I’m judgmental and tend toward the curmudgeonly. That said, I freely admit to enjoying typologies, systems that classify everyone. I’m a judgmental type. Typologies can be useful up to a point, but they can be fun (There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can’t). So here’s another one. I divide people into three main groups in terms of how we communicate with each other. These are ridiculously broad generalizations (that’s another thing I do), so I invite you to enjoy the ride and see if or what part of you fits into these categories.
Here’s the scene: you show up at a party and encounter several people that you haven’t known before.
In my experience, perhaps ten percent of us (or all of us, ten percent of the time) actually listen to each other. We need others to hear our stories, to know who we are, and we actually care about what they have to say, to know who they are. We are thrilled to meet a person with an opinion – any opinion – if they indicate that they can actually engage in a conversation (“to live with, keep company with,” literally “turn about with”) with us. We share our experiences, our realities and our opinions. It’s called democracy.
Perhaps another 85% of us are what I call boring narcissists. You know what I mean. When they ask you how you’re doing, it becomes clear from their response – long, tedious and utterly self-referential – that their real agenda is to highjack the conversation and make it completely about themselves. They are shameless. As the old joke goes, once they finally tire out, they ask:
Enough talk about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?
Of course I’m referring here to the most extreme examples. But I contend that the general case remains true for most people. “You just got back from Europe? Really! Joan and I went to Europe five years ago, blah, blah…” Ten minutes of their travelogue/monologue goes by before you can get another word in. “You just finished the most incredible novel? Really? Let me tell you about…blah, blah.” They inhabit the world of selfies and reality shows; they create half of all Facebook posts, in which they let you know how happy they are and how fulfilling their lives have been. They “doth protest too much, methinks…”, says Shakespeare.
Countless FB posts are pictures of their children and their pets. Don’t mention your kids, because if they get started, they won’t stop telling you how much better their kids are doing. And don’t you just pity those kids? It’s the same set of dynamics with their belief systems; this is the basis of all proselytizing: Let’s talk about my religion.
Years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote that such self-centered egotism actually stems from a very weak sense of self, that the American character had degenerated into one that requires constant external validation and was addicted to instant gratification. The Puritan culture (as I argued) had, by the 1950s, transitioned into the culture of consumerism.
A subset of the boring narcissists are those well-intentioned, often deeply spiritual people who hope to heal from some loss or trauma and want everyone in the AA meeting, church group or therapy meeting to hear their story – repeatedly. We listen to them with sympathy the first few times; later, we wonder why our attention has strayed; still later, we think, “Get a life!”
We lose patience with them because they seem to prefer repeating their story rather than healing it. We wonder if they are more comfortable as victims than as survivors, who would rather “wallow” in their stories and refuse to “reframe” them.
There is a grain of authenticity in this response. But it also provides a justification for becoming politically reactionary, blaming the victims of racism (in classic American style) and lecturing them with, “Get over it!” Jerry Falwell actually said this: “This is America. If you’re not a winner, it’s your own fault.”
Perhaps the mirror-opposite of the boring narcissists are the introverted types who listen not because they’re interested but only because they’re too shy to butt in and command attention with their own stories. Or perhaps more commonly they simply tune out. I can go there easily: if you start in with one of those self-centered narratives, I will quickly begin to – silently – recite baseball statistics.
Didn’t these people ever learn social graces? Why, no, since much interpersonal communication in America has long devolved into a mere subset of the imperative to produce, succeed, accumulate, dominate and finally die as a winner. This is a world in which we older folks have had to accept that when we ask someone for a “yes-or-no” response in an email or voice mail, no response at all apparently means “no.”
Another sub-category: those who vicariously inhabit the culture of celebrity and silently identify with those public figures who embody the very worst of our “lesser” selves. “I like to watch,” said Peter Sellers in “Being There”.
This leads us of course to Donald Trump, who represents the worst aspects of a third category. His popularity during the primary season seemed to arise not from his differences with the rest of the Republican clown caravan, but from the fact that he said what they all had been saying for years, only more openly. Claiming to be playing with his own self-made fortune, he could legitimize racism without worrying about political fallout. He was no outlier.
But he is certainly a narcissist (or at least he plays one on TV), and this explains why so many old, angry white men love him. As I have written, American myth offers only one alternative to the hero, and that is the victim. Trump learned early on to alternately embody both extremes – bully and victimized white guy – and invite millions to identify with both of them.
Michael Maccoby suggests that his appeal has much to do with his personality (or what I would call his “brand”): “No one pushes Trump around, and no insult goes unanswered.” Amanda Marcotte writes:
Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter? Where the rest of us see belligerent, screaming bullies, conservatives see their own fantasies of who they want to be, people who are rich and snooty and who enjoy pissing off the liberals as sport.
Some writers argue that the man is so sick that he is “not mentally fit to be president,” forgetting, apparently, how nuts and/or senile many of our previous leaders have been.
