The Clare Spark Blog

April 5, 2010

Is POTUS Crazy?

Edgar Allan Poe

[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]

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., 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 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.


  1. […] My most popular blogs have dealt with the enigma of POTUS, with a consensus among many of my readers that he is a narcissist, possibly of the most malignant and incurable variety. This blog makes the claim that Obama’s personality is the wrong focus of attention. We do better to look at the incoherence of the base that elected him, and what is the bond that links him to such disparate sectors of the electorate, ranging from Wall Street liberals, Hollywood moguls and celebrities, teachers unions, the AFL-CIO, youth culture, environmentalists, and “racial” minorities, including liberal Jews still tied to the New Deal embraced by their parents. (See and […]

    Pingback by Who is Barack Obama? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 17, 2013 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

  2. […] his political base as incoherent , thus bringing together most of the items listed above: (See, especially the sentence in bold face type: “It is conceivable to me that Obama’s family […]

    Pingback by Diagnosing POTUS « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 6, 2012 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

  3. […] For more speculation on Obama’s psyche see Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

    Pingback by The State of the Union Stinks « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 26, 2012 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

  4. All of the facts and context you have chosen here are germane and likely essential, That’s refreshing! Your conclusion is also largely correct: “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.”

    I suggest “largely correct” because until reason again becomes dominant (as was the case during the Enlightenment), men will continue having no arbiter to test whether their conclusions conform to reality or not, and agreements, if any, will remain difficult and pointless. True principles like gravity in physics and individual rights in politics will cease being discovered. All knowledge will continue being mere subjectively invented parlor games or intrinsically revealed scripture, rather than being the objectively provable and thereby only reliable means to gaining values and flourishing. Today’s culture is pervasively irrational, and the cancer is rapidly spreading to the (implicitly held) metaphysical and epistemic roots of most Americans – the world’s last remnants of the Enlightenment.

    Ultimately, the dominant and root character of every period comes down to Plato versus Aristotle, and the past sesquicentennial has been Plato. The good news is that a second enlightenment is certain, as long as men don’t nuke or islamicize the world first. That’s because the (relatively tiny) gaps and flaws in Aristotle’s metaphysics and epistemology have finally been remedied, and the first scientific approach to the normative has finally been developed; read Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and The Objectivist Ethics, and see if you don’t concur! For the role of philosophy (vs. psychology et. al.) as the true determinant of history, see Peikoff’s first work – The Ominous Parallels – analyzing the dominant Platonist/Kantian ideas of the Weimar Republic, how their widespread acceptance made the Nazis, Hitler, and the death camps possible, and how many of those ideas pervade America today.

    Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Peter Murphy — December 23, 2011 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  5. Just wanted to add a “ditto” to Sarah Rolph’s comment. The post here is interesting and useful.


    Comment by rifle308 — June 22, 2010 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  6. Great writing and analysis. Glad to have discovered your blog. Thanks for leaving a link in comments over at Pajamas.

    Comment by Sarah Rolph — June 19, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  7. For two weeks solid, I read Blake’s notebooks and many other materials while I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Clark Library. I made a seminar presentation on the poet, and our leader Robert Folkenflik, liked it. Since I am anything but an authority on Blake it is not like me to go out on a limb and parade my ignorance. I do remember that he experienced many traumas as a child, including harsh treatment by his parents. It was my personal opinion that he was a mental case, but that does not take away from the beauty of much of his poetry. As I have not published on Blake (except to remark on his corporatism in a footnote to my Melville book) I think you should drop this complaint.
    As for Olson, he indulged in some pretty vulgar antisemitism and I outraged some Melvilleans when I quoted from one of his letters. That too is in the book. His vulgar and rather horrifying remarks about women in his notebooks were hard to take. Having said that, he was an astute reader of Melville and picked up his most revealing passages. I never said he was stupid, just very much the alert Catholic,bohemian, and opportunist. My mini-bio of Olson is in chapter 7 of my book and elsewhere in the text. He had a good mind, and was tortured by his compromises.

    Comment by clarespark — April 20, 2010 @ 7:24 pm | Reply

  8. “Perhaps you think that saying that someone might have emotional problems is an insult.” Actually no, but I have thought that in some cases you dismiss people wholesale on such grounds, and also make wild assumptions about their personal history from pieces of what they’ve written–that seemed to be what you were doing with William Blake. It would be hard to debate that–it was on some other website somewhere–but I remember vividly that you said people should “pity” him, and you also said that there was a strong possiblity he was molested as a child–you based this on one of his Songs, I don’t think you said which.

