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Narcissism, the Public, and the President


President Bush spoke last week to wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center and uttered these immortal words indicating a lack of true appreciation for the suffering of the gravely wounded, often permanently disabled soldiers he was speaking to:

 

As you can possibly see, I have an injury myself — not here at the hospital, but in combat with a Cedar. I eventually won. The Cedar gave me a little scratch. As a matter of fact, the Colonel asked if I needed first aid when she first saw me. I was able to avoid any major surgical operations here, but thanks for your compassion, Colonel.

 

At a time when the number of severely wounded soldiers is rising, this lack of appreciation is disturbing and portends badly for adequate resources being made available to care for damaged soldiers and veterans over the coming months, years, and decades. 

 

This episode was far from the first time Bush uttered bizarre sounding comments in response to the injuries of others. Who can forget his remarkable message to the hundreds of thousands of people, many poor and black, whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina:

 

Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”

 

While Bush’s comments to wounded GIs were uttered together with the usual platitudes  expected on such occasions, these quotes illustrate Bush’s greatest strength and also his greatest weakness, his narcissism.

 

Narcissism

 

At an observable level, narcissism involves a self-centeredness that makes one oblivious to the emotional existence of others. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (IVth edition: DSM-IV) defines its pathological extreme (narcissistic personality disorder) as:

 

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”

 

In the odd DSM manner, this condition is diagnosed by having a threshold number of the following symptoms (5 out of 9), regardless of which five symptoms they are. (To be diagnostic of a clinical condition each symptom should be possessed to the extent that it interferes with functioning or causes distress):

 

“Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

 

“Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

 

“Believes that he or she is “‘special”‘ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

 

“Requires excessive admiration

 

“Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

 

“Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

 

“Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

 

“Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

 

“Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

 

I am very leery of making diagnoses via long-distance of people I have never met. Additionally, I am well aware that one must be skeptical of much “information” publicly available about major political leaders as this information is carefully filtered through the lens of PR manipulation designed to create desired images among the public. Furthermore, one must remember that a large degree of narcissism is common, perhaps even necessary in leaders who rise to presidential level. It is certainly hard for someone who is not convinced of their special qualities to have the drive, determination, and desire to undergo all that is required to get the position.

 

Despite these caveats, it is striking to compare what we apparently know about President Bush’s character with these criteria. This exercise is not undertaken to assign a clinical diagnosis to the President or to assign labels as a sophisticated form of character assassination. Rather, it can be used as an indicator of his personality, of long-standing tendencies to think, feel, and behave in characteristic ways, regardless of whether such a personality is a clinical problem. And President Bush’s personality, because of its potential effects on many Americans and much of humankind, is an important object of study.

 

Without denying the importance of national and class interests in the formulation of policy or endorsing the great man theory of history, understanding George W. Bush’s personality may shine light on certain aspects of his administration’s actions and on his appeal to the American public at this moment in history. Whatever material and strategic goals undergird this administration’s foreign policies, it seems incontestable that these goals have been pursued in a manner that prevented their realization, indeed, in a manner that, as predicted by  many mainstream commentators and former policy-makers sharing similar goals, had catastrophic results. When a former National Security Agency director describes the Iraq war as the greatest strategic blunder in American history, consideration of psychological factors contributing to the blunder hardly seems out of place. And when much of the public follows the blundering leader over the precipice, it seems appropriate to examine the attractions of that leader.

 

Given President Bush’s quite modest prior achievements, including his numerous failures at business opportunities that were handed to him on a silver plate, there is little to suggest that he is outstanding in any characteristic other than ability to get elected. He certainly lacks much knowledge of international relations that would seem to be an essential perquisite for taking risky major decisions that modify long-standing American and international policies and alliances. Yet he appears to view himself as a Commander-In Chief for the ages.

 

Given the private nature of the fantasies described in the second criterion, it is hard to know if he is “preoccupied” with these grandiose fantasies. Yet, his apparent messianic mission to bring “democracy” to the Middle East, an area where wiser heads, however imperial their desires, have feared to tread, along with his reported comments suggesting that God speaks to him directly, suggest that Bush does indeed harbor grandiose fantasies of virtually unlimited success.

 

One also might wonder about Bush’s repeated admiration for the ease of dictatorship, expressed, according to Wikiquote, on at least three occasions [July 1998, December 18, 2000, and July 26, 2001] years apart. A typical quote is this one from December 18, 2000: “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier… just so long as I’m the dictator.” One certainly could infer a wish for the unlimited power of the dictator. Of course this was said in jest, but humor oft repeated often provides illumination into the character and desires of the teller.

 

Bush’s behavior has often suggested that he has a sense of entitlement and feels that he is special and that he should be treated special. He got out of exposure to combat in Vietnam by having his family pull strings — something about which he even boasted — while steadfastly supporting the war in which tens of thousands of other less privileged Americans and countless Vietnamese died.  He apparently sees himself as uniquely endowed to make decisions of life and death, of which laws he will obey and which he will ignore, of which congressional representatives or journalists he will deign to acknowledge and which he will ignore. The extraordinary lack of accountability of his administration is due, in part, to Bush’s sense that he is accountable to no one. The Presidential attitude toward torture, of publicly proclaiming his right to order it whenever he feels like it (as opposed to authorizing it in shameful secrecy like past presidents) also suggests a sense of divine destiny of proportions extreme even for presidents. The recent NSA eavesdropping scandal also, unusually, involves a deliberate public boasting of his right to break laws (over 30 times) with a sense of total impunity. The extent to which his administration has gone to protect the President from any exposure, however fleeting, to protesters and dissidents suggests a Presidential antipathy to any challenge to his authority.

