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Friday, February 3, 2017
With Love From Australia - How to deal with a narcissist like Donald Trump
Every world leader who has to deal with Donald Trump, which is to say every world leader including Malcolm Turnbull, should be stacking their bedside tables with literature on pathological narcissism – it will provide a better playbook for the 45th presidency than libraries full of political analysis or history.
The United States' new national sport is the psychoanalysis of its president, and it's a game that's catching on globally.
Some say Donald Trump exhibits the traits of narcissistic personality disorder, which include grandiosity, a lack of empathy, exploitative interpersonal relationships, a sense of entitlement and an excessive need for admiration.
Others go further and say he is a "malignant narcissist", which is when narcissism overlaps with psychopathy.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was widely criticised this week for not speaking out against Donald Trump's visa ban, but actually his response was pragmatic, protective and straight out of the pop psychology literature on how to respond to a narcissist.
Turnbull, whether knowingly or not, was employing what is known as the "grey rock technique", an invention of the self-help industry that teaches that the best way to deal with a narcissist is to make yourself bland and uninteresting to him.
"Grey rock" is a familiar trope on scores of websites dedicated to (mostly women) trying to flee toxic relationships with narcissistic men.
The sisterhood swears by it, and so does Turnbull, it seems.
Narcissists need two sorts of people: those who provide what the psychiatrists call "narcissistic supply" – people who reflect glory upon them, feed their grandiosity and pump up their self-image; and enemies to beat down and bully, because what could be more pleasing to the self-esteem than mastery over a weak and humiliated opponent?
Narcissists are famously sensitive to shame and humiliation. They also do something psychologists call "splitting" – when a person they previously idealised crosses them with a perceived slight, the narcissist reacts with outsize fury, and suddenly becomes an evil enemy.
Turnbull knows he needs to avoid this at all costs. Publicly shaming Trump by criticising his immigration ban, or by leaking the details of their now-infamous phone conversation, as Trump did, could have catastrophic results for the US-Australia alliance.
Under the principles of "grey rock", the smart strategy is to become a nobody in the eyes of the narcissist. You do nothing and say nothing to incite him, and so he moves on to engage with one of the two categories of people who are of use to him.
Turnbull must have been privately infuriated to learn of the leaking Washington Post of his phone call with Trump. It was without a doubt leaked to engender an emotional reaction and gain an advantage over Turnbull, to intimidate him or put him on notice that if the refugee deal went through, he would be doing him a huge favour. Narcissists are fuelled by the reactions to the emotional chaos they create.
In response, Turnbull pulled a classic grey rock. He was unemotional and bland, telling reporters he would not speak about the private conversation. Later he clarified only that it had not ended in a hang up, as had been reported. Earlier in the week he told journalists it was "not my job" to comment on US domestic affairs, such as the president's abominable Muslim ban.
But the problem with the "grey rock" technique is that in some cases a relationship with the narcissist is necessary.
Turnbull can't choose not to engage with Trump, nor can he choose never to differ with him. No relationship works like that, and certainly not one where aligned, but markedly different national interests are at stake.
While it is absolutely in Australia's national interest to adopt "grey rock" as often as possible in dealing with Trump, it will come at a political cost to Turnbull.
The Prime Minister will increasingly see himself placed in a position where he has to endure the private humiliation of being treated contemptuously by the leader of a country that owes Australia a great deal of loyalty. But if he isn't seen to stand up to Trump, he will also endure the public humiliation of being criticised for weakness and perceived lackeyism to the vulgar American.
If, in private, Turnbull puts aside his own pride for the national interest, he will get little public credit for it.
John Howard's reputation in the electorate was damaged greatly by perceptions he was too obedient to the war cries of President George W. Bush.
Imagine how much more pronounced that will be if Turnbull is seen to pander to a president as horrifying to Australians as Short Fingers?
Dubya was regarded by his critics as merely a fool. Trump is something much more malignant.
Personality disorders are famously immutable and resistant to treatment – the people who have them don't change.
Turnbull's best strategy would be to adopt grey rock where possible, and trust in the certainty that Trump will mostly have much bigger targets than us.
But it would be a mistake to think we are among the special few who can train a snake not to bite us.