“Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality.” -Theodor Adorno
Most of the time, all of us are scared, but narcissists, or the strong men, are the most frightened. It’s counterintuitive because the act is a phenomenal illusion. This topic is significant not only because of the way Donald Trump handled his COVID diagnosis, by pretending that he was healthy when he wasn’t, but also, more generally, due to how boys are raised to manage their feelings.
Clinically, the authoritarian personality, or the narcissist, is riddled with both shame and fear, and uses self-assertion and aggressiveness to hide away. In a healthy environment, parents teach their children, even boys, of the need for emotional expression. You grow up learning about the potential benefits of your emotions (e.g. Using your anger for the sake of justice) and why you shouldn’t feel ashamed of having them in the first place. Boys, then, freely express their fears; and they’re able to tell their friends and future partners how much they love them. But in an unhealthy household, excluding anger, emotions constitute weakness, despite their universality.
So, the strong man dons the mask of invincibility, bathing his audience in the pretense of majesty. And, some of them bite, enamored by his facade. Recent tweets by philosopher Kate Manne read, “Strong men are so weak. Imagine not having the fortitude to admit when you are frail.” In grasping the psychodynamics of their acts, Manne understood that Trump’s purported return to health was a lie based in fear. Her tweets summed up what Socrates noted about the heroes of ancient Greece when he stated that they went to war mainly because they feared the alternative of death: social censure.
So, the strong men spend most of their time on fostering internal certainty through the careful curation of their public personas. The boys I grew up with and I spent just as much time on fooling our own audiences. I’m not sure that anyone really knew us, and we definitely didn’t know one another. We were afraid to care and even more terrified of indicating it. Warmth, love, fear, and uncertainty made us feel weak, and our environments reaffirmed our beliefs. Our girlfriends complained that we weren’t affectionate and, in turn, we called them needy. I can’t speak for everyone, but for us, the lack of concern, to those who could see, betrayed our terror. Our lives and our culture were equally empty.
And when I look at Trump, gasping for air while expressing a clean bill of health, I see all of my fears. I note the fears of exposure, ridicule, and of contempt; I can sense the shame of reality welling up in him. On one hand, there’s some internal aspect that admires his stoicism, but it’s counteracted by the part that can sense his desperation. Interestingly, both girls and boys, on average, fake good health but for different reasons. Girls are often taught to not inconvenience others, while boys are taught to not look like sissies. Thus, while both wish to avoid becoming burdens to loved ones, their motivators exist on polar ends of the selfish and selfless spectrum. In essence, we’re almost raised to become purely selfish and ego-centered, at least by our fathers.
The chain can easily continue unless someone breaks it. In couples therapy, wherein one partner is loving, usually the woman, and the other is aloof, usually the male, the therapist works with the former to further the emotional growth of the latter. And the most fascinating part of the work, to paraphrase Esther Perel, is the frequent discovery that the reticent partner is the one more afraid of being abandoned. Like Trump, many of those men just hide their feelings. They fear being vulnerable and potentially surrendering power; for if you know that I love you, now I can’t fully control you, which I believe I need to feel safe. And they fear being ridiculed for being weak, despite any contrary assurance. But, most of all, they’re terrified of rejection; for if I tell you I love you, maybe you won’t reciprocate.
Trump’s reaction is undoubtedly dangerous, but we can continue to battle back against it by pointing to the detrimental outcomes of hiding one’s symptoms and, as significantly, hiding one’s feelings. In the bigger picture, everyone suffers, the viewer and the showman, even if the showman appears to exude a high degree of strength. I can’t imagine having to accept the foregone intimacy and care blocked by my pride; not anymore.