Trump’s biggest fans have a parasocial bond with an icon—whereas his advisers and staff must work through a real-life social bond with a difficult human being. Trump’s biggest fans believe that they have an up-close-and-personal relationship with Trump—but they never actually see the man up close.
Other charismatic presidents, such as Ronald Reagan and Obama, probably established parasocial bonds with their supporters, too. The relationship between Trump fans and Trump may be more resilient, however, because of the peculiar nature of the president’s narcissism.
Generally speaking, politicians work hard to present themselves to the American people as regular human beings whose emotional lives and personal stories may resonate with their fellow citizens. Trump is strangely different, and he revels in that. He is a stable genius who admits to no faults. He has no inner doubts. He has never made a mistake. He has never failed. As one of the countless examples of Trump setting himself apart from every other human being on the planet, consider this statement he made on The Tonight Show in 2015: “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”
The fact that Trump will not admit to error sets him apart from most narcissists. Research shows that highly narcissistic people often create heroic stories of their own lives wherein they have triumphed over their limitations and failures, against all odds, to become the awesome people that they believe they are. Trump has never talked about himself in that way, even when urged to do so. Instead, he suggests that he has always been perfect, like the flawless image of Narcissus in the pool.
“I am the chosen one,” Trump told reporters in August, in response to questions about obtaining a trade deal with China. In claiming this almost superhuman status, Trump may somewhat inoculate himself against critical press. His supporters adore him as something like a larger-than-life force, a beautiful persona reflected in the pool. Should they encounter new negative information about the president, they may judge it against the “evidence” of their acquaintance with the president’s persona—and discount it. The contrast is simply too great between what the “fake news” claims, and the infallible presence onscreen.
The president’s raging narcissism has created chaos in the White House, and it has driven away scores of advisers, staff members, and others who had hoped to serve productively in his administration. As is usually the case with narcissists, Trump has worn out his welcome. He has disappointed and alienated many of the people with whom he has worked closely, as narcissists eventually do.
But Trump’s unusual brand of narcissism has simultaneously worked to solidify his loyal base of support in the American public at large. Those who admire him from afar may enjoy an extraordinarily durable parasocial relationship with a reflected persona that is deeply familiar to them. They know in their heart who Donald Trump is. They continue to admire his wonderful and unchanging essence, beautiful like the boy in the pool, even if they know very little about what it is like to encounter Donald Trump as a real human being.
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