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Narcissistic Leaders

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“It was precisely that evening in Lodi that I came to believe in myself as an unusual person and became consumed with the ambition to do the wonderful things that until then had been but a fantasy.” - Napoleon Bonaparte, “Thoughts.”

“They may all be called Heroes, in as much as they have derived their purposes and their vocation not from the calm, regular course of things, sanctioned by the existing order, but from a concealed fount, from that inner Spirit, still hidden beneath the surface, which impinges on the outer world as a shell and bursts it into pieces – such were Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon … World-historical men – the Heroes of an epoch – must therefore be recognized as its clear-sighted ones: their deeds, their words are the best of their time … Moral claims which are irrelevant must not be brought into collision with World-historical deeds … So mighty a form must trample down many an innocent flower – crush to pieces many an object in its path.”

(G.W.F. Hegel, “Lectures on the Philosophy of History”)

“Such beings are valuable; they come like fate without cause or reason, inconsiderately and without pretext. Suddenly they are here like lightning, too terrible, too sudden, too compelling, and too ‘different’ even to be hated … What moves them is the terrible egotism of the artist of the brazen glance, who knows himself to be justified for all eternity in his ‘work’ as the mother is justified in her child …

In all great deceivers, a remarkable process is at work to which they owe their power. In the very act of deception with all its preparations, the mysterious voice, expression, and gestures, they are overcome by their belief in themselves; it is this belief which then speaks, so persuasively, so miracle-like, to the audience.”

(Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Genealogy of Morals”)

“He knows not how to rule a kingdom, that cannot manage a province; nor can he wield a province, that cannot order a city; nor he order a city, that knows not how to regulate a village; nor he a village, that cannot guide a family; nor can that man govern well a family that knows not how to govern himself; neither can any govern himself unless his reason is lord, will and appetite her vassals; nor can reason rule unless herself be ruled by God, and be obedient to Him.”

(Hugo Grotius)

The narcissistic leader is the culmination and reification of his period, culture, and civilization. He is likely to rise to prominence in selfish societies.

The malignant narcissist invents and then projects a false, fictitious self for the world to fear or admire. He keeps a tenuous grasp on reality to start with, and the trappings of power further worsen this. The narcissist’s grandiose self-delusions and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience are supported by real-life authority and the narcissist’s predilection to surround himself with obsequious sycophants.

The narcissist’s personality is so precariously balanced that he cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism and disagreement. Most narcissists are paranoid and suffer from ideas of reference (the delusion that they are being mocked or discussed when they are not). Thus, narcissists often regard themselves as “victims of persecution.”

The narcissistic leader fosters and encourages a personality cult with all the hallmarks of an institutional religion: priesthood, rites, rituals, temples, worship, catechism, and mythology. The leader is this religion’s ascetic saint. He monastically denies himself earthly pleasures (or so he claims) to be able to dedicate himself entirely to his calling.

The narcissistic leader is a monstrously inverted Jesus, sacrificing his life and denying himself so that his people – or humanity– should benefit. By surpassing and suppressing his humanity, the narcissistic leader became a distorted version of Nietzsche’s “superman.”

But being a-human or super-human also means being a-sexual and a-moral.

In this restricted sense, narcissistic leaders are post-modernists and moral relativists. They project to the masses an androgynous figure and enhance it by engendering the adoration of nudity and all things “natural”– or by strongly repressing these feelings. But what they call “nature” is not natural at all.

The narcissistic leader invariably proffers an aesthetic of decadence and evil carefully orchestrated and artificial – though it is not perceived this way by his or his followers. Egocentric leadership is about reproduced copies, not about originals. It is about manipulating symbols – not about veritable atavism or true conservatism.

In short: narcissistic leadership is about theatre, not about life. To enjoy the spectacle (and be subsumed by it), the leader demands the suspension of judgment, depersonalization, and de-realization. Catharsis is tantamount, in this narcissistic dramaturgy, to self-annulment.

