After losing reelection, a sitting U.S. president typically would concede defeat and begin the process of transitioning to a new administration. But this election year, nothing is typical.
President Donald Trump has yet to acknowledge that Joe Biden emerged from the 2020 election victorious, choosing instead to maintain the election was stolen from him via widespread voter fraud — an allegation with zero basis and for which he has offered no proof.
What happens next? Some have argued that Trump is in the midst of a coup attempt, failing to overturn the results in the courts and shifting to an effort to persuade Republican officials in key states to ignore the will of the people and declare him the winner.
The Intercept catalogued Trump’s actions so far:
After multiple news outlets declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election, the president not only refused to concede but began making repeated and baseless claims of his own victory and widespread vote-rigging in favor of his opponent.
Trump has also advocated a grab bag of authoritarian actions from entreating the Supreme Court to prematurely stop the vote count, apparently demanding election officials do the same, and launching legally dubious lawsuits in the same vein, while advancing baseless claims that there’s a means to invalidate counted ballots. These latter moonshot legal gambits may be less about overturning the election results and more about sowing chaos, drawing out the process, and casting the election into doubt in the court of public opinion.
Whether or not there is actual danger that Trump will successfully try to stay in the White House despite clearly losing reelection, his determination to sow chaos and destruction on his way out could be explained, at least in part, by the concept of narcissistic injury.
Though he does not appear to have an official diagnosis, Trump exhibits the traits of a malignant narcissist. Understanding how this personality disorder manifests is helpful in making sense of what the president is doing — and not doing — in light of his bitter election loss.
Karyl McBride Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explains narcissistic injury as follows:
“… vulnerability in self-esteem which makes narcissistic people very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. They react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.”
In the case of Trump, that disdain, rage or defiant counterattack is coupled with a malignant, sadistic element — taking pleasure in causing harm and destruction.
Narcissists cannot tolerate when their false reality — one that protects their insecure, undeveloped sense of self — is compromised, often resulting in a narcissistic injury.
“When narcissists feel that they have lost, or when they feel rejected or abandoned, they don’t forget it,” McBride writes.
Unlike most people, who are able to move on from rejection after some time and emotional processing, narcissists “are not enough in touch with their own feelings to move on,” McBride says. “The issues remain in their mind as ‘It’s all your fault’ and, ‘How could you do this to me?’ They want to strike back.”
The counterattacks and force of disdain and rage from the narcissist can make you feel bullied with no restraint. It can come in the form of emails, texts, letters, verbal abuse, social media attacks, or in-person abuse. This narcissistic rage seems to come out of nowhere and can leave you feeling confused and afraid. “What will they do next?” “Why did that person do this?” It really makes no rational sense because it is clearly the projection of their own feelings onto others.
It is important to understand the concept of narcissistic injury so that it can be identified in everyday life. It may be found in our relationships, our leaders, our bosses, and our families. It affects us because it is harmful and abusive. It leaves one self-doubting and wondering what they did to cause the chaos and destructive behavior.
While it is often, though not always, possible to walk away from such abusive behavior in our personal lives, there is little the American people can do currently to walk away from Trump. And the situation could get worse.
Some experts have said that although the potential for an actual coup is low, this does not mean America is out of the danger zone.
John Chin, research coordinator for the Center for International Relations and Politics at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of the forthcoming “Historical Dictionary of Modern Coups d’Etat,” told The Intercept:
“From what I’ve seen so far, nothing reaches the level of what I would call a coup, a coup attempt, or, more precisely, an autogolpe by President Trump. I just don’t see Trump having that level of support within the military or sufficient backing in the courts to pull off the moves needed to stay in power.”
But Chin also cautioned: “At the end of the day, if he wants to stay in power, he either has to get the courts to side with him or he’ll have to get the support of people with guns. The [Defense Department] doesn’t see its role as propping up this or any president, but Trump has mobilized other security forces — as he did against Black Lives Matters protests this summer. If there’s a reprise of those types of deployments or he gets armed supporters to back him, that would be quite troubling.”
“A nightmare scenario could still happen,” Chin warned. “Between now and January, we’re still in a heightened danger zone.”
Even if the worst case scenario is averted, the damage Trump is doing should not be underestimated.
Erica De Bruin, an assistant professor of government at Hamilton College and author of “How to Prevent Coups,” recently wrote in The Washington Post:
The real damage to American democracy underway may be more mundane than a coup, but in the long run has the potential to be just as dangerous. The most likely outcome to this election is that Trump leaves office as scheduled. But the erosion of democratic norms will have eroded the quality of our democracy — and the damage will persist long after he departs.
Image credit: Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour / Public Domain