Enabling Trumps

Woman taking selfie while boyfriend is kissing her
Woman taking selfie while boyfriend is kissing her

It takes a village to curb narcissism.

We have learned way more in this election season about the man Donald Trump than most of us probably wanted to know. We have also learned about important qualities of Trump supporters that suggest we might be witnessing the first death throes of white male supremacy.

The latter phenomenon is excruciatingly important. And I believe social forces at work in our country are driving us – despite the real dangers – towards a more equitable reality. This is my hope.

My concern here is Donald Trump. Not the people he represents; not the inevitable social evolution he and his followers hope to stem. My concern is the man and the boy he once was, the student whom teachers and schools were charged to educate.

My deep concern is that they – we – failed.

I actually can’t tell if Trump is intelligent. If there’s such a thing as “TV Intelligence” or “Social Media Intelligence” or just “Media Intelligence,” he ranks in the top 1%. And he might be very smart about other things, too. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say we failed him.

What I’m talking about could be called, in a sweetly sanitized kind of way, social-emotional learning (SEL). I call it basic human development: psychological, intellectual, social, emotional development. And, while SEL has become the latest curricular add-on in schools, human development in all its dimensions should be the bottom-line goal of all schooling.

If that is so, and I believe it is, we failed with Donald Trump. Worse, we enabled Trump the boy to become Trump the man in all his abhorrence.

Strong words, I know. But consider this formulation: The man who is a flaming narcissist, even a grossly wealthy flaming narcissist, grew up in conditions of severe lack. Flaming narcissists – let’s call such men “Trumps” – were boys (or girls) whose legitimate developmental needs were not met. What are some of those developmental needs?

  • limits – not getting his way all the time
  • boundaries – learning where he (his body, his rights, his needs) ends and others (their bodies, their rights, their needs) begin
  • accurate mirroring – seeing himself through others’ compassionate but honest eyes
  • accurate self-representation -- getting explicit glimpses into how the people he interacts with see the world and think so he can begin to "mentalize," or imagine effectively, how other people and the world work
  • struggle – encountering difficulties (such as limits or boundaries or accurate mirroring or self-representation) and working through internal and external consequences of those difficulties
  • reliable developmental partners – receiving consistent support from adults who will neither cave to nor retaliate against the demands and behaviors of children who (naturally) do not want to struggle

Counterintuitive as it may seem, children who grow up under these conditions tend to develop the skills of flexibility and empathy as well as a healthy relationship with reality. Providing these conditions for one’s children is difficult work, but the outcomes are supremely beneficial to all. Not providing these conditions means enabling the bizarre contortions that can eventually emerge as full-blown, flaming narcissism.

Enter the Trumps. Enter them into classrooms. They’ve been enabled at home to be entitled brats (just a guess) and they behave in class as though their teachers will continue the trend. Teachers who do continue the trend – by inflating grades, lowering standards, downplaying transgressions, euphemizing, washing their hands, accepting abuse, avoiding confrontation – are also enablers. Administrators who do not support their teachers in being the reliable developmental partners that all students need – especially those who don’t have such partners at home – are also enablers.

And the terrible, awful truth is that enablers helped to shape the man Donald Trump. And there are, I’m guessing, many more Trumps out there.

I know: It is difficult not to be an enabler, not to take the easy way out, when students can be so obnoxious and their parents can be so demanding and litigious! I mean, really: Teachers have to be developmental partners to students whose parents aren’t doing their job?

You tell me. Enjoy Election Day.