Extinction Bursts

Narcissism and the Death Rattle of Trumpism

There’s a phenomenon in psychology that I’ve been talking about since mid-2017, with particular reference to the current President, known as extinction bursts. 

In layperson’s language, an extinction burst takes place when someone who has been conditioned to receive a certain response from adverse behavior is denied that response. As a result, the person will ramp up his toxic behavior to try to get the same response, and will continue to accelerate until he gets what he wants.

Consider, for example, a president who is used to receiving adulation from adoring crowds. Gradually, the crowds shrink. Your poll numbers dwindle. Propagandist media attention turned toward you begins to question your sanity. And then, you lose an election.

If you are a malignant narcissist whose entire self-valuation depends on receiving your narcissistic supply in the form of widespread attention, you will respond to this denial of your supply with ever-more toxic behavior to try to get the attention you so desperately need, lashing out in whatever way will garner you supply. You will do this for as long as it takes, in whatever way you can.

This is an extinction burst.

And it won’t matter who gets hurt, nor even if four people die, so long as you get the supply that compels your conduct. It won’t matter if the attention is positive or negative. It won’t matter if your behavior is illegal. Those who give you what you want, even if their behavior threatens the very foundations of a nation, are “loved,” and “special people,” because finally, you’ve gotten the attention you wanted.

But here’s the problem: the effect fades, and in a very short time. Before long, you need another hit.

Never have we seen a better public example of this than what we are witnessing in the President of the United States. 

Psychiatric professionals have long surmised that the President is a pathological narcissist, and the evidence continues to mount that he enjoys the harm that his supporters cause at his instruction. As an angry white supremacist mob that he himself incited stormed the Capitol building yesterday, the President refused repeatedly to condemn their violence, apparently not wanting to “condemn his people.” Further reporting included the observation by aides that the President was “pleased” by the terroristic invasion of the U.S. Capitol at his urging.

This is one reason why the last 24 hours, for me, has been consumed with calls for the removal of this President. Those with the power to remove him need to understand that a malignant narcissist with as much power and exposure as a president will never be able to heal the narcissistic injury resulting from the loss of the election. 

He will not get better. He will never be satisfied. He cannot be controlled and he cannot be mollified. His extinction bursts will get worse. The only remedy is to remove him from any position of power so that he can’t kill any more people on the way out.

And for those who think that thirteen days is too short a window for him to cause any further harm, well, you’ve never left a relationship with a malignant narcissist before, plainly. Thirteen days is enough to raze this country to the ground, and don’t kid yourself that he won’t try to do it.

Any attention will suffice to feed his need— good or bad, filled with hate or with adoration, it doesn’t matter— and he will ramp up his violent, destructive behavior exponentially unless and until he is stopped.

We cannot expect that the next thirteen days will be peaceful. We can only expect, if history and psychology is any guide, that he will get worse.

He has shown us that he will stop at nothing. He has shown us that he will exploit every aspect of white supremacist terror to get what he wants. Do we really think that yesterday was the farthest he’s willing to go?

Moreover, do we really think his followers are done yet?

Until he is out of power, anything, literally anything that might get him the narcissistic supply he wants, is on the table.

In light of all this, a word for all who follow here about the next thirteen days: take care of yourselves.

As a nation, we are traumatized, and yesterday added another set of layers, particularly for those of us who are Black, people of color, or otherwise marginalized. The parade of Confederate flags through the halls of the Capitol, the noose on the Mall, the gear on the bodies of terrorists reading “Civil War” and bearing Nazi slogans, told us everything we need to know about the gravity of the President’s exploitation of racist hate and white supremacy, and how much work lies ahead for all those who believe in justice and freedom.

And if, as anyone of common sense will tell us right now is likely, the president continues to accelerate chaos and terror to serve his own ends, we will need critical survival strategies for the duration of his tenure.

A few words on that front:

Do not feel like you have to be turned into the news non-stop. Do not neglect your self-care strategies. Avoid, if you can, any destructive habits to numb yourself out. Instead, engage in what your body tells you that you need: sleep, good food, lots of water, silence, human connection (safely, of course), and anything else right now that will nurture your body and soul. Claim it for yourself, selfishly, and for those you love. Your sanity and theirs depends on it.

Furthermore, do not forget to check on your people. I had ordinarily calm family members yesterday who were so upset and anxious that their voices trembled, and tears flowed, when I simply called to ask “how are you?” The fear and terror we experienced yesterday, even from afar, will be burned into the psyches of all who saw it.

We are living through the end of him. This is the death knell of this administration. And all the damage he leaves in his wake will have to be accounted for when he is gone. The work of repairing this nation, and the desperate need for it all the way back to the original sins at our origin, has just barely begun. We will need every asset within ourselves, in community and in intersectional action, to do that work in the coming days and years, and for as long as it takes.

Until he is gone, do what it takes for you and all those you love to survive this, sanity and health intact, with safety and with love.

Be kind to yourselves and to one another.

But let’s not kid ourselves that he is done churning violence and terror between now and then. Steel yourselves for the days ahead.

The path to the exit is going to continue to be very rough, but he WILL go, one way or another.

And then, the real work begins.