The Pivoting: On narcissistic collusion or how evil “just happens”


Dadu Shin

The Pivoting, dear reader, is now in full force — and what a spectacle it is. It is as scary as The Shining, only less bloody — so far.

But that’s how it always goes, as anyone familiar with the horror genre knows: an innocent, idyllic even, adventure turns surely but imperceptibly enough into a full-blown nightmare from which there is no escape. And the protagonists, mired in horror, are left to wax regretful — between whatever tortures are imposed on them — about their wrong choices that led them to their terror. “If only we knew!”

I am not talking about Brexit, though it too qualifies as another sign of our Shadow trying to break through our narcissistic blindness and force us to pay attention to the invisible suffering contained within, a process complete — as it always is — with its own uber-narcissist enabling it. Interestingly, in this season of the Shadow’s revolt, orange-ish is the new white.

I am talking about the shameful spectacle of the GOP politicos lining up behind (or in front, as in the picture on top) Agent Orange, a man whose painfully apparent character defect, so profound that it makes him unfit to run a chicken coop, is now somehow blissfully unnoticed or blithely disregarded —  often by the same people who openly pointed it out before. Pivoting, they call it, and hope, naively, that the process would be mutual. Pivoting is the word of the year — or should be, if the Merriam-Webster folks are paying attention as they should. And even though Cenk Uygur calls it plain lying, there is more to it.

The Guardian has an open and growing gallery of these pivoters, the Enduring Hall of Shame of sorts; but their graphics showing Trump as the star in the center of this disordered solar system are wrong. The man is not a star but a black hole –a singular event in the spacetime fabric of America that bends and defies reality as we understand it and sucks in everything around it, destroying it in the process, as he was designed to do. Nothing can escape from it. That’s what black holes do.

It is easy to guess why so many of the conscience-deficient GOPers support their pathological candidate –the two all too obvious reasons are fear (of ostracism if refusing to follow the herd), and a desire to remain in good graces of the future president and his sycophants, assuring a place at the trough of power and the perks that come with it. And an adherence to a perverted principle that the good of the party comes above all else.

This short-sighted complicity that makes even people with a conscience, albeit a weak one, compromise their principles for safety and primitive goals always ends badly for everyone involved, including the compromisers whose dignity never recovers, even if they survive. Dignity, of course, is one of those  values that only exist and matter if you have a functioning conscience, the part of human beings that’s both most elusive and most important as it makes all the difference in the world.

It may be that the pivoting GOPers are not craven, but just do not fully, or at all, understand the extent of their candidate’s character problem, especially if they themselves share his narcissistic defect and the blindness it creates. People with an impaired conscience sometimes do not see things clearly; so as a Public Service Announcement for the non-seeing ones, I’d like to take this opportunity to address this issue:

Your candidate, dear GOPers, is not going to change. Not because he does not want to — and he surely does not want to — but because he cannot. In order to change in any meaningful fashion, a person must have a functioning conscience. There is no way around it, no matter how hard we may try to find it. There’s just not enough lipstick in the world.

A functioning conscience, much better than reason itself, tells us when and where we erred and how, and what we must do to correct our errors. A functioning conscience with its empathy, guilt, and humility — the three capacities distinctly missing from a narcissist’s inner milieu — is what makes it possible for us to notice and admit that we are at fault, want to rectify our mistakes and change our behavior. No functioning conscience, no change; not even a possibility of acknowledging a wrongdoing. And, if you are a grandiosely narcissistic “winner” (triple redundancy warning!), the best in all you do and also in things you have never done, you would see no need whatsoever to learn anything. Why, perfection means no need to ever say you’re sorry — it is one of its undeniable benefits, for gods and narcissistic humans alike. 

This also means your candidate is not going to surround himself with reasonable, or — god forbid — wise people, because, again, he does not believe he could be wrong and he does not need anyone’s advice. And, as he’s someone with the best brain, whose advice could even come close to his own? Besides, he has no tolerance for competition.

