The narcissistic capture of American nationalism


Prof Barry Richards

Professor of Political Psychology at Bournemouth University. His current research interests are in extremist ideologies, freedom of speech, and the psychology of nationalism. His book Emotional Governance (Palgrave, 2007) was about the emotional public sphere, and the forthcoming What Holds Us Together (Karnac, 2017) links popular culture to the crisis of politics and to national identity.



US2016 - Section 8

Section 8: Result and Beyond

A striking feature of the 2016 Presidential election was the strength of the simplistic delusionality which the successful candidate offered, and which appeared to be so warming for so many people. ‘Donald will put the mines back.’ ‘Donald will build a wall.’ ‘Donald will make America great again.’

Of course, the call of simplistic and delusional rhetoric is hardly a new phenomenon. Even in his serious pursuit of conspiracy theories, Trump stands in a long political tradition, that of the ‘paranoid style’, as the historian Richard Hofstadter called it in 1964. But there is a case for seeing in 2016 a new level of obliviousness to both moral principle and to reality-testing. 

At one level, Trump’s appeal is because he is a populist and nationalist. Populism is usually a divisive force, but is not always as toxic as Trumpism threatens to be. Nationalism is an empty container, which can be filled with many different kinds of politics, and different kinds of emotion. To understand the surge of Trumpist nationalism, we need to analyse it psychologically as well as politically.

An American historian who wrote with scholarly eloquence about American politics was Christopher Lasch, author in 1979 of The Culture of Narcissism. While a lot of hostile commentary on Trumpism has used the term ‘narcissist’ to refer to the man himself, there has been less examination of how the basis of his appeal to American voters lies in his reflection of their own ideological narcissism.

To be clear, narcissism in the technical sense is not a spontaneous arrogance or selfishness, a self-love which some people just happen to have and others don’t. As Lasch described, it takes many behavioural forms, some of which are very different from the popular image of the preening narcissist. Essentially it is an internal state of mind, a delusional inflation of the self which is a defence against anxiety, against unconscious fears of weakness and abandonment. Believe in your own invulnerability, and you will be fine. Given the vulnerability and dependency of the human infant, the tendency to fall into narcissistic fantasy is something we all have to work through in emotional development, and which situations of insecurity in adult life may re-evoke. In a world that seems dangerous, a narcissistically-based belief in your own powers to transcend reality can smother anxiety. 

The defensive narcissism of Trump the person is clearly on view, in a form consistent with the popular view of how a narcissist behaves. The absurd braggadocio would be hard to sustain, even as a deliberate performance, by someone not bunkered in an experience of their own majesty. Precisely what fear and insecurity lies beneath, we can only guess. More pressing, and more do-able, is the task of understanding why this toxic defence is so plausible and welcome across the American electorate.

American nationalism has probably always had a strong element of narcissistic grandiosity, even when American power in the world meant that its citizens could feel safe at home and had less need to fantasize invulnerability. But part of the legacy of 9/11 has been a narcissistic wound, a gash in the fantasy of American invincibility. Such an experience will stimulate some people to face the complexities of the world, while others – those with more anxiety and fewer emotional resources to manage their anxiety – will cling more tightly to images of the supremacy which Trump promised to recover immediately.

The moral strengths and creative richness of American society have created visions of the American nation not based on narcissistic defences. But the scale of Trumpist nationalism suggests that Lasch’s diagnosis was more accurate than we might have thought when Obama was elected. When deployed in the field of political ideologies, narcissism can rapidly conjure up a volatile nationalism, a huge shield which offers massive reassurance against many kinds of anxiety – social, economic, and cultural, and also existential. 

Trumpism offers a magical healing of the narcissistic wound festering since 9/11, a complete restoration of the narcissistic defence. This is a psychically turbo-charged nationalistic populism, in which hatred of the ‘elite’ can reach hallucinogenic levels of intensity. It does not matter that Trump himself belongs to a global elite, one which has led the assault on national cultures. The strategic trick of the populist is always to appear from outside power, to be the virgin politician. Whether the narcissism which Trump embodies can be contained when he is in the White House, or whether it will have calamitous consequences, may depend on how strong and malignant are his needs for control and domination, as well as on how much the complex realities of politics may restrain him. And realities aside, whether 47.5% of the American public continue to support him depends on how much the narcissistic defence which he offers continues to work for them.