How National Narcissism Features in Right-Wing Populism
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Goldsmiths, University of London
The present wave of populism has reorganized the political map of the world. Populist parties have become significant political players in many Western democracies. In Poland, the populist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) Party has held a majority government since 2015. The central feature of populism is its anti-elitism that contrasts the ‘democratic will of the people’ with the ‘self-interested’ will of the ‘elites’. However, by idolizing ‘the will of the people’, populism undermines the very idea of pluralistic democracy, the rule of law, equality and respect for the rights of all social groups within a nation. While otherwise free of ideological content, populism may attach itself to, and become ‘thickened’ by any host ideology. An overwhelming majority of Western populist parties nowadays represent the political right. Why has the essentially illiberal right-wing populism been so appealing?
One important reason is because populist leaders advance a coherent vision of national identity that provides a convincing response to conditions which challenge people’s established expectations regarding privilege and self-importance. Those conditions are created by economic and socio-cultural shifts that have redefined traditional group hierarchies. National narcissism defines the essence of this vision. It is a belief that the nation is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment, but is not sufficiently respected and recognized by others. It is a positive belief about the nation laden with a negative emotion of resentment. As such, it differs qualitatively from patriotism (love for one’s country) and, although less so, from nationalism (a dominant international stance). What motivates national narcissism is a desire to fortify, or restore, the conditions that have justified one’s sense of self-importance and distinction over others. What stems from national narcissism are prejudice, discrimination, internal divisions and hostility. Although it preaches love for the country, national narcissism does not have it in its heart. Instead of advancing, it undermines national welfare.
Scientific analyses have grouped the structural conditions facilitating populism into two categories: cultural (cultural backlash) and economic (losers of globalization). The ‘cultural backlash’ proposition claims that the post-war economic prosperity in Western Europe brought about a cultural shift towards post-material values of self-expression, equality and tolerance. It allowed relative emancipation of previously disadvantaged social groups such as women, and ethnic, cultural or sexual minorities, thus undermining traditional group hierarchies. Right-wing populism is a reaction to this shift, a ‘revolution in reverse’ – a backlash against the changes bringing about greater equality between social groups.
The ‘economic anxiety’ or ‘losers of globalization’ thesis argues that increasing economic inequalities push certain social groups to feel betrayed, vulnerable and susceptible to populist rhetoric. However, evidence suggests that actual worsening economic conditions, or real deficiencies in economic resources, are not crucial for populism. Instead, support for populists is inspired by the subjective perception of the threats to one’s own economic situation, or its deterioration relativeto ‘the rest of society’: the perception that one is unfairly disadvantaged compared to others.
A conclusion from these analyses is that despite its overt claims, populism does not express a desire for social justice and equality, but rather a demand for protection or restoration of privilege. What the societal and economic changes threaten are the established grounds for one’s own and group-based sense of importance and entitlement. This interpretation is encouraged by political leaders who see in it their chance to gather support and curate a sense of national identity around it.
Populist leaders act as social identity ‘entrepreneurs’. To gain support, they formulate and propagate a vision of national identity that encompasses and validates those whose sense of self-importance has been threatened. This re-interpretation of national identity is organized around a shared resentment for the waning of deference and recognition from others. The leaders reinforce the feeling of threat to self-importance and externalize its sources. They organize the content of national identity around resentment for the perceived loss of importance, and offer a vision of its restoration via rejection and hostility towards those who – within the nation and outside – are blamed for the present decline. Seeing it expressed in the public sphere validates personal resentment, which has been made a defining feature of the national identity. Populist rhetoric suggests that those who feel wronged and resentful are indeed ‘the righteous’ and the only ‘true’ representatives of the nation who are concerned for its loss of grandeur. This rhetoric provides a coherent and appealing narrative explaining why their privileged status within the nation has been threatened or lost, and how it should be restored. Thus it offers the promise of restoring their sense of self-importance. This promise is likely to produce an engaged followership.
Populist leaders use the symbolic resources that are available in the community to rekindle sentiments hidden in traditional stories about common hardship, opposition and rebirth. In Poland nowadays the ‘cursed soldiers’ provide such a powerful symbol. This phrase refers to clandestine anti-Soviet military organizations that after the Second World War continued guerrilla warfare against the communist regime in Poland. Although they often committed crimes against the civilian population after the war, they are now staged as true national heroes, ‘misunderstood’ but rightful spokespeople for national purity. Populist narrative about national identity prescribes criteria for defining those who are truly and rightfully constitutive of ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’, whom populist leaders claim to represent. Populist narrative also prescribes criteria for exclusion. In Poland, those criteria have been coined by a curious merger of national values with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.
This narrative is constructed around national collective narcissism. It is not incidental that the phenomenon of collective narcissism was first described about 80 years ago by scholars of the Frankfurt School, who analysed the conditions and beliefs that brought the Nazi regime to power in Germany in the 1930s. Theodore Adorno wrote:
Collective narcissism amounts to this: individuals compensate for the consciousness of their social impotence […] by making themselves, either in reality or merely in their imaginations, into members of a higher, more comprehensive being. To this being they attribute the qualities they themselves lack, and from this being they receive in turn something like a vicarious participation in those qualities (Adorno 1997: 11).