The impairment of conscience characteristic for narcissism severely limits a person’s cognitive capacities, as it makes him (or her) incapable of, among so many things, understanding points of view other than his own. This itself makes objective — or at least non-egocentric — reasoning impossible. The result is dangerous solipsism where one’s desires become a substitute for reality, and facts (and people), particularly those that are unpleasant for the narcissist to acknowledge, cease to exist. What he wants, must happen, regardless of consequences for the world — the consequences he is unable to envision in the first place, but even if he did so, he would disregard them.

Unable and unwilling to learn — a distinction without a difference in a narcissist’s case — the best your candidate can be expected to do is to stick to a teleprompter and read the scripts written for him by his children and handlers. Those scripts are not going to be free of their own pathology, however, one which they share with your candidate; but they will be more subdued and polished, as such things go. So they may fool more people, maybe even enough to have your candidate elected, if that’s what you’re after. They will not help your candidate grow a conscience, though. He probably does not understand a lot of what he reads in those prepared speeches; and if he does, he likely does not care to notice how it may differ from what he is about and what it could possibly mean. No conscience, no values, no problem.

Once he’s off the teleprompter, he will remain his usual “winning” self, looking for any opportunity to make a “deal” that would personally elevate him and humiliate someone else, because this is his lifelong modus operandi. 

Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” You have been shown time and again, and also explained, one hopes clearly enough; so don’t say you have not been warned. 

With the PSA concluded, let’s pivot back to our narcissistic collusion in progress.

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What is both fascinating and frightening — but also instructive — in this case is that the GOPers’ presumptive nominee openly promises to undo most of the things that supposedly have made America the beacon of freedom and democracy — and his eager supporters are the very same people who routinely sloganeer about that freedom and democracy when it suits their personal agenda (= they are up for election). We are getting a glimpse of the inner corruption that lurks right behind the polished facade, corruption that stems from the all too common deficits of conscience.

What’s happening on the American political stage now is what happens in all organizations ran, or soon to be ran, by character-disordered tyrants: a willful and spontaneous collusion of people who should know better (one sometimes still erroneously assumes)  with a deeply immoral and inherently destructive leader.

We are watching history repeat itself with a maddening insistence, and we are privileged, if one can call it that, to observe this phenomenon live, as it takes place before our very eyes. Being a witness to history can be educational, should one want to learn a thing or two about the curious malleability of the human conscience.

Frederick Burkle describes this process of narcissistic collusion as applied to politics in his paper on Narcissism in the US polity where he talks about political parties that

(…)  demand total loyalty, whose members all speak from the same playbook and daily-drilled sound bites, and where disloyalty is severely punished by those on the top of the narcissistic pack who have built for themselves a powerful and self-serving political culture.

Many in power truly believe in having god-like powers that absolve whatever faults other humans may be judging them by. Indeed, society is at fault for lavishing praise and creating an unfathomable yet favorable impression while knowing that those actions contribute little or nothing to society itself.

Indeed, we are at fault.

We, humans, engage in this blind danse macabre time and again, oblivious to history lessons or even common sense. As if driven by a compulsion to repeat repressed traumas, we bring on this misery upon ourselves.  Paraphrasing the words of the famous American philosopher, George W. Bush, our children is not learning. As if by design. The enlightenment driven away, / The habit-forming pain,/ Mismanagement and grief:/ We must suffer them all again. And not just in America.

Our common mistake, one among many that shape and define the tragedy of our human nature, is denying reality to protect our cherished illusions. This leads us to cultivating willful ignorance of behavioral and historical patterns that should be obvious by now, not in the least because they have been documented, described, and explained repeatedly. But we don’t want to know, not when it matters; and when we do, it’s only in passing and always too late.

This process — of narcissistic collusion with character-defective leaders — affects individuals and entire nations. It is aided and abetted by what Russell Jacoby termed social amnesia, which is based, in part, on active propaganda and miseducation that lead us to forget history and distort reality in ways that support whatever regime benefits from our unquestioning compliance. Henry Giroux calls it the violence of organized forgetting. It is another name for narcissistic blindness in the service of power that purposefully maims our minds and bodies, transforming us into tools of evil. Not quite openly willing, but one’s will — and conscience — become easily disposed of and immaterial when subsumed under the authority of a powerful leader who, like god, always knows best and will absolve our sins committed in his name.

