Trump may be a grandiose narcissist, but he’s no match for the Lyndon Johnson of All the Way

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Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way.
  • Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way.
The new Atlantic, which arrived in my mailbox this weekend, promises to take readers inside "The Mind of Donald Trump." My spouse, dropping the magazine on our dining room table, expressed zero interest in traveling any further inside Trump's mind than we've already gone, but I am not opposed to such adventures if there's a strong national interest at stake and a clear exit strategy. Written by Dan P. McAdams, director of Northwestern University's Foley Center for the Study of Lives, the article presents a psychological profile of Trump—assessing his disposition, mental habits, motivations, and self-conception—and attempting to predict what sort of president he might be. "A large and rapidly growing body of research," writes McAdams, has shown these factors to be "powerful predictors of what [people] will feel, think, and do in the future, and powerful aids in explaining why. In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U.S. presidents, and the decisions they made."

You won't be surprised to learn that Trump's level of narcissism is off the charts. Has there ever been a candidate who's spent more time talking about how great he is and how much people love him? Clinical psychologist George Simon told McAdams that Trump is "so classic that I'm archiving video clips of him to use in workshops. . . . He's like a dream come true." As McAdams explains, narcissists "want to love themselves, and they desperately want others to love them too—or at least admire them, see them as brilliant and powerful and beautiful, even just see them, period." In 2013 the journal Psychological Science ranked the U.S. presidents for their level of "grandiose narcissism," characterized by extroversion, domineering behavior, and attention-seeking. The high scorers—among them Bill Clinton, Richard M. Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt—were more likely to win votes and initiate sweeping legislation but also to cut corners ethically. McAdams explicitly compares Trump to Andrew Jackson, who scored number two. But the most narcissistic president of them all was Lyndon Johnson.


LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act, surrounded by Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie), and Sen. Everett Dirksen (Ray Wise) in All the Way.
  • LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act, surrounded by Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie), and Sen. Everett Dirksen (Ray Wise) in All the Way.
By sweet coincidence, HBO Films has just released an unvarnished portrait of Johnson in the first year of his presidency with the new historical drama All the Way. Produced by Steven Spielberg and adapted by Robert Schenkkan from his own play, the movie begins in November 1963 with Johnson (Bryan Cranston) getting the bad news about President Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and ends in November 1964 with him celebrating his landslide electoral victory over the Republicans' arch-conservative candidate Barry Goldwater. In between, Johnson succeeds against long odds to pass the Civil Rights Act, juggling the demands of Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie); J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root); Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (Bradley Whitford), representing the Democrats' liberal wing; and LBJ's old friend Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia (Frank Langella), commander of the Dixiecrat faction. As others have noted, All the Way recalls Spielberg's Lincoln in its close observation of the arm twisting and horse trading that accompanied great legislative advances in American equality. It also gives us a piercing sense of LBJ, the grandest of the grandiose.

Bryan Cranston keeps going from strength to strength: earlier this year he won an Oscar nomination for his larger-than-life performance as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, yet even that fine work pales beside his towering portrayal of Johnson. His prosthetic makeup is superb, his resemblance to LBJ uncanny, and he inhabits the character so fully that the actor truly disappears. Cranston has nailed the oaken Texas drawl, which could dip into crude laughs or soar into high-minded rhetoric. He's mastered the big, rangy body movements Johnson used to cajole and threaten people. But more important, he's located the terrible need and gnawing insecurity that drove a hill-country schoolteacher to become the youngest, most effective Senate majority leader in history, and then vice president, and then president and self-proclaimed bringer of a Great Society.

No one could accuse Johnson of neglecting himself. Early in All the Way, director Jay Roach (Trumbo, HBO's Recount and Game Change) delivers a tour de force scene in which the president strides around the Oval Office like a king, dispatching various problems as his tailor trails after him.
"Not too tight in the bunghole, Manny," the president cautions him. "Leave me some slack for my nutsack." Johnson's vulgarity is a way of dominating people; at one point he sits down on the toilet with the bathroom door open and summons a grimacing Humphrey over for a conference. (Naturally the encounter ends with a lightbulb moment in which LBJ figures out how to get his stalled legislation out of committee.) The president had to put his initials on everything around him, like a brand: Lady Bird Johnson, his daughters Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson, even Little Beagle Johnson.