Erich Fromm commented on the interplay between individual and group narcissism:
Inasmuch as the group as a whole requires group narcissism for its survival, it will further narcissistic attitudes and confer upon them the qualification of being particularly virtuous (Fromm 1964: 80).
Our research, which assesses collective narcissism with a questionnaire and uses advanced statistical modelling, has linked high scores in national narcissism with support for populist parties and politicians in various countries of the world. American collective narcissism was, after partisanship, the second strongest predictor of voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Its role was more important in explaining support for Trump’s candidacy than other factors, such as economic dissatisfaction, authoritarianism, sexism and racial resentment. In the UK, collective narcissism was associated with the vote to leave the European Union. The rejection of immigrants, who were perceived as a threat to economic superiority and the British way of life, was behind the association between collective narcissism and the Brexit vote. National narcissism predicted support for the populist governments and their particular policies in Poland and Hungary. Such findings warrant a closer examination of the motivational role and consequences of national narcissism as a belief about national identity. So what is national collective narcissism about?
Collective narcissism is a belief that can be held with reference to any social group. National narcissism is not just the belief that the nation is great. It is a belief that the nation is exceptional, incomparableto and better than others, and therefore entitled to privileged treatment. The exact reasons for the narcissistic claim to the nation’s exceptionality and entitlement vary. It may be the nation’s power and international status, but it may also be the nation’s incomparable morality, cultural sophistication, God’s love of it, even its exceptional losses, suffering and martyrdom. For example, national narcissism is associated with the glorification of national suffering and martyrdom in Hungary and Poland, but with claims of military and economic might in the US. Whatever the reason for demanding privileged status, national narcissism expresses a desire for one’s nation to be noticeably distinguished from other nations and a concern that the fulfilment of this desire is being threatened.
What are the motivational underpinnings of collective narcissism? In line with Adorno’s and Fromm’s reasoning and the above analysis of the conditions of populism, psychological research suggests that collective narcissism is a defensive compensation for threatened self-esteem and frustrated need for self-importance. Firstly, collective narcissism is associated with poor life satisfaction, negative mood and low self-esteem. Moreover, it is low self-esteem that predicts collective narcissism. In experimental studies, undermined self-esteem produced an increase in national narcissism. What is more, evidence from longitudinal studies confirms this directionality of the relationship. Namely, people who report low self-esteem report higher collective narcissism several weeks later, but people who report high collective narcissism in week 1 do not report lower or higher self-esteem six weeks later.
This means that when their sense of self-worth is threatened, people gravitate towards national narcissism. But despite their expectations, national narcissism does not help them improve their self-esteem. Instead, national collective narcissism causes an increase in vulnerable narcissism. Vulnerable narcissism is a presentation of individual narcissism focused on a sense of frustration, guilt and anger for not being recognized by others as being great and exceptional. This suggests that it is futile and, indeed, damaging to invest undermined self-esteem and frustrated self-importance in collective narcissism. Instead of providing relief, group narcissism perpetuates the sense that members of the group should be but are not properly recognized in their exceptionality.
It is important to note that collective narcissism is not a belief that people use merely to explain their social reality. It is an emotionally laden belief that motivates people to act and to do so in a certain way. Collective narcissism does not express people’s need to regain a sense of control, nor does it express a desire for dignity, social justice and equality – where all individuals have an equal chance to exercise their freedom and feel valued. Frustration of those needs could stimulate the collective actions of disadvantaged groups for the recognition of their identity, value and equal rights. Instead, collective narcissism is a belief that expresses the desire for privileged position and special recognition. This desire is more likely to stimulate collective actions either to protect or to reverse group hierarchies and privilege. To illustrate the difference, in the US, collective narcissism was a characteristic of the ideology of the Nation of Islam (which demanded a reversal of status between African and European Americans) rather than the Civil Rights Movement (which advocated equal rights for all American citizens). In Poland, it characterizes Jarosław Kaczyński’s divisive populism, in contrast to Jacek Kuroń’s ideological work which inspired the communal spirit of ‘Solidarity’ in the 1980s. Indeed, among dominant groups in society, collective narcissism is associated with a lack of solidarity with disadvantaged groups. For example, collectively narcissistic men do not support women in their collective actions to protect their rights and the struggle for equality. The more men feel threatened in their masculinity, the more they support the traditional gender hierarchy which they justify by the teachings of the Catholic Church.
