Rather than simply reacting with self-righteous contempt for the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, liberals like myself should try to also understand their appeal, however much we might believe it’s not strong enough to put any of them in the White House. The pre-scripted kabuki dances on display in the debates have made them easy targets for disdain, so easy that it’s a bit like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey with your eyes open. Trump is an obviously racist bloviator, the creepiest and most blatantly disturbed of the bunch, for sure, but the lot of them come across as empty suits projecting poll-driven personas that their handlers believe will resonate with their base of angry and/or older white men. Moments of “authenticity” (e.g., they love their parents, spouses and children—imagine that!) are, themselves, always wooden, overly-crafted and ginned up with phony emotion and reported breathlessly by a media itself unable to stand on its own two feet and tell truth from fiction when it comes from these conservative wind-up dolls.
The Democrats will stage manage their personalities and manipulate their messages, too. Sanders is by far the most authentic, but he had to pivot in order to re-emphasize his record on race and women’s rights. Hillary will try to “present” herself as a human being (she’s a grandmother, after all) and the other guys—whoever they are—will do something similar when they can.
All of this is politics as usual, dutifully but cynically covered by a press corps that has surrendered even the pretense of critical thinking, instead sucking up to what they see as their audience's basest desires for the political version of reality television.
But while all politicians pander and throw authenticity under the bus of political expediency, the current plague of high-visibility GOP candidates project two especially pathological themes that they’ve decided will resonate with the feelings of millions of voters: paranoia and grandiosity.
As a liberal and a psychologist, I think it’s important to understand the nature and meaning of this resonance. The fears and insecurities that paranoia and grandiosity seek to diminish are feelings that a liberal agenda should be better able to address. Undecided voters can be drawn to the left or the right, and the more we understand the appeal of the American right, the better able we might be to counter it with a more progressive and healthy message and platform. But we will never know if that’s possible or how to do it if we don’t understand the psychological dynamics behind the appeal of right-wing paranoia and grandiosity.
Let’s start with grandiosity, a term psychologists use to describe patients who need to inflate their self-esteem and self-assessments in order to ward off feelings of inferiority or helplessness. But just as individuals identify with, say, a football team, so too do individuals identify with their nation—e.g., Team America. In our case, the political or collective version of personal grandiosity is what is known as “American Exceptionalism,” namely the tapestry of stories about the specialness of the United States when it comes to personal freedom, economic opportunity and growth, and military superiority. These stories have gained mythic proportions. They’re all captured by one unquestioned assumption: We are the greatest country in the history of the world. Period. This is a core part of the relentless drumbeat we hear from the conservative echo chamber.
But this braggadocio—what former Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright called “The Arrogance of Power”—requires that the ideal of American “greatness” be cleansed of any blemishes, just as a grandiose or narcissistic patient has to deny his or her human frailty and fallibility. This is where paranoia comes in handy. It’s easier to believe you are exceptional if you are comparing yourself with others and if you are proving your remarkable strength against naysayers or challengers. It helps, in other words, to have an enemy who is threatening your greatness.
Thus, the rhetoric of the current crop of Republican politicians, including, especially, the GOP clowns running for president, combines grandiosity and paranoia. Our nation’s greatness isn’t threatened by simple human fallibility but by Obama, Muslims, immigrants, Democrats, Planned Parenthood and Big Government. The second Republican presidential debate was laced with echoes of these beliefs, sometimes baldly stated, other times expressed as Obama-bashing. According to Carly Fiorina, “The United States of America is back in the leadership business.” Trump coughed up this hairball: “We’ll make our country rich again, and we’ll have a great life all together.”
In other words, we’re in danger of losing our place in the front of the line, and only a Republican president has enough sinew and muscular confidence in American greatness to make sure that doesn’t happen. Grandiosity and paranoia—we’re the greatest, but we have to vigilantly remind ourselves and everyone else of that fact because we’re also threatened. A great “us” has to be continually reinforced by invoking threats from a demeaned “them.”
The current frontrunners for a “them” that threatens our perfect national collective are immigrants and radical Islamic extremists. Like the Red scare of the 1950s, our current xenophobia is based on the same paranoid view of ourselves and the world. The first thing Ted Cruz would apparently do as president is to “shred Obama’s catastrophic Iran deal.” Trump is the poster child for paranoia with his dumb “we’ll build a wall but put in a beautiful gate” through which we’ll ostensibly let in only beautiful people, and keep out the “bad dudes.” And, of course, his racist demagoguery reached a peak recently when he appeared to welcome a statement from a man in the audience who asserted: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. You know, our President is one. You know he’s not even an American.”
What does psychology tell us about the origins of paranoia and grandiosity? It tells us that pathological attitudes and states of mind are best understood as attempts, however irrational they may seem, to feel safe and secure.
All of us seek safety and security.
Paranoia, for example, simply reflects an attempt to locate a frightening or painful thought outside the self, to get rid of threatening feelings, project them onto others, and then turn an internal struggle with bad feelings into an external struggle with bad people. For example, if I’m suffering from feelings of weakness or worthlessness, the belief, however false, that someone else is causing me to feel this way can temporarily help restore my sense of innocence and self-respect. There’s nothing wrong with me that getting rid of you won’t cure. In fact, in this paranoid version of reality, I’m a good or even great guy defending himself against an external danger. What emerges in the therapist’s consulting room is that paranoia solves an internal problem by making it an external one, even at the price of denying reality.