Narcissism is nihilistic operationally or ideologically. It is very language, and narratives are nihilistic. Narcissism is conspicuous nihilism – and the cult’s leader serves as a role model, annihilating the Man, only to re-appear as a pre-ordained and irresistible force of nature.

Narcissistic leadership often poses as a rebellion against the “old ways”– against the hegemonic culture, the upper classes, the established religions, the superpowers, and the corrupt order. Narcissistic movements are puerile, reacting to narcissistic injuries inflicted upon a narcissistic (and psychopathic) toddler nation-state, group, or leader.

Minorities or “others”– often arbitrarily selected – constitute a perfect, easily identifiable embodiment of all that is “wrong.” They are accused of being old, they are eerily disembodied, they are cosmopolitan, they are part of the establishment, they are “decadent,” they are hated on religious and socio-economic grounds, or because of their race, sexual orientation, origin … They are different, they are narcissistic (feel and function as morally superior), they are everywhere, they are defenseless, they are credulous, they are adaptable (and thus can be co-opted to collaborate in their destruction). They are the perfect hate figure. Narcissists thrive on hatred and pathological envy.

This is precisely the source of the fascination with Hitler, diagnosed by Erich Fromm and Stalin as a malignant narcissist. He was an inverted human. His unconscious was his conscious. He acted out our most repressed drives, fantasies, and wishes. He provides us with a glimpse of the horrors beneath the veneer, the barbarians at our gates, and what it was like before we invented civilization. Hitler forced us all through a time warp, and many did not appear. He was not the devil. He was one of us. He was what Arendt aptly called the banality of evil. Just an ordinary, mentally disturbed failure, a member of a mentally disturbed and failing nation who lived through troubled and failing times. He was the perfect mirror, a channel, a voice, and the depth of our souls.

The narcissistic leader prefers the sparkle and glamour of well-orchestrated illusions to the tedium and method of actual accomplishments. His reign is all smoke and mirrors, devoid of substances, consisting of mere appearances and mass delusions. It all unravels in the aftermath of his regime – the narcissistic leader having died, been deposed, or voted out of office. The tireless and constant prestidigitation ceases, and the entire edifice crumbles. What looked like an economic miracle turned 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.

It is essential to understand that the use of violence must be stopped. It must give with the self-image of the narcissist. It must abet and sustain his grandiose fantasies and feed his sense of entitlement. It must conform with the narcissistic narrative.

Thus, a narcissist who regards himself as the benefactor of the poor, a member of the common folk, the representative of the disenfranchised, the champion of the dispossessed against the corrupt elite – is highly unlikely to use violence at first.

The calming mask crumbles when the narcissist has become convinced that the people he purported to speak for, his constituency, his grassroots fans, the prime sources of his narcissistic supply – have turned against him. At first, in a desperate effort to keep the fiction underlying his chaotic personality, the narcissist strives to explain away the sudden reversal of sentiment. “The people are being duped by (the media, big industry, the military, the elite, etc.),”“they don’t know what they are doing,”“following a rude awakening, they will revert to form,” etc.

When these flimsy attempts to patch tattered personal mythology fail – the narcissist is injured. Narcissistic injury inevitably leads to narcissistic rage and a terrifying display of unbridled aggression. The pent-up frustration and hurt translate into devaluation. That which was previously idealized – is now discarded with contempt and hatred.

This primitive defense mechanism is called “splitting.” To the narcissist, things and people are either entirely bad (evil) or exceptionally good. He projects his shortcomings and negative emotions onto others, thus becoming a suitable object. A narcissistic leader is likely to justify the butchering of his people by claiming that they intended to kill him, undo the revolution, devastate the economy, the country, etc.

The “small people,” the “rank and file,” the “loyal soldiers” of the narcissist – his flock, his nation, his employees pay the price. The disillusionment and disenchantment are agonizing. The reconstruction process, rising from the ashes, overcoming the trauma of having been deceived, exploited, and manipulated – is drawn out. Trusting, having faith, love, being led, and collaborating are challenging. Feelings of shame and guilt engulf the erstwhile followers of the narcissist. This is his sole legacy: a massive post-traumatic stress disorder.

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