This narcissistic collusion, so natural that’s nearly invisible, is behind the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt wrote about, exemplified everywhere around us, and vividly enough in the pivoting we’re witnessing now. It the same process that allowed Adolf Eichmann say, “I was just following orders,” during his trial, believing it a valid defense; and let Sarah Kyolaba, one of Idi Amin’s five official wivesdefend her husband by stating “He was just a normal person, not a monster. He was a jolly person, very entertaining and kind.” This jolly-not-a-monster was responsible for torture and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the suffering of many more. But the narcissistic collusion, through the blindness it engenders, makes this aspect of his life invisible or not worthy of much attention to the wife.

The collusion happens “naturally” within the narcissist’s circle of intimates and closest family members, for whom the pathology of the narcissist is invisible despite its nearly constant evidence. This is why the narcissist’s children, for example, will so often defend their parents from any accusations of wrongdoing even as they face evidence of it. The same goes for spouses. It helps that usually both spouses and children share the narcissistic pathology.

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Narcissistic collusion and the ensuing blindness are the most spectacular and horrific in cases of political tyrants who instill — as they always do, because nothing else satisfies a narcissistic psychopath in power — totalitarian dictatorships. The Ceausescus, Nicolae and Elena, are one such example among too many. Detailing their narcissism and the process of narcissistic collusion between them and the Romanians at the time would take a book; maybe we could even title it The Pivoting (™).

Both Nicolae and Elena showed signs of narcissistic disturbance from childhood: sensation seeking behaviors and poor impulse control; aggression; arrogance; grandiosity, with a concomitant need and desire to be treated as special; and an impaired conscience evidenced in antisocial behaviors and disregard for the rights of others. They were smart enough to rapidly advance in any power hierarchy, although both lacked what Burkle calls the capacity to be bright, which can only arise on the basis of a conscience.

Their functioning as adults, especially after they achieved power, fits the description of narcissistic psychopathy, in political power and not, down to the manifestation of their defensive grandiosity in the form of building obscenely opulent palaces as their people suffered; and the inevitable paranoia that besets a narcissistic psychopath in power as his or her reign progresses, and even more so as it starts to crumble, as it always does. Using their examples, we could illustrate step-by-step every aspect of narcissistic psychopathy as applied to political leadership. But it is crucial to note that, first, the beginning of their rule was as innocent and rewarding as the start of any good horror movie, with Nicolae’s initial promises of making Romania great again fulfilled for a while; and, second, they would not accomplish any of their dastardly deeds if they were not supported by so many who were eagerly colluding with their personal pathology.

One example of how pervasive and invisible this collusion can be was Elena’s reputation as an accomplished and internationally recognized chemist. This Mother of the Nation and Doctor Horroris Causa was a barely literate woman, who flunked elementary classes and grades, but managed to obtain Ph.D. in chemistry, along with scientific awards and titles from Romanian and Western academic institutions and scientific bodies. Those were awarded to her on the basis of research  contained in papers written for her by (eagerly or not) compliant legitimate scientists. It is difficult to believe that the scientific and academic institutions, especially domestic, which awarded Elena those honors, did not understand that her scientific career was fraudulent; and yet such is the power of narcissistic blindness — it makes us not see what’s in front of our eyes. The narcissistic collusion needs that blindness to proceed.

Just how eager and extensive was the narcissistic collusion of the academics and other, seemingly well educated and informed people, in Elena’s deception, is shown in Carl Andersson’s paper on The Personality Cult of Elena Ceausescu. Here’s a fragment:

In 1975 Elena was awarded Doctor Honoris Causa at both the University of Teheran and Jordan University in Amman (Les 3-4).

Before Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu set out for a state visit to the United States in 1978, the Illinois Academy of Science approached Elena, offering her an honorary membership. When told that President Carter could not assure her an honorary degree from a Washington-based institute, Elena uttered vehemently: “Come off it! You can’t sell me the idea that Mr. Peanut [Carter] can give me an Illi-whatsis diploma but not any from Washington. I w-i-l-l n-o-t g-o t-o I-l-l-i-what ever it is. I will not!” (Pacepa 180).

