Can a ‘productive narcissist’ like Trump be persuaded to rejoin Paris climate accord?

Only by focusing on the one thing Trump really cares about—Trump.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP AND FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON IN A JOINT NEWS CONFERENCE IN PARIS, JULY 13. CREDIT: AP/CAROLYN KASTER
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP AND FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON IN A JOINT NEWS CONFERENCE IN PARIS, JULY 13. CREDIT: AP/CAROLYN KASTER

On Friday, President Donald Trump sent the UN formal notification of his plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, despite claims last month from French President Emmanuel Macron that he had persuaded Trump to reverse course.

That claim was absurd, as we pointed out at the time. But since the White House says the president “is open to re-engaging,” the question is: Can Trump be persuaded to rejoin the Paris accord?

The short answer is “probably not.” The longer answer is “probably not—but definitely not the way Macron or anyone else seems to have tried.”

Macron described his persuasive efforts this way: “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the sense of my approach, notably the link that exists between global warming and terrorism.” Macron apparently thought this actually had an impact. “He told me he would try to find a solution in the coming months. We talked in detail about what could enable him to come back into the Paris accords,” Macron said.

Macron’s mistake was wasting his time trying to persuade Trump that global warming is linked to terrorism, even though, of course, it is.  It represented a fundamental misunderstanding of how Trump thinks, how he does deals, and how he sees himself: he sees himself as a “productive narcissist,” to use his words from his 2004 book, Trump: Think Like a Billionaire.

Not only does Trump not care about global warming–or apparently even believe in it–Trump doesn’t really care about terrorism or any of the issues he campaigned on. This selection of quotes from the the leaked text of his January conversation with the Australian and Mexican presidents shows what Trump really cares about in global negotiations:

Trump call
CREDIT: Washington Post

He cares about how it will make him look.

Perhaps the clearest and most revealing statement of how Trump thinks of himself is in Think Like a Billionaire, the book Trump wrote to cash in on his renewed fame after the opening seasons of The Apprentice. In the introduction, Trump explains, “I’ve studied fellow billionaires from afar, and I’ve also read what others have written about us.”

Trump explains that one “student of successful entrepreneurs,” Michael Maccoby, “believes that billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Ted Turner are successful in part because they are narcissists who devote their talent with unrelenting focus to achieving their dreams, even if it’s sometimes at the expense of those around them” (emphasis added). Trump notes that “Maccoby’s book The Productive Narcissist makes a convincing argument that narcissism can be useful quality if you’re trying to start a business.”

Let’s set aside the historical fact that after six bankruptcies and more than 4,000 lawsuits in the past three decades, Trump is much more of a “destructive narcissist.” The point is, Trump has rationalized his narcissism, and he’s fine with achieving his vision and dreams at the expense of those around him.

Indeed, Trump idealizes the most extreme form of single-minded determination to impose one’s vision. He quotes the author of The Natural History of the Rich: “Almost all successful alpha personalities display a single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world, an irrational belief in unreasonable goals, bordering at times on lunacy.” 

Unfortunately, with Trump, it’s hard to say what his vision is. Now that he has achieved the presidency, he seems to be floundering, spending his time on Twitter attacking the media and members of Congress who he thinks are making him look bad.

What’s interesting is that, in the case of Paris, Trump had a lot of leverage–world leaders very much wanted Trump to stay in Paris (as did the public)–but he didn’t use it to get anything from anyone or even to elevate his image.

The key point now is that while Trump has kept this promise, the Administration’s letter to the UN provides wiggle room by saying the exit will proceed, “Unless the United States identifies suitable terms for reengagement.”

Expanding on this point, the State Department’s news release about the letter says, “As the President indicated in his June 1 announcement and subsequently, he is open to re-engaging in the Paris Agreement if the United States can identify terms that are more favorable to it, its businesses, its workers, its people, and its taxpayers.” It also says that the United States “will continue to participate in international climate change negotiations and meetings [to] ensure all future policy options remain open to the administration.”

So Trump is keeping his options open. But again, the primary plausible way to entice Trump back is if there is some outcome he can spin as a success. Of course, Trump always had the right under the Paris Accord to change and even weaken the U.S. pledge. The question now is whether world leaders like Macron would be willing to have the U.S. come back in with a weaker pledge–and with the kind of fanfare and praise Trump’s narcissism demands. And whether that would even be a good thing.

One thing is certain: If people want the United States back in the Paris climate accord, they need to stop wasting time talking to Trump about such “pointless” topics as the scientific reality of global warming or the link between global warming and terrorism.

They would need to focus on the only thing Trump cares about–Trump.