Tuesday, January 19, 2021

America's Culture of Narcissism

Yesterday Matt Taibbi offered some reflections on an old book, The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch. Time being what it is, I have not reread the book since it first appeared in 1979. I recall that I liked the book and would certainly recommend it to your attention.

For the record, the full text of Taibbi’s remarks are only available to subscribers; I am happy to recommend that everyone subscribe.

The most striking part of the Taibbi article is his take, not so much on Donald Trump, as on Mitt Romney. As you know, the current junior senator from Utah is much admired by the media-- because he voted to convict President Trump at the first impeachment trial. And we all know that Romney blew his one chance at the presidency in 2012, for wimping out. 

Anyway, Taibbi offers this explanation of Trump. Between the idea of making America great again and the idea of draining the swamp, Taibbi prefers the latter:

Trump preached two big ideas…. First, he promised a cliché reactionary return to the good old days of “Great” America, which either meant a return to privilege (the left conception) or a clearing from the “swamp” of plutocrats who’d sold out the nation to fluff their own little nests, replacing them with Patriots who’d restore a strong America (the Trumpian version)....

I don’t think it’s necessary to litigate which description of “Make America Great Again” was more accurate, since to me it was always the less important of Trump’s promises. No one watching the pussy-grabbing braggart-hedonist Trump could imagine people accepting him as the leader of a “conservative” movement celebrating family and traditional values. What he really represented was a more honest recognition of what America was really all about, a less disguised cultural ideal.

So, Trump was more honestly and more flagrantly what the country was about. He was not, Taibbi thinks, an embodiment of conservative practices. One might argue that Trump was not really what the country was about, but that he was about what the country had become.

Consider Trump’s recent actions, which, to say the least, have tarnished his legacy. Since Trump is a quintessential New Yorker, to the great chagrin of New Yorkers who have no idea of what they look like to the rest of the country, he embodies the city’s therapy culture. It is not quite the culture of narcissism, but it is surely close enough.

So, therapy culture tells people to get in touch with their feelings. It tells them to give full-throated expression to those feelings. Fair enough. Now, after the most recent presidential election, Trump got in touch with his feelings of anger at what he considered to have been a stolen election. Isn’t that what therapy culture tells people to do. Then, he expressed his anger, not only by rejecting the election results but by trashing Republican officials in Georgia. That Trump’s anger, which he aimed at Georgian officials in the midst of two senate runoff elections, contributed mightily to two election losses seems clear enough. More importantly, he was simply doing what any therapist would have told him to do.

But then, Taibbi returns to Mitt Romney, a consummate fake, a phony and a fraud. In that Romney resembles no one as much as that consummate incompetent fraud named Hillary Clinton.

As for Romney, Taibbi writes:

Everything about Romney was fake. When he wore jeans to try to tone down his Wall Street vibe, they looked as natural as chaps or a hoop dress. His pitch was that Barack Obama was a statist who didn’t understand free enterprise and that he, Romney, would bring “jobs” back, especially for the little guy, the only problem being that Romney in fact was a private equity vampire whose expertise was in liquidating jobs, not creating them.

Would Romney have done better by showing the kind of man he really was? Taibbi suggests:

In retrospect, Romney might have won if he’d kicked off his campaign bragging to voters about how he became fabulously wealthy as a greed-sick finance pirate somehow paying a lower tax rate than teachers and cops. After all, he had the exact same job and morals as takeover artist Gordon Gekko, a fictional character many Americans to this day don’t understand was supposed to be a villain. Romney’s real message was Gekko’s: “Greed work

But, Mitt was not up to that challenge, one that Trump would embrace four years later:

Romney wimped out and instead hid behind platitudes like “the promise of America,” and “making trade work.” The phoniness paved the way for Trump, who had the stones to try the Gekko act for real. He was the human embodiment of “greed, in all of its forms… greed for life, for money, for love” (well, sex with porn stars) that by capturing “the essence of the evolutionary spirit” would save “that other malfunctioning corporation, called the U.S.A.”

