How Barack Obama Can (Maybe) Psychologically Manipulate Donald Trump

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“This is not the policy you are looking for.” “This is not the policy I am looking for.”Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

One of the more interesting subplots of Donald Trump’s shocking election has been his relationship with President Obama. Usually, president-elects arrive in Washington surrounded by experienced political advisers who understand how the transition process works. Trump has eschewed this sort of guidance, and in fact doesn’t appear to have much of a grasp on what the president of the United States actually does. Obama seems to recognize this: Since meeting with Trump for the first time last week, Obama has made it clear that he is hoping to take on a heavier mentorship role than he would have otherwise, explaining to Trump as many of the ins and outs of the office as possible.

This has raised one hopeful, albeit somewhat far-fetched possibility: Maybe Obama can influence Trump for the better. After their first meeting, Trump did suddenly seem a bit less enthusiastic about repealing the Affordable Care Act (though this should be taken with a grain of salt given Trump’s repeated proclamations on this subject, and given that the Republican Party has sought to repeal it for years). Obama, meanwhile, has been fairly restrained in his public statements about Trump, perhaps out of a desire to remain in a position to influence him.

But how do you influence someone like Trump, someone who does not seem to respond to normal social rules and incentives? As many people have pointed out, he appears to be pretty far toward the right-hand side of the human narcissism bell curve. Trump is a man who has exhibited decades worth of selfishness, of grandiosity, of grudges against anyone who has questioned his greatness or challenged him. In short, he is not a good candidate for normal persuasive techniques.

For some insights into how Obama could succeed in his goal — a goal which could significantly impact how damaging Trump’s presidency is for the country — I reached out to the therapist and licensed clinical social worker Wendy Behary. She’s the author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving With the Self-Absorbed and the founder and director of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and the New Jersey Institute for Schema Therapy. As the title of her book suggests, her main area of clinical focus is narcissism.

Behary cautioned that without Trump undergoing a psychological examination, he can’t be “diagnosed” with anything. But she agreed that he exhibits many signs of narcissism, and she said that as a result, Obama’s attempts to influence him would be a bit complicated.

Normally, Behary explained, her frontline approach in dealing with a patient with narcissism is to find certain areas of leverage she can use to help the patient realize how much their behavior is hurting them. Oftentimes, her patients arrive having gotten themselves into a crisis or three involving their relationship or their jobs or whatever else. So Behary might approach them with statements like, “You’re about to lose your marriage, so we have to look at that as a problem in your personal life.” This can lead to agreements with the patient about so-called limit-settings: You’re not going to lie to your wife, or to treat her in this particular, demeaning way. In the best cases, patients are fully onboard because they understand what’s at stake if they don’t participate actively in their therapy, if they don’t try. The therapy serves as a wake-up call: As important and grandiose as they feel, their behavior is about to get them into some serious, potentially irreparable trouble.

This doesn’t always work, though. In severe cases, Behary said, her patients can be so narcissistic, so immune to normal incentives and cost-benefit evaluation, that she has to take a different approach. “It’s a strategy where you actually fill the narcissistic supply,” Behary said. Whereas in most instances Behary would see this as counterproductive and potentially dangerous — the whole point of her style of therapy is to bring her patients back down to earth, to help them to realize their actions have consequences because they aren’t in fact subject to a different set of rules than the rest of humanity — she said that in certain extreme instances it’s pretty much the only option. “It’s what I sometimes refer to as ‘when all else fails,’” she said, and it’s particularly relevant in dealing with “high-profile, tyrannical types of narcissists.” If someone has spent years and years tormenting everyone around them, never being held accountable, standard approaches just might not work.

Turning to Trump and Obama’s attempts to influence him, Behary said, “You presume to know the person and you give them more benefit than Obama might think he deserves. But he can use statements like — and I can barely say this because it makes me gag — Of course you’re a smart man, and I’m sure you’re going to do the right things.” Or, “It might be statements like, Clearly you would have thought this yourself, but Certainly, you have so many people who are behind you and so it’s quite clear that you wouldn’t want to take a risk of alienating all those people who are counting on you, so therefore I’m sure you’re going to do X.” In effect, Obama would no longer be making arguments driven by policy rationales or by logic, but rather tying all of his arguments about what Trump should do directly to the president-elect’s overblown sense of himself: That is, You’re this big, strong, powerful man — let’s help you stay that way. The goal, Behary said, is “building both an attractive portrayal of the narcissistic individual, but also setting up potentially meaningful consequences, or garnering more leverage to prevent them from acting in irrational, impulsive, or self-defeating ways — or defeating everyone else.”

