[I am adding this query to what was a popular blog: If Obama is actually suffering from a narcissistic disorder, what might be the effect of close advisors stepping down? What would be the effect of substantial Republican gains on November 2? For a follow-up blog that quotes this one see http://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/.]
Roger Simon, CEO of Pajamas Media, posted his article “President Weirdo” on April 3, 2010, postulating the Obama’s conduct suggested a serious personality disorder. It generated 263 or more comments, some of them exhibiting great fear of what may lie in store for us. I posted Roger’s article on my Facebook page, and was reminded that Charles Krauthammer, trained in psychiatry, had also mentioned that Obama was narcissistic,* while Michael Callis, another of my Facebook friends, a professional psychologist, thinks that Obama may be a “malignant narcissist.” By contrast, Victor Davis Hanson wrote a piece, published in Pajamas Media today, on Obama as a postmodernist (i.e., as a Third World ideologue), without additional commentary as to his possibly pathological mental states. Still other highly visible opponents of Obama (Glenn Beck for instance) continue to see him as a Leninist/progressive with an agenda derived from community organizer Saul Alinsky. (The latter two diagnoses are close to democratic leftist law professor and blogger Stephen Diamond, who comments on the “social justice” mafia pushing identity politics as Obama’s chief allies. Cf. http://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/, posted today, April 8).
This blog will try to place these diagnoses in an historical context, and comment too on the uncertainties that historians face when describing the personalities of great men and women.
It was not long ago when psychohistory was all the rage in political science and history circles. Figures such as Michael Rogin (authors of studies of Nixon, Reagan, and Andrew Jackson) and Peter Loewenberg became celebrities in their respective fields. But by the time I hit graduate school at UCLA in 1983, such studies were thought to be ridiculously reductive. I remember (Trotskyist) Professor Robert Brenner, with (social democratic) Professor Loewenberg in attendance, telling his seminar that in his view, putting all your analytic eggs on relationships in the family of origin was absurd. And before this instance, Philip Rieff took Freud to task for ignoring history as the engine for human conduct. Similarly, professional psychiatrists, epistemological materialists that they are, tend now to dispense medication for problems ranging from anxiety attacks to schizophrenia. Psychoanalysis is often mocked as the ineffectual and expensive “talking cure,” while clinical psychologists are as divided among themselves as to clinical method as are psychoanalysts, with their famous internal debates between Kleinians, Jungians, orthodox Freudians, neo-Freudians, eclectics, etc. So it takes a lot of self-confidence for someone without a Dr. after his name to propose that the President of the United States might be possessed of mental states that are dangerous to our national and personal security. I am siding with Roger Simon here, perhaps because I am defending my own work as an intellectual historian along with his and that of every honorable artist. Although existentialists and their postmodern descendants will scoff at his/my (bourgeois) hubris, if you can’t think yourself into another person’s head, if you cannot piece together a history of thoughts and actions in your subject, then you have nothing to say, and nothing to give to the world but received opinions and other official platitudes. You might as well put down your pen and find a job that earns you an honest living.
