In the July 3, 1999, issue of this magazine I addressed what I thought was the “triumph of Ayn Rand.” The column expressed a worry over the impact of Alan Greenspan, a disciple of Rand, on the future of our economy. Little did I suspect that Rand’s triumph would not be limited to the chaotic effects of unchecked and voracious capitalism. She recently has also become something of a patron saint for many politicians and media figures. What is more troublesome is how she haunts our contemporary American zeitgeist. I do not mean the spurt of her book sales. I mean our national psyche.
The next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the go-to book for diagnosing psychological dysfunction) will eliminate narcissistic personality as a disorder. That is because narcissism has become so ordinary. By narcissism I do not mean the appropriate self-confidence, even self-love, needed to survive. No; the narcissism now so commonplace in contemporary American life fits the classic criteria for a true disorder. The symptoms often include self-aggrandized notions of one’s power and success, an unwarranted sense of superiority over others, exaggerated self-importance and pride, manipulation of others and indifference to their emotions and feelings.
The Mayo Clinic Web site notes: “When you have narcissistic personality disorder…you often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior…. You may insist on having the best of everything—the best car, athletic club, medical care or social circles.”
Most Americans are not afflicted with grandiose illusions or the inability to empathize with others. Nonetheless, there is a growing cultural mythos that lionizes the kind of so-called hero that appears in the novels of Ayn Rand. She may imagine them to be great individualists, but they are actually, as the quotation from her novel Anthem in the title of this column reveals, radical narcissists. The “I-god” thinks he or she is self-made, splendidly isolated from every benefit or grace that has complemented or made possible working hard for success. That is why Rand’s characters despise altruism, even belief in God. Altruism requires empathy. God requires humility. Narcissism resists both.
The contemporary form of individualistic narcissism, however, is not necessarily expressed in atheism. But it does require self-inflation and a contempt for other people. You see it in news pundits who can only ridicule the other side and interviewers who continually interrupt the person they are supposed to be questioning. You hear it in talk show hosts who imagine themselves the saviors of America. You find it in politicians and special interest groups that cannot even entertain, much less address, an opinion contrary to their own.
A perhaps more benign, but nonetheless troubling example is the emergence of Donald Trump as a possible presidential candidate.
“Today, I’m very proud of myself,” Trump said on April 27. Trump’s pride was grounded in his belief that he was the only person who could force the president of the United States to show the long form of his birth certificate. So there. By the end of the week, after saying that we should just take over Iran’s oil, Trump chose the venue of Las Vegas to utter a string of foul-mouthed fantasies, deluding his audience into thinking that his self-indulgent vulgarism would change the Chinese economy.
By the time this column appears, Trump will likely have disappeared from the list of presidential hopefuls. Despite his newfound embrace of traditionalism, he will probably realize that his record could not bear the inspection of a rigorous campaign.
These may be hard words, but Trump will not worry about the words of a person like me, who never met a payroll, built a building or mounted a reality show.
But such achievements may not be what life is all about, whether personal or national. A rising chorus tells us that we are supposed to choose between Rand’s hated collectivism and her narcissistic individualism. Human life in its fullness, however, is found in neither option. As the French philosopher Jacques Maritain pointed out long ago, the only authentic alternative is a community of persons.
It is only by the common good of our shared nature’s giftedness that we flourish. And it is only in sharing our gifts that we are fulfilled as persons.