2020-04-12 14:00:00

On how national collective narcissism features in right-wing populism

The present wave of populism has reorganized the political map of the world. Populist parties have become significant political players in many Western democracies. In Poland populist Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc has held a majority government since 2015. The central feature of populism is its anti-elitism that contrasts the ‘democratic will of the people’ with the self-interested will of the ‘elites’. However, by idolizing ‘the will of the people’, populism undermines the very idea of pluralistic democracy, the rule of law, equality and respect towards rights of all social groups within the nation.  Otherwise free of ideological content, populism can become attached and ‘thickened’ by any host ideology. An overwhelming majority of Western populist parties nowadays represents the political right-wing. Why has the essentially illiberal right-wing populism been so appealing?

One important reason is because populist leaders advance a coherent vision of national identity that provides a convincing response to conditions that challenge people’s established expectations regarding privilege and self-importance. Those conditions are created by economic and socio-cultural shifts that have re-defined traditional group hierarchies. National collective narcissism defines the essence of this vision. It is a belief that the nation is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment, but it is not sufficiently respected and recognized by others. It is a positive belief about the nation laden with negative emotion of resentment. As such it differs qualitatively from patriotism (love for one’s country) and nationalism (a dominant international stance). What motivates national collective narcissism is a desire to fortify, or restore, the conditions that have justified one’s sense of self-importance and distinction over others. What follows national collective narcissism are prejudice, discrimination, internal divisions and hostility. Although it preaches love for the country, national collective narcissism does not have it in its heart. Instead of advancing, it undermines the national welfare.


In scientific analyses, the structural conditions facilitating support for populism have been grouped into two categories: cultural (‘cultural backlash’) and economic (‘losers of globalization’). The ‘cultural backlash’ proposition claims that the post-war economic prosperity in Western Europe brought about a cultural shift towards post-material values of self-expression, equality, and tolerance. It allowed relative emancipation of previously disadvantaged social groups such as women, ethnic, cultural or sexual minorities, thus undermining the traditional group hierarchies. Right wing populism is a reaction to this shift, a ‘revolution in reverse’, a back-lash against the changes towards greater equality between social groups. 

The ’economic anxiety’ or ‘losers of globalization’ thesis argues that increasing economic inequalities push certain social groups to feel betrayed, vulnerable and susceptible to the populist rhetoric. However, evidence suggests it is not the actual worsening of economic conditions or objective lack of economic means that crucially inspires populism. It is the subjective perception of one’s own economic situation as threatened or worsening relative to ‘the rest of society’: the perception of unfair disadvantage in comparison to others.  

A conclusion from those analyses is that despite its overt claims, populism does not express a desire for social justice and equality, but rather a demand for protection or restoration of privilege. The common emerging theme is the interpretation of the observed societal and economic changes as a threat of losing established grounds for one’s own sense of importance and entitlement. This interpretation is encouraged by political leaders who see in it their chance to gather support and curate a sense of national identity around it. 

Populist leaders act as social identity ‘entrepreneurs’. To gain support, they formulate and propagate a vision of national identity that encompasses and validates those whose sense of self-importance has been threatened. This re-interpretation of national identity is organized around shared resentment for the waning grounds of deference and recognition from others. The leaders reinforce the feeling of threat to self-importance and externalize its sources. They organize the content of national identity around resentment for the perceived loss and offer a vision of restoration via rejection and hostility towards those who – within the nation and outside – are blamed for the present decline.  Seeing it expressed in a public sphere validates the resentment, which is made a defining feature of an emerging national identity. Populist rhetoric suggests that those who feel wronged and resentful are indeed ‘the righteous’ and the only ‘true’ representatives of the nation concerned with its losing its grandeur. This rhetoric provides a coherent and appealing narrative explaining why their privileged status within the nation has been threatened or lost and how it should be restored. Thus, it offers the promise of restoring their sense of self-importance. This promise is likely to produce engaged followership. 

Populist leaders use the symbolic resources available in the community to rekindle sentiments hidden in traditional stories about common hardship, opposition and re-birth. The ‘cursed soldiers’, ‘misunderstood’ spokesmen for national purity of various shades of extremism are invoked to become symbols of the renewal of national values. Their narrative about the new national identity prescribes criteria to define those who are truly and rightfully constitutive of ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’ whom populist leaders claim to represent.  Their narrative also prescribes criteria for exclusion. In Poland, those criteria have been coined by the curious merger of the national values with traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. 

Analyses of the content of the populist narrative about national identity and empirical evidence indicate that the narrative is constructed around national collective narcissism. It is not incidental that the phenomenon of national collective narcissism was first described about 80 years ago by scholars of the Frankfurt School, who analyzed the conditions and beliefs that brought to power the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s. Theodore Adorno wrote: “Collective narcissism amounts to this: individuals compensate for the consciousness of their social impotence (…) by making themselves, either in reality or merely in their imaginations, into members of a higher, more comprehensive being. To this being they attribute the qualities they themselves lack, and from this being they receive in turn something like a vicarious participation in those qualities.” (Adorno, 1997, p. 11).  Erich Fromm commented on the interplay between individual and group narcissism: “Inasmuch as the group as a whole requires group narcissism for its survival, it will further narcissistic attitudes and confer upon them the qualification of being particularly virtuous” (Fromm, 1964; p. 80).  

