“in times of crisis, individuals regress to a state of delegated omnipotence and demand a leader (who will rescue them, take care of them)”
“individuals susceptible to (the hypnotic attraction of) charismatic leadership have themselves fragmented or weak ego structures.”
Jerrold Post believes the above hypotheses find support in clinical studies of persons who join charismatic religious groups, those with narcissistic personality disorders, and “psychodynamic observations of group phenomena”. Post and Doucette in Dangerous Charisma
describe the consequences of the wounded self on adult personality development and emphasize how narcissistically wounded individuals are attracted to charismatic leader-follower relationships, both as leaders and as followers.
As I read Dangerous Charisma I was regularly reminded of the time I joined a religious cult years ago and the stories that were regularly shared among members of “how God called us into his church”: certainly most, if not all, of the personal narratives involved tales of some kind of crisis each of us experienced and how “God rescued us” through leading us to encounter his “end-time Apostle”. After I left the cult I attended several other churches for a time and found the same sorts of experiences being “witnessed” even among less extreme fundamentalists or evangelical type Christians. Another perception that hit me, disturbingly, after having left the cult was seeing many of the same vulnerabilities, errors in thinking and willingness to rationalize the irrational and unprovable in society generally. Indeed, Post and Doucette make the point that the model they describe can work for good as well as evil: in times of crisis many turned to the charismatic Churchill, but that after the crisis was over the need for that sort of leader also passed and he was voted out. Other positive instances of such relationships involved Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. But we all know there are weeds in the garden as well as fruit.
Two types of personality are described:
The mirror-hungry personality
This is the cult leader, whether religious (Herbert W. Armstrong) or political (Donald J. Trump)
The first personality pattern resulting from “the injured self” is the mirror-hungry personality. These individuals, whose basic psychological constellation is the grandiose self, hunger for confirming and admiring responses to counteract their inner sense of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem. To nourish their famished self, they are compelled to display themselves in order to evoke the attention of others. No matter how positive the response, they cannot be satisfied, but continue seeking new audiences from whom to elicit the attention and recognition they crave.
The ideal-hungry personality
This is the follower who is nourished by the above leader and who in turn nourishes that same leader:
The second personality type resulting from “the wounded self” is the ideal-hungry personality. These individuals can experience themselves as worthwhile only so long as they can relate to individuals whom they can admire for their prestige, power, beauty, intelligence, or moral stature. They forever search for such idealized figures. Again, the inner void cannot be filled. Inevitably, the ideal-hungry individual finds that their god is merely human, that their hero has feet of clay. Disappointed by discovery of defects in their previously idealized object, they cast him aside and searches for a new hero, to whom they attach themself in the hope that they will not be disappointed again.
The wounded self can arise from social, economic, personality crises. Job and economic and health insecurities, fears of one’s neighbours and newcomers and of conspiracies of powerful forces in government.
Post and Doucette emphasize that this model does not tell the whole story of Trump or political movements arising from the dynamics of the two types feeding off each other, but it does offer some insight into “charismatic leader-follower relationships.”
The charismatic leader as the mirror-hungry personality
The mirror-hungry leader requires a continuing flow of admiration from his audience in order to nourish his famished self. Central to his ability to elicit that admiration is his ability to convey a sense of grandeur, omnipotence, and strength. These individuals who have had feelings of grandiose omnipotence awakened within them are particularly attractive to individuals seeking idealized sources of strength. They convey a sense of conviction and certainty to those who are consumed by doubt and uncertainty. This mask of certainty is no mere pose. In truth, so profound is the inner doubt that a wall of dogmatic certainty is necessary to ward it off. For them, preserving grandiose feelings of strength and omniscience does not allow acknowledgment of weakness and doubt.
The leaders love the adulation of the crowds and can often speak for hours basking in their admiration; and the crowds love to be there, feeding and feeding off them.
The Language of Splitting is the Rhetoric of Absolutism
Central to the rhetoric is the “us-them”, the “me-not me”, the “good versus evil”, “strength versus weakness”, you are “with us or against us”. There’s nothing new here:
Maximilien Robespierre: “There are but two kinds of men, the kind that is corrupt and the kind that is virtuous.”
Hitler dwelt on the themes of strength and weakness, purity and impurity, the chosen (Germans) and the not chosen (Jews). The world is divided and one must conquer the other or be conquered.
We see this mindset in leaders who are convinced, and whose followers are also convinced, they are called on a religious mission. Followers often see the power of God behind them and the entire world of Satan is their opposition.
The outsiders are the enemy and the belief is confirmed and entrenched that those targeted outsiders are the cause of the problems they, their group, even their nation, face. Paranoia is turned into a positive attribute. One has a responsibility to be suspicious and wary of “them”, the “not us”.
The leader conveys total conviction, total certainty. Inner doubts are locked deep down out of sight. With supreme self-confidence they have no hesitation in judging and condemning others who do not live up to their moral or political ideals or personal behaviours. They see themselves as the only sane and knowledgable guides for all others.
There is no middle ground. One is either on the side of moral righteousness, strength and justice epitomized in the leader or on the side of “utter destruction”.
