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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Make narcissism great again

Kagan McLeod for The Boston Globe

W ith the rise of Donald Trump, it is time for narcissism to take a hard look in the mirror.

At its best, “narcissism” is a clinical term bandied about by big-name psychoanalysts offering insight into some of the most maddening and compelling people in our midst — people who are grandiose, entitled, and charismatic.

People like Trump, who copped to being a narcissist in his book “Think Like a Billionaire.”

But in recent decades, narcissism has ballooned into something else: a sweeping and increasingly meaningless indictment of an entire culture. Spend a little time in the pop psychology blogosphere or flipping through books like “The Narcissist Next Door,” and you’ll find diagnoses for Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil, and Martin Luther King Jr. “Narcissist” is what Time magazine called the typical millennial in a cover story on the “Me Me Me Generation” a few years ago, and what Psychology Today calls your boyfriend if he’s a “conversation hoarder.”


Don’t like somebody? Just use this scientific-sounding epithet, and presto, your criticism sounds credible. “The problem,” says psychologist and anthropologist Michael Maccoby, “is ‘narcisissm’ has become a garbage can for every kind of egocentrism and selfishness.”

Trump is our chance to take out that garbage; to drop the ritual condemnations of the Me Generation or the Me Me Me Generation and focus more tightly on the handful of genuine narcissists in our midst — on their destructive potential and, yes, their enormous appeal.

NARCISSISM IS not an ailment, but a theory of human development. It starts with the healthy self-centeredness of a child learning to become his own person. As he ages, he begins to balance his own wants with those of others. It is only when something goes badly awry — when he fails to shed the intense self-absorption of his youth — that we say he has narcissistic personality disorder.

Back in the mid-1960s and early-1970s, an Austrian emigre analyst named Otto Kernberg made a name for himself exploring this pathological side of narcissism. His narcissist had an appealing self-confidence, but it masked an empty, raging self, fixated on dominance and deeply vengeful. As historian Elizabeth Lunbeck recounts in her book “The Americanization of Narcissism,” Kernberg saw this pathological narcissist as a rare figure, that occasional patient so impaired by his malignant self-regard that it could wreck his life.


But that didn’t stop Christopher Lasch, the irascible social critic, from seeing a Kernbergian pathology in every corner of American life. His seminal work, “The Culture of Narcissism,” published in 1979, did more than any text to transform narcissism from a clinical term to a national malady. Steeped in the language of psychoanalysis, it described a country seething with rage and self-hatred and escaping into a cult of self-esteem. The book quickly shot to the top of the bestseller list, catching the attention of President Jimmy Carter, who invited the author to consult on his famous “malaise” speech that July.

But critics found “The Culture of Narcissism” — like Carter’s speech — too dour. In a New York Times review, Frank Kermode called the book “a black survey of the way we live now.” And in retrospect, Lasch’s broad indictment of “the narcissistic personality of our time” — his litany of ills included celebrity worship, memoir, radical feminism, and the worrisome shift from grass to artificial tennis courts — looks like the start of a long, unhealthy obsession.

Today, we are awash in books like “The Narcissism Epidemic” and “Narcissists Exposed.” The Atlantic tells us “How the Cult of Self-Esteem Is Ruining Our Kids.” And we seek refuge in what essayist Kristin Dombek has dubbed the “narcisphere,” that big swath of the Internet addressing the singular ailment of our time.


Self-help websites offer pointers on dealing with the “narcs” in our lives, and bloggers lay out a taxonomy of the narcissists we might encounter down the line.

Those who are reckless and self-assured, Dombek reports in her book “The Selfishness of Others,” are “phallic narcissists.” And chief executives focused on one thing and one thing alone — profit — are “corporate narcissists.”

There are “medical narcissists” and “organizational narcissists.” And even for those who insist on acting generously, publicly aligning themselves with charitable organizations, and talking endlessly about care and empathy, we have a name: the “communal narcissist.”

This is a dark, dark world. But there is a brighter view of narcissism, too.

WHILE KERNBERG was outlining the pathologies of narcissism, his intellectual rival — a fellow Austrian emigre named Heinz Kohut — was focused on a normal, healthy strain. Kohut’s narcissism was a joyful thing, a “wellspring of human ambition and creativity, values and ideals, empathy and fellow feeling,” as Lunbeck put it.