    I too think it is a good ideal to see people clearly, without “blindness”. I would like to go to the UConn/Storrs Poetry Collection sometime in the next few years, and I will try to take a look at Charles Olson’s unedited notebooks, among other papers of his. I myself point out to people the ugly moment in the published Olson/Creeley corresondence where he’s talking about not liking Kafka anymore (he once did)–and he says the falseness of Kafka can be shown be the groups of people who’ve been attracted to K.: Jews, homosexuals, and “collectivists”. Olson definitely has his Archie Bunker moments–here I think he is saying he doesn’t like a writer whose liked by these “losers”, though he has no consistent record of hatred towards those three groups, I don’t think.

    Comment by Stephen Baraban — April 20, 2010 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

  9. Have you ever read Olson’s notebooks (unedited) and seen his misogyny and other symptoms of a troubled mind? I could say the same for Blake. Or Melville. Or many of his revivers. Perhaps you think that saying that someone might have emotional problems is an insult. To me it is a symptom that makes me wary of following that person blindly, and also makes me curious about the source of the problem. It is what historians should do. If they fail to look inside the psyche of the artist or critic or politician, they should probably hand in their degrees and not teach students or other readers, for they are incompetent.
    You may not agree with this protocol, and if not, I will not hold it against you. But after spending 35 years studying these characters, I am not likely to back off. It is what women do if they have any guts.
    If you read my book, you would see that I was sympathetic to all my subjects, and sought institutional causes for their difficulties. I have always defended artistic and cultural freedom.

    Comment by clarespark — April 19, 2010 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

  10. O.K.–sorry to assume you had erased my comment forever: I now see that as an unknown voice I was On Review, like they say. I definitely thought you were an interesting thinker, perhaps important, but your propensity for calling worthy people “sick” was one thing about your writing that eventually made me perplexed and angry. Here Olson & Obama, somewhere else William Blake, who you said is someone who should be “pitied”.

    I was also perplexed that you thought scholars were trying to “clear” Melville’s father of sins, so as to make Herman look unbalanced. Why wouldn’t they use the typical tactic of dismissal, by saying maybe Herman’s father was a jerk, and Herman was unfair to social institutions because of basically personal problems?

    Comment by Stephen Baraban — April 19, 2010 @ 9:41 pm | Reply

  11. oh I’m just a troll to be erased because I don’t think Obama is mentally ill for speaking too long. merry christmas.

    Comment by Stephen M. Baraban — April 18, 2010 @ 7:59 pm | Reply

  12. Wow, President Obama feels moved to give a 17 minute answer at a question and answer session & apparently bored a lot of those present, and some Pajamas Media character & those who comment on his site including Clare Spark see fit to speculate on what particular serious mental illness he has! I’m interested in your Melville work, Dr. Spark, at least for the valuable information/gossip about Melville scholars including my favorite poet, Charles Olson, if not for your intellectual mapping which frankly confuses me—but I’m thinking less and less that you are a important thinker whose views I should puzzle out and understand.

    Comment by Stephen Baraban — April 18, 2010 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

    • You actually thought at one time that I was an important thinker? When? Why? As for Charles Olson, I wrote the only honest account of Olson’s work on Melville, and poor fellow, he was a sick man: I mean Olson, not Melville. His switch from Ahab-admirer to Ahab-hater was entirely motivated by a wish to enter the establishment.

      Comment by clarespark — April 18, 2010 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

  13. It is late and I am tired but skimming I thought for a moment that Lamprecht was Georg Simmel. And how could I have forgotten neurasthenia?

    Comment by jon-christian suggs — April 6, 2010 @ 4:27 am | Reply

  14. See this blog: You will discover the terrible prognosis for “Reizsamkeit,” courtesy of that connoisseur of degeneration theory, Karl Lamprecht. That was around the turn-of-the-century too. However, I have known persons who fit the profile of the malignant narcissist, and the description fits those characters: as for Obama, I only present the provisional judgments of other writers.

    Comment by clarespark — April 6, 2010 @ 4:13 am | Reply

  15. Indeed, let us historicize. I’ve been researching for a new book and am knee-deep in the psychological disorder du jour of 1900, paranoia. A couple of decades later you were nobody if you were not Oedipus. Last year (was it only last year?) every psychopath on tv was bi-polar. Now I find the malignancy special for today is narcissism. Is it not possible that we cut the cloth to fit our fears? (I hesitate to even mention the invention of nymphomania in the middle of the 19th century.)

    Comment by jon-christian suggs — April 6, 2010 @ 3:52 am | Reply

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