A new international study shows how narcissism and an unrealistic belief in national greatness led to the successes of Donald Trump and Brexit. SCOTT OLIVER reports
Exactly a year before her cough-infested car crash address of the Tory party conference, our erstwhile Remainer Prime Minister Theresa May hopped aboard the populist bandwagon by announcing: ‘If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. Whether genuine belief or playing to the gallery, it was a tellingly insular statement, a craven attempt to stoke and draw fuel from a nationalist sentiment that seemed the only game in town.
The Brexiteers’ narrative – both in the UKIP agitation before the referendum and the Tories’ spin on their calamitous negotiations since – has been distressingly simplistic: Britain’s interests have long been held back by the EU, and things will turn out all right because, well, we’re a great nation, and that will be enough, and woe betide anyone who disagrees. Populism as a tango of grievance and narcissism, each one arousing the other.
Such is the choreography examined in a recent paper in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, where research from Poland, the UK and the US is combined to show that people who perceive they are part of a disadvantaged group are more likely to have an unrealistic belief in the greatness of their nation and thus support populist ideologies. (They follow Princeton professor Jan-Werner Muller’s definition of populism as both anti-elitist and anti-pluralist, a single group casting itself as the true representatives of the nation, and thus don’t apply to the label to left-wing movements such as Bernie Sanders’ that have been characterised as populist.)
To establish links between populism, ‘perceived in-group disadvantage’ and ‘collective narcissism’, the authors first distinguish the latter from their control condition of ordinary ‘national identification’. Where the latter might be expressed in such statements as ‘I’m glad to be British’ and ‘Being British is an important part of how I see myself’, the former would comprise beliefs in the inherent superiority of your nation, that it deserved special treatment, and – much as with the individual narcissist’s extreme sensitivity to criticism – that it is being persecuted by outsiders, from Brussels bureaucrats to globalists in the DC ‘swamp’. The stronger this feeling of being held back, the greater the sense of national superiority.
In the first of three experiments, researchers from Poland established that where ordinary national identification failed to predict support for the right-wing populist Freedom and Law party, measures of collective narcissism did.
Another study, was able to show support for Donald Trump was strongly predicted by perceived in-group disadvantage, even when such objective material measures as household income directly contradicted this belief. And in a study carried out in the lead-up to the EU referendum by Dr Aleksandra Cichocka, senior lecturer in Political Psychology from the University of Kent, it was found the stronger the perception of other groups being favoured – the experiment manipulated the time-frame membership of the EU was perceived to have disadvantaged the UK, from a recent to long-term issue – the greater the degree of ‘collective narcissism’, which was in turn a ‘robust’ predictor of support for Brexit, whereas ordinary national identification was not. Again, perceived in-group disadvantage was also positively correlated to collective narcissism.
The paper concludes ‘the narrative of relative disadvantage, fuelled by populist leaders, might reinforce this defensive and destructive in-group positivity’, speculating that such narcissistic beliefs about in-group greatness are a way to compensate for feelings of being worse off than other groups.
This is even true of the ‘collective narcissism’ displayed by those with the exact opposite of ‘in-group disadvantage’ – for instance, an old Etonian foreign secretary who mutters colonial poetry to himself on official visits to Myanmar. ‘It definitely fits with how we see collective narcissism: a belief in in-group greatness that others fail to recognise’, remarks Dr Cichocka. ‘It could be that they compensate for having less control over the situation – compared to the EU, say – by investing in the grandiosity narrative’.
The more Brexiteers are told they are being persecuted by Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker, the more pronounced their sense of national greatness. It is as though, in the absence of a coherent Brexit strategy, its protagonists are retreating ever further into nostalgic grandiosity, into the symbols and ciphers of old glories: a shutters-down Britain that has brought the Blitz on itself, it seems, because the nation never felt as united as then – which is exactly the spirit that will get us through the Blitz.
Scott Oliver is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, New Statesman, Vice and i-D