For those who felt empty, Kohut prescribed more narcissism, not less. And he embraced the self-realization movements of the 1960s and 1970s that the social critics scorned. A rich inner life was valuable, he insisted. And those who would wish away the narcissism of the time were like Victorians who wished away sex — denying what was all around them.

Kohut’s upbeat view was mostly lost in the decline-and-fall narratives of the day. But it did not disappear entirely, surfacing in what Lunbeck calls “a little noticed psychoanalytic byway” — a literature on the narcissistic leader that synthesized both the Kohutian and Kernbergian strains.


In a Harvard Business Review article from 2000 titled “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” Maccoby (he of the “garbage can” comment) outlined both the dark side of narcissistic leadership — the grandiosity and “flagrant risk-taking that can lead to catastrophe” — and the upside: “the audacity to push through the massive transformations that society periodically undertakes.”

Here was an attempt to understand narcissism in full, to apply some clinical insight to the big, brutal egotists who have shaped the global economy and global politics. Maccoby wrote of Napoleon and later, Steve Jobs — of their enormous creativity and dangerous grandiosity. The popular diagnosis of Trump, with its unbalanced, unrelenting focus on malignancies, is not up to snuff, he suggests: “I think it’s terrible.”

LAST OCTOBER, with just a few weeks to go in the presidential race, David Brooks of The New York Times wrote a column headlined “Donald Trump’s Sad, Lonely Life.”

At a town hall debate just a couple of days before, the columnist wrote, Trump had failed to connect with the audience like a normal human being. He’d treated “his questioners as unrelatable automatons” and delivered his answers “to the void” — underlining what Brooks deemed his essential loneliness.

Trump, he wrote, was a germophobe who had cut off contact with others, an isolated and vengeful figure tweeting out bile in the middle of the night. It was almost enough to stir pity: “Imagine if you had to endure a single week in a hate-filled world crowded with enemies of your own making, the object of disgust and derision.”

The Republican nominee, Brooks wrote, was displaying symptoms of “narcissistic alexithymia,” unable to understand his own emotions, hungering for “endless attention from outside,” and at ease only when menacing others. “On Nov. 9, the day after Trump loses, there won’t be solidarity and howls of outrage,” the columnist wrote. “Everyone will just walk away.”


But Trump did not lose, of course. He won. He may have lost some voters at that town hall, but his speeches electrified millions. Brooks’s diagnosis of Trump’s narcissism — its grandiosity, neediness, and nastiness — may have been true, as far as it went. But it didn’t account for its most salient feature: its appeal.

“His appeal is immense,” says Lunbeck, who is now working on a book about narcissism in the age of Trump. “And people have not come to terms with that.”

What exactly is driving that appeal is hard to say. But the academic literature on narcissism — mostly ignored outside of psychology for the last 40-plus years — offers some insights. Narcissists are often charismatic, confident, and extroverted, the research shows. They gather people around, and add sparkle to dull rituals.

Just after the election, Diane Hessan, who conducted in-depth research for Hillary Clinton’s campaign on 300 undecided voters around the country, wrote a piece in the Globe focused on “George,” a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., resident who eventually voted for Trump. Attending a Trump rally, he told her, was the most fun he’d had in years.

“Trump would say, ‘What am I going to build?’ And we would scream, ‘A wall!’ He would say, ‘And who is going to pay for it?’ We yelled back, ‘Mexico!’ . . . We know that he’s not actually going to get Mexico to pay for it, but it was fun to lighten up, to cheer along with everyone else, just like back in high school, when we would cheer that our teams were definitely going to win, even when they were bad.”

That appeal can fade, the literature shows, when a narcissist turns exploitative. But you’ve got to be up close to feel that. Keep your distance, like a voter, and maybe the shine remains.

Hessan, who has continued studying her 300 voters since the election, recently reported on how those who backed Trump are feeling now, even amid his early stumbles. They are “very hopeful,” she wrote, “and many are downright exhilarated.”

These supporters may have a view as lopsided as the president’s critics. Their failure to acknowledge the dangerous strains of Trump’s narcissism may be no better than his critics’ failure to acknowledge its more appealing elements — and maybe worse.

But they see something that cries out for notice. Beyond the bluster and the lies, they see a self-confidence and a drive that just might be productive. He’s built plenty of big buildings, after all, and won a presidential election.

Maccoby says he has coached 33 “successful narcissistic leaders” in his career — in politics, business, and academia — and “they’re all liars.” But, he added, “as one CEO said to me, ‘Yes, I lie about our products and results, but I work very hard to make my lies come true.’ ”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.