It is important to reemphasize that such individuals have disowned and projected upon the environment all of the unacceptable weakness and imperfection within themselves. Psychologically they cannot permit themselves to recognize that the source of their feared destruction is not from without but from within. The mirror-hungry personality is held together by this rigid shell of apparent total self-confidence to keep profound inner doubt from breaking through. For the charismatic leader with paranoid characteristics who is projecting his inner aggression, the rhetoric becomes the basis for justifying attacking the outside enemy. “We are (I am) not weak. The problem is out there, with them. By destroying them, by expelling them (the weakness within me) from our midst, we (I) will be the strong people we want to be.” And each time the admiring crowd shouts its approval in response to his externalizing rhetoric, the leader’s facade of certainty is strengthened and his inner doubts assuaged.
A form of mass hypnosis
The crowds start to arrive early to get the best views; the atmosphere of the leader’s presence is electric. His words entrance them; they are willingly surrendering to his spell.
The followers: ideal-hungry personalities as well as the temporarily overwhelmed individuals
One must make a distinction between those who
by virtue of external circumstances, are rendered temporarily susceptible to enter into a charismatic leader-follower relationship, and those narcissistically injured personalities who are permanently prone to enter such relationships.
The temporarily overwhelmed – – – recall our earlier reference to wartime Britain and Churchill. Crisis over, Churchill is ousted. There are other instances, of course. Post and Doucette bring up the chaotic and uncertain state into which Iran lapsed when the Shah attempted to move a social revolution forward too fast, creating “massive societal dislocation and disruption of the social order” leading to the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. But it can happen on a less grandiose level, too:
We do not mean to imply that charismatic leader-follower relationships only develop at such historical moments. Rather we are suggesting that they are particularly apt to occur at those times, when the ranks of dependent followers will be swollen by normally self-sufficient individuals who have temporarily been rendered psychologically vulnerable by external events.
The Narcissistically Wounded Ideal-Hungry Followers – – – a lack of significant support or outright bullying of a young person can leave them damaged for life, just as can the inculcation into a young mind that they are born for something extra special.
. . . to leave the individual permanently psychologically scarred, with an enduring need to attach himself to a powerful, caring other. Incomplete unto themselves, such individuals can only feel whole when in relationship with, when attached to, when merged with this idealized other. The charismatic leader comes to the psychological rescue of the ideal-hungry followers. Taking on heroic proportions and representing what the followers wish to be, he protects them from confronting themselves and their fundamental inadequacy and alienation. The leader’s success becomes the follower’s success, a succor to his self-esteem.
Repeated studies have shown that
narcissistically wounded individuals are especially attracted to charismatic leader-follower relationships. . . . [T]he more lonely and isolated the individual was before joining, the more apt he was to affiliate himself strongly with the Unification Church and stay through the entire recruitment process. There was a tendency to suspend individual judgment and follow unquestioningly the dictates of the leader. Moreover, the more psychological relief that was experienced on joining, the less likely the individual was to question the leader’s requirement for actions and behavior which ran counter to his socialization.
I suspect many readers who have been mixed up with such religious groups will recognize some truth in that finding.
The same, the same
I have posted many timeshttps://vridar.org/?s=terrorism on the findings of researchers exploring terrorist groups (including the “lone terrorist”), what motivates them, their background, the triggers, etc. The fundamental principles are not all that different from the dynamics of joining religious cults and following charismatic leaders. Entire nations can be gripped by the same dynamics as we know.
When one is feeling overwhelmed, besieged by fear and doubt, it is extremely attractive to be able to suspend individual judgment and repose one’s faith in the leadership of someone who conveys his conviction and certainty that he has the answers, that he knows the way, be it Reverend Sun Myung Moon or Reverend Jim Jones, Adolf Hitler or Ayatollah Khomeini. Particularly through skillful use of rhetoric, the leader persuades his needy audience: “Follow me and I will take care of you. Together we can make a new beginning and create a new society. The fault is not within us but out there, and the only barrier to the happiness, peace, and prosperity we deserve is the outside enemy out to destroy us.
The potential follower is lured by the assurance that he or she will no longer be alone by joining “the ride”, and he or she then acquires additional strength from being part of the larger body of followers with the same allegiance. They have joined an exclusive club. They can walk with pride. The group’s success becomes the individual’s success.
I recently wrote about “identity fusion“. Here it is again:
For isolated individuals with damaged self-esteem and weak ego boundaries, the sense of “we” creates and imparts a coherent sense of identity. For such individuals, the self and the “we” are fused so that the self is experienced as the relationship. This leads to a tendency to merge themselves with the group. In a figurative manner, as we have noted, we can speak of the development of a group mind or group ego. The group becomes idealized and the standards of the group, as articulated by the leader and his disciples, take over and become the norm. This helps explain the startling degree to which individuals can suspend their own standards and judgment . . . .
As clarified at the beginning of this post, “there will always be individuals whose internal needs lead them to seek out idealized leaders.” Sometimes the fruits are positive, transformative in a positive sense as when people attach themselves the Atatürks, the Gandhis, the Kings, the Mandelas; other times they can be destructive, as with the Hitlers, the Khomeinis, the bin Ladens . . .
The above post draws on the Introduction to
Post, Jerrold, and Stephanie Doucette. 2019. Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers. Pegasus Books.
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