Behary said that despite her qualms about coddling extreme narcissists’ senses of grandiosity, in tough cases she still sees it as the best option. “When I’ve run out of leverage then I try doing what I can — it’s still in their best interest, because eventually they’ll crash and burn, eventually they’ll be alienated, eventually when their power, prestige, and position are worn out, they end up being pretty lonely people at the end of the day,” she said. “So I still see it in some ways from being a strategy that serves to help them.” That said, this approach is more of a Band-Aid than a cure. “It doesn’t really meet their core needs at the end of the day,” Behary said, “but Obama’s not Trump’s therapist, and I can’t imagine he has a therapist — Obama has no leverage.”

Behary also said that even if Obama is successful in manipulating Trump, it’s unlikely to last. There might be some short-term improvement, but over time, such an approach usually “doesn’t last, because deep within the emotional core lies their true personality, that under certain conditions is going to flare up again like inflammation, like a disease — and they’re back to square one. I wish I could say I feel hopeful about enduring change in the long run.”

In addition to offering some hypothetical pointers to Obama, Behary also offered some thoughts on what we should expect from a Trump presidency based on how narcissists operate. They were dark.

One potentially underappreciated threat for these next four years, it turns out, might be boredom on the part of the chief executive. There isn’t really anybody in the world who thinks Trump will enjoy the day-to-day drudgery of being president — the meetings, the fat briefing books, the endless diplomatic visits. During the campaign, Robert Draper of the New York Times even reported that, according to a John Kasich adviser, Trump’s eldest son had indicated that “his father’s vice-president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy,” making him the most powerful veep in history. The Trump camp denied this, but it’s still reasonable to think Trump, in light of what we know about who he is and his lack of interest in policy, is going to do a lot more delegation than past presidents, especially on the many, many boring tasks inherent to the job.

“I think he’ll recede into the background and delegate as long as the people who are doing his job are doing it well enough so he can take the credit,” said Behary. “Then he can step out like the king and wave to the crowd.” But this won’t always be possible. “I’m more concerned that when narcissists step away from the adulation, the spotlight, the praise, the applause, they get bored,” she continued. “And then they have to find other ways to cook up a stimulating event or something that becomes interesting, stimulating, controversial, competitive, self-soothing. That’s what’s of greater concern — how’s he going to deal with the routine of day-to-day life, which becomes very demanding and not necessarily so stimulating every day of the week, and not necessarily filled with crowd applause?”

One immediate practical concern, Behary said, involves security. “I’ve often wondered how is he going to stay inside his Secret Service detail?” she said. “They don’t follow orders. Narcissistic people don’t take orders, they don’t follow orders — they may do it if it’s serving them and it’s convenient for them, but not when it feels uncomfortable. They’re not good with frustration. They don’t believe they should be able to follow the same rules as everyone else. There’s a lot of wonder and worry on my part and my colleagues who specialize in this area on how will he follow the detail of the Secret Service and stay within the boundaries?” As if on cue, shortly after I spoke with Behary, news broke that Trump had snuck out for a steak with his family without a member of his press pool — a potentially serious breach of protocol.

Overall, said Behary, she expected that Trump’s behavior will depend greatly both on how bored he is and how beloved he feels at a given moment. “If his favor goes up, it’s all good,” she said. “I still wonder what he’s going to do with the ants in his pants about needing a new shiny toy, because this type of person can’t stay still and follow monotonized routines, and so I can’t imagine — what’s he going to do without his celebrity-ship? That’s the part that’s really going to be interesting to follow. Will he have to create chaos and create situations and conditions so that he has to step forward? I don’t know. I just can’t imagine him staying still for that long.”