The present wave of populism has reorganized the political map of the world. It brought about the Trump presidency and the crisis around Brexit. Populist parties have become significant political players in many countries. Regardless of its specific version, the populist rhetoric is always antagonistic, pitching the ‘real’ or the ‘better’ people against ‘the worst sorts’ represented by the ‘old elites’. Populism undermines against pluralism and democratic values.
Our research on collective narcissism may help elucidate why people support populist politicians and parties as we believe collective narcissism lies in the heart of the populist message. Collective narcissism is a belief that one’s own group (the in-group) is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment but it is not sufficiently recognized by others. Thus, central to collective narcissism is the resentment that the in-group’s exceptionality is not sufficiently appreciated by others. Any reason can be used to claim that the in-group is exceptional: its incomparable morality, cultural sophistication, economic or military might, God’s love, even exceptional suffering and martyrdom. The reason depends on the in-group’s current normative narration about the dimension of its positive distinctiveness among other groups. Whatever the reason for the claim of the in-group’s privileged status, collective narcissist belief expresses the desire for the in-group to be highly positively distinguishable from other groups and the concern that the fulfilment of this desire is threatened. Thus, collective narcissist belief is at the core of populist message.
Collective narcissism has been implicated in voting for populist policies, parties and politicians. American collective narcissism was the second, after partisanship, strongest correlate of voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election (over and above economic dissatisfaction, authoritarianism, sexism, and racial resentment). In the UK, collective narcissism was associated with the vote to leave the European Union. Analyses indicated that the rejection of immigrants, perceived as a threat to economic superiority and the British way of life, were behind the association between collective narcissism and the Brexit vote. Collective narcissism was also associated with support for the populist governments and its particular policies in Poland and in Hungary. Why are populist politicians so appealing to people who agree that the world would be a better place if their in-group had a more say in it or that the true importance of their in-group is not properly recognized by others?
A closer look at the defining characteristics of populist rhetoric indicates that it is constructed around the collective narcissist resentment that the in-group’s entitlement to privilege is (no longer) granted by other groups. The populist rhetoric emphasizes the privileged status of the in-group and those within the in-group vigilant enough to see that its greatness is no longer recognized by others. Populist rhetoric evokes the concept of “heartland”, an idealized conception of the in-group’s past the “chosen” plan to restore, blaming others for the loss of its grandeur. Populist rhetoric follows the logic of a melodramatic jeremiad, lamentation over the lost purity of the in-group, recollection of its greatness and a call for its renewal combined with the unshakeable belief that the in-group is unique and chosen. Jeremiad as a rhetorical tactic demands conversion to the “true” ways indicated by the “chosen” who lead the in-group’s reformation. Importantly, the populist rhetoric emphasizes the division between the “chosen” or “true” members of the in-group and their internal opposition and out-groups seen as threatening to the plan of the in-group’s re-birth. When people are more likely to be swayed by such rhetoric?
Our research suggests that people are more likely to hold collective narcissistic belief about their in-groups when they experience uncertainty regarding their personal significance and value. Collective narcissism, then, may be an attempt to compensate for low self-esteem. A historical example of a social context that undermined individual self-esteem and led to a rise in collective narcissism was the spread of fascist ideology after the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to scholars of the Frankfurt School, the rapid expansion of the capitalist economy and then the Great Depression undermined the stability of the traditional bases with respect to which people assessed their self-esteem. This was followed by widespread support for the fascist narrative about national superiority and entitlement. The recent and prevalent wave of populism across nations can also be linked to analogous economic and societal conditions. The increase in support of populism in Europe has been linked to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The financial crisis caused many people to lose economic status to which they felt entitled. The crises accompanied by the broader societal changes in Western countries that lead to empowerment of many previously disenfranchised groups produced a sense of lost group-based privilege. Such conditions are likely to engender uncertainty about self-esteem and produce a motivation, shared by some group members, to use the in-group instrumentally as a means of enhancing self-esteem.
When the in-group is used to restore undermined self-esteem, the self cannot be separated from the in-group, and group members invest in demanding that their in-group is granted special recognition and treatment by others. The results from our longitudinal studies indicate that this instrumental investment in the in-group’s greatness to compensate for undermined self-esteem is not successful. However, our research is quite clear about the consequences of increased support for collective narcissistic belief. Collective narcissism is robustly linked to intergroup hostility. Thus, it comes with little surprise, then, that the presidency of Donald Trump has seen a rapid increase in hate crime. In the UK, post-referendum increase in hate speech and discrimination against immigrants and foreign workers further supported the conclusion that the Brexit vote expressed xenophobic sentiments. Similarly, Poland and Hungary noted an unprecedented rise in xenophobia under their populist governments supported by collective narcissists.
More about collective narcissism and its political consequences can be found in our recent review paper here: