Can Narcissistic Personality Disorder help us make sense of the Abbott experience? In the third teaser from KYD issue 25, S.A. Jones writes of the disturbing narcissism at the heart of Tony Abbott’s recent prime ministership, and how this personality trait infects conservative politics in Australia.
It is now seven months since Tony Abbott was deposed by his party two years into his prime ministerial term. Various explanations have been offered for how a sitting prime minister with a sizeable majority came to be our shortest serving leader since Harold Holt.
Abbott’s personality and psychology have inevitably been scrutinised in an effort to make sense of events. Louis Nowra, writing in The Monthly in 2010, before Abbott became prime minister, memorably described Abbott’s psychology as ‘a coil of such saturnine weirdness that no one, not even his closest friends, would want to unravel it’. Psychologists Lyn Bender and Dr Lissa Johnson, writing in The Independent and the New Matilda respectively in 2015, applied psychological insights to policy analysis during Abbott’s tenure.
Generally speaking, however, Australian political analysis has not greatly leveraged psychology. There is no Australian equivalent, for example, of the 2013 study in Psychological Science that rated the forty-two American presidents up to and including George W. Bush on three narcissism indices, including Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (Lyndon B. Johnson rated highest, James Monroe lowest.)
I’m interested in how the concept of Narcissistic Personality Disorder contributes to the unpacking of the more baffling features of the Abbott government, and towards political science more generally. Narcissism, commonly defined as inflated self-love, is a character trait that we all possess, to one degree or another. It stems from the myth of the Greek youth Narcissus, who was so entranced by his reflection in a pool that he could not pull himself away.
There is an ongoing debate about whether narcissism can be ‘healthy’ in small doses or whether it always tends towards malignance. Psychologists agree that narcissism becomes a ‘problem’ when it dominates a personality structure: this is the point when it tips over into pathology and becomes Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
I write problem in inverted commas because one of the challenges of pathological narcissism is that it isn’t experienced as problematic by those who have it. Unlike depression or anxiety, where sufferers are keenly aware of their affliction, pathological narcissists don’t feel afflicted. It is one of the hallmarks of the disorder: those who have it think the problem lies with everyone else. Since they do not suffer in direct ways, individuals with NPD are unlikely to seek treatment.