The narcissist

Saturday, March 4, 2017

By Michael J. Brenner, February 21, 2017

Self-effacement, restraint and empathy normally do not mix with high ambition. Ambition – in one form or another, for self or cause– is a requisite for accessing the corridors of power.

The narcissist is different. The true narcissist is a readily identifiable personality type, one of the most clearly etched in clinical psychology. Fairly common in the general population, they have been extremely rare in the political realm.

Breaking the pattern

The constant and intense scrutiny that the holders of public offices receive, along with the built-in structural constraints, reduce the latitude for inner-driven behavior that is characteristic for a narcissist.

Today, things have changed. A full-blown narcissist is found at the apex of authority. U.S. political culture, or so it seems, is becoming progressively more congenial to the conduct associated with narcissism.

What/who is a narcissist?

In analytical terms, a narcissistic personality is typified by a core self that is overwhelmingly self-referential — rather than being defined through contact with the world around it.

The narcissistic self is engaged in a constant struggle for self-confirmation. That becomes the compelling, overriding goal of life whatever pursuits the narcissist undertakes, whatever prosaic gratifications he seeks, whatever the social circumstances in which he finds itself.

With a grandiose sense of self-importance, he feels a powerful entitlement to admiration and special treatment.

Incapable of critical self-reflection

The narcissist is incapable of critical self-reflection. The only errors admitted are tactical ones, things that fell short in failing to bring the outer world into conformity to demands of the self.

Above all, there is the demand that the individual be allowed to do whatever he pleases at all times, without restraint or criticism or punishment. Everything is interpreted, judged and explained on that basis.

Unaccommodating persons are punished, places and circumstances that do not readily give approval are to be avoided. Avoidance behavior is companion to a total lack of self-understanding.

Please adore me!

Narcissists live their lives to the pulse of their constant inner beat: I need, I want, I need, I want. Empathy is foreign to narcissists. They have neither the capacity nor the inclination to relate to others except at a very superficial level.

Attentiveness to the feelings and emotions of others risks subordinating the imperial self to someone else.

The narcissist’s need for praise is insatiable. The outside world’s continual confirmation of the narcissistic self’s uniqueness is vital.

That leads to compulsive testing to reassure oneself that others will approve. And it drives the narcissist to bestow favors and praise even where there is no compensation.

Moreover, hyper-sensitivity to criticism places premiums on the narcissist’s surrounding himself with sycophants. No wonder the narcissist needs courtiers around him.

Persons with an independent bent and/or strong views are a direct threat to defensive strategies of “self”-protection. Those types are also unlikely to provide the routine adulation and approval that the narcissistic-leader needs.

Constantly fishing for compliments

Narcissists fish for compliments. They need people who offer them such compliments, especially without solicitation. They often do so with great charm. Money and power substitute the power of coercion, intimidation and implicit threat.

Narcissists seek out the rich and other celebrities. A billionaire like Trump seeks out the company of other billionaires, for they are the sole persons qualified to respect fully his success and to applaud it.

Money is the ultimate measure of self. Riches and celebrity status are intensely craved because they provide what is most keenly wanted – prestige and, above all, control.

With the White House in his pocket, Trump believes he is able to command whatever it is he wants, including evading anything unwelcome – the narcissist’s Shangri-La.

Temper tantrumsTemper tantrums are another symptomatic trait of the narcissistic personality. They may be uninhibitedly public, as in the case of Bill Clinton, or reserved for private occasions where there is active fear of turning the outside world hostile.

They stem from frustration created by the tension between the ever-vigilant self and an environment that, even for public figures, is not always fully accommodating.

The precipitating factor might be utterly banal. Just recall the fight over the estimates of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.


Fury at being thwarted bespeaks an ingrained sense of entitlement. In inter-personal encounters, a narcissist normally benefits from emotional “escalation dominance.”

That is to say, as the storm of conflict intensifies, he is less sensitive to either the indecency of what is being said or its consequences.

That these outbursts never happen in delicate diplomatic encounters or on formal occasions attests to the narcissist’s ability to exercise a modicum of control over his emotions and conduct. It could be that there is an element of self-selection at work.

A narcissist who finds it impossible to impose that measure of constraint on himself will not go far in a public career.

As has been observed, “though overweening ambition and confidence lead to high achievement, performance may be disrupted due to intolerance of criticism.”

Control matters

The narcissist dreads situations where his supreme self is challenged or threatened – or its vulnerability exposed. That leads him to steer clear of persons who may do any of these things.

That is not easy when coping with other heads of government. It does suggest prudence in avoiding face-to-face meetings wherever possible. Dread also can motivate the narcissist to maintain distance by downplaying the other person’s importance.

That is difficult to achieve, of course, where encounters are inescapable and/or where the narcissist has staked out a firm position whose abandonment would strike a crushing blow to his exalted sense of self.

No sense of history

Narcissists typically have no sense of history. This is true both in the conventional sense of past events and in the personalized sense of being unmindful to what they did and said earlier.

Remembrance of things past can be an unwelcome restraint. Studied ignorance is an emotional ally. That is why U.S. history, in the eyes of Donald Trump, is divided into two eras – BT and UT, as in Before Trump and Under Trump.

The narcissist is by nature an existentialist. For that approach offers the maximum freedom to do whatever the need of the emotional moment is, and to avoid doing anything that is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

That is also why a narcissist is distinctly uninterested in precedent, in the norms observed by others, in lessons as to what falls within the realm of the impossible, the painful, the costly.

Let’s care about me

Inattentiveness to how one’s behavior registers on others similarly increases freedom. The narcissist just does not care – unless there is a clear utilitarian interest in caring.

Repetition of pet themes – grievances, complaints, judgments, wants – evinces how they are woven into the fabric of the narcissistic personality. The impulse to express them follows.

The past, understood as a huge void, removes any inhibition on reiteration. The only past that matters is not the nation’s, but one’s own inventory of slights and grievances received.

That “history” is kept readily available, to provide fuel to the ever-burning fire of narcissistic self-glorification.


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I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I open and explore with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we extract it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. - Socrates, Memorabilia
What we maintain is that in none of the problems of life can men afford to lose sight of the storehouse bequeathed to them by the ancients. In the complexus of everything which differentiates man from the brute creation, the voice of antiquity must be heard...

-H. Browne, quoted in "Classics and Citizenship" The Classical Quarterly, 1920