Present psychological research, that assesses collective narcissism with a questionnaire and uses advanced statistical modelling, linked high scores on the national collective narcissism to support for populist parties and politicians in various countries in the world. American collective narcissism was the second, after partisanship, strongest predictor of voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election. Its role was more important than other factors, while explaining support for Trump’s candidacy: economic dissatisfaction, authoritarianism, sexism, and racial resentment. In the UK, collective narcissism was associated with the vote to leave the European Union. 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. National collective narcissism predicted support for the populist government and its particular policies in Poland and in Hungary. Such findings warrant a closer examination of motivational role and consequences of national collective narcissism as a belief about national identity. What is national collective narcissism about?

Collective narcissism

Collective narcissism is not just a belief that the nation is great. It is a belief that the nation is exceptional, incomparable to and better than others, and therefore, entitled to privileged treatment. The exact reason for the narcissistic claim to the nation’s exceptionality and entitlement vary. It may be the nation’s power and international status but it may also be the nation’s incomparable morality, cultural sophistication, God’s love, even exceptional loss, suffering and martyrdom. For example, national collective narcissism is related to glorification of national suffering and martyrdom in Hungary and Poland but to rejection of weakness and claims for military might in the U.S. There is also evidence for communal collective narcissism that takes the national benevolence, tolerance, or trustworthiness as the reason to claim exceptionality and entitlement to its privileged place among other nations. Whatever the reason to demand the privileged status, the collective narcissistic belief expresses the desire for the nation to be noticeably distinguished from other groups and the concern that the fulfilment of this desire is threatened. 

What are the motivational underpinnings of collective narcissism? In line with the reasoning of Adorno and Fromm and the above analysis of conditions of populism, psychological research suggests that collective narcissism is a defensive compensation for threatened self-importance. Firstly, collective narcissism is associated with low life satisfaction, negative mood and low self-esteem. Moreover, it is low self-esteem that predicts collective narcissism. Self-esteem undermined via experimental manipulation produces an increase in national collective narcissism. Moreover, evidence from longitudinal studies confirms this directionality of the relationship. Namely, people who report low self-esteem report higher collective narcissism several weeks later, but people who report high collective narcissism in week 1 do not report lower or higher self-esteem six weeks later. 

Thus, although lowered self-esteem causes compensation by national collective narcissism, adopting this belief does not improve self-esteem. Instead, national collective narcissism causes an increase in vulnerable narcissism. Vulnerable narcissism is a presentation of individual narcissism focused on a sense of frustration, guilt and anger for not being recognized by others as great and exceptional. This suggests that investing frustrated self-importance in collective narcissism is futile and, indeed, damaging. Instead of providing relief, it fuels a self-reinforcing mechanism via which frustrated deservingness at the individual level of the self becomes implicated in the definition of national identity. Addressing violated expectations regarding self-worth by believing the in-group is entitled to privileged treatment, but constantly undermined by others, only increases rather than alleviates the aggravation by frustrated self-importance. 

It is important to note that collective narcissism is not a belief people use merely to explain their reality. It is an emotionally laden belief that motivates people to act and act in a certain way. Collective narcissism does not express people’s need to regain a sense of control, nor does it express a desire for dignity, social justice and equality; where all individuals have equal chances to exercise their freedom and feel equally valued. Frustration of those needs could stimulate collective actions of disadvantaged groups for recognition of their identity, value and equal rights.  Instead, collective narcissism is a belief that expresses a desire for the privileged position and special recognition. Such a desire is more likely to stimulate collective actions either to protect or to reverse group hierarchies and privilege. To illustrate the difference, collective narcissism was characteristic of the ideology of Nation of Islam (which claimed a reversal of status between African and European Americans) rather than Civil Rights Movement (which advocated equal rights of all American citizens) in the USA. It characterizes Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s divisive populism in contrast to Jacek Kuron’s ideological work inspiring the communal spirit of the ‘Solidarity’ in Poland in 1980s. Indeed, collective narcissism among dominant groups in a society is associated with lack of solidarity with disadvantaged groups. For example, collectively narcissistic men do not support women in their collective actions to protect their rights and struggle towards equality. The more men feel threatened in their masculinity, the more they support the traditional gender hierarchy which they justify by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In a similar vein, national collective narcissism is associated with rejection of certain co-nationals identified as the members of a ‘worse sort’, who do not meet the narrow criteria of collective narcissistic definition of national identity. In Poland, the ‘worse sort’ is quite a broad category that contains everyone who is not ethnically Polish, Catholic, heterosexual and male. It also includes members of political and ideological opposition whose concepts of what it means to be Polish are more divers and broader than what the populists propose. Polish collective narcissists refuse to help immigrants and refugees, they tend to see them as threatening and not quite as human as Poles. Polish collective narcissists preach anti-Semitism and believe all Jewish people secretly conspire to rule the world. Polish collective narcissists reject those who criticize the current, ultraconservative, populist government. They reject Polish homosexuals who they perceive as ‘contamination’ of national purity. Polish collective narcissism is associated with sexism (among men and women) driven by the belief those who question the traditional gender hierarchy threaten the national identity. National collective narcissism harms the nation not only by intensifying internal divisions and exacerbating existing inequalities. It is also linked to a support for policies that are harmful to the national community but serve as an expression of national identity defined by collective narcissism. In Poland, national collective narcissism is associated with support for anti-environmental policies such as logging in Bialowieza primeval forest or subsidizing the coal industry.    

