If you dig beneath the surface of most politicians, you’ll find a narcissist. Once you understand who narcissists really are — and what it is they crave — there’s nothing surprising about it. The only surprise is how few people notice it.
For more than 20 years, I’ve worked with dozens of politicians. By dealing with them in very stressful situations — when their careers and egos are on the line — I’ve seen sides of many of them that the public never sees. So I’m willing to say without question that most of them are narcissists. Most of them honestly believe the world revolves around them and their needs.
In casual conversation, we think of narcissists as those who are in love with themselves, but the reality is much different. A narcissist craves attention and love and respect, but he’s secretly empty on the inside. He projects a false self to the world in order to get what’s sometimes called “narcissistic supply.” He’s like an emotional vampire who desperately needs other people’s attention and admiration to survive. (You can read much more than you’ll probably ever want to know about narcissism here.)
So is it any surprise that people who crave attention and admiration from others gravitate to politics? Of course not. To these people, the entire world revolves around them and their desperate needs. They matter. Other people don’t. They can be charming and manipulative when they need to be — when they need to impress you or make you love them, so you’ll give them the attention and love they crave.
Today’s media environment suits the narcissist wonderfully. Television is there to help craft his image and make him seem important for his adoring fans. People give him money and treat him as though he’s special. Take a look at this list of potential symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and think of the arrogant politicians that we’re all familiar with. You’ll even find yourself realizing that many of the ones you agree with are like this, if you can be honest with yourself.
— 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 very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
— Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
— Lacks empathy, e.g., 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
— Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
In order to be diagnosed with this condition, a person needs to exhibit at least five of these. Frankly, I can think of very few politicians I’ve known who didn’t meet at least five of them — at least behind closed doors.
When you see politicians doing things that don’t make sense to you, realize that it’s frequently because they’re acting out psychological dysfunction that you don’t have. A politician who obsessively has one affair or fling after another isn’t necessarily chasing after sex. He’s chasing attention. He’s like an emotional vampire sucking whatever sustenance he can get out of women who make him feel important and powerful. (Those women likewise tend to have their own dysfunctional emotional needs that they’re getting out of the arrangement.)
Bill Clinton is a perfect example of a politician who sought attention from women in this way. Herman Cain might be another, if the various recent charges about him are true. Author Sam Vaknin (the first link above) would classify them as somatic narcissists. I suspect Newt Gingrich falls into his other category, the cerebral narcissist, who craves having admiration for his intelligence.
The political system we have is sick — and it attracts sick individuals to run it. We have a system that gives ultimate power over life and death and everything in between to people who have no business wielding that kind of power. Nobody does. The system makes people feel important. And the sense of importance it gives drives people who need that attention to try to gain the power. It’s a sick feedback loop for attracting sick people and giving them the attention and honor and power that their sickness craves.
The only way to escape this is to quit giving power, attention and honor to these sick people. The only way to do that is to quit elevating anyone to these lofty positions. The solution is to let people have power over their own lives. The solution is to end the coercive state.
We’ll still have to put up with narcissists around us. There are lots of them and I see them in every organization I’ve ever been a part of, almost always gravitating toward the top. (It’s easier for me to spot them because I grew up with one.) But even though we can’t do anything about narcissists in the world around us, we don’t have to give them power over us.
The more you learn about narcissistic personality disorder, the more you’ll learn not to trust the coercive state.