The McCain campaign and the Republican Party have every reason to push the Obama-as-narcissist theme. For one thing, it jibes with a long-standing desire to pathologize liberalism. It’s also ingeniously suited to this particular campaign, since it turns Obama’s strengths into weaknesses and does the reverse with McCain’s liabilities. (Credit the GOP, yet again, for turning stylistic criticism into a major campaign theme.) Finally, it’s a crafty way of playing the race card — of essentially calling Obama an uppity black man without actually using those words.
But that’s exactly why the press should be very careful about joining the GOP chorus. To tilt the election by rehashing vague accusations about political style would be bad enough. Throw in the race-baiting component, and the narcissism/egotism/arrogance trope could end up making the press’s shameful slander of Al Gore in 2000 look, in retrospect, like Pulitzer bait.
If you’re a liberal, in the broadest contemporary sense of the term, the notion that your political philosophy is predicated on self-love may seem counterintuitive. After all, your conservative co-worker is the one who’s always bitching about taxes. You, on the other hand, are (relatively) happy to part with more of your own money so that government can help your fellow citizens. You worry about the poor, and the uninsured, and how many Iraqis have died since the US invaded in 2003, and the fate of the Earth. Your conservative co-worker worries about putting up a fence to keep out the “illegals.”
For conservatives, though, the link between liberalism and narcissism is plain as day. There’s a generational aspect to this assessment: for some, today’s baby boomers will forever bear the taint of the more self-absorbed aspects of the 1960s. But there’s a political-philosophical component, too. Conservative commentator Dennis Prager cites naiveté (specifically, the belief that the vast majority of people are good) and narcissism (defined as “the unhealthy preoccupation with oneself and one’s feelings”) as liberalism’s two defining characteristics. “A good example of liberal narcissism is the liberal position on abortion,” Prager explained on the conservative Web site worldnetdaily.com back in 2003. “For the liberal, the worth of a human fetus, whether it is allowed to live or to be extinguished, is entirely based on the feelings of the mother. If the mother wants to give birth, the fetus is of incomparable worth; if the mother doesn’t, the fetus has the value of a decayed tooth.”
Given this assessment of liberalism as a mass psychological disorder, it’s only fitting that some conservatives have described liberalism’s recent champions as prominent cases in point. In 2004, for example, Henry I. Miller — a physician and fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution — concluded, in a piece written for the National Review Online, that former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Among his evidence: the notion (false, then and now) that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, and Earth in the Balance, Gore’s environmental manifesto, which Miller found “patronizing, apocalyptic, and overwrought.” That same year, John Kerry’s purported narcissism was a topic of conversation at Free Republic, the far-right political blog. It was also discussed by Time’s Klein in a February 2004 piece. (“There is . . . a claustrophobic and slightly narcissistic quality to Kerry’s speech,” Klein wrote. “It’s all about his leadership, his vision.”)