However, as no other center acknowledged Elena’s scientific achievements, she had to give in and accept the honorary degree that was being offered. Notwithstanding she showed her abhorrence by having to accept this ‘low-ranked’ degree and on top of it from the hands of a ‘dirty Jew’ – Doctor Emanuel Merdinger was the head of the Illinois Academy of Science in 1978 when Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu visited the United States (Pacepa 181).

Entitlement and contempt for others go together in a narcissist’s mind. Despite that contempt, people are somehow always happy to oblige and meet, or try to at least, the narcissist’s grandiose demands.

The last remaining of the Ceausescus’ three children, their adopted son Valentin, who is a (legit) nuclear physicist, said this about his father in a 2009 interview:

He was not informed about the (scope of) the discontent. Things were kept from him that he wouldn’t like.

Even after all these years, Valentin, who appears to be the most psychologically intact of the Ceausescus’ children, cannot see and admit the extent of his father’s narcissistic disturbance. For it was really not a lack of information that kept Nicolae’s grandiose delusions going to the very end, but his own narcissism.

It has to be said, however, in a semi-defence of the man and his son’s perception of him, that Elena was the more ruthless and cunning of the pair,  the driving force behind some of the most draconian and cruel “reforms,” like Decree 770. It is possible that, especially in later years, she actively prevented Nicolae from accessing information about the mood of the nation. Then again, what we know about narcissistic blindness and collusion tells us that no such interference is usually necessary. The tyrants and elites are always shocked to discover, as they usually do too late, how unhappy the invisible masses are.

In his last official public appearance, we see Ceausescu standing high above the crowds in Bucharest and giving another of his bombastic speeches in front of the admiring crowd covered with the usual sea of flags, banners with Communist slogans, and outsized portraits of the couple. Nicolae carries on as the crowd begins to unsettle and roar in anger. He does not comprehend the sounds at first, mistaking them for the usual exuberant, if forced, adoration.  He continues to wave with a benevolent smile on his face, as the crowd’s discontent intensifies. Even as an aide comes up from behind him to tell him to hide, Nicolae is incredulous. Surely, it cannot be that his people would dislike him. He knows that they love him, especially after all he did for them. Narcissistic blindness personified.

It is another feature of the narcissistic tyrants’ pathology to believe to their last breath, often taken just before their executions, that their nation / people love them. They either remain oblivious to the hatred they inspired through their ruthless and murderous rule, or rationalize its most obvious manifestations — like their capture, trial, and impending execution — as a plot concocted by their enemies. In their minds, their people — those very same people whom they starved, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered en masse — love them and would never want to hurt them.

There is an obvious tragic aspect to a narcissists’ quest for love, since even as they crave it, they act in ways that inevitably inspire contempt and hatred. But, paradoxically — although not really when we remember the emotional blindness that permeates a narcissist’s life — that hate either does not register in their minds or is misinterpreted as love. Not surprisingly so, as a narcissist’s love, particularly that reserved for the more distant of its objects, like a tyrant’s love for his people — has more to do with hate than love as normal people understand it. It is controlling and often sadistic, based on the inherent, in narcissistic pathology, tendency to dehumanize people and see them as objects of the narcissist’s wish and need fulfillment.

The narcissist’s love, as s/he gives it and sees it given to him or her, is another hint at the quality of “love” s/he received in childhood, which, more often than not, was marked by abuse and neglect coached in the language of parental “love” and devotion. “It’s for your own good,” she would hear when subjected to regular abuse; or “It hurts me more than it hurts you,” as he tried to express his pain; or “I do it because I love you,” imprinting on his or her young mind and body what love was all about.

It is no surprise that a tyrannical narcissist raised this way would then “love” his people in the same sadistic, controlling, and dehumanizing way, without an inkling of the horrors of such “love,” and convinced to the very end, as many abusive parents are, that s/he was loved in return, as a loving parent should be. Yes, the Ceausescus, like all narcissistic tyrants, saw themselves as “parents” of their nation.