Frank Langella as Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia in All the Way.
  • Frank Langella as Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia in All the Way.
Grandiose narcissists can be personally vicious, bullying people without remorse and exacting revenge for unpleasant feedback or a lack of respect. "You're fired!" Johnson shouts at a White House secretary. "Get the hell on out of here. Walter, get me another secretary that knows what she's doing. And one with a little meat on her bones, for Chrissake." Johnson's primary whipping boy is presidential aide Walter Jenkins (Todd Weeks), but he also shits mightily on Humphrey and even barks at the loving and attentive Lady Bird (Melissa Leo, perfectly cast and exceptional). Dick Russell is one of the couple's oldest friends, but when Russell promises to defy Johnson on civil rights, the president replies, "I'm coming for you, Dick. . . . If you get in my way, I'll crush you." Johnson was about five inches taller than Cranston, but the actor seems to loom above legislators as he subjects them to LBJ's famous "treatment"—a full-frontal assault of pleading, cajoling, and subtle threatening that could go on for hours.

Johnson clearly fits the psychological profile of someone desperate for approval; as he reveals to Jenkins later in the movie, he's still haunted by the experience of seeing his father go broke and get shamed by his former friends. "People think I want great power," he says. "But what I want is great solace. A little love. That's all I want." When the Democratic National Convention is disrupted by protests from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Johnson throws a giant tantrum, curling up in a fetal position in bed and threatening to refuse the nomination. Only Lady Bird can reason with him, like a mother gentling a child: "You are as brave a man as FDR and Truman and Lincoln, and there are many people up there at that convention and in this party and in this nation who love you, and they are counting on you.” In both instances, Johnson's relationship with the American people is, nakedly and compellingly, a love relationship.

So will Trump turn out to be another LBJ? McAdams doesn't seem to think so, because Trump, despite his vast self-regard, is seriously lacking in the last of the four psychological components, self-conception. He's always presented himself as a warrior, and even more important, as a winner. But for McAdams, this preening self-image and a vague promise to make America great again don't really add up to the sort of compelling life narrative that makes for a great leader. "Donald Trump's story—of himself and of America—tells us very little about what he might do as president, what philosophy of governing he might follow, what agenda he might lay out for the nation and the world, and where he might direct his energy and anger. More important, Donald Trump's story tells him very little about these same things."

LBJ talks to the press about civil rights in All the Way.
  • LBJ talks to the press about civil rights in All the Way.
Lyndon Johnson, for all his personal failings, never had that problem. His New Deal liberalism was passionate and true; among his earliest experiences in government were in rural electrification, which gave him a powerful sense of how much good he could bring to people's lives. In All the Way, the president rages as the filibuster against the civil rights bill drags on, until Lady Bird asks him, "What are you fighting for, darling? In your heart. That's what the people need to hear." Soon afterward the president calls an informal press conference at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, and tells reporters about his early years teaching Mexican immigrant children in the small town of Cotulla, south of San Antonio. He remembers their initial excitement and eagerness to learn. "But there would come a day for each and every one of 'em when I would see the light in their eyes die," he explains. "They had discovered that the world hated them, just 'cause of the color of their skin." For Johnson, this is what power is all about: "If a president can't do what he knows is right, then what's the presidency for?"

There's no question that grandiose narcissists can be extraordinarily effective politicians. When Johnson gives legislators the treatment, he often calls up in them the same lust for greatness that he knows so well in himself. "We're making history here, Everett," he tells Sen. Dirksen of Illinois (Ray Wise), who controls the liberal Republican votes needed to compensate for the unreachable Dixiecrats. "You have to decide how you want history to remember you—as a great man, a man who changed the course of this country, or somebody who just liked to hear himself talk." Americans today yearn for a leader who will use the presidency for what is right, and who will change the course of the country. Those are open questions where Donald Trump is concerned, though at this point we can all agree that he likes to hear himself talk.




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