At the Extreme: Republicans are Narcissistic, Democrats are Borderline, and Media Enables

We are more divided and polarized than at any time in modern political history. Even the very idea of political parties creates a psychological split, “us” vs. “them,” and increasingly each side views the other as responsible for the country’s destruction. (Gramlich J, Far more Americans say there are strong conflicts between partisans than between other groups in society, Pew Research Center, 12/19/17. Also see the Pew’s collection on polarization.) An idealistic 16 year old girl told me almost a decade ago that “politics are about healing.” I can only wonder what she thinks now.

The human mind can turn to scapegoating, blaming, and defensive power tactics when faced with dire threats. Large swaths of the electorate on both sides of the political spectrum are turning in that direction, as the presidential election heats up. We are ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous actors. We are in danger of becoming ungovernable. We are tearing the country apart.

Republicans have captured the ideal of American individualism, and taken it to narcissistic extreme. America has idealized the individualist ethos since its founding. As a nation created by settlers expanding into a frontier, America advanced the archetype of the rugged individual, utterly self-reliant, depending only on his guns and wit to survive. This individual had to be ready to kill animal predators, and was encouraged to kill Native Americans as well to claim his territory and protect his kin. Indeed, the gun identity has become synonymous with individualism and NRA-fueled Republicanism, as I describe in my book Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church.

Psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell pointed out in 2009’s The Narcissism Epidemic that there has been a cultural shift towards narcissism in the last 50 years, as backed up by their considerable research. Narcissism involves grandiosely overvaluing oneself, and devaluing others, and leads to empathic and relational deficits, as well as cognitive distortions. Over the same period of time, Republicans have amplified Executive power. Nixon famously advocated for an Executive above the law by agreeing that “if the president does it, that means that it is not illegal, by definition.” Ed Meese, counselor to President Reagan, and Dick Cheney, ranking Republican on the House Select Committee investigating the Iran Contra fiasco, advocated for essentially unlimited Executive power. More recently, now-Attorney General William Barr opined that the president cannot be charged with obstruction of justice, because that threat of prosecution would throttle presidential power. Presidential authority regarding law enforcement, in Barr’s view, is “illimitable.” What is unbridled Executive power if not narcissistic? The romanticized theme song of American Individualism might be Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In.” Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell and President Trump show us the dark underbelly of that philosophy, in making governance all about exerting power, rather than considering the nation’s well-being as a whole. President Trump loudly sings “Don’t Fence Me In,” and his party has backed his tune without question. The narcissist can become sociopathic, when he focuses on getting what he wants no matter the cost to his “enemy.”

Self-centeredness, in my view as a psychiatrist and cultural observer, is at the root of all forms of devaluation, such as White supremacy, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance and partisan nationalism. Self-centeredness feeds into the individualistic, narcissistic, partisan, and competitive aspects of our culture, which propagates Martin Luther King, jr.’s giant triplet of racism, materialism and militarism — devaluing others because of race, and defending an insecure self antagonistically and by accumulating possessions. Republicans, in amplifying the individualist ethos, have amplified these dark, divisive, destructive and unsustainable forces in the body politic. Moreover, the narcissist is typically at a state of constant antagonistic warfare with others in order to assert dominance. We can look at the language around the border, migrants, women seeking abortions, and Democrats to see a state of perpetual war being invoked by the Republican party.

Democrats like to see themselves as the party of inclusion, equity, interdependence and transcendence — but they are too often mired with the psychological defenses of a person afflicted with borderline personality disorder, particularly on social media. Many people with BPD are traumatized, but they can react to their trauma or to perceived threat by splitting the world into “all-good” and “all-bad” halves, and are often unable to perceive nuance, complexity and depth. They are often highly reactive; their friends and family feel like they are “walking on eggshells” around them. One “wrong” move can bring out scapegoating, blaming, shaming, and black-and-white thinking. Their reactivity is often aimed at controlling others, to make them “safe objects.” This seems to be exactly what is happening with the left on Twitter — anger and hostility spread virally in an attempt to control, while deeper thinking, compassion and relatedness suffer. The discourse about Vice President Biden and the issue of unwelcome touch is a prime example (Touch Isn’t the Problem, Social Media Is the Problem.) There is indeed a deep wound of sexual abuse and male entitlement that we all must work to heal — but this becomes conflated with all touch, and suddenly the Twittersphere erupts as a vanguard of morality. The venue with no possibility of touch has become an expert on all touch. Disagree, or try to find nuance, and be shamed, blamed, scapegoated, “canceled” online. These are the classic “borderline” defense mechanisms, overlapping with narcissistic, self-righteous rage.

Some might argue that the so-called “identity politics” of the left can be narcissistic as well, devaluing whites in favor of historically marginalized groups. I view the advancement of multiple, complex identity groups as a corrective to the exclusionary tactics historically enforced by the majority, but we on the left have to guard against becoming the mirror twins of what we struggle against. As each side becomes reactive and defensive, they push each other into disordered personality states.

As personality disorder expert Dr. Stuart Yudofsky put it at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, “you could say that 25% of us have a personality disorder. Or you could say that we are all 25% personality disordered.” The right circumstances can bring out the worst in anyone. Media, of course, can fuel the narcissistic and borderline pathologies of our culture. The loss of the FCC Fairness Doctrine in 1987 allowed for a major partisan shift in our media environment, and very likely furthered our polarization. Moreover, media can amplify reactivity and the “us versus them” horse race of politics, as opposed to creating an atmosphere of respect, civility and thoughtful exploration of the issues before us, centered on our common humanity as Americans.

Washington Post political reporter Felicia Sonmez stepped into the fray with this tweet on May 28, 2019.

Greater context and video from the event won’t necessarily exonerate Vice President Biden in the eyes of those with predetermined perspectives, but many others might find the moment not “odd” at all. In these circumstances, and given the nature of social media to attract hotheads and flamethrowers, I would question the journalistic ethics of tweets like Sonmez’s.

We must be very wary in these tense times. When we notice ourselves devaluing others, when we notice ourselves becoming more attached to our opinions than to each other, when we notice how easy it is to fan the flames of discord, we should take a step back, breathe, and cultivate our better angels. We are more than our opinions, and we are mostly our relationships and relatability. Mindfulness, compassion and relationship can be our guides. (See my article These Three Things.)

Let’s build our cultural cortex, shall we?

Also of interest:

Yudkin D, Hawkins S, Dixon T. (2019) The Perception Gap: How False Perceptions are Pulling Americans Apart. Part of More In Common’s Hidden Tribes Project. You can also listen to a KQED Forum interview about this report. At first blush, this report is a valuable reminder that people in various ideological camps are not perhaps represented by those in leadership or who are most vocal. If we only hear the extreme views of the other side, we might develop dim views of their party as a whole.

A deeper issue for me is how partisan and ideological self-centeredness causes power relations to overwhelm human relations.

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Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

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Psychiatrist, author of Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Facebook and the Other Social Networks, https://www.facebuddha.co, https://RaviChandraMD.com