With the world teetering on the brink of its first ever nuclear exchange, we should take a look at the psychology of the two main protagonists – the Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and the US President Donald J Trump.
Both were sons growing up in great privilege and wealth. Both were indulged by adoring mothers and each was in awe of a stern father who preached and practiced total ruthlessness. Trump’s ruthlessness was entirely financial and took place in the New York property world while Jong-un grew up in a family dynasty that practiced mass oppression, murder and warfare. Trump’s father told him that he had to be a “killer” in the property world while Jong-un grew up in the belief that actual killing was a necessary and justified mechanism for protecting his country and family – the two are likely not separable in his mind.
Kim Jong-un’s best friend in his Swiss high school, the son of a Portuguese diplomat, described the now Korean dictator as “a completely normal guy” while one of his Swiss teachers reported that he was “well integrated, hard-working and enthusiastic – and loved basketball”.
The person who claims that he was closest to Jong-un during his childhood – the family’s Japanese chef Kenji Fujimoto – describes the 18 year old Jong-un suddenly pausing during an afternoon’s hedonistic enjoyment and saying: “We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding Jet Skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?”
I give these examples to show that Kim Jong-un did not start life as a psychopathic madman. Nor is Donald Trump a a madman, in spite of what several thousand US psychologists and psychiatrists have asserted in a widely-circulated letter. That being said, he is prone to violent aggression, for example boasting in his autobiography: “Even in elementary school, I was a very assertive, aggressive kid. In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye. I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled”
Nor is Trump suffering from a diagnosable personality disorder because such disorders create self-defeating behaviours that handicap the sufferer and Trump is manifestly not handicapped; in fact, he is admired by tens of millions for his material and media success, however that has been attained.
What Trump is, of course, is a narcissist, defined as “a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves”, and so is Kim Jong-un. Trump has an abnormally high use of “I” and “me” in his speech, and Jong-un’s narcissism is obvious in every film issued by North Korea. Both crave and demand admiration.
This narcissism is not some medical disorder that both men have inherited – it is part of a pattern of psychological changes and behaviour that arises in many people who are given great power over others. Both these men grew up knowing that they would have great power, in Trump’s case, financial. Now both have enormous military power. How will these two narcissists handle it during this confrontation?
Before answering that question, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that these are not just two men squaring up to each other for a fight, rather these are two states with all the apparatus of government behind them actually pulling the strings.
If only that were true. Donald J Trump, having known only total control over a family business, has been frustrated and thwarted by the complex checks and balances of the US political and legal system resulting in failure after failure in his legislation. These are huge blows to a narcissistic ego.
There is only one domain in which a US president can exert unfettered control without any political and legal constraints – military action. This ghastly reality means that the individual psychology of these two men really does play a definitive role in whether the world suffers a nuclear catastrophe or not.
So how are these two narcissists likely to interact over the next few months?
The extreme high self-esteem that is narcissism has a major downside – the bigger the ego, the greater the vulnerability to slight. Consider what Donald Trump told Timothy O’Brien for his 2005 book TrumpNation, referring to the celebrities and wealthy who come as guests to his Palm Beach estate: “They all eat, they all love me, they all kiss my ass. And then they all leave and say, ‘Isn’t he horrible.’ But I’m the king.”
This quote perfectly illustrates a key fact about narcissists – they care little for approval – what they crave is admiration. This makes the narcissist’s ego a little like an electric car with a limited range before its batteries need recharging, making it dependent on the availability of charging stations.
President Trump’s charging stations are the affirmation he encountered on the campaign trail, even to the extent that he went back to hold mass rallies even after the election was won – these were his charging stations. The rebuffs by Congress, Senate and the Courts of his legislation have been enormous blows to an inflated ego. In this context, the opportunity to obtain a major re-energizing boost to his battered ego is in the “fire and fury” of military action.
The very language, which could have come out of a North Korean press release, unmasks the rage of a thwarted president – and its childlike fantasy of all-consuming, annihilating retribution for perceived slights on an inflated ego.
