While President elect Donald Trump was giving his victory speech, my attention fell a few inches to his right onto the small, lily-white boy in a dark suit and silver tie. He, the 10 year old Barron Trump, son of Donald and Melania, was fidgeting, swaying, and seemed awkward, self-conscious, as though he would rather be anywhere than on that stage in front of the entire world. In a moment now going viral on YouTube, a member of the audience yelled out, ‘Kill Obama!’ and, while Trump did not even blink, the 10 year old Barron flinched in shock and, one presumes, fear.
And then it dawned on me. Barron Trump was the personification of his brash, bullying alpha male father’s inner self, the one he is it as such pains to hide from the world. At 10 years of age, Barron is as yet incapable of hiding his vulnerability, his humanity, whereas Trump with his brazen mega-confidence, is always inauthentic, always false. Trump has come so far from his inner self that he would surely implode if it were ever revealed, and so one can only put it down to an error of judgement that on the night of the biggest victory of his career he had it standing beside him.
As most of us know by now, Donald Trump is a narcissist. He has this in common with millions of his supporters, in their case, a specific type of narcissism we could call White Narcissism. Narcissism is pseudo self-esteem. True self-esteem is the ability to love and accept oneself as one is, without reference to anyone else, without needing to feel superior or be other than who you are. Narcissism arises when, unable to do this, you replace your actual self-perception with a grandiose, invented self – a tragic, desperate leap via which a fidgeting Barron Trump becomes a boorish Donald Trump, and through which a frightened little boy convinces himself he has fulfilled the mythical, impossible task of becoming a man. Narcissism is common to all men who suffer from the curse of machismo; to all women who feel they need to live up to an external standard to feel valued or worthy; and to all white Americans who believe in their own whiteness, itself a grandiose figment of their own imagination.
Whiteness, in America, has its legal roots in the 1600s, not long after the Europeans first arrived. Initially, European landowners employed Scottish, Irish, German and African workers on roughly equivalent terms; they were bonded, or indentured, for fixed periods of time at the end of which, if they survived, they became free peasants. Eventually, the landowners found themselves disgruntled with this arrangement because they were tired of losing their supply of labor, and because this new racially mixed peasantry had the habit of rising up in revolt, as it did in Virginia in 1676 under Nathaniel Bacon.
The solution the landowners came up with was to create a new legal category of humans. White People. White people had rights black people did not have. They could not be permanently enslaved; they could labor their way to freedom; and these rights, they were told, accrued to them because God had made them superior to blacks. This idea solidified about a hundred and fifty years later when Andrew Jackson shifted the criteria of citizenship from wealth to race, such that you could be of any income – landowner, peasant or worker – to be eligible to vote, as long as you were white. Race became the basis for what it meant to be a citizen, an American, and whiteness took on a status equivalent to a divine right.
This is the basis of white narcissism, a delusion that today finds itself under tremendous threat. Since the civil rights era a new paradigm has emerged and has come of age over the last few years, one centered around notions of equal rights, multiracial citizenship, and awareness of white privilege. The tension between the two worldviews dominates political discourse, and has given rise to a livid, invective-laden backlash, characterised by white rage, or as CNN’s Van Jones described it on election night, "whitelash." We could think of whitelash as what Freud termed ‘narcissistic injury’, something that occurs when the hidden self, that small insecure boy, finds itself in danger of exposure, the narcissistic pseudo-self at risk of being revealed as false.
As white narcissism rests on favourable comparison with other races, a sure-fire trigger for white rage is confrontation with genuinely strong or assertive people of colour, besides whom the narcissist ends up feeling inferior, inevitable given that narcissism thrives on comparison and insecurity. This would explain Trump’s obsession with birtherism, the lengths he went to prove that Obama was not an American citizen, a campaign certain to resonate with white Americans eager to put back Obama in his historical place as their legal inferior. It might also explain why, when under the pressure of having to speak in public, Melania Trump turned to the First Lady’s past speeches for guidance, recognising perhaps an authentic persona that she could copy, given that her own is constructed purely in relation to her husband.
Donald Trump is the standard bearer for white rage, a man who has ensured that white narcissism will endure at least a little while longer even as it faces its greatest ever threat. That wound, that narcissistic injury, is visible now, but it can only be healed when that swaggering, bullying man is united with his trembling inner little boy, when he too is able to stand on a stage and have an authentic, human reaction to a call for the death of America’s first black President; when he is able to recognise that he can never be made great again because he was never great, if great means superior, but only human alongside millions of other humans.
Such a shift would not only signal the end of Trump but, if it were to happen collectively, the end of whiteness, but of course we are not there yet. Today white America continues to remain in the grip of its own narcissism and as long as people of color continue to insist that their lives matter equally, that narcissistic injury will only deepen and the rage will worsen with it. It will continue until that small boy inside the adult is allowed to break down and cry, until he is able to walk down from that stage free from the burden of believing in his own elevation.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam is a British writer whose novels include In Beautiful Disguises (Bloomsbury 2000), The Dreamer (Harper Collins 2010), and Starstruck (Fiktion 2014). He has written for Washington Post, VICE, London Review of Books, the New Statesman, and Frieze among others.