Even his fellow Republicans have labelled him insane. But, defying the predictions of all soothsayers and political pundits, Donald Trump’s still surging popularity with Republican voters suggests that he could become America’s next president. The first step, now within reach, will be winning the Republican Party’s nomination.
Articulating the ‘mad as hell’ anger felt by many Americans towards Washington’s putatively liberal policies, Trump knows it pays to be outrageous and wickedly racist. He follows the black-hating governor of Alabama in the 1960’s, George Wallace, who would famously shout “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” at rallies. Some of Trump’s claims are breathtaking: Mexican immigrants are mostly criminals and rapists, and President Obama is a foreign-born Muslim.
An American political commentator, John Dean (of Watergate fame), describes Trump as “a near perfect authoritarian leader” with a personality type that is “intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheat to win, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic, tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of ‘suckers’, specialise in creating false images to sell self, may or may not be religious.”
Take away the “faintly” and this neatly fits Trump’s Pakistani counterpart, cricketer Imran Khan, who burst upon Pakistan’s political scene with his mammoth Lahore jalsa of 2011. With a lavish lifestyle and his playboy past neatly tucked away in some closet the reformed Khan promised the moon as he cavorted on the stage, loudly praying towards Makkah for success.
Khan’s support base is diverse: college-educated “burger bachas”, brigades of bejewelled begums, hysterical semi-educated youth, and wild-eyed TTP supporters. Delighting them all, he unleashes from time to time a steady stream of abuse upon his political rivals who threaten to sue him but are ultimately deterred by Pakistan’s labyrinthine court system.
Made of the same stuff but packaged differently, the Trump-Khan duo has thrilled racial and religious extremists. The former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, declared that of all presidential candidates, Trump is “the best of the lot”. Khan received still greater appreciation. He was nominated by the TTP as their representative to last year’s (cancelled) peace talks, the reward for leading massive “peace” marches protesting American drones. Resolutely refusing to condemn any Taliban atrocity, Khan would seek to shift the blame on the US.
Worshipful followers love aggressive leaders. Trump, said to be the most abrasive politician in American history, uses barbs and insults while Khan menacingly swings his cricket bat. Use of indecent language invites no penalties. Last month, Trump crudely remarked that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who had aggressively confronted him in a CNN interview, had “Blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” Khan went yet further. From the top of his dharna container, he screamed that a panicking Nawaz Sharif had wetted his shalwar.
Why do such leaders attract followers? First, each can confidently claim that he is his own man, a top-of-his-game type. He can convincingly label political rivals as midgets, corrupt, or incompetent (Khan’s job is easier than Trump’s). The self-made Trump earned a fortune through real-estate business and now owns acres of expensive Manhattan land. His personal worth, though modest on the scale of today’s billionaires, is around $4 billion.
Khan too is self-made. He ranks as one of the world’s best cricket professionals who could bat, bowl, and captain. His cancer hospital is a model of professional management and an important public service, even if his contribution pales before that of Abdus Sattar Edhi.
A second reason: both men are unabashed narcissists. But shouldn’t this turn people off rather than on? In normal life narcissism is considered a personality disorder, but not so in politics. Exceptionally vain and self-absorbed men, who see themselves as deserving attention and power, are often the winners in political contests. Explaining this anomaly is a challenge for those who study group psychology.
A recent issue of Harvard Business Review carries an article intriguingly titled, ‘Why we love narcissists’. The author, Prof Tomas Premuzic of University College London, summarises recent research in psychology that explains how narcissists get ahead in all domains of life. Premuzic distinguishes between “productive narcissists” like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who actually created great new industries, with “charismatic narcissists” who use charm to push personal agendas.
Charismatic narcissists, says Premuzic, are masterful impression managers. They dress to impress, disguise arrogance as confidence, and are superb social networkers. Convinced they are never wrong, they take credit whenever things go well. But when things go awry, they blame colleagues and subordinates. Pre¬muzic notes that “It is always easier to fool others when you have already fooled yourself; it is always harder to feel guilty when you think you are innocent.”
Even with wild schemes, the charismatic narcissist can whip up enormous enthusiasm. Trump has vowed to build a wall along the US southern border with Mexico, likening it to the Great Wall of China and has even dubbed it “The Great Wall of Trump”. What he doesn’t know — and doesn’t want to know — is that even the Ming Dynasty’s 13,000-mile wall failed to keep out the Manchurians.
Khan’s ideas make even Trump’s hare-brained schemes look tame. Once I’m in power, Khan declared, I will end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days. The 19 was subsequently changed to 90; the need for an additional 71 days remained unexplained. But let’s put that aside. It’s now 887 days since Khan’s PTI took over the reins of the KP province. The end of corruption and terrorism should be nigh, right? But don’t hold your breath.
To conclude: charismatic narcissists are much hot air but very little substance. Unfortunately, they can be very dangerous. If running a country they can take it to war, waste resources, and increase internal violence. On the other hand, real leadership requires building high performance teams, emphasising altruism over egotism, and competence over confidence. Until the public understands this, it will continue inviting narcissists to the top while overlooking more reasonable alternatives.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2015