For example, Donald Trump is actually a balding misogynist, but he doesn’t have to feel like one if he wears a toupee (allegedly made from the hair of the critically-endangered Brown Spider Monkey) and tells himself and others that Megyn Kelly was menstruating and had it out for him.
In this sense, Trump shows us what happens when the personal becomes political. Like the United States itself, he is great and good, not declining and mean. Paranoia works pretty well when you’re feeling off your game.
Grandiosity works similarly as a defense against painful internal states. Thus, the grandiosity inherent in the axiomatic assertion that “we are the greatest nation in the history of the world” uses stories and images of American perfection, greatness and omnipotence to counteract narratives that we might be a nation in decline, or reeking on the inside from toxic inequality and a callous indifference to the welfare of the unfortunate. Combine grandiosity and paranoia and you have the current Republican talking points.
When individual psychopathology becomes a collective filter for understanding the political world, we see—as we do in the rhetoric and vision of today’s GOP—a pathological set of values guaranteed to lead to pathological policies. If I were to try to list the essential psychological dynamics underlying grandiosity and paranoia in the patients I see, and you were to simply replace the personal pronoun “I” with “America” or “the American people” and “you” and “them” with one of the scapegoats demonized by the GOP (e.g., people with darker skin, the wrong religion or different sexual orientation), the symmetry between crazy individuals and crazy politics becomes clearer. Again, to oversimplify:
“I’m not small; I’m big.” (American is not small; it’s/we’re big, etc.)
“I’m not bad; I’m the essence of goodness.”
“I’m not hurting others; I’m always helping them.”
“I’m not failing or losing; I’m a successful winner.”
“The problem isn’t in me; it’s in you.”
“If I could get rid of you; I’d be great and perfect and happy again.”
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see that the adolescent tough-guy primping we see on the GOP presidential debate stages is the political manifestation of commonplace psychological mechanisms regularly seen in individuals, namely, desperate attempts to defend against dangerous and painful feelings and fears. And just as in therapy, the important challenge is to understand those feelings and fears, because when a Donald Trump wants to build a wall to protect America, he is subliminally playing to a wish in his supporters to protect themselves. But, again, the question is: protect themselves from what? What is being denied or defended against?
The answer is that the threats that grandiose and paranoid attitudes defend against involve feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness and self-hatred—all of which are arguably greater now than ever in our culture. American exceptionalism and xenophobia offer symbolic antidotes in the political world to the more personal distress of millions of Americans today. Trump and the other airheads on the GOP stage today offer a distorted vision of the world that, like the Donald’s orange wig, helps to cover up genuine feelings of vulnerability and impotence.
For many people, the Great Recession of 2008 dashed the American Dream to which they had come to aspire or which they believed they were actually living. Millions of people lost their homes, and their IRAs and other savings that were allocated for retirement and for their children’s education. These losses—the result of financial shenanigans far, far away—were accompanied by great feelings of helplessness that caused stress levels to go through the ceiling. Mortgages went underwater and people took on second or third jobs, reinforcing a sense of insecurity along with feelings of helplessness and depression. And while being overwhelmed and powerless to stop the feeling of losing ground, people saw hedge fund managers and bankers getting bailed out. Because we think we live in a meritocracy in which rewards are distributed according to ability, people blamed themselves for not being able to make ends meet, or hold on to their jobs, or for losing money in the stock market, or for having tapped into their home equity too much. I heard these self-criticisms and doubts in my consulting room every day—feelings of helplessness, pessimism, isolation and self-blame.
In 1990, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 50% of Americans thought their children would be better off in 20 years. In 2015, a full 76% of Americans expressed skepticism that their children’s lives would be better off than their own. Even though millions of Americans were in the same boat, feelings of isolation and self-blame became more prevalent and debilitating. The ethic of individualism in our culture invariably leads people to blame themselves for their “lot” in life, even if that lot was caused by forces beyond their control. So, as the quality of life has deteriorated, the amount of depression and self-blaming has increased.
Further, as researchers such as John Cacioppo and Robert Putnam have documented, the breakdown of community organizations and bonds has resulted in increased social isolation, especially among the elderly (an important part of the Republican base, of course). In 2009, a study by Kodak revealed that most Americans felt that “we have fewer meaningful relationships than we had five years ago.” This trend has only worsened.
So we have a social landscape in which people feel increasingly pessimistic, helpless, isolated and self-blaming—feelings perfectly addressed by GOP platitudes intended to reassure us that we’re really great, all-powerful, and that it’s someone else’s fault if we’re not.
Ultimately, the appeal to an imaginary but reassuring sense of community undergirds all of these platitudes about American greatness, strength and antipathy toward the “other.” The latent message is: there is an “us” here, a great “us” full of power and noble intentions, an “us” to which everyone can belong as long as we keep “them” away or subjugated in ways that render them non-threatening (bombing them, building walls, deportation, etc.) Who doesn’t want to belong? To be part of an “us?”
The myths of American greatness serve this purpose perfectly. What is a better tonic to the pain of isolation and helplessness brought on by our market-driven and pathological ethos of individualism than to belong to Dream Team America, the greatest and most powerful nation that ever existed in the history of the world?
That the GOP has been instrumental in creating the conditions that it then seeks to heal with its so-called “muscular” foreign and military policy and jingoistic attacks on immigrants is an inconvenient truth that isn’t mentioned, but has been thoroughly described and discussed by progressive political analysts and sociologists. The Right helped create the problems that their racist, warmongering and so-called patriotism aim to remedy. Psychology can’t fix these problems, but it can hopefully help us understand the mindset behind a system in which victims support their victimizers.