Mental 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 chomping 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.
Erich Fromm, famous in the 1960s for “The Art of Loving,” published his first bestseller, “Escape From Freedom,” in the ‘40s, 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 alongside Nero and Caligula, has made of himself both God and the world. He constructs himself as an Idol, and expects and demands total submission and compliance.
This delusion of infallible omnipotence has the critical function of denying a profound mental instability. To sustain such an extraordinary level of denial the narcissist needs to hold the distorted, self-serving belief that he is always right and never wrong, greater than all others and far above the law and the truth; and he needs followers –- millions of them, if possible -– who join him in his delusion. Followers, and observers — for example, journalists — must operate only in the serve of this hyper-inflation, 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, lawsuits; and if you’re in Putin’s Russia or Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, assassination.
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 led by a guru whom I came to recognize as an abusive, traumatizing narcissist. When clients describe the leaders of their various cultic groups to me, I hear over and again 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, nor 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. Eerily familiar, no?
Fromm called such people “malignant narcissists” — a term that has enjoyed a spike in popularly since Trump hit the political scene – describing them as people out of touch with reality who exhibit increasingly extreme behaviors as the pressures of living up to their delusions of perfection mount, and as they inevitably become exposed to scrutiny and criticism. All too often, enraged by challenges to their delusion 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 features the extreme nationalistic narcissism that proclaims the exclusive validity of one nation and the right to deny life and freedom to members of another and culminates in mass murders perpetrated by dictators. We must acknowledge that this horrific, tragic history is still being written, and still being perpetrated.
It takes no convincing that 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 daily assault on rational, ethical people in this country and around the world. Fans of strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Mafia dons, Mussolini, etc., may find this sort of public display exciting and entertaining. We know too well it is possible for entire nations to become entranced, and join in the paranoid delusions of a megalomaniac. Malignant, traumatizing narcissists — people like President Donald Trump, in my opinion — are capable of untold destructiveness, the likes of which we have not seen from a political leader in the United States of America. To paraphrase the title of Sinclair Lewis’ book (which the NYT says predicted Trump): it can happen here. The ‘it’ is fascism, and it’s on the rise all around us.