Can Narcissistic Personality Disorder help us make sense of the Abbott experience?
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).
One of the challenges of pathological narcissism is that it isn’t experienced as problematic by those who have it
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.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used by health-care professionals around the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. According to the DSM, NPD is:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes.
I’m interested in where and how these patterns were manifest in the Abbott government, and what they can elucidate about the Abbott experience. More broadly, what are the implications of institutionalised narcissism for the health of the body politic and the relationship between voters and their representatives?
In exploring these questions I must point out that I am not a clinician and I offer no armchair diagnosis of particular individuals. I work as an historian in the tradition, evident from the 1970s, that recognises narcissism as a cultural phenomenon. It is, arguably, the pathology of our age.
The two years of the Abbott prime ministership were characterised by a near-endless string of cock-ups and errors of judgement that were stunning not just in themselves, but also in the protagonists’ apparent inability to comprehend that they were cock-ups. At times it was like watching a train crash: horrifying but compelling at the same time.
The omnishambles has been comprehensively canvassed elsewhere, perhaps most pithily in Andrew P Street’s The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbot. What interests me is that through every gaffe, every impenetrable policy decision, the Abbott government seemed unembarassable. Was this just the effrontery of modern politics, or was something deeper and more troubling in play?
Perhaps the most extreme example of institutionalised shamelessness in the Abbott government was provided by Bronwyn Bishop, who was appointed as the speaker of the House of Representatives by Tony Abbott – one of his famous ‘captain’s calls’. Bishop was ultimately forced to resign the speakership after revelations that she had chartered a helicopter to take her from Melbourne to Geelong for a function.
The mode of transport was egregious on three counts: the cost ($5227.27), the lack of efficiency dividend arising from the cost (the trip would’ve taken the same amount of time by car), and the purpose (a party fundraiser). The sole justification for the helicopter appears to have been the spectacle of it.
Subsequent revelations about Bishop’s expenses suggested a pattern of grandiosity and entitlement. She took a fifteen-day trip to Europe, complete with two staff members, at a total cost of $88,000. The purpose of that trip (never refuted) was to secure her presidency of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. Taxpayers spent nearly $90,000 so a parliamentarian could lobby for another job. Against a background of government rhetoric about the end of the age of entitlement and the perfidy of leaners over lifters, Bishop’s position became untenable.
But Bishop appeared incapable of grasping that her behaviour warranted censure. When the scandal became public, Bishop’s office released the following statement:
The Speaker had a number of meetings during her visit to Victoria and always seeks to fit in as many meetings and events into her schedule as is possible…It [is] because of her concern for the country, she works as hard as she can and wishes she could do even more.
The statement is stunning in its comprehensive failure to grasp the public mood and in its passive aggressive chastisement of that same public. Here I am, working myself to the bone for the Australian people, and you quibble over a helicopter! The public wanted contrition. Bishop did eventually utter the word ‘sorry’, more than two weeks after the scandal broke. She also paid back the cost of the helicopter charter plus a twenty-five per cent penalty punishment. But it was all too little, too late.
Tony Smith replaced Bronwyn Bishop as the speaker of the House of Representatives in August 2015. He was dragged to the chair, mock-unwilling as convention decrees, amid the clapping and congratulations of his fellow MPs.
Bishop, however, was stony and implacable. She neither clapped nor smiled. Her demeanour, which an observer might have expected to evince shame or regret, suggested nothing so much as fury. Here was a woman wronged.
As Smith was being led into the Parliament to take up the speakership, why didn’t Bishop at least pretend good grace? Is it possible that she did not understand that the occasion called for shame, or at least the performance of it?
Anne Manne in her book on narcissism, The Life of I (2014), writes of the narcissist:
[t]heir arrogance means that apologising, taking responsibility for a wrong, is impossible, for the narcissist is never wrong. At the end of any argument, the narcissist will see only that you have injured them.
If pathological narcissism were at play, then Bishop’s sense of injury would have been grave indeed. After all, Abbott had declared that she was ‘on probation’, effectively under supervision by those with greater authority and wisdom, and subject to their judgement. For someone heavily invested in her own specialness, this would be an unforgivable slight.
Shame is a visceral emotion. It makes us feel utterly apart from things: singular and monstrous. The only relief is invisibility, commonly expressed as the wish for the earth to swallow one whole. Narcissism is associated with highly- developed shame-avoidance mechanisms. Sam Vaknik, a self- avowed narcissist who has written extensively (and sometimes controversially) on the subject in books and blogs, explains his shame firewall:
When I recall some past slight, insult, or humiliation (narcissistic injury) I cringe and utter ‘Hitler’ out loud. Hitler the omnipotent is my antidote to the seething feelings of helplessness and rage that accompany disgrace and shame.
