What a top FBI profiler taught me about extreme narcissists like Donald Trump
Dec 8 2016
I recently spoke with former FBI agent Joe Navarro about Donald Trump. Navarro was one of the FBI’s top profilers, a founding member of their elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, and author of several books on human behavior, including Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Harmful People.
To be clear, at no time did Navarro diagnose Trump as having a narcissistic or predator personality. He says we should leave formal diagnoses to professionals — but that each of us still needs to be able to identify and protect ourselves from harmful people in our lives. And so he created behavior checklists and published them in his book to let you do just that.
Navarro’s book warns that if a “person has a preponderance of the major features of a narcissistic personality,” then he “is an emotional, psychological, financial, or physical danger to you or others.” As the book The Narcissism Epidemic explained, “A recent psychiatric study found that the biggest consequences of narcissism—especially when other psychiatric symptoms were held constant—was suffering by people close to them.”
It’s even more important for journalists to decide if Trump behaves like a narcissist—as James Fallows explains in his must-read post at The Atlantic, “How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media.” Fallows cites a reader’s note to him “on how journalism should prepare for Trump, especially in thinking about his nonstop string of lies.”
“Nobody seems to realize that normal rules do not apply when you are interviewing a narcissist,” this behavior expert explains to Fallows. “You can’t go about this in the way you were trained, because he is an expert at manipulating the very rules you learned.” He criticizes the New York Times for believing what Trump said when they interviewed him (which is the same point I’ve made). Finally, he warns:
“… anyone who’s dealt with a narcissist knows you never, ever believe what they say—because they will say whatever the person they are talking to wants to hear. DT is a master at phrasing things vaguely enough that multiple listeners will be able to hear exactly what they want. It isn’t word salad; it’s overt deception, which is much more pernicious.”
I’ve been professionally interested in behavior assessment because to achieve and sustain serious climate action, empathy may be the most important quality in a president or political leader.
After all, climate change requires us to take very significant if not drastic measures today in order to avoid catastrophe for billions of others in the future who contributed little or nothing to the problem. Without empathic leaders, the necessary climate action becomes all but impossible.
That is a why the Pope ends his landmark 2015 climate encyclical calling on God to “Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out.”
What I Learned from Navarro’s Work
To leap to the conclusion, people on the far end of the narcissist spectrum lack empathy. And, Navarro told me, “these personality traits are fixed and rigid.” That person doesn’t change. They don’t pivot. Not what you would want in the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.
So, if you come to the conclusion that Trump (or anyone in your life) is on the extreme end of the narcissist spectrum — using the tools Navarro provides — then that person is, as his book explains, “an emotional, psychological, financial, physical danger to you or others.”
Navarro urged me to get his book and go through the checklists and make my own decision. In my scoring, Trump is off the charts. Your scoring may be different.
Interestingly, it was one of the checklists Navarro posted online that motivated me to contact him in the first place. I had been engaged with the question of whether Trump was delusional or a con man (or neither) since late May, when he told Californians suffering their worst drought in a thousand years, “There is no drought.”
As any potential levity about Donald Trump’s participation in the GOP nomination fight was stamped out by the serious and growing concern that he might actually become president — or merely trample our democracy in the process of losing — I kept reading up on the subject. I came across the work of Joe Navarro, who spent a quarter century as an FBI agent and supervisor focusing on counterintelligence and behavioral assessment. Now Navarro writes, consults and speaks on human behavior.
In particular, because few people are professional psychological diagnosticians or FBI profilers—but we all run across people who might be a danger to us or others — Navarro wanted to empower laypeople to be able to decide for themselves if someone they knew had a dangerous personality.