Everyone has some portion of narcissism; that’s how we recognize large doses of it when it appears in others. Everyone participates in some level of vanity and self-involvement and most experience some form of inflation or grandiosity. Yet, in some the narcissistic tendencies become chronic patterns that dominate their lives and become a burden to others. Thus, there are stories from many cultures pointing to the dangers of elevating to power those who have a need to appear omnipotent and who exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance.
Most people are familiar with the fairy tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the vanity and self-involvement of the king become evident to everyone as a result of a fraud becoming public. In older versions of the story however, the issue is not simple vanity, but a deeper sense of self-aggrandizement and delusion that endangers everyone. An old Spanish version of the tale begins with three impostors convincing a ruler that they can fabricate cloth so fine that only the legitimate son of a noble father would be able to see it. Anyone who was illegitimate, even if they believed themselves to be legitimate, would be unable to see the cloth.
The king was particularly pleased with this idea. He desired greater power and the rule of law at the time held that only a legitimate son could inherit land and wealth. The king saw an opportunity to claim greater wealth and defame other as illegitimate. The three scoundrels were quickly hired and given all they needed to weave the supposed cloth of legitimacy.
During the weaving, the king sent various members of the royal cabinet to determine if the cloth was genuine or not. Although they could see nothing but empty looms, none dared admit that they could not see the magical cloth. Each feared rejection by the king as well as the loss of his own opportunity for wealth and power. Instead of calling the entire enterprise into question, each reported that the work was going extremely well, that the royal plans were proceeding rapidly and that the result would make the king look brilliant.
When the time came for the royal fitting, the king was shocked to see nothing but empty looms where he expected to receive the finest cloth ever seen. Instead of the increase of power he expected from exploiting the illegitimacy of others, he found himself having to question his own position of power and wealth. Despite feeling increasingly hollow inside and being unable to control the course of events, the king doubled-down on the fraudulent situation. Fearing he would lose everything otherwise, he proclaimed the cloth to be absolutely the best ever made and touted the fraudulent weavers to be the finest and best people that could be found anywhere.
One fabrication piled upon another as the time came for the king to appear before all the people. What could he do but carry on the charade, pretend to be feeling great and praise his own achievements? As so often happens, even to this day, those holding the highest positions of power praised the way the king looked and attested to the truth of everything he had to say. They could see the great question of the psychological legitimacy of the king staring them in the face. Yet, they all were enamored of their own positions and mesmerized by their proximity to power. Although the king was exposed for all the world to see, no one in the cabinet or in the top echelon of the military or in the diplomatic corps dared say a word.
In the familiar version of this story, a child points out the nakedness of the king and everyone begins to awaken from the collective delusion. In the older version of the tale it is not a child acting out of innocence, but a servant who states the obvious where others fear to acknowledge it. Having neither wealth nor power to lose and being in a position to view the pretenses of those who have such things, the servant simply stated the bare facts of the matter. Once the facts of the fraud and the cover-up that followed were admitted, the story says that people lost their fear of telling the truth… at least for a while.
Fairy tales used to be called “fated tales” because if people don’t learn to recognize certain aspects and dangers of human nature, they will have to be experienced in a fateful way. While some wish to distract people from the current dangers with “alternative facts,” there are psychological facts that may endanger the safety and security of everyone. It used to be better understood that the higher a person rises in power, the greater their inner faults become and the heavier their shadow falls across the land.
The overriding issue before the people at this point is not that those who were on the losing side of the election are trying to undermine the new president. The issue is not simply that it takes some time for a new administration to learn the ropes. Rather, the issue demanding to be recognized is that there is something deeply wrong, that the new ruler seems to suffer from a recognizable psychological condition that is rapidly becoming a burden for the entire country and possibly for the world.
When the underlying issue is a narcissistic disorder there can be no “pivot” to a more stable, less volatile self. Despite outer appearances and claims of accomplishment, there is a deep sense of personal insecurity that takes precedence over all other issues.
Each situation encountered, no matter how insignificant it may seem, can become the cause for a new storm of low self-esteem. Any criticism or even disagreement can trigger both forceful rejection and personal ridicule. Although highly sensitive to what he feels as the slightest unfairness, the narcissist needs scapegoats and feels justified in treating others with disrespect, scorn and even brutality.
Extensive lying and twisting of facts are needed to prop up the incessant inner demands of a false sense of omnipotence. What is important is not what actually happened, but how the facts can be twisted to meet the ever-present grandiose pressure coming from within.
Along with the false sense of omnipotence there can be a desire to be omnipresent, a desperate need to always be the center of attention. The chronic identity crisis within generates a need for constant affirmation so that being the center of the news cycle, for good or for bad, is better than being overlooked. Yet, no amount of attention or seeming success can ever satisfy the need for adoration. Any feeling of success or achievement quickly falls out of the gaping hole that is the other side of the narcissistic complex.
Chaos in the White House reflects the deepening turmoil in the psyche of the president as deep-seated inner conflicts become projected as radical dangers and threats in the outside world. Because there can be no genuine reflection and no failure can be admitted, the desperate sense of superiority demands that all enterprises be deemed a success. The need to be seen as omnipotent and uniquely able to solve everything means not only that the truth and the facts will be routinely rejected, but also that the security of the country and the guiding principles of democracy may also be sacrificed.
In the modern version of the emperor without clothes the entire country must become the source of attention and adoration so desperately and constantly needed by the narcissistic ruler. In that sense, the issue is not that the recent election was not legitimate, although that may turn out to be the case as well. Rather, the underlying issues of psychological illegitimacy create a chronic sense of insecurity that can endanger the security of the entire nation.
Sometimes, public issues need to be viewed more psychologically than politically. The first step toward national security may be to recognize that delusions of grandeur and deep inner conflicts, rather than some clever plan, may be at the core of the chaotic behavior of the new president. We are all implicitly servants of the higher principles of humanity, as such we are each required to stand up for the truth and challenge the delusions of power that can spread chaos, anxiety and fear in the world.