The First 100 Days: The Insanity of Narcissism

By Daniel Shaw

Contributor

daniel_shaw__038-web-1Mental health practitioners generally agree, since the Goldwater days, that it is not appropriate to offer psychoanalytic diagnoses of public figures we’ve never actually interviewed or treated. However, many of us, myself included, are champing at the bit these days. It’s especially tempting for me, since I’ve been writing and thinking about narcissism for quite a while, and narcissism seems more in evidence than ever, here in the USA.

Perhaps I could speak a bit about narcissism in general – especially about the kind of narcissistic person that seeks and attracts followers to form some kind of big religious or political movement, with him or her as its supreme leader.

Erich Fromm, famous in the 1960s for The Art of Loving, published his first bestseller, Escape From Freedom, in the 1940s, when he witnessed the popularity and the horror of Fascism in Europe. He was a keen observer of the personalities of dictators, whom he saw as narcissistic to the point of psychosis. This kind of narcissist, and Fromm mentions some of the most conspicuous 20th Century dictators as well as Nero and Caligula, has made himself God and the world, at least in his mind. He has made of himself an Idol, and expects and demands total submission and compliance.

His delusion of infallible omnipotence, however, is his way of completely denying how profoundly unstable his mind really is.  To sustain the extraordinary level of denial he needs to hold the profoundly distorted, self-serving belief that he is always right and never wrong, greater than all others and far above the law and the truth, he needs followers –- millions of them, if possible -– who join him in his delusion. Followers, and observers ― for example, journalists – must keep him more and more hyper-inflated, reflecting back to him, like the Evil Queen’s mirror in the Snow White story, that he is the greatest of them all. Failure to reflect his absolute perfection means banishment from his kingdom, accompanied by excoriating character assassination –- or, in today’s vernacular, smears, threats and lawsuits.

These leaders, sometimes called demagogues, are very similar to the people who lead cults. A part of my psychoanalytic practice has always been dedicated to working with cult survivors, since I began my training in the mental health field shortly after leaving a religious group that was led by a guru whom I came to recognize as an abusive, traumatizing narcissist. When these clients describe the leaders of their various cultic groups to me, I hear again and again of the same characteristics and the same behaviors: The guru is infinitely entitled and grateful to no one; he rewrites history to create a biography that leaves out any trace of his significant misdeeds and failures; he never hesitates to lie for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, and to blame others for his own errors and failures; he is erratic, thin-skinned, belligerent, and constantly involved in attacking and belittling perceived enemies; he persuades followers to see their lives before joining his group as wretched, and he claims exclusive possession of the power to transform follower’s lives in miraculous ways.

Fromm called such people “malignant narcissists,” people out of touch with reality, who exhibit more and more extreme behaviors as the pressures of living up to their delusion of perfection mount, and as they inevitably become exposed to scrutiny and criticism. All too often, enraged by challenges to their fantasy of omnipotence, they lead their followers on to acts of violence, against others or even against themselves. In cults, we have the examples of this horrific violence in the Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, Jim Jones, and many, many others. When it comes to political leaders, the history of the 20th century, the extreme nationalistic narcissism that proclaims the exclusive validity of one nation and the right to deny life and freedom to members of another; the mass murders perpetrated by its dictators -– this horrific, tragic history is still being written, and still being perpetrated.

The kind of narcissist I am describing is alive and very unwell today. The racist, homophobic, deeply deceptive and terrifyingly inflammatory rhetoric these people employ is an assault on rational, ethical people in this country and around the world, and it is happening right now, every day. Fans of strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Mafia dons, Mussolini, etc., may find this sort of thing exciting and entertaining. But malignant, traumatizing narcissists  – people like President Donald Trump – are capable of untold destructiveness, the likes of which we have not seen from a political leader in the United States of America –- not yet. Current events, crowds of adherents shouting slogans of death and destruction, are telling us, to paraphrase the title of Sinclair Lewis’ book: it can happen here.

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6 comments

  1. Please define ‘mental illness,’ because I don’t hink the term applies, nor do I think it’s useful. I would say there is a huge difference between a person’s having a mental illness and having a character style that we don’t like or that scares us. I prefer thinking in terms of Reich’s character category, ‘phallic narcissism,’ rather than Fromm’s diagnostic category, ‘malignant narcissism.’. Reich, writing in Berlin in 1933, explained that character must be seen in the context of societal training and values. Trump is an extreme manifestation of American values and to some extent reflects the true character underlying our economic system. The idea that Trump is grandiose and delusional about his power is contradicted by the fact that he is, IN REALITY, the most powerful man in the world. I think the delusion is our fantasy that Trump is crazy, rather than that he represents a powerful extreme value system that must be combated politically, if there is any hope. This is not mental illness by any definition that I know, but rather a political and economic strategy. We could call that strategy ‘evil,’ but except for our wishful imposition of our own categories of normativity, there is no basis for calling it mental illness. I wish that we lived in a society where self-aggrandizement, aggression, valuing wealth above all else, doing whatever is necessary to guarantee the power and influence of oneself and one’s family, and enforcing the submission of those who would oppose all of this, were not traits that lead to success and admiration, but we don’t. I wish we lived in a world where most people used the greatest good for the greatest number as an ethical model and science and data to determine the fate of the world, but we don’t. We can claim that most people are crazy (since more people in the U.S. believe in the virgin birth than in climate change), but since they are neither abnormal nor are they asking for our help, we have to stop fantasizing that the term mental illness means anything in this context.

    1. As I see it, you are dichotomizing mental illness and character/culture, as though both could not be true analyses at the same time. I don’t disagree with your character assessment of Trump, or your cultural analysis of his character. I also surmise, of course since I can’t prove it, that his narcissism reflects an underlying psychosis which is potentially extremely dangerous. I think there is plenty of evidence to point to his delusional ideas about himself. The fact that he has made his delusional fantasies reality does not diminish the likelihood, in my view, of his underlying psychosis.

      1. I agree with your assessment. However, I believe that a narcissistic defensive structure overlaying a psychotic core, in a manner that renders someone highly functional and successful cannot be construed as mental illness. Character structure protecting underlying neurotic or psychotic structures is how most people function. I believe that mental health practitioners have overreached wildly, so that we have an epidemic of diagnoses, not mental illnesses.

        How do you define mental illness?

      2. Well, I suppose I’m using “mental illness” in a colloquial sense. The rigid, manic delusion of omnipotence is what sums up, simply, the mental illness of the malignant narcissist (in Fromm’s terms), and in what I’ve termed the “traumatizing narcissist” ( which I won’t go into, but I did write a book called Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, where I do go into it, in depth.)

        Andrew Sullivan has a great column in New York Magazine, titled “The Madness of King Donald”. It’s at http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/02/andrew-sullivan-the-madness-of-king-donald.html. He puts it quite well, I think, without having to be a psychologist or psychoanalyst. He writes:

        “Then there is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

        I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.

        There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”

        I find Sullivan’s analysis cogent, and fully in keeping with my perceptions as well.
        Best,
        Dan Shaw

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