NARCISSISTIC AND PSYCHOPATHIC LEADERS

In most developing countries and nations in transition, “democracy” is an empty word.
“I came here to see a country, but what I find is a theater … In appearances, everything happens as it does everywhere else. There is no difference except in the very foundation of things.”
(de Custine, writing about Russia in the mid-19th century)
Granted, the hallmarks of democracy are there: candidate lists, parties, election propaganda, a plurality of media, and voting. But its quiddity is absent. The democratic principles are institutions being consistently hollowed out and rendered mock by electoion fraud, exclusionary policies, cronyism, corruption, intimidation, and collusion.
The new “democracies” suffer from many of the same ills that afflict their veteran role models: murky campaign finances; venal revolving doors between state administration and private enterprise; endemic corruption, nepotism, and cronyism; self-censoring media; socially, economically, and politically excluded minorities; and so on.
Many nations have chosen prosperity over democracy. Yes, the denizens of these realms can’t speak their mind or protest or criticize or even joke lest they be arrested or worse – but, in exchange for giving up these trivial freedoms, they have food on the table, they are fully employed, they receive ample health care and proper education, they save and spend to their hearts’ content.
In return for all these worldly and intangible goods (popularity of the leadership which yields political stability; prosperity; security; prestige abroad; authority at home; a renewed sense of nationalism, collective and community), the citizens of these countries forgo the right to be able to criticize the regime or change it once every four years. Many insist that they have struck a good bargain – not a Faustian one.
Being in a position of authority secures the uninterrupted flow of Narcissistic Supply. Fed by the awe, fear, subordination, admiration, adoration and obedience of his underlings, parish, students, or patients – the narcissist thrives in such circumstances. The narcissist aspires to acquire authority by any means available to him. He may achieve this by making use of some outstanding traits or skills such as his intelligence, or through an asymmetry built into a relationship. The narcissistic medical doctor or mental health professional and his patients, the narcissistic guide, teacher, or mentor and his students, the narcissistic leader, guru, pundit, or psychic and his followers or admirers, or the narcissistic business tycoon, boss, or employer and his subordinates – all are instances of such asymmetries. The rich, powerful, more knowledgeable narcissist occupies a Pathological Narcissistic Space.
In their book “Personality Disorders in Modern Life”, Theodore Millon and Roger Davis state, as a matter of fact, that pathological narcissism was once the preserve of “the royal and the wealthy” and that it “seems to have gained prominence only in the late twentieth century”. Narcissism, according to them, may be associated with “higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs … Individuals in less advantaged nations … are too busy trying (to survive) … to be arrogant and grandiose”.
Given a high enough level of frustration, triggered by recurrent, endemic, and systemic failures in all spheres of policy, even the most resilient democracy develops a predilection to “strong men”, leaders whose self-confidence, sangfroid, and apparent omniscience all but “guarantee” a change of course for the better.
These are usually people with a thin resume, having accomplished little prior to their ascendance. They appear to have erupted on the scene from nowhere. They are received as providential messiahs precisely because they are unencumbered with a discernible past and, thus, are ostensibly unburdened by prior affiliations and commitments. Their only duty is to the future. They are a-historical: they have no history and they are above history.
Indeed, it is precisely this apparent lack of a biography that qualifies these leaders to represent and bring about a fantastic and grandiose future. They act as a blank screen upon which the multitudes project their own traits, wishes, personal biographies, needs, and yearnings.
The more these leaders deviate from their initial promises and the more they fail, the dearer they are to the hearts of their constituents: like them, their new chosen leader is struggling, coping, trying, and failing and, like them, he has his shortcomings and vices. This affinity is endearing and captivating. It helps to form a shared psychosis (follies-a-plusieurs) between ruler and people and fosters the emergence of a hagiography.
Cultures and civilizations which frown upon individualism and have a collectivist tradition prefer to install “strong collective leaderships” rather than “strong men”. Yet, all these polities maintain a theatre of democracy or a theatre of “democratically-reached consensus” (Putin calls it: “sovereign democracy”). Such charades are devoid of essence and proper function and are replete and concurrent with a personality cult or the adoration of the party in power.
