Golec deSavala and her team
“Narcissism,” a contemporary pejorative often aimed at the entitled, started out as a little cautionary tale about vanity, a Greek/Roman myth. A remarkably pretty boy admires himself in his reflected image on the surface of a still pond until he turns into a hyacinth flower with petals imitating his curly hair. Along came Freud with his penchant for giving psychological syndromes names derived from myths and he uses it to designate someone so wrapped up in themselves and their own wonderfulness that they have no care for anyone else and might do damage to them. This is the sense the conversation has used in reference to Trump.
Often the concept is used for artists, esp. men, who abuse the women in their lives in order to use the female energy and support for their art. If the men are recognized as geniuses, the gender role (not the sexuality) of women can justify this, as in the word “helpmate.” Think of Picasso. This pattern of a dominant male with a subordinate female, may have roots in the agricultural division of labor in a patriarchal time when the man owns the land AND the woman, plus the children. Think of Jane Austen novels. Men who didn’t justify the pattern with their productions begin to run into resistance and resentment.
Sam Vaknin is a pioneer in thinking about narcissism. Diagnosed as a narcissist himself, he is easiest to catch up with on YouTube in short vids about various aspects, because by now he has defined many “kinds” of narcissism in his pedantic careful way. Most dangerous is “malignant narcissism” which is predatory and consciously destructive. One might put sexual abusers in this category, whether they abuse women, children or other men. But it might also refer to money or power. “Grandiose narcissism” comes from the conviction that one is simply more powerful, more effective and entitled than anyone else, and it can destroy the narcissist with overreach and retaliation from others who can defend themselves.
Now comes an idea from Agnieszka Golec de Zavala through a recent article published by aeon.com, an online magazine meant for thoughtful people. She is a senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poznan, Poland. She suggests “collective narcissists” who so identify with some category, perhaps ethnic or vocational or religious, that they cannot tolerate any criticism of the group. “As opposed to individuals with narcissistic personality, who maintain inflated views of themselves, collective narcissists exaggerate offences to their group’s image and respond to them aggressively. . . . They feel that their group merits special treatment, and insist that it gets the recognition and respect it deserves. . . it amounts to a belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s group, and demands external validation.”
The next step is that when scientists at the University of Pennsylvania scanned narcissists’ brains with fMRI, they found that social rejection was particularly hard for them, and then subsequent research discovered that “people derive emotional pleasure from responding to rejection with aggression”. Golec de Zavala and her team are now looking at whether this works as strongly between groups who threaten each other as between individuals. They’re trying to go from bar-fights over who’s more Irish to riots of disenfranchised young white men waving tiki torches, so as to possibly find other ways to handle what can amount to an addiction to violence. Sometimes this rises to an international level.
Saying Trump is a narcissist, which is an obvious limitation of his character when looking at his treatment of women, or even saying he is a “malignant narcissist”, meaning he deliberately does harm to others because he takes sadistic pleasure in it, is not enough. His power comes from his "class narcissism", which is his enormous need to protect family image (not real relationship) and claim real estate and entertainment moguls as confirmation of value.
This country doesn’t just have a wealth inequity — only a few people with enormous amounts of money and the rest of us barely getting by — but also a class inequity based on education, which is just beginning to be discussed. This keys into the tech revolution, which supports a new turn of mind that can handle code, gaming, and the torrent of new concepts and neologisms that tech and science generate. These “youngsters” don’t remember World War, Depression, famous assassinations, and other reference points that would pull them into conversations with older people who have college degrees. Some people estimate that 20% of the country belong to this group and those “outside” is can’t understand what they’re talking about.
It’s Archie Bunker and the Meathead all over again, but now Bunker is talking about the Shithead who doesn’t live in a gilded tower, obviously because he’s the wrong color. The kicker is that Trump benefits from national class and education resentment without identifying with them personally — he thinks everyone but his own family is a shithead. His ignorance is invisible to him. If he ever shows a good example of his contempt for the Archie Bunkers, he will be gone.
One would think that the grace and probity of Comey and Mueller would be enough contrast to show up the vulgarian low-taste Trump, but what I see is that the same class narcissism that rules Trump makes many people scoff and sneer at these men. Unlike their fathers, who saw the world when they were warriors and grew to respect those unlike themselves, these guys are the ones who broke their knees and were concussed on the football field and feel that is equivalent because they defeated the “Other.”
I watch how often the police procedurals celebrate those who “get their man” by breaking laws and cutting orders, withholding evidence and ignoring protocol. To many people, those who don’t do such things are chumps. Doing them means asserting the individual against bureaucracy, getting things done. We love our gangsters.
Ironically, "collective narcissism" protects the underachiever, the ashamed, the failing person by merging him with others under a grandiose umbrella. Stepping away from the group means being revealed. So Golec de Zavala has some parsing to do. Who is the iconoclast who acts in the name of justice and mercy, and who is just pig-headed? Maybe the best way to find out is to reform the trough.