GW Psychology Professor Shares Stories from New Book on Narcissism in Politics

By Monica Charles

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Post signs copies of his new book at Politics & Prose. Photo by Monica Charles, Jan. 24

Martin Luther King Jr., Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy and Saddam Hussein share more than just a place in history books. According to Dr. Jerrold M. Post, author and professor, they were all narcissists.

On Jan. 24, Post spoke to a crowd at Politics and Prose about his new book, “Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory”. The book overviews narcissism as a personality disorder, and it also includes research and analysis of countless world leaders. Post covers historical context, specific life experiences and other nuances in leaders’ lives that molded their personalities.

The book, published in November 2014, is Post’s latest work. He has authored many other books in his area of expertise, including “The Mind of a Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda” (2007) and “Know Thy Enemy: Profiles of Adversary Leaders and their Strategic Cultures” (2003).

Post – who is a professor of psychiatry and political psychology at The George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs – worked with the Central Intelligence Agency, where he founded the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior and created psychological profiles of world leaders.

Post began his talk by reminding the audience that he would not make any clinical diagnoses of individuals, but instead he sought to deconstruct narcissism and its origins in a leader.

Post delved the most into the roots of Saddam Hussein’s narcissism. Having spent much of his career studying Hussein, including testifying in Congress to analyze Hussein’s behavior, Post spoke about Hussein with a certain fondness, at one point stating, “Indeed, I rather miss him.”

He emphasized that Hussein was “not the madman of the Middle East,” but rather a “rational calculator who often miscalculated,” his miscalculations stemming from deep-seated self-doubt.

“There is a difference between the surface grandiosity [of a narcissistic leader] and what underlays that grandiosity – insecurity,” Post said.

Post explained that Hussein’s psychological poverty started before he was born.
“One can trace back to the womb – literally – the foundations of his wounded self,” he said.

Hussein’s mother rejected him before she gave birth to him, and he wasn’t able to build a relationship with his father, either. According to Post, Hussein did not receive the highly important nurturing during the first two years of his life. From there, he only became more traumatized.

On the other end of the spectrum, Post discussed leaders who were coddled in their childhood, cultivated by parents to be prodigies, or “to be the vehicle of a mother’s success.”

He cited Civil War leader General Douglas MacArthur as being subject to such a childhood, but he also pointed out that children nowadays face similar situations. Those children who are taken out of school to train for the Olympics or to be Hollywood stars, Post explained, are also prone to narcissistic tendencies.

Post spoke in a purely analytical tone, never accusing a leader of being insane or evil. He also readily noted that many of these leaders – like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy – are celebrated.

“Some of the most heroic leaders in history came from narcissism,” he said. Post touched on the personalities of leaders across the globe, from Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to India’s Indira Gandhi to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. He pinpointed specific childhood anomalies in every leader’s life that manifested into narcissistic tendencies years later.

Post did not discuss one of today’s most scrutinized leaders, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, during his talk but Post does analyze Putin in his book.

Putin’s childhood also reflects the roots of narcissism. Standing at 5-foot-6, Putin “was often bullied as a kid and picked on for his slight of build,” Post explained. “In response to any insults or criticism, Putin responded viciously to his tormentors.” In present day, this insecurity is shown in Putin’s overcompensation and obsession “with masculinity, size, strength and power as evidenced by bare-chested photos of him with guns, and with a tranquilized tiger,” Post writes.

The only region that Post did not cover in his talk or in his book is Latin America – an area that has been victim of numerous charismatic and powerful leaders for centuries. The absence of analyses of household names such as Castro, Pinochet, Fujimori and Trujillo was apparent for some members of the audience.

Casilda Montilla, originally from the Dominican Republic, was disappointed that Post did not address the atrocities that these leaders subjected their people to.

“He should have talked about the Latin American dictators and how narcissistic they were,” Montilla said. “I would have been curious to know if something happened in their childhoods to make them the way they were.”

Post tied in current political affairs in the United States, too. He explained the tendency of narcissistic leaders to have sexual affairs throughout their careers, honing in the recent scandal in Virginia, in which politician Joseph Morrissey was caught having an alleged sexual relationship with his 17-year-old secretary. Morrissey recently won re-election to Virginia’s House of Delegates, while serving his jail sentence.

Post criticized voters for reelecting a public official with a disreputable personal life.

“We’ve seen publics still reelect individuals and make the point that the personal life has nothing to do with their political service,” Post said, “But there are clues that are present in political life in their personal life.”

Post’s final remarks urged the insurance that all leaders are thoroughly studied – whether the leader is in North Korea or right in the heart of the capital.

“In this unstable world so many of the conflicts have to do with rogue leader, leaders with malignant narcissism,” Post said. “To not have a nuanced political personality profile of our leaders is to be significantly impaired.”

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