Trump and His Supporters: A Dangerous Cycle of 'Collective Narcissism'

News & Politics

Last weekend, Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Pennsylvania in support of Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone (who appears to have lost an extremely close special election on Tuesday). Trump was in rare form. Like a lounge singer in a casino somewhere off the Las Vegas strip he belted out the classics to the fawning approval of his fans.

Of course there was racism. Trump called Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who is African-American, a stupid woman with a low IQ. It has been reported that Trump's former wife, Ivana, once told her lawyer that Trump kept a book of Adolf Hitler's speeches by his bedside. This may or may not be true. But Trump's invective towards Waters certainly suggests he is a fan of Charles Murray's pseudoscientific racist tract "The Bell Curve." Not content to limit his racist broadsides to Waters, Trump also mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. -- who has said her family believed it had Native American ancestry -- as "Pocahontas."

Trump the petit-authoritarian and demagogue attacked the news media because they dare to (minimally) hold him accountable. To that end, NBC News personality Chuck Todd was insulted as a "sleeping son of a bitch."

Trump tried to draw his usual moral-panic association between immigrants and crime, suggesting that "illegal aliens" were coming to America with the goal of dismembering innocent white women and girls. Of course the only voters who count as "real Americans" are the white people who voted for him.

He even updated one of his classics. Trump's "Make America Great Again!" slogan will apparently be remixed as "Keep America Great!" for the 2020 presidential election.

Trump's public whooped, howled and cheered at his performance. After the rally, Trump's detractors highlighted this spectacle as another example of the president's immense ego, narcissism and lack of decorum. These observations are correct, but miss a key factor in the equation that explains Trump's appeal to the tens of millions of Americans who have eagerly joined his political cult. Yes, Trump is a malignant narcissist. But he and his supporters are intertwined in a state of collective narcissism.

This is an extremely dangerous relationship.

Writing about Nazi Germany, cultural critic Theodor Adorno and psychologist Erich Fromm developed this concept after observing how, in difficult times, some people may experience a crisis of self. Such a crisis can lead individuals to seek out membership in groups they believe to be special and powerful, as a means of buoying their spirits.

In a 2009 academic article on "Collective Narcissism and Its Social Consequences" for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologist Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and her colleagues designed the following scale for measuring collective narcissism:

  1. I wish other groups would more quickly recognize authority of my group.
  2. My group deserves special treatment.
  3. Not many people seem to fully understand the importance of my group.
  4. I insist upon my group getting the respect that is due to it.
  5. It really makes me angry when others criticize my group.
  6. If my group had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place.
  7. I do not get upset when people do not notice achievements of my group. (reversely coded)
  8. The true worth of my group is often misunderstood.
  9. I will never be satisfied until my group gets the recognition it deserves.

Social scientists and other researchers have documented that Trump and Republican voters -- especially those who identify with the white supremacist "alt-right" -- are much more likely than the general public to hold such beliefs and attitudes.

Moreover, the following facts are key to explaining the power and dangers of collective narcissism in the age of Trump. The Republican Party is the United States' largest white identity organization. At present, conservatism and racism are functionally the same thing in America. Donald Trump weaponized these social forces to seize the White House.

In total, racism (and its corollaries of ethnocentrism, prejudice, and bigotry) is a form of violence. Collective narcissism features prominently here as well.

Golec de Zavala further explains this dynamic at the website Aeon:

We should worry when collective narcissists rise to power because scoring highly on the collective narcissism scale predicts being prejudiced, regardless of people’s age, gender or education. Collective narcissists are prejudiced selectively. They reject or attack groups that somehow threaten their group’s grandiose image. Collective narcissists also embrace their own bigoted attitudes. They spin and believe in conspiracy theories about the groups they reject, however fantastic they might be. ... Success for another group or empowerment for a minority threatens the majority’s privileged position. Collective narcissists want to protect the privileged position of their group by undermining other groups’ qualities and motivations.

Zavala also offers this warning, "Consider also that for those who seek recognition for their group, the worst offense is for their group to be ignored. According to collective narcissistic logic, such an offense needs to be avenged. This creates the potential for political antagonism and even violence when groups of this kind feel ignored in political processes. Collective narcissists are more likely to advocate violent revenge for lost grandiosity and gravitate towards similarly minded group members."

Donald Trump's words and deeds have often glorified violence, and often embody the threat of violence. It is no coincidence that violence, whether actual or implied, is a fixture of his political rallies and policy agenda. If Trump had dragged some unfortunate black or brown person out onto the stage during his Pennsylvania speech and said that person was an "illegal alien," there can be little doubt his supporters would have attacked on command.

Violence is not peripheral to the collective narcissism and related feelings of aggrieved whiteness and victimhood that tie together Trump and his public. Such social pathologies are central to Trump and his public's sense of self and their understanding of the world. Trump and his followers need constant reassurance and self-glorification precisely because they are so insecure about their position in America's social hierarchy. In an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan society this is like a wick on a keg of dynamite.

Trump holds the matches and can strike the flame. He will use it to set off the explosion at a time and place of his choosing.

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