On Narcissistic Leaders and Personality Cults
Although the similarities between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rodrigo Duterte are often overstated, all these leaders are united by their cultivation of personality cults. Recently, pundits have linked indulgence in this sort of thing to something referred to as “narcissistic personality disorder”—a mental illness that the DSM-5 manual diagnoses in people demonstrating at least five of the following nine characteristics:
1. a grandiose sense of self-importance;
2. a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
3. a belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions;
4. a need for excessive admiration;
5. a sense of entitlement;
6. a penchant for exploiting others;
7. a lack of empathy for others;
8. envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her;
9. a demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Joseph Stalin demonstrated many of these characteristics in his encouragement of one of history’s most famous personality cults, according to Robert C. Tucker. Tucker then went further in his diagnosis of Stalin to contend that the general secretary had a subconscious need for such hallelujahs in order to offset a profound inferiority crisis. Frequently cited to the present day, Tucker’s psychoanalytical understanding of Stalin owes much to Nikita Khrushchev, who first denounced his predecessor’s personality cult as evidence of unhealthy egotism in 1956. Khrushchev illustrated this point in his famous Secret Speech by arguing that Stalin had even rewritten party history around his own biography.
In recent years, research on the Stalin cult in the former Soviet archives has called into question much of this analysis. Scholars like Sarah Davies have demonstrated that Stalin was frequently irritated by the excesses of his cult, particularly propaganda that focused too tightly on his personality, his idiosyncrasies or his personal background.
New work on Stalin’s editing of the party canon, particularly the History of the CPSU(b): Short Course, supports this analysis. Commissioned by the Politburo in 1937, this Bolshevik catechism was delivered to Stalin for pre-publication vetting in April 1938. Written by several court historians, this prototype conformed to Khrushchev’s characterization of party history under Stalin, insofar as it attributed a vast amount of historical agency to Stalin. Particularly after Lenin’s death in 1924, the manuscript Short Course credited Stalin with almost everything of any real significance in regard to affairs of party and state.
When Stalin turned to vetting this prototype Short Course during the summer of 1938, he objected to its narrative on a number of levels. Most relevant here is Stalin’s frustration with the centrality of his biography to the text. Evidence suggests that Stalin regarded his personality cult—as well as the one celebrating Lenin—to be a necessary evil of sorts, a concession to an ill-educated Soviet population that was unable to make sense of unadulterated Marxism-Leninism on its own. Indeed, Stalin suggested on occasion that his role in Soviet propaganda for mass society was to personify the party vanguard that was to lead the USSR forward to socialism.
Inasmuch as the Short Course was written for a more sophisticated audience of party members, Stalin questioned the prototype’s tendency to attribute all of party history to him. In his view, this readership could handle a more orthodox approach to Marxism-Leninism. For that reason, during his editing of the textbook, he repeatedly reassigned the historical agency that the text had assigned to him to either Lenin or the central party apparatus, in particular elevating the role of the latter institution at his personal expense. These editorial interventions resulted in the excision of passages, paragraphs and entire pages from the manuscript; indeed, Stalin removed so much about himself from the Short Course that the authors of the prototype text protested to him about the scale of his deletions.
This is not to say, of course, that when the Short Course appeared in print in September 1938, it had been entirely purged of its commentary on Stalin. Even after such extensive editing, it remained a product of its times. But Stalin’s editing of the book reveals that his personality cult was intended to do more than merely indulge his ego. It was intended to serve an instrumental, mobilizational purpose by deploying the general secretary as the personification of the Soviet experiment.
Of course, none of this analysis precludes the possibility that Stalin was also a shameless narcissist. Indeed, he may well have enjoyed many of the hallelujahs sung in his name at the same time that he believed the cult to be performing an integrative, mobilizational function within Soviet society. In this sense, as contemporary analysts examine the personality cults of today, they might ask more probing questions than they do at present. In particular, they might eschew their simplistic conclusions that the cult of Donald Trump has been constructed either to service his ego or to secure the subjugation of the Senate, the co-option of American conservatives or the “Trumpification” of the Republican Party. More reasonable would be to conclude that Trumpism—much like Putinism, Orbanism or Erdoğanism—ought to be seen as a savvy means by which a broad political movement has chosen to mobilize an electorate of ill-educated, low-information voters through the use of a charismatic leader to personify an otherwise impersonal political platform.
David Brandenberger is professor of history at the University of Richmond and the author of Propaganda State in Crisis.