 

As for his need for excessive admiration, his surrounding himself with sycophants like Harriet Miers, who evidently once claimed that Bush was “was the most brilliant man she had ever met.” and Condoleezza Rice, who is known for never challenging Bush, is certainly suggestive evidence.

 

In considering empathy, or its lack, Bush’s career is full of illustrations, like the comments above to wounded vets, or his complete uninterest in the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina until it became a potential political liability. And who can forget his mocking of Karla Faye Tucker’s plea for Bush to commute her death sentence: “Please,” Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “please, don’t kill me.”

 

Envy is the one symptom for which I am aware of no obvious evidence. When it comes to arrogance, I don’t need to even mention the evidence, though those horrid sneers he routinely exhibits in public cannot go unnoted.

 

We thus have extensive evidence of narcissistic tendencies in the President. [I want to state again that I am not assigning a diagnosis to him, but am claiming he exhibits certain personality characteristics.] To a degree, much of what is said of this president could be said about many others, and other top leaders as well. Grandiosity, arrogance, and, to a degree, a sense of entitlement, seem to pretty much go with the territory.

 

Evident to an unusual degree for a top American leader, however, is Bush’s lack of empathy. He seems, to an extreme degree, to genuinely not have a clue what other people, especially those less fortunate in life, are experiencing, nor does he have any interest. There is no evidence that the potential inappropriateness of his joking about his scratches to severely injured veterans might be insensitive, just as there is no evidence that he has ever cared about the tens of thousands of those wounded as a result of his commands. No one has ever claimed that Bush called in Secretary Rumsfeld and said “What are you doing to reduce the casualties. Where the hell is that armor?”  [I concentrate on President Bush's obliviousness to American casualties not because I don't value equally the tens to hundreds of thousands of dead and injured Iraqis, but because it is a sad fact of statecraft that "enemy" casualties seldom weigh on any leader in wartime. But many wartime leaders do feel the weight of casualties on their own side.]

 

Similarly, there is no evidence that Bush weighed his role or gave even a moment’s thought as Karla Faye Tucker awaited execution. He made not even a pretense of wrestling with the decision, perhaps because he could not imagine that others might expect him to exhibit an awareness of the magnitude of this life-and-death decision, regardless of whether he ultimately went ahead with the execution.

 

Bush’s Narcissism and the Public

 

For President Bush, his narcissism has been a source of political strength. A large fraction of the American public has been attracted to a leader who appeared to genuinely not care what others think. Who among us never wished we could say “the others be damned” and do whatever we wanted?  While most of us don’t dare act on these wishes, a narcissistic leader can provide us with vicarious satisfaction. As a nation, we won’t let others impede us, not the weak untrustworthy French nor the United Nations that always wants to negotiate and compromise rather than just act. People perceive Bush’s narcissism as a source of strength when strength is conceived as the ability to impose his/our will on others.

 

This dynamic is in addition to, in fact may even be in conflict with, the oft commented upon sense of safety provided by a strong leader. For, at least one version of a strong leader is modeled on the caring father who will do anything that needs to be done to protect the family/nation. The narcissistic leader, however, does not care about the needs or desires of others, of the nation’s public, but only of his own. Just as with an abusive self-absorbed parent, citizens can defensively delude themselves into believing that a narcissistic leader cares about them. The defensive nature of this belief lends it a fragility and hence a rigidity requiring active defense from potential criticism.  

 

At the same time, the potential for conflict between identification with the narcissistic leader and wish for a strong caring leader can pose a danger for such a leader as it may provide an opening for recognition of the self-serving nature of the leader’s’ actions. Recent polls showing a decline in Bush’s rating on items like “the President cares about people like me” may indicate such a process is underway. Once this process starts, it can be hard to reverse. Bush, for example, as he runs around the country trying to restore public support, continually puts foot in mouth as he cannot view the world from the perspective of others. He doesn’t pander, not only because of his arrogance, leading to a sense that he must be right, that he is incapable of making mistakes, but also because he is to a large degree incapable of pandering; it appears that, to a great extent, he simply cannot imagine what others think or want when it differs from his own thoughts and wishes, so he cannot promise to give people what they want when they fail to identify with his desires.

 

To complement the descriptive features of narcissism involved in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria, psychoanalysts have learned that narcissism is intimately connected with fear of one’s weakness and vulnerability, and with aggression toward the other whose individuality is obliterated by the narcissism. As the weakness and vulnerability needs to be kept out of awareness, narcissism contributes to another process that poses dangers for narcissistic leaders like President Bush in that their narcissism contributes to an ignoring of reality, of possibility of error or other indicators of potential weakness. Bush doesn’t appear to seriously consider that what he thinks may not accurately represent reality. Iraq will welcome his legions with flowers so there is no need for contingency planning just in case that assumption is wrong. Iraqis are valiantly struggling for pro-American “democracy” [whatever that means to him], so there is no need to consider that, just possibly, rival Iran is the big winner from Bush’s Iraqi intervention. Harriet Miers is a convenient choice for Bush so there is no need to consider what others may think of her appointment. And Bush, like other tragic leaders throughout history, may actually believe the incredibly dangerous notion that there is no alternative to victory in an Iraqi conflict which, in all likelihood, has already been lost.

 

Bush’s narcissism, thus, has provided the backbone of certainty which makes him appear as a strong leader to those so predisposed. But it also contributes to those character flaws that may ultimately lead to his undoing.

 

 

Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is a member of Roslindale Neighbors for Peace and Justice and founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice. He maintains the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.

 

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