The narcissistic leader prefers the sparkle and glamour of well-orchestrated illusions to the tedium and method of real accomplishments. His reign is all smoke and mirrors, devoid of substance, consisting of mere appearances and mass delusions.
In the aftermath of his regime – the narcissistic leader having died, been deposed, or voted out of office – it all unravels. The tireless and constant prestidigitation ceases and the entire edifice crumbles. What looked like an economic miracle turns out to have been a fraud laced bubble. Loosely-held empires disintegrate. Laboriously assembled business conglomerates go to pieces. “Earth shattering” and “revolutionary” scientific discoveries and theories are discredited. Social experiments end in mayhem. As their end draws near, narcissistic-psychopathic leaders act out, lash out, and erupt. They attack with equal virulence and ferocity compatriots, erstwhile allies, neighbors, and foreigners.
The followings are Proposed Amended Criteria for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
• Feels grandiose and self-important (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments, talents, skills, contacts, and personality traits to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements);
• Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion;
• Firmly convinced that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions);
• Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation – or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (Narcissistic Supply);
• Feels entitled. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her unreasonable expectations for special and favorable priority treatment;
• Is “interpersonally exploitative”, i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends;
• Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others;
• Constantly envious of others and seeks to hurt or destroy the objects of his or her frustration. Suffers from persecutory (paranoid) delusions as he or she believes that they feel the same about him or her and are likely to act similarly;
• Behaves arrogantly and haughtily. Feels superior, omnipotent, omniscient, invincible, immune, “above the law”, and omnipresent (magical thinking). Rages when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted by people he or she considers inferior to him or her and unworthy.
What are the sources of this unrealistic appraisal of situations and events?
The False Self is a childish response to abuse and trauma. Abuse is not limited to sexual molestation or beatings. Smothering, doting, pampering, overindulgence, treating the child as an extension of the parent, not respecting the child’s boundaries, and burdening the child with excessive expectations are also forms of abuse. The child reacts by constructing False Self that is possessed of everything it needs in order to prevail: unlimited and instantaneously available Harry Potter like powers and wisdom. The False Self, this Superman, is indifferent to abuse and punishment. This way, the child’s True Self is shielded from the toddler’s harsh reality.
This artificial, maladaptive separation between a vulnerable (but not punishable) True Self and a punishable (but invulnerable) False Self is an effective mechanism. It isolates the child from the unjust, capricious, emotionally dangerous world that he occupies. But, at the same time, it fosters in him a false sense of “nothing can happen to me, because I am not here, I am not available to be punished, hence I am immune to punishment”.
Many of them are gifted orators and intellectually endowed. Many of them work in politics, the media, fashion, show business, the arts, medicine, or business, and serve as religious leaders.
By virtue of their standing in the community, their charisma, or their ability to find the willing scapegoats, they do get exempted many times. Having recurrently “got away with it” – they develop a theory of personal immunity, founded upon some kind of societal and even cosmic “order” in which certain people are above punishment.
Cooked books, corporate fraud, bending the (GAAP or other) rules, sweeping problems under the carpet, overpromising, making grandiose claims (the “vision thing”) – are hallmarks of a narcissist in action.
When social cues and norms encourage such behavior rather than inhibit it – in other words, when such behavior elicits abundant Narcissistic Supply – the pattern is reinforced and become entrenched and rigid. Even when circumstances change, the narcissist finds it difficult to adapt, shed his routines, and replace them with new ones. He is trapped in his past success. He becomes a swindler.
The narcissist makes use of our socialization. We dare not confront or expose him, despite the outlandishness of his claims, the improbability of his stories, the implausibility of his alleged accomplishments and conquests. We simply turn the other cheek, or meekly avert our eyes, often embarrassed.
