Conservatives are still wandering stunned through the wreckage of the Bush presidency and have absented themselves from the policy debate. GOP politicians are hunkered down waiting for an anti-Obama backlash that may or may not materialize. Instead, as Rick Hertzberg wrote recently, the media personalities are running the show. And what a show:
The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint. Their sneers may be false and hateful—they all routinely liken the President and the “Democrat Party” to murderous totalitarians—but they are employed by large, nominally respectable corporations and supported by national advertisers, lending them a considerable measure of institutional prestige. The dominant wing of the Republican Party is increasingly an appendage of the organism—the tail, you might say, though it seems to wag more often from fear than from happiness. Many Republican officeholders, even some reputed moderates like Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, have obediently echoed the foul nonsense.
As a group, politicians have incentives to be cautious – you know, politic – in their public statements. (There are, of course, exceptions.) But for media personalities, all the incentives point in the opposite direction. The more outrageous Limbaugh is, the more buttons he pushes, the higher the ratings and the more money he makes. In a Today Show interview, Limbaugh forswore any leadership role with the GOP while boasting of his ability to monopolize media coverage for days on end. During which, it should be noted, the media isn’t going to be paying much attention to John Boehner.
And when loudmouthed demagogues dominate the political discussion, it drives politicians further away from substantive debate, as they may be forced to pander to the most impassioned, red meat-devouring segments of the electorate.
All of this is to say, on the right there’s an inordinate focus on emotion and personalities that makes a real political debate impossible. One symptom of this is the right’s peculiar fixation on Obama’s personality and motivations – or rather, their imaginary versions of those things. To the conservosphere, Obama is a smug, preening narcissist, a character in a right-wing morality play, full of hubris and headed for a fall – any fall will do. When that happens the whole moral universe momentarily aligns itself with what is right and good.
Hence conservatives’ bizarre jubilation when Chicago lost its Olympic bid after Obama flew to Copenhagen and personally lobbied for it, and the view that Obama’s self-regard had finally done him in. George Will claimed – incorrectly, it turns out – that Obama’s Olympic speech contained an inordinate number of first-person pronouns and snarked about narcissism as “an Olympic sport.”
Then last week, the Nobel Peace Prize spawned a thousand “narcissist” blog posts. conservative pundit Lisa Schiffren wrote: “Aides owe the president a dose of reality. Otherwise, the prize may exacerbate his vanity and narcissism, which are his most visible flaws, and inflate his cult of personality, which won’t create jobs or end wars.” At the Corner, Yuval Levin called it a Nobel Prize for Narcissism.
The problem with the Obama-the-narcissist idea is that Obama is not a narcissist. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” But there’s very little evidence for this, at least in the public face Obama presents.
All presidents have big egos – and they’re entitled, right? But that’s not the same as narcissism. I’m not a psychologist, but Obama seems like a pretty mature individual – certainly more psychologically “together” than many of his immediate predecessors. And his policies are ambitious, certainly, but not grandiose. Many presidents have attempted health care reform, for example, and Obama’s approach – to build on and alter the current system rather than setting up a new one – may not be ambitious enough. Levin and other conservatives say it’s grandiose to try to leverage Obama’s global popularity with speeches such as his Cairo address. But the White House would be crazy not to try this. It doesn’t mean they think those words will change the world all by themselves.
Nor is there an Obama “cult of personality.” Obama has done a lot to anger those on his left flank. They’re disillusioned at his “isms” – his centrism, pragmatism, incrementalism, and institutionalism. And those in the political center, who should most identify with his program, aren’t too pleased with him either. Nobody’s worshipping Obama anymore, if they ever did. Rather, polls show a majority of Americans personally like Obama. Last month, the WSJ-NBC poll put that figure at 71%, regardless of whether respondents approved or disapproved of his policies.
But conservatives personally dislike him. So they have ginned up an ex-post facto reason for that – if we don’t like him, he must be psychologically flawed. This is oddly reminiscent of Maureen Dowd’s trivializing approach to politics – pretend to know a politician intimately, take a few personality tics and spin them into a unified theory of psycho-political dysfunction that has at best a tenuous correspondence to reality. This is silly. If conservatives want to win back power, they should focus on issues. They could start by kicking Obama off the analyst’s couch and taking a spin on it themselves.