But as mythologists, we should be more concerned with the broader question of why Americans absolutely love such public narcissists, who have been described as vane, angry, intimidating, bullying, hedonistic, attention-seeking, vengeful, pitiless, arrogant, exploitive, inflated, manipulative, entitled, grandiose, dishonest, remorseless, prejudiced, mean-spirited, unscrupulous, overconfident, charismatic and selfish. They are “rugged individualists” who are hypersensitive to perceived insults. Yet they are so charming.
They are con men and we know it: they tell us what we want to hear, they lack empathy, they take advantage of ‘suckers’ and they sell themselves to us with patently false images and managed impressions. They believe that they are “special” – or at least they want you to believe that, and perhaps so do you.
Trump mastered an art that came to fruition only in our lifetimes – the gradual but nearly total convergence of politics, news and entertainment – gleefully admitting that much of what he says and tweets is merely to entertain.
For more on this subject, see my blog series “The Con Man, an American Archetype”.
This is not an academic explanation of a specific malady, so I’m taking the privilege of lumping certain power-hungry narcissists together with sociopaths and psychopaths.
Is Trump that different from the rest of our political and business leaders? Alan Deutschman writes that many corporate CEOs are actual psychopaths, who “…have a profound lack of empathy…use other people callously and remorselessly for their own ends… pathological liars, master con artists, and heartless manipulators.” Easily bored, they crave constant stimulation, so they seek thrills from real-life “games” they can win – and take pleasure from their power over other people.
In other words, these celebrity narcissists embody the essence of who we are as Americans – when we choose to express our lesser selves rather than who we might become. “We may now be the possessors of the world’s flimsiest identity structure,” wrote Paul Shepard, “…where history, masquerading as myth, authorizes men…to alter the world to match their regressive moods of omnipotence and insecurity.”
If our leaders have long been embodying the worst of our American character, perhaps our liberal disgust with Trump has more to do with his style (his brand, we must insist) than with his policies. About branding: do you remember George W. Bush’s clumsy malapropisms and tortured English? One member of his inner circle in Texas revealed that at home, among those he trusted, Bush had perfect diction and no Texas accent at all.
We want those leaders – and now I’m very specifically thinking of Barack Obama – to act as (to embody the brand of) the rational, clear-headed, calm, educated, religious (but not fundamentalist, preferably Episcopalian), reserved and dedicated upper-middle class civic functionaries, as good father figures, even if they are actually wrecking the environment, mongering war and robbing us blind.
But Trump turned all that over, and in the process may have done us all a favor by revealing its festering essence.
So let’s be honest: aren’t we all little Trumps most of the time? He may well be the shadow of conventional liberalism. It’s so easy to hate him, isn’t it? But isn’t that so because we’d rather not admit our own anti-social tendencies? And what kind of rare social circumstances offer us the opportunity to enter the “I – Thou” mode that we were all originally born with, and that modern consumer culture has nearly completely destroyed?
This is a world of profoundly wounded people, by violence, by race, by gender, by poverty, by the loss of real myth and ritual. Part of the deep grief that lies beneath the surface of our personalities, as Francis Weller has written, is about unfulfilled expectations.
Our “indigenous souls” retain a bone-memory of a time when those inevitable wounds were connected to the gifts that also entered the world with us. We are born expecting to be welcomed by a community that will identify both those wounds and those gifts. This expectation of a world of safe containers (physical and social) in which we are blessed by true elders is hard-wired into our souls; it’s part of what makes us human. And not finding such a world is part of the profound grief that we all carry. Perhaps that’s why we blab so much (or passively listen to celebrities blabbing). Perhaps, despite all the verbal diarrhea, someone will actually hear what we need to say, even if we can’t identify it ourselves.
It is a world, by the way, in which the great majority of elderly people have been condemned to or chosen to live sequestered lives among other old people, far from their own grandchildren, a world that has few real elders anymore.
So: 95% accounted for. That leaves five percent, the “entertaining” narcissists. Like Trump, many of these people are con men in the traditional American mold, but they can often be highly talented actors, musicians and comedians. And they are also common folks with the “gift of gab” – who have traditionally filled barrooms, church halls, AA meetings, group therapy sessions, afternoon barbecues, golf foursomes and the smoke-filled rooms of the political world. They are “threes” (Performers) on the Enneagram, another typology. In post-Jungian terms, they are low-grade expressions of the King, Lover or Warrior archetypes.
They are absolutely desperate for attention, and in order to have it, they have to dominate the conversation. But at least they’re fun to be around most of the time. We gravitate to them at the party: That reminds me of a story – or – Bullshit. This is how it really happened – even though we know that they will never seek out our opinion. Perhaps it’s safer that way. But for the few hours of after-dinner socializing, they really are fun. Only the next morning do we feel extra hungry, as if the food (or the conversation) at the party lacked any nutrition. We re-tell the best anecdotes even as we wonder why we went out at all and didn’t stay home.
That about covers all of us: the ten percent who actually interact with each other on some type of equal basis; the horde of boring narcissists; and the minority of entertaining narcissists, including con men like Trump and Obama.
Then there was Leona Tockey, about whom I need to find the words to describe one more category. To learn about her, see Part Two of this essay.