Just by tossing out the pretense that politicians are beacons of rectitude and being undisguisedly himself, Trump won over Republican voters, crushing the old fake Republican message. Just like Gekko, he promised he would restructure America by draining the crooked deadweight. Most of all, however, he sold a proletarian version of the dream of unrestrained self-indulgence the city-dwelling Bobos in Paradise had already claimed for themselves, as Lasch described in Revolt of the Elites.

So, compared with the Romneys and the Obamas and the Clinton, Trump came across as an honest man. We will note in passing that Joe Biden is perhaps the least honest of them all, and also the most inept.

Taibbi continues with Romney:

Trump voters wanted to give just as little of a fuck as the rich phonies in organized politics who long ago bailed on America as a national idea, shipping jobs overseas, sucking wealth upward, and allowing Wal-Mart and Amazon to decimate towns even as they wept for our national symbols. Romney was symbolic of this, a man with a perfect mannequin-like exterior whose Bain Capital liquidated companies like KB Toys and the jobs that went with them, then turned around on the campaign trail and saluted the Statue of Liberty, Neil Armstrong, and the “greatest military the world has ever seen,” as if he were some kind of patriot.

Interestingly, Taibbi then turns to the Marquis de Sade, a culture hero in France. As it happens, French intellectuals have often noted that when the Bastille prison was stormed on July 14, 1789, one of its inhabitants was the Marquis de Sade.

The sad marquis had been imprisoned for drugging and raping a number of young women. French intellectuals did not much care about that. Those who fervently oppose rape culture in this country have barely noted the fact. And yet, de Sade’s famous maxim, to the effect that no one has the right to refuse to be the object of anyone’s desire is about as close as you can get to a rationalization for rape and sexual abuse.

Recently, France has begun an accounting of the pedophiles it has been showering with praise. Among them Gabriel Matzneff and Olivier Duhamel.

Combine a culture of unlimited consumption and an increasingly open cult of the self, and you get a future indistinguishable from the fantasies of the Marquis de Sade. Lasch wrote about how Sade’s ideal society, in which no one had the right to refuse to be the object of anyone else’s desire, was the apotheosis of “the capitalist principle that human beings are ultimately reducible to interchangeable objects.”

Lasch is surely wrong to see the Sadean principle as basic to capitalism. France, he might have noticed, has no truck with capitalism and free enterprise, both of which it considers Anglo-Saxon aberrations. The right to spend money other people have earned-- to translate the desire-based theory into more economic terms-- is the basis of the socialism that French intellectuals love so much.


jmod46 said...

Not much appreciated, but important, is the fact that Trump was a means of opposing political correctness. Political correctness was, and is, anathema to many people.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: So, therapy culture tells people to get in touch with their feelings. It tells them to give full-throated expression to those feelings. Fair enough. Now, after the most recent presidential election, Trump got in touch with his feelings of anger at what he considered to have been a stolen election.

I don't find this a compelling argument, that therapy culture prescribes Trump to put his feelings first in public. Surely therapy ought to encourage people to face the facts and then they can process feelings, and all of that can be done in private.

Trump's continual claims of being cheated is surely just about a dishonest strategy he learned to keep others on the defensive. How do you prove you're honest when a dishonest person accuses you? He accuses others of doing what he himself would do in their place. How do therapists help a patient deal with projection?

I recall a challenging quote from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. It seems to pretty quickly diagnose Trump's dishonesty. Therapy culture, if it represents anything, must be about honesty. Any therapist will surely tell you there can be no progress in a patient who can only talk about a false self he creates to avoid real feelings.

Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete beastiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.

A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn't it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea- he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility.

Christopher B said...

I'll second the recommendation to subscribe to Taibbi. I'm doing my best to support honest journalists regardless of their viewpoints.