Wednesday 28 February 2024

We are surrounded by narcissistic politicians

This column first appeared in Malta Today

“… All of his tendencies are basically where narcissism takes him, which is whatever makes him popular, makes him feel good at any given moment.”

The above could be attributed to any number of our own local politicians, but was in fact a quote by former Republican House speaker Paul Ryan, who was talking about Trump in a recent podcast.

As we know, Trump is making a comeback and is a serious contender to win the nomination of the Republic Party for the upcoming US elections . Unbelievably, despite facing criminal charges on a number of issues and instigating a riot on 6 January 2021, the man who many thought we had seen the last of ….is back in the news.

What would make a segment of the electorate vote (again) for someone who brought so much disrepute to such a high office? The very idea of him being President again fills me with dread and yet I have a morbid fascination about the motives of voters who still support him.

An insightful analysis by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on 29 January 2024, entitled “King of the Extrinsics” explains why Trump could win again. He writes “People at the extrinsic end of the spectrum are more attracted to prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth. They are strongly motivated by the prospect of individual reward and praise. They are more likely to objectify and exploit other people, to behave rudely and aggressively and to dismiss social and environmental impacts. They have little interest in cooperation or community.”

He points out that Trump, who exemplifies these extrinsic values, always speaks in terms of “winners and losers”. This in itself is symptomatic of what used to be known as the American dream; although now the dream is not so much to achieve success and prosperity through hard work and determination, but goes way beyond that. “….it is a dream of acquiring wealth, spending it conspicuously and escaping the constraints of other people’s needs and demands. It is accompanied, in politics and in popular culture, by toxic myths about failure and success: wealth is the goal, regardless of how it is acquired.”

(The return of Trump is also being blamed on the rise of “wokeism” by the Left which has taken liberal politics to the extreme, making it impossible to tell certain jokes for fear of being cancelled. But that is another topic).

I do not need to draw parallels with how Malta has become, because the parallels are excruciatingly obvious. It is also not a coincidence that the type of leader that a large segment of this island’s population seems to be drawn to is also uncomfortably similar to the bluff and bluster (and egomania) of Donald Trump. The need to be relevant, to be back in the spotlight, to have people talking about him, to create a stir and a buzz and keep people guessing about what will he do next. These are by now all too familiar tropes which we have all seen and heard before. The Joseph Muscats and Franco Debonos of this world are almost amusing in how predictable they are in their craving for people to sit up and take notice of them again. Look at me! Look at me! I’m back!

It is reminiscent of how Mintoff (then a backbencher) kept trying to steal Alfred Sant’s thunder in that chaotic summer of 1998 when camera crews trailed him all over the island (salivating at the idea of a major scoop) as he held impromptu press conferences to tell us why he thought Sant was wrong over his plans for the development of the Cottonera yacht marina. In the end, at the age of 81, he succeeded in bringing down Sant’s Government. I’ve always wondered whether he felt that personal victory was worth the price of seeing his own party relegated to the Opposition.

For many politicians who have tasted what it feels like to be the Number One Honcho it can be quite galling to accept that they no longer wield any real authority. The heady aphrodisiac of power can be difficult to forget and set aside and no amount of success in private practice can quite replace the thrill of the adulation which often accompanies being the Prime Minister (or the President). This need to be adored is another narcissistic trait which is common among certain types of leaders. One could also argue that there are voters who need to have these type of leaders whom they can practically genuflect in front of as well; it somehow fulfils a desire to have a patriarchal figure who knows all, who speaks to them “in their language”, using easy to understand lingo. They like it when leaders use emotive language to touch on controversial issues, even if that evokes sentiments which might lead to national chaos, or even in some cases, riots. The way the electorate perceives different candidates is often subjective for reasons which are intangible. What to some people might appear to be theatrics and shenanigans, might appeal to others as being “entertaining”. What to me might sound like a bully, might come across as someone who is “forceful” to you. Indeed, there are many people who want and expect a leader to be a force of nature who throws his weight around and takes no crap from anyone. But this is where I think we have to tread carefully when it comes to admiring colourful personalities so much that we want them back in the political arena. It is one thing to give great sound bites and get social media all a flutter over something you said, but it is another to be taking major decisions which affect the lives of an entire nation. The same smooth-talking charisma which captivates audiences can also be easily duplicitous on more grave matters.

Above all, let us not forget that a narcissistic personality never does anything for the greater good, and that it is always, inevitably, indisputably, always all about them. They are not going to step back into the political arena unless there is something to be gained – it will definitely not be because they believe in social justice, in helping the common man or in making sure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect. It will always be to feed their inflated sense of ego, their illusions of grandeur and their insatiable need for more, more, more. And when a leader has these values, these are the values they will preach to their “followers”. In short, when you have a political narcissist who wants to be back in the hot seat, that can never be good news for the country.

To quote once again from George Monbiot, “When a society valorises status, money, power and dominance, it is bound to generate frustration. It is mathematically impossible for everyone to be Number One. The more the economic elites grab, the more everyone else must lose. Someone must be blamed for the ensuing disappointment. In a culture that worships winners, it can’t be them. It must be those evil people pursuing a kinder world, in which wealth is distributed, no one is forgotten and communities and the living planet are protected.”

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