Research shows that the narcissist’s emotional stability – and hence their ability to handle stress – is very heavily tied to the external environment; if that isn’t supplying the charges of admiration, then you get big emotional swings, particularly into anger and aggression. But so long as the admiration keeps coming, then there is relative emotional stability. The problem here is that Trump is admiration-deprived – hence his bizarre return to campaign-trail-type rallies in recent months – and a contest with Kim Jong-un offers him the chance to redress this hurt and patch up a bruised ego. It is, I am afraid, as dismayingly primitive as that.
A Costly, Stressful Burden.
During crisis situations, narcissists are burdened with a cognitive and emotional load that compounds the stress of an already highly stressful situation: they not only has a complex problem to solve and decisions to make about the external situation, they are additionally burdened with the task of assessing and preserving the consequences for their egos.
Because their selves – egos – are so central to everything they do and think, narcissists are always aware of themselves, and mentally consumed by a costly vigilance of the balance sheet of affirmation and potential humiliation from every interaction.
This costly cognitive and emotional overhead clouds their decisions and greatly increases their stress when their ego is threatened, as is currently the case in Korea.
For the narcissist, it is as if every situation, every conflict, involves a fight on two fronts simultaneously – one the external situation, the other the battlefield for the ego. Having to dual-task like this is potentially exhausting in an already overwhelming job.
Power corrodes the capacity for empathy but narcissists already have very low stocks of empathy because of their constant need to bolster their egos and so narcissists who hold great power have a considerable empathy deficit.
This can help reduce stress in crises – what general could function properly if he was constantly empathizing with his wounded soldiers during the heat of battle? – but it has one other major cost.
As any chess player knows, the priority after an opponent makes a move, is to understand why she made that move – to see the game from her perspective. In fact, chess teachers will often make the player turn the board round so as to see the game from the opponent’s perspective.
Narcissists, and particularly narcissists who hold great power, have great difficulty seeing a situation from the opponent’s point of view – they are empathy disabled, in other words.
This means that their judgment and decision making in complex situations is handicapped because of they are cemented into their own egocentric perspective. This means they will be very likely to misread their opponent’s intentions and may make bad decisions which will generate great stress for them, and all around them.
Cuban Missile Crisis
On October 27th, 1962, an American U2 plane had been shot down over the Russian nuclear missile sites on Cuba, and the crisis cabinet was demanding that Jack Kennedy retaliate by bombing the sites.
Worse, a compromise proposition contained in a letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy offering to remove the missiles in return for promising not to invade Cuba had been superseded by a contradictory second letter arriving shortly after which made much tougher demands.
Jack Kennedy responded with a stroke of brilliance. He simply ignored the second Khrushchev letter and replied to the first as if the second hadn’t been sent. He offered privately to remove the US missiles in Turkey – they were obsolete and useless anyway – in a few months: Kennedy was able to see the crisis from the enemy’s point of view.
A narcissistic brain would have found Kennedy’s ability to shift perspective difficult if not impossible. The constant two-front’s war that this brain must fight means that there is much less cognitive room for such shrewd and creative responses. But more, this brain is primed for anger, aggression and impulsive action to defend the ego when it is threatened.
One can only hope that Donald Trump can acquire the insight to recognize these risks. The only problem is this: high levels of power not only diminish empathy and increase propensity for taking risks – they also corrode the capacity for self-awareness.
Kim Jong-un’s strategy is one of survival. He saw what happened in Iraq and in particular, what happens to a dictator who gives up his nuclear programme like President Gadhafi of Libya did. He will never give up his nuclear programme because these weapons give the ultimate power, as Donald Trump showed so clearly in his ‘fire and fury’ comments.
But neither will Kim Jong-un launch a pre-emptive strike because that would inevitably lead to his dynasty’s annihilation – and his gangster dynasty is all he cares about. Kim Jong-un is now even more confirmed in his belief that the only way that North Korea can survive is by having the capacity to hit the USA with nuclear weapons. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric plays into his hands beautifully by strengthening his precarious hold on power within North Korea and by boosting his narcissistic ego by seeing Trump making grotesque threats and then not acting on them.
Kim Jong-un will undoubtedly goad Trump more over the next few weeks by lobbing missiles in the ocean around Guam. If Trump does not respond, then Kim Jong-un will have won the psychological contest between two pumped-up narcissists. If he does respond, World War III is a ghastly possibility.