Since we are on the subject of a narcissist’s familial relations, let’s bring up research on the authoritarianism of Trump’s supporters showing that the most distinct dimension distinguishing them from those who supported other Republican candidates were their views on child rearing:

Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted a poll in which Republicans were asked four questions about child-rearing. With each question, respondents were asked which of two traits were more important in children:

  • independence or respect for their elders;
  • curiosity or good manners;
  • self-reliance or obedience;
  • being considerate or being well-behaved.

Psychologists use these questions to identify people who are disposed to favor hierarchy, loyalty and strong leadership — those who picked the second trait in each set — what experts call “authoritarianism.”

Note the narcissistic character of the authoritarian standards for child rearing: the stress on externalities — the outward presentation of behavior rather than its intent, and by extension the child’s character — and respect due a (narcissistic, because hierarchical) authority. Unsurprisingly, the authoritarian child rearing methods overlap with narcissistic parenting or, more accurately, with forms of narcissistic parental abuse where the focus is on image rather than substance, and on conformity that sacrifices the child’s own feelings and thoughts for the parental self-image.

The abusive political power structures, those that restrict our freedom and use us as tools of evil while trying to convince us to the contrary, depend on the creation of obedient citizens who are used to not questioning the superiors from an early age, and who have substituted their own thoughts with pre-packaged beliefs. It helps if those beliefs include those about our own specialness because this justifies any and all things we want to do to others.

Because if we are special — better — then they are worse, often not quite human, not in the way we are; and it becomes our right to do to them as we wish or, in our superior judgment, deem necessary (and, to be sure, there usually is no difference between the two). That’s how evil happens, so naturally, imperceptibly, as just another necessity of life as we know it — something we are justified in doing by virtue of our narcissistic belief in our superiority and righteousness; or something we “just” comply with through our narcissistic blindness and collusion it engenders, which make evil, the one we do or participate in, invisible to us.

If we still retain a functioning conscience, however, the collusion and blindness are never perfect for long, as our conscience insists on being heard. It does so by creating discomfort, doubts, and inner conflicts. Difficult to tolerate as those manifestations of a conscience are, they should never be silenced because they are the best and most important part of us, sometimes the only one that reminds us of our humanity.

Hope you’re paying attention, Mitch McConnell. You too, Paul Ryan.

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12 thoughts on “The Pivoting: On narcissistic collusion or how evil “just happens”

  1. >>> “Many in power truly believe in having god-like powers that absolve whatever faults other humans may be judging them by. Indeed, society is at fault for lavishing praise and creating an unfathomable yet favorable impression while knowing that those actions contribute little or nothing to society itself.”

    Bingo, hero worship and the public’s aversion to civic participation both leading to the rise of political megalomania.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, RS. Brexit has caused much liberal anxiety over here, with most pundits missing the point (as usual), IMO. There were some good assessments, though, but as always they come from the so-called fringes (which is what we call here people who do not trumpet the official oligarchic and/or upper middle class agendas and sensibilities).

      I do believe we can have non-narcissistic politicians: here, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders come to mind (yes, I remember your negative feelings about Bernie 🙂 ).

      Narcissism is pathological, which is something we do keep forgetting about, as we have normalized it so effectively. It always has a dark shadow of dehumanization and abuse of others.

      But there are degrees of it, ranging from mild (so I’m told) to extreme, as in Trump and Boris J.

      No degree of narcissism is a good thing, IMO, but it is probably maybe possible to make the lesser degrees bearable / less toxic (so I’m told).

      Values, and how we live them, are the key. A non-narcissistic leader will be other-oriented and his or her life will reflect that. That means there won’t be discrepancies between their words and actions, in public as in their private lives. It does not mean perfection, but humility and realism — and dedication to work for others.

      Unfortunately, as you and I and everyone (probably) knows, narcissists (and psychopaths) are attracted to politics by nature of their character defect. So we need to look carefully at our politicos and weed the pathological ones out.

      Yes, I am a dreamer. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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