The suggestion that POTUS might be a “malignant narcissist” is particularly intriguing to me. And here is where one might be able to collapse all the competing narratives as to Obama’s mental states into one historical explanation. Read the Wikipedia article on that diagnosis, and note that “malignant narcissism” is not in DSM-IV, though narcissistic personality disorder is, and narcissism is a feature of other personality disorders as the authors of DSM-IV defined them. It is conceivable to me that Obama’s family history (especially the abandonment by his father and who-knows-what-relationships with his doting mother and doting grandparents), set him up to be the perfect candidate for ambitious politicians in Chicago, who could count on the incoherent constituencies of the Democratic Party (big labor, public sector employees, cultural nationalist minorities, dependents of the welfare state, feminists, gays, veterans of the civil rights movement, wealthy liberal Jews, post60s academics and journalists, liberal internationalists, environmentalists) to be taken in by his charisma and passionate promises for a national healing that would reconcile the irreconcilable demands and interests of his base, an equally apocalyptic change inside the Washington Beltway, and an avowedly anti-imperialist foreign policy. It makes sense too, in explaining his obvious rage at being criticized and blocked, to suspect that his “narcissistic supplies” are threatened. As for the grandiosity that characterizes the narcissist and other would-be healers or “moderates”, such a high opinion of himself attracts others who aspire to greatness and a cohesive human community, and who therefore tend to idealize him and overlook his contradictory statements and broken promises–for he could not and can not please the diverse elements of the base that elected him and continues to support him. I recall that one analyst of pathological narcissism (Kohut? Kernberg? Klein?) mentions the coexistence of grandiosity and emptiness that exists simultaneously in the same breast. If you read the Wikipedia article, note that the more power the malignant narcissist gets, the more dangerous he becomes, and the more paranoid. Even if you do not find this suggestion of a pathological personality disorder to be persuasive, and prefer an ideological explanation instead (“transnational progressivism,” postmodern anti-imperialism, crypto-Leninism), there is no way to please everyone in a “mixed economy” that depends on redistribution alone to stave off “disruption” or worse. One must step outside the premises of progressivism with its incoherence and double binds (see http://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/ in which I criticize JG for not seeing the double bind inflicted by the authoritarian liberals who are at bottom organic conservatives averse to rupture, though they do not call themselves that).
In closing, I must add that when I read Obama’s first book in early 2008, I became alarmed and suspicious, for it was obvious to me as a reader that there was not one coherent voice in the narrative (could there be, given the diverse interests of his audience?), and moreover, that he could not possibly have remembered all the incidents from his childhood in such detail. In the acknowledgments, he thanks his mother for refreshing his memory and helping him with the writing (tell me, reader, if I am wrong). I should also say that all the opinions expressed in this blog are provisional and speculative, but then so is medicine and its related fields in mental health. But without the power of such free thought, tireless in its search for clues, we are mindless followers, not citizens. Hail to thee, Roger L. Simon, C. Auguste Dupin, Captain Ahab, John Milton (!), Sigmund Freud, and all those other Prometheans who have leaped from light into darkness.
*Obama was described as “narcissistic” by David Remnick in his Jon Stewart interview, 4-8-10. Remnick’s bio is entitled The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. Has anyone commented on the odd title? Is Obama the Savior who has rescued America from right-wing materialism and racism? There is narcissism and narcissism. One definition of healthy narcissism refers to the ability to soothe oneself without “supplies” from the outer world. But for centuries the myth of Narcissus was deployed by organic thinkers to stigmatize the dissenting individual/mad scientist, who was deemed indifferent to Echo (the call of community and social responsibility). Think Dollhouse; think Flash Forward.
[Added, Dec.15, 2010: Narcissistic personality disorder is being dropped from DSM-V. We don't know why. Has Obama become more dangerous since November 2 as his narcissistic supplies fade away? Dinesh D'Souza diagnoses him as a post-colonialist; Dick Morris sees him as a conventional social democrat (not a communist). His most left-leaning base is predicting a one-term presidency. And I continue to be baffled, but most impressed by the incoherence of both political parties, and his erratic behavior, moving from committed radical to "centrist" compromiser as opportunistic and a sign of his determination to stay in power. Meanwhile, Robert Reich calls for a vast new statist initiative to reinstate the WPA, rebuild the country's infrastructure, financed with a perfectly reasonable 70 % federal income tax on the idle, non-consuming enough rich. Thorstein Veblen, where are you when we need you?
I had a thought that was cut off on Facebook. All this speculation about Obama’s mental states sells books and rivets audience to the great mystery of his personality. I say, go back to the coalitions that comprise both major parties and ask yourself how you could please everyone in your party if you were president. The No Label, neo-moderate solution is yet another evasion of the conflicting interests that have always characterized our democracy, and that no amount of compromise can resolve. We are not yet fully modern. Remnants of tribalism, antiquity, and feudalism remain undefeated and there is little agreement on what is truly “modern.” Is the essence of modernity irrationalism? I hope not.