Inexplicably following a narcissist

A few years ago I was part of the team that hired a new pastor for our local church. He was about my age and had spent most of his career in academia. We had concerns about his ability to do the practical tasks required of a leader, but I believed he would be surrounded by a competent staff who would guide him to success. Within a few years, he left. To sum up a long story, he had many of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder[1]:

  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements.
  • Make achievements and talents seem bigger than they are.
  • Believe they are superior to others and can only spend time with or be understood by equally special people.
  • Be critical of and look down on people they feel are not important.
  • Expect special favors and expect other people to do what they want without questioning them.
  • Take advantage of others to get what they want.
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
  • Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special recognition or treatment.
  • Have major problems interacting with others and easily feel slighted.
  • React with rage or contempt and try to belittle other people to make themselves appear superior.
  • Have difficulty managing their emotions and behavior.
  • Withdraw from or avoid situations in which they might fail.

These are especially harmful attributes in a pastor, of course, but these statements apply to many people who end up in leadership positions. Why? Who in their right mind would follow someone like this?

Unfortunately the answer is clear once you understand how these folks engineer success:

  1. Reward the loyal.
  2. Ostracize the disloyal.
  3. Ignore the rest.

People in the third category are not allowed to know about the other two. Obviously the loyal know who the disloyal people are as a cautionary tale. The disloyal are ushered out the door as quickly and as quietly as possible. So a narcissist leader surrounds himself (and it’s so often a man) with a loyal star chamber that dispenses justice (or more accurately, injustice) upon all who dare challenge authority.

This is the strategy Trump used to destroy the Republican party. His star chamber doesn’t even need to hide in the shadows anymore because disloyal Republicans have left the party or politics itself. People like Nikki Haley, who ran against Trump in the primary earlier this year, pledge loyalty to return to the fold in hopes of getting to be Vice President. Trump is king of the party and intends to hold that position indefinitely.

Which brings me to the surprising narcissism of Joe Biden. In 2020, I sorta figured he was a contrasting figure with Trump. He had an “aw shucks” attitude that put him on the opposite end of the egotism spectrum. It was my impression he ran to end the insanity of the Trump years and that he’d follow the example of Cincinnatus by returning home to Delaware after a term. Turns out Biden only cares about Biden.

When a narcissist falls, he takes as much of the organization down with him as possible. The people in the “ignore the rest” category are left to pick up the pieces and some organizations don’t survive. Our church only survived because we managed to address the problem just in time. The Republican party might not survive Trump, but there’s still time for the Democratic party.

  1. I’ve selected items that have external manifestations. It’s hard to know what’s going in inside other people’s minds and hearts. ↩︎

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