From the campaign of now-President Donald Trump to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, an aggressive form of populism—deeply aggrieved, angry with the elite, and hostile to perceived outsiders—is on the rise in much of the world. New research suggests the roots of this disturbing trend can be found in a familiar psychological pattern.
It argues the perception that you are losing ground relative to your rivals evokes intense defensiveness—not only in individuals, but also in societies.
A team led by psychologist Marta Marchlewska of the University of Warsaw links populism with "national collective narcissism," which it defines as "an unrealistic belief in the greatness of the national group."
This shared sense of flag-waving grandiosity appears to grow out of two intertwined beliefs: the conviction that your group truly represents "the people" or "the nation," and the perception that its power and influence has diminished compared to groups.
This belief—that people like you, the "true patriots," have been unfairly disadvantaged—prompts many to proclaim their group's greatness all the more vociferously. From there, it's a very short step to denigrating members of other groups, such as immigrants or minorities.
Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers produce evidence of this descent into nationalism in three nations: Poland (where the populist Law and Justice Party currently controls the government), the United States, and the U.K.
In the end, populism is a form of "identity politics," a term usually associated with the left.
The American experiment featured 407 participants, who were recruited one month ahead of the 2016 general election. They noted their pick for president, and responded to one set of statements measuring national identification, and another measuring national collective narcissism.
The first set included assertions such as "Being American is an important part of how I see myself" and "I feel a bond with the American people." The second featured such statements as "Americans deserve special treatment," "It really makes me angry when others criticize Americans," and "I will never be satisfied until America gets the recognition it deserves."
To measure their sense of relative deprivation, the 386 participants who were U.S. citizens were then asked: "Would you say that over the last five years, people like yourself in the U.S. have been economically a lot better off, better off, the same, worse off, or a lot worse off than most immigrants living here?"
The researchers found those who felt people like them were falling behind (relative to perceived outsiders) were more likely to support Trump. "This relationship was accounted for by national collective narcissism," they add.
The Polish study similarly found that national collective narcissism—but not the more benign form of patriotism—was linked to support for the Law and Justice Party. Finally, the British study showed collective narcissism increased when people felt their group was losing ground to newcomers.
"This suggests that the narrative of relative disadvantage, fueled by populist leaders, might reinforce this defensive and destructive [nationalistic mindset]," the researchers conclude.
So in the end, populism is a form of "identity politics," a term usually associated with the left. Countering it will require a reversal in people's attitudes, from thinking of the members of one's narrowly defined group as "the nation" to thinking of all the residents of one's nation as "my group."
Unless and until that happens, we seem stuck in a destructive spiral akin to the blind leading the blind. Only in our case, the narcissist is leading the narcissists.