Narcissism's Role in Our Political Polarization
Understanding the vicious circle of mutual dehumanization.
Posted April 11, 2019
“He colludes!” “He cheats at golf!” “He conceals!” The issue takes different forms, but the steps are the same. Opponents focus on ways to defeat and even humiliate the person they perceive as belittling and humiliating others. As one friend of mine admitted, they want to “take him down.”
Today’s citizenry lives under the spell of destructive narcissism, endemic in the age of Trump. We are so focused on the Trump personality—and either the preservation or destruction of that personality—that we are losing our vision for the real issues needing attention and the real people behind the positions.
Narcissism exists on a continuum, and a little is necessary for healthy self-advocacy. But, at the extreme, its unhealthy manifestations have a way of spreading. Though we’d like to see narcissism as a solo act, it works more like a dance, maintaining power through feedback loops. When we react to narcissistic displays—whether the pompous claim or the provocative challenge—we do exactly that: re-act. We enact the very thing we oppose, keeping the focus on the egos involved rather than the complex issues needing attention. These vicious circles occur in intimate, family and workplace relationships, as well as on the national stage. Collective narcissism pits groups against each other in similar ways but is particularly empowered by feelings of vulnerability and conspiracy thinking. A threatened group reacts with righteous indignation and aggression, triggering the same reactions in its opposition, wedging greater and greater distance between the groups until self-preservation becomes the only goal.
Even prior to the 2016 election, a study titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines” revealed that unconscious hostility toward opposing parties was even stronger and more automatic than implicit hostility based on black-white racial polarization—and that discrimination based on party affiliation exceeded discrimination based on race. Another study found that collective narcissism predicted an increase in conspiracy thinking over the course of the 2016 presidential election. This trend applied to liberals as well as conservatives. Understanding the relationships between unhealthy forms of narcissism and polarization can help us find a way out of the vicious circle.
But even with this understanding, we need to appreciate what we’re up against. Reality TV is popular because it taps into primitive brain mechanisms that reward us through sequences of rage and revenge. We are addicted to our narcissistic villains. Knowing this helps.
We can stop biting the hooks, and instead allow the craving to peak and diminish, over and over until narcissism loses its power. And, we can deliberately seek new rewards: those that come through the tougher conversations that generate expanded understanding. This doesn’t mean exempting our representatives of responsibility for their actions – in fact, engagement requires such accounting. It does mean knowing when you are caught up in a cycle of mutual dehumanization.
The central feature of destructive narcissism is self-absorption at the expense of empathy. Empathy is a crucial prerequisite for meaningful and productive policy discussions, an imperative for democracy. It is not enough to feel in-group empathy. The challenge is to understand those with whom we disagree.
For a broader discussion of these issues, see Fragile Bully: Understanding Our Destructive Affair with Narcissism in the Age of Trump (Diversion Books, March 2019).
Golec de Zavala, A., & Federico, C. M. (2018). Collective narcissism and the growth of conspiracy thinking over the course of the 2016 United States presidential election: A longitudinal analysis. European Journal of Social Psychology., 48(7), 1011-1018.
Helgoe, L. (2019). Fragile bully: Understanding our destructive affair with narcissism in the age of Trump. New York: Diversion Books.
Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2015). Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence of group polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 690-707.