In a similar vein, national narcissism is associated with the rejection of certain co-nationals who are identified as members of a ‘worse sort’, who fail to meet the narrow criteria of the narcissistic definition of national identity. In Poland, the ‘worse sort’ is quite a broad category that contains everyone who is not ethnically Polish, Catholic, heterosexual and male. It also includes members of the political and ideological opposition, whose concepts of what it means to be Polish are more diverse and broader than what the populists propose. Polish national narcissists refuse to help immigrants and refugees, tending to view them as a threat and not quite as human as Polish people. Polish national narcissists preach anti-Semitism and believe all Jewish people are secretly conspiring to rule the world. Polish national narcissists reject those who criticize the current ultraconservative populist government. They reject Polish homosexuals, whom they perceive as a ‘contamination’ of national purity. Polish national narcissism is associated with sexism (among men but especially among women) and is driven by the belief that those who question the traditional gender hierarchy also threaten national identity. National narcissism harms the nation not only by intensifying internal divisions and exacerbating existing inequalities. It is also linked to support for policies that are harmful to the national community, but which serve as an expression of national identity defined by collective narcissism. In Poland, national narcissism is associated with supporting anti-environmental policies, such as logging in the primeval Białowieża Forest, or subsidies for the coal industry.
Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests that collective narcissism is associated with antagonism and intergroup hostility, and even support for the use of political violence and terrorism in more radicalized social contexts. Among extremist groups in Sri Lanka, Morocco and Indonesia, ethnic narcissism is associated with the acceptance of terrorist violence. National narcissism predicts hostile intergroup attitudes and behaviours in retaliation to offences to the nation’s image, whether past or present, actual or imagined. Collective narcissism is associated with hypersensitivity to any signs that the nation’s image may be being undermined or criticized, or that the group is perhaps not being recognized or is being ignored or excluded by others. Collective narcissists exaggerate such threats and interpret them as provocations to which they respond aggressively.
Collective narcissism is linked with a tendency to invent threats that instigate intergroup hostility. It is also associated with conspiratorial thinking. For example, Polish national narcissism is related to the belief that Western countries have conspired to undermine the significance of Poland as a major contributor to the collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. This belief links national narcissism in Poland to prejudice against Germany and other Western countries (that see the fall of the Berlin Wall as a common symbol of the end of the communist era). National narcissism is fuelling support for the investigation of the Smoleńsk tragedy – the 2010 crash of the Polish presidential plane which was flying to Smoleńsk, Russia, in which the president and 95 prominent Polish politicians lost their lives. The victims were due to commemorate the Polish officers who were killed in Russia during the Second World War. Polish national narcissists believe that the crash was caused by a Russian conspiracy. Catholic collective narcissism in Poland is linked to suspicions that gender-equality activists and academics teaching gender studies are secretly plotting to harm and undermine traditional Catholic family values and the social arrangements inspired by them.
Conspiracy beliefs about the malicious plotting by other groups against one’s own nation fit the general tendency associated with national narcissism of adopting a posture of intergroup hostility across multiple intergroup distinctions. Such thinking provides a focused, simple explanation for why others fail to acknowledge the nation’s exceptionality. It justifies constant vigilance against threats to the nation’s exceptionality and provides reassurance that the nation is important enough to attract secretive plots from others. Such beliefs attribute the lack of recognition of the group’s uniqueness to the hostility and jealousy of others. They explain how the group can be at the same time exceptional and not appreciated by others, who envy its greatness. Thus, conspiracy theories provide a simple and coherent, although false, explanation for the apparent lack of recognition of the nation that allow the nation’s exaggerated image to be saved and its sense of significance boosted.
Is there a way out?
The way out of the vicious circle of frustrated self- and group-importance and intergroup hostility may be through associating collective narcissism with other forms of positive, emotionally laden beliefs about the nation. Collective narcissism is related to, but can be differentiated from, at least one other alternative belief. Namely, national narcissism is related to but qualitatively different from the belief that the nation is of high value and warrants pride. This belief is called patriotism, or national satisfaction, or national self-esteem. Although, like national narcissism, it is a positive belief about the nation, it is associated with different emotions that motivate actions that are distinct from those of national narcissism. Unlike national narcissism, patriotism focuses on feelings of satisfaction and pride in the nation. It is related to tolerance of minorities, solidarity with disadvantaged groups and actions with national welfare as their aim. Non-narcissistic patriotism involves acceptance of minorities, inclusion of immigrants and support for collective actions for greater equality. Patriotic men support women in their struggle for equal treatment, patriotic women reject sexism. Participation in positively valued groups, being a proud community member, acting on behalf of others, all increase self-esteem. A stable self-esteem does not require external validation or special treatment by others. The overlap between group satisfaction and collective self-esteem links the latter to positive self-worth and positive emotionality.
It is normal for competing visions of national identity to coexist in democratic societies and be under constant discussion. The dominant vision of national identity may emphasize national narcissism or patriotism. When patriotism dominates in this vision it stresses communality, pride and the value of being connected to a community transcending the self. Conversely, when national narcissism dominates and patriotism is marginalized (e.g. via the centralization of power, social polarization, undermining of solidarity and detachment from local communities), nations are more likely to turn against other groups like minorities, refugees or women, because their members believe national grandiosity will give them a sense of self-importance.
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