Further, empirical evidence suggests that collective narcissism is associated with antagonism and intergroup hostility and even with support for use of political violence and terrorism in more radicalized social contexts. Ethnic collective narcissism is associated with acceptance of terrorist violence among extremist groups in Sri Lanka, Morocco and Indonesia. Collective narcissism predicts hostile intergroup attitudes and behaviours in retaliation to offences to the nation’s image, past and present, actual and imagined. Collective narcissism is associated with hypersensitivity to any signs that the nation’s image may be undermined, criticized or that the national group may not be recognized or may be ignored or excluded by others. Collective narcissists exaggerate such threats and interpret them as a provocation to which they respond aggressively. 

Collective narcissism is also associated with a tendency to make up threats that instigate intergroup hostility. Collective narcissism is associated with conspiratorial thinking. For example, Polish collective narcissism is related to the belief that Western countries conspired to undermine the significance of Poland as a major contributor to the collapse of the Eastern European communist regimes. Such belief links collective narcissism to prejudice towards Germany (whose fall of the Berlin wall is commonly considered a symbol of the Communist era) and other Western countries. National collective narcissism fuels the support for the investigation of the  ‘Smoleńsk tragedy’: The 2010 crash of the Polish presidential plane on the way to Smoleńsk, Russia, which killed the president and 95 prominent Polish politicians on their way to commemorate Polish officers killed in Russia during World War II. Polish collective narcissists believe the crash was caused by Russian conspiracy. Catholic collective narcissism in Poland is linked to suspicions that gender-equality activists and academics teaching gender studies secretly plot to harm and undermine traditional Catholic family values and social arrangements inspired by those values. 

Conspiracy beliefs about the malicious plotting of other groups against one’s own nation fit the general tendency associated with collective narcissism, to adopt a posture of intergroup hostility across multiple intergroup distinctions. Such thinking provides a focused, simple explanation for why others fail to acknowledge the nation’s exceptionality. It justifies constant vigilance to threats to the nation’s exceptionality and provides a reassurance that the nation is important enough to attract secretive plots from others. Such beliefs attribute the lack of recognition of the group’s uniqueness to the hostility and jealousy of others. They explain how the group can be at the same time exceptional and not appreciated by others, who envy its greatness.  Thus, conspiracy theories provide a simple and coherent, although false, explanation for the apparent lack of recognition of the nation that allow to save the nation’s exaggerated image and boost the sense of its significance.

Is there a way out?

The way out of vicious circle of frustrated self and group-importance and intergroup hostility may be in collective narcissism being associated with other forms of positive, emotionally laden beliefs about the nation. Collective narcissism is related to but can be differentiated from at least one other, alternative belief. Namely, collective narcissism is qualitatively different than the belief that the nation is of a high value and a reason to be proud. This belief is called patriotism, or national satisfaction, or national self-esteem.  Although, like collective narcissism, it is a positive belief about the nation, it is associated with different emotions that motivate different actions than collective narcissism. Unlike collective narcissism, patriotism is associated with associated with satisfaction and pride of the nation. It is related to tolerance towards minorities, solidarity with disadvantaged groups and actions towards the national welfare. Non-narcissistic patriotism is related to acceptance of minorities, inclusion of immigrants, support for collective actions towards greater equality. Patriotic men support women in their straggle for equal treatment, patriotic women reject sexism. Participating in positively valued groups, being a proud community member, acting on behalf of others increases and stabilizes self-esteem. A stable sense of self-esteem does not require external validation or special treatment from others. The overlap between group satisfaction and collective self-esteem links the later to positive self-worth and positive emotionality. 

Usually competing visions of national identity coexist in democratic societies and are under constant discussion. The degree of the overlap between national collective narcissism and non-narcissistic patriotism is shaped by a those discussions. The presence of non-narcissistic patriotism is more prominent in this mixture, when the dominant narration about the national identity stresses communality, pride, the value of being connected to a community transcending the self. When patriotism is stronger than national collective narcissism the later is more likely to become indirectly linked to psychological benefits of positive social identity: feeling socially connected, positive, and happy. Conversely, when collective narcissism becomes a dominant narration about the national identity and the role of non-narcissistic group satisfaction is marginalized (e.g., via centralization of power, social polarization, undermined solidarity, and detachment from local communities), individuals feeling uncertain about their self-importance are more likely to uphold collective narcissism and turn against other groups like minorities, refugees, or women because they are motivated to protect the group in whose grandiosity their sense of self-importance is invested.


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Agnieszka Golec de Zavala
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala
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