Emily Yoffe, writing about narcissism in Slate in 2009, points out that ‘since shame feels so terrible, it sounds liberating not to feel it’. But shame, mortifying as it is, fulfils a hugely important adaptive function: it prompts change. Shame forces us to re-think our binge drinking, our interpersonal style, our habits of procrastination. Without shame and the capacity to stare down our worst selves, the most egregious behaviour feels normal. Change is virtually impossible.
Without shame and the capacity to stare down our worst selves, the most egregious behaviour feels normal. Change is virtually impossible.
The incapacity for change was one of the more startling features of the two years of the Abbott government. The necessity for it was impressed on Abbott several times, most notably when his backbenchers revolted and demanded a leadership spill in February 2015. Abbott survived his ‘near- death experience’ against an empty chair and the promise of change was implicit in his statement that ‘good government starts today’: the ‘captain’s calls’ would end, he would be more consultative. ‘The circumstances to remake a prime ministership were in place’, wrote Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen in their book analysing Abbott’s fall, Battleground (2015), ‘except for the subject’s willingness to listen, reflect and change’.
Narcissists are cocooned from shame and the impetus for change by a self-aggrandising worldview that sustains itself irrespective of ‘facts’ or a reality principle. The narcissist’s internal narrative is one of ‘grandiose fantasy’.
Vaknik, challenged to explain what a grandiose fantasy feels like from the ‘inside’, wrote:
Everything I do is imbued with these grandiose fantasies. I fully expect my writings to elicit overwhelming attention (either negative or positive), to impact events and personalities, and to render me immortal. I fancy myself an eminence grise, the power behind the throne, and a mover and shaker. I look everywhere for evidence to support these confabulated narratives…I reject, deny, belittle, and re-interpret all information to the contrary.
In 2014 journalist Mark Riley asked Abbott about his infamous ‘shit happens’ comment following the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan. In the excruciating twenty seconds that followed, Abbott’s head shook, he glared manically and said nothing. He appeared to be in the grip of some kind of fit. In Political Animal (2012), David Marr characterised the odd reaction as Abbott-the-scrapper trying to hold himself in check. Perhaps what Riley’s interview captured was a mind struggling to reconcile the gap between its grandiose narrative (no-nonsense man’s man) and an unpalatable alternative (unstatesman-like dolt).
During the last federal election campaign, the Liberal strategy team was apparently in possession of a psychological profile that identified former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a ‘grandiose narcissist’. The ‘key strut’ in his personality, according to the profile, was a firm belief in his intellectual superiority over everyone else.
Former Labour leader Mark Latham was also the subject of a fascinating psychological profile by his ex-chief of staff. The profile outlined Latham’s narcissism and paranoia and the internal dialogue that quarantined him from self-awareness and self-criticism. According to a Crikey article in 2009:
Latham’s narcissism requires him to obliterate (ablate) from his mind everybody who ever helped him, as a way of underpinning his inner belief that he is doing it all himself… Whatever he has achieved he has done on his own, he made it all happen by himself, his political persona is self-created, he needs nobody and he owes nothing to anybody. He has erased his past as if it did not exist, and created his own myth as, in a sense, fatherless from his own father on, not seeing how he stood on others’ shoulders both in his personal and political life.
Former Labour MP Belinda Neal became the subject of unflattering headlines when she was asked to change tables at a restaurant. Neal threatened to have the staff sacked and exemplified the narcissist’s sense of entitlement with her infamous ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ comment.
Labour governments are as invested in the protection of generous parliamentary entitlements as their Liberal/ National counterparts. It is clearly not the case, then, that narcissistic traits are the exclusive preserve of the right wing of the political spectrum, but I suggest that conservatives are especially vulnerable to the ‘grandiose fantasy’ trait of narcissism because, to some degree, the neo-conservative project is itself a grandiose fantasy.
Jason Wilson, writing in The Guardian, opined that the far right:
have elected to fight a prolonged culture war that demands the return of white, male, heterosexual authority, something that never truly existed in the way they imagine it.
What is the longing for the return of a halcyon and largely mythical past but a grandiose fantasy? Seen from this perspective, some of the more bizarre pronouncements of the Abbott government have an internal logic. The restoration of an imperial honours system and honouring of Prince Philip speaks of nostalgia for an idealised colonial past: a past where white men were archetypes of endeavour, subduing nature and natives alike. Abbott seemed consciously to frame himself as the poster-boy for ‘muscular Christianity’ (and rarely has a prime-ministerial body been so much on show).
Abbott’s ahistoricism makes sense in this context. His slighting of Indigenous people’s long and vibrant history in Australia (‘our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land’) reflects his reverence for the Anglo-imperialist project. His retrograde views on women and homosexuality made it seem that here was the leader for our times – if only our times were the 1950s.