To some extent, they feel omnipresent because they are either famous or about to become famous or because their product is selling or is being manufactured globally. Deeply immersed in their delusions of grandeur, they firmly believe that their acts have – or will have – a great influence not only on their firm, but on their country, or even on Mankind. Having mastered the manipulation of their human environment – they are convinced that they will always “get away with it”. They develop hubris and a false sense of immunity.
Not surprisingly, narcissistic disorders are more common among men than among women. This may be because narcissism conforms to masculine social mores and to the prevailing ethos of capitalism. Ambition, achievements, hierarchy, ruthlessness, drive – are both social values and narcissistic male traits.
The narcissist differs from others (from “normal” people). His very self is a piece of fiction concocted to fend off hurt and to nurture the narcissist’s grandiosity. He fails in his “reality test” – the ability to distinguish the actual from the imagined. The narcissist fervently believes in his own infallibility, brilliance, omnipotence, heroism, and perfection. He doesn’t dare confront the truth and admit it even to himself.
Moreover, he imposes his personal mythology on his nearest and dearest. Spouse, children, colleagues, friends, neighbors – sometimes even perfect strangers – must abide by the narcissist’s narrative or face his wrath. The narcissist countenances no disagreement, alternative points of view, or criticism. To him, confabulation is reality. We are all conditioned to let other indulge in pet delusions and get away with white, not too egregious, lies.
Confabulations are an important part of life. They serve to heal emotional wounds or to prevent ones from being inflicted in the first place. They prop-up the confabulator’s self-esteem, regulate his (or her) sense of self-worth, and buttress his (or her) self-image. They serve as organizing principles in social interactions. Father’s wartime heroism, mother’s youthful good looks, one’s oft-recounted exploits, erstwhile alleged brilliance, and past purported sexual irresistibility – are typical examples of white, fuzzy, heart-warming lies wrapped around a shriveled kernel of truth.
But the distinction between reality and fantasy is rarely completely lost.
Deep inside, the healthy confabulator knows where facts end and wishful thinking takes over. Father acknowledges he was no war hero, though he did his share of fighting. Mother understands she was no ravishing beauty, though she may have been attractive. The confabulator realizes that his recounted exploits are overblown, his brilliance exaggerated, and his sexual irresistibility a myth.
Such distinctions never rise to the surface because everyone – the confabulator and his audience alike – have a common interest to maintain the confabulation. To challenge the integrity of the confabulator or the veracity of his confabulations is to threaten the very fabric of family and society. Human intercourse is built around such entertaining deviations from the truth.
The narcissist, in pursuit of an ever increasing supply, of an ever-larger dose of adoration, and an ever-bigger fix of attention – gradually loses his moral constraints. With time, it gets harder to obtain Narcissistic Supply. The sources of such supply are human and they become weary, rebellious, tired, bored, disgusted, repelled, or plainly amused by the narcissist’s incessant dependence, his childish craving for attention, and his exaggerated or even paranoid fears which lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviors. To secure their continued collaboration in the procurement of his much needed supply – the narcissist might resort to emotional extortion, straight blackmail, abuse, or misuse of his authority.
The temptation to do so, though, is universal. No doctor is immune to the charms of certain female patients, nor are university professors asexual. What prevent them from immorally, cynically, callously and consistently abusing their position are ethical imperatives embedded in them through socialization and empathy. They learned the difference between right and wrong and, having internalized it, they choose right when they face a moral dilemma. They empathize with other human beings, “putting themselves in their shoes”, and refrain from doing unto others what they do not wish to be done to them.
Hitler provided us with a glimpse of the horrors that lie beneath the veneer, the barbarians at our personal gates, and what it was like before we invented civilization.
Hitler forced us all through a time warp and many did not emerge. He was not the devil. He was one of us. He was what Arendt aptly called the banality of evil. He was just an ordinary, mentally disturbed, failure, a member of a mentally disturbed and failing nation, who lived through disturbed and failing times. He was the perfect mirror, a channel, a voice, and the very depth of our souls.
It is in these two crucial points that narcissists differ from other humans.
(Adapted from Narcissistic and Psychopathic Leaders 1st EDITION by Sam Vaknin, Ph.D)
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