up front in God Made Trump. He obviously likes seeing himself as a physical bully. And he’s betting his fans like it too.

      • Vinniegambone says:

        Trump’s base mataticised the instant in the debate when Trump de-balled Bush with one crack;
        “Oh yeah, Jeb, you’re a real tough guy.” Sewed it up.

        Upon reflection on the question of what a civil war would look like- it will look like what we are seeing now increased “swatting’, and death threats. Folks who are outraged and want to protest will think twice about doing so.
        There will not be army against Army. There will just be a breeding of Kylle Rittenhouses on the loose, or as the Oath Keeper/ proud boys called it: night hunting…
        The violence will come from more and more lone wolves who think what they are doing is patriotic.
        The easiest flash points for these combatants seems always to be racially motivated, or class motivated, not policy driven.
        Still wonder what thought processes drove the pipe bomber. Also wonder if there is any chance one of the J6 convicts actually was also the pipe bomber and that he might be sitting in jail right now.
        Hard to imagine he planted the bombs and then just skipped the main affair. Who had control/ authority of the detonators? Him , or someone else? Why was the detonation aborted? Was it preconditioned on certain parts of the plan having been reached? Likely linked somehow to the QRF plans? There were many people came to J6 prepared for battle and prepared and willing to murder. Lovely, ay?

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