The grandiose fantasy is largely untroubled by reason or evidence because, as argued earlier, it has complex firewalls against shame and change. It is also buttressed by the narcissist’s innate belief in their own ‘specialness’ or ‘uniqueness’. Narcissists may feel a powerful sense of destiny. To quote Vaknik again:
The narcissist believes in his omnipotence. ‘Believe’ in this context is a weak word. He knows. It is a cellular certainty, almost biological, it flows in his blood and permeates every niche of his being.
This sense of being destined is felt at a cellular level. This might explain why Abbot spoke of his and his party’s vocation in somatic terms. Their capacity to manage the economy, he said repeatedly, ‘is in our DNA’.
In his book Battlelines (2009), Abbott repeatedly and approvingly characterised John Howard’s wisdom as seated ‘in the marrow of his bones’. The conservative, he argued, values intuition as much as reasoning, instinct as much as intellect. These things which are known/felt do not require examination – they exist beyond the realm of analysis.
Undoubtedly part of the Abbot government’s anti-science project reflected a devotion to the vested interests of fossil fuel companies. But its extremity, indeed its hysteria, suggested something beyond mere pragmatism. If what is known/ felt is valued beyond what can be empirically measured and tested, then science itself is inherently devalued. A feeling of destiny, of profound vocation, is a formidable bulwark against evidentiary analysis and change.
Tony Abbott’s forty-third parliament was the subject of a revealing demographic analysis by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library. The parliament included thirty people who had formerly worked in the legal profession, fifty-seven who were in business and eight who were in the farming industry.
By far the largest contingent comprised those who worked in ‘politics-related jobs’. Ninety-two people – forty-one per cent of the elected representatives – entered parliament from roles in local government, political parties or unions, political lobbying or consultancy firms, political research and electorate office positions.
In other words, the single largest demographic in the Abbott parliament comprised people who had entered parliament from politics. They worked in electorate offices, or as advisers, or as lobbyists or as union officials. Abbott himself entered parliament after a three-year stint as John Hewson’s press secretary. Prior to that his tenure in the full time workforce totalled three years: first as a journalist for the Bulletin and later as the manager of a concrete plant.
Not only did ‘proto-parliamentarians’ dominate the parliament, their numbers were at historically high levels. In 1988, persons entering the parliament from political roles accounted for twenty-six per cent of the total. In contrast, parliamentarians who came from other professions and life experiences were shrinking as a demographic.
The narcissist simply knows. They are chosen. Destined.
If a person enters the parliament via a more or less straight route from university – and university politics – to an electorate office or similar, the danger is that ideology, unblunted by pragmatism and experience, becomes the driving political force. What leads such people to think they have the depth and breadth of experience and wisdom to lead and govern others? If pathological narcissism is in play, these questions are immaterial, even insulting. The narcissist simply knows. They are chosen. Destined.
There is good evidence for narcissism being on the rise in the general population, and in parliaments particularly. The implications are not wholly bad. Narcissism has been characterised as a ‘bright side/dark side’ phenomenon; that is, it can predict both positive and negative leadership outcomes. On the bright side, narcissistic leaders can be visionary risk- takers and highly creative, and their belief in their own grandiose destiny can inspire others.
On the dark side, the 2013 study of American presidents cited earlier in this essay found that:
narcissism is linked to overconfident decision making, deceit, and failure to learn from mistakes. In addition, narcissism is tied to placing the needs of the self before long-term organisational needs. Narcissism is also associated with counterproductive work behaviour and poor ethics.
In our system of three-year electoral cycles it is not difficult to see how long-term planning – nation-building – can seem inimical to the demands of the self, i.e. re-election. The gaffes, backflips and stumblings that most of us would find mortifying, may not bother the pronounced narcissist at all. In fact, if it results in attention – any attention – the narcissist may find it gratifying. What the narcissist cannot bear is indifference. They need attention like they need oxygen. This is what psychologists call ‘narcissistic supply’.
If this is true, then parliament must be a beacon for the narcissist, as compelling as the green light at the end of Gatsby’s dock. One could hardly imagine a more charmed environment for a pathological narcissist: the constant glare of media attention, a captive audience, the trappings and symbols of office. And this is where it becomes genuinely frightening, because in this scenario the voter is transformed into a source of ‘narcissistic supply’.
The constituent who denies the narcissist by casting a vote elsewhere or puncturing a grandiose fantasy becomes not someone whose grievances should be examined and – if warranted – addressed. Instead, they are construed as, at best, misguided and, at worst, objects of punishment and resentment (Abbott threatened to withhold the East-West link funding if the Andrew’s government directed it towards public transport – despite the fact that Andrews had been elected on precisely this platform).
As the narcissistic personality type proliferates within the parliament, so public office appears ever more toxic and undesirable to the non-narcissist. To people who value reason and evidence in decision-making, and humility and impulse control in their interpersonal relationships, a narcissistic environment would be unpalatable, even frightening. Can we expect, then, that pathological narcissism will become the new normal among parliamentarians and we-the-people merely the fix that sustains them?