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Dissecting narcissism within politics’ highest ranks

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Autumn


Early in his career, Jerrold Post, M.D. ’60, prepared psychological assessment dossiers on Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Those dossiers helped President Jimmy Carter navigate complicated political personae during the negotiations that led to the Camp David accords.

During his 21-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency, Post founded and directed the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. He credits his Yale medical education for pushing him to take a longitudinal view of a person’s psychiatric development and “understand the cultural, historical, and personal backgrounds which shape the individual,” Post said.

In his newest book, Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory, he offers psychological insights that explain how narcissism fits into the broad picture of world politics. If leaders with significant narcissistic personality features were barred, said Post, professor of psychiatry, political psychology, and international affairs at The George Washington University, then the ranks of the political class would be perilously impoverished.

Saddam Hussein, General Douglas McArthur, Woodrow Wilson, Indira Gandhi, and Prime Minister Hawke of Australia, are just a few of the profiles he meticulously assembles. Some leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr., display a reparative charismatic leadership. Such others as Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden show destructive charismatic leadership, represented by narcissistic rage when dreams of glory are frustrated, Post said. The impact of age and ill health on the decision making of narcissistic leaders is also considered. Post discussed his new book in a recent interview with Yale Medicine.

Are significant narcissistic personality features necessary for a successful political career?

Part of what I have tried to do in this book is show how having a special sense of self at a young age can lead to dreams of playing a role that transcends a mere individual’s life. I feel that all too often we look at a leader solely as a product of present-day forces, and not what has led the leader to emerge and fulfill a particular role within society. One needs to be thinking not only of external reality, but also of an individual’s internal dreams for glory. There are two pathways. Some individuals have a profoundly wounded sense of self, with compensatory dreams of glory. Saddam Hussein is an exemplar of one pathway. A second pathway is those who are raised to be special. When the mother of Prime Minister Hawke of Australia looked into his crib, she knew that one day her son would be prime minister. In his memoirs, General MacArthur included a poem by his mother saying, “Like mother, like son, is saying so true. The world will judge largely of mother by you.”

What did Indira Gandhi’s childhood reveal about her?

Indira Gandhi did not play with dolls, but rather a column of toy soldiers, which she marched again and again into a fire. And at the head of the column was a toy figure carrying a white shield with a cross on it. Gandhi seemed to be identifying with Joan of Arc on some levels and one could argue that she was almost programmed from early on to seek martyrdom.

You devote a chapter to narcissistic rage. Which world leader has most exemplified that quality?

You simply could not make sense of what led Saddam Hussein to his behaviors unless you try to put it in the context of compensatory themes of glory from his traumatic childhood. Saddam’s mother tried to abort her pregnancy with Saddam and was prevented from committing suicide. At the moment of his birth, Saddam’s mother turned away from him, and, in a sense, rejected him. For the first two-and-a-half years of his life, Saddam’s uncle raised him and he began, at a young age, to dream of pursuing royalty and power. Saddam’s decision to set the Kuwait oil fields afire while withdrawing from that country illustrates a narcissistic rage, which is a propensity to lash out when one’s dreams are not being fulfilled.

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