December 3, 2003

The cornered narcissist

If you're looking for insight into Venezuela’s seemingly neverending political crisis, section 301.81 of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would be an excellent place to start. The entry reads eerily like a brief character sketch of Venezuela's embattled president, Hugo Chavez: "Has a grandiose sense of self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance; requires excessive admiration; has unreasonable expectations of automatic compliance with his expectations; shows arrogant behaviors or attitudes, etc." Actually, it's the DSM-IV's diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD.)

Venezuelan psychiatrists long ago pegged Chavez as a textbook example of NPD. According to the DSM-IV, a patient has NPD if he meets five of the nine diagnostic criteria. But Dr. Alvaro Requena, a respected Venezuelan psychiatrist, says Chavez "meets all nine of the diagnostic criteria." Dr. Arturo Rodriguez Milliet, a colleague, finds "a striking consensus on that diagnosis" among Caracas psychiatrists. Not that it really takes an expert: you only need to watch Chavez's constant cadena broadcasts, where the president blusters, badgers, sings, reports, lectures, recalls and issues orders live on every TV channel and every radio station in the country, carrying presidential speeches that can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 4 hours – one never knows ahead of time.

Of course, lots of politicians have some narcissistic traits - Washington, D.C. is notorious for the size of its egos. NPD, however, is what happens when those traits run amok, impairing sufferer’s ability to interact with the world in a normal way. People with NPD are so intimately convinced of the crushing weight of their historical significance that they lose the ability to interact with the world in anything like a way that most people would recognize as normal.

Narcissism and political power make an explosive combination. As Dr. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, puts it, "the narcissist's grandiose self-delusions and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience are exacerbated by real life authority." President Chavez has amassed more real life authority than anyone in Venezuela's contemporary history. When his considerable charisma and oratory ability are added to this mix, the already volatile cocktail described above becomes positively explosive.

Because in the mind of a pathological narcissist, grandiose self-delusion often masking deep insecurities and a fragile sense of ultimate self-worth. The two tendencies co-exist in a sort of uneasy truce. As Dr. Vaknin writes, "the narcissist's personality is so precariously balanced that he cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism and disagreement."

In Venezuela, over the last five years, Chavez’s narcissism has led to a systematic winnowing of the his pool of truly trusted advisors and confidants (other than Fidel Castro, the one voice Chavez does seem to listen to.) People with views that differ even slightly from the comandante’s fall out of favor quickly, often brutally.

At worst, those who come to disagree openly with the president are openly demonized, humiliated and threatened in cadenas in full view of the whole country. Coming from a man with several paramilitary groups at his command, these must be taken as serious threats.

Total loyalty to the cult of personality is demanded, and total loyalty to the cult of personality is obtained. More than evidently, only rank sycophants and yes-men can survive in an inner circle where such dynamics are at work. Also, clearly, no real policy debate can take place: politicies will not be the result of a process of genuine give and take. Instead, they will consist in a series of military style orders that are mutually incoherent, and very often wildly impracticable.

Thus, at different times, we’ve been promised at least three mutually inconsistent futures for the camastron (the 70s era Boeing 737 Chavez inherited and promptly, man of the people that he is, replaced with a much larger $86 million dollar airbus.) According to which side of the bed the president woke up on this morning, the plane will either ferry poor venezuelans so they can visit the natural wonders of the Canaima flat-top mountains, or it will be the first in a fleet of planes for a future Vene-Caribean airline that will eventually penetrate foreign markets, or it will be used to ferry Venezuelan patients to cuba for various operation, or none of these, or all of these at the same time. None of these plans appears financially viable for a state that is broke, but in combination, they present a kind of burlesque of presidential narcissism at work.

What’s most perverse about Chavez’s narcissism is that some people close to him have clearly learned to manipulate it for their personal purposes. Once you’ve caught on that feeding the president’s narcissism is the way to get ahead in palace politics, what’s the reasonable response? Feeding the president’s narcissism, of course.

Over a period of years, this dynamic has left Chavez worryingly isolated. It’s probably been months or years now since the president has been brought face to face with ideas different than his own, with versions of reality that don’t conform to his own sense of grandeur, (except for when he is conversing with foreign leaders, of course.)

Under those circumstances, anyone’s sense of reality would suffer. But if you’ve started out with narcissistic tendencies, that level of isolation is liable to push you over the edge altogether. With no critical thinkers around anymore, no one willing to sit him down and tell him the awful truth, there are no checks left on his pathological relationship with reality.

To a pathological narcissist, reality is little more than a hindrance. This is the heart of the chavista mania for calling what is real virtual and what is virtual real. As Dr. Rodriguez Milliet points out, "Chavez’s discourse might be dissonant with reality, but internally it’s scrupulously coherent." Chavez's only concern is to preserve his romantic vision of himself as a fearless leader of the downtrodden in their fight against an evil oligarchy. If the facts don't happen to fit that narrative structure, then that's too bad for the facts.

So it’s not that Chavez lies, per se. It’s that he’s locked up within a small, tight circle of confidants that feed an aberrant relationship with reality. To lie is to knowingly deceive. Chavez doesn’t lie.

He invents the truth.

Obviously, there are more than a few inconveniences to having a pathological narcissist as president. For instance, it’s almost impossible for narcissists to admit to past mistakes and make amends. The narcissist’s chief, overriding psychological goal is to preserve his grandiose self-image, his sense of being a larger-than-life world historical force for good and justice. Honestly admitting any mistake, no matter how banal, requires a level of self-awareness and a sense for one’s own limitations that runs directly counter to the forces that drive a narcissist’s personality. Chavez cannot, never has, and never will sincerely accept his own fallibility. It’s just beyond him. And it's impossible for the movement he's created to question him.

Once you have a basic understanding of how their pathological personality structures drive the behavior of people with NPD, Hugo Chavez is an open book. Lots of little puzzles about the way the president behaves are suddenly cleared up.

For instance, you start to understand why Chavez sees no adversaries around him, only enemies. It makes sense: the more he becomes preoccupied with“fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance” the harder it is for him to accept that anyone might have an honest disagreement with him. Chavez is a man in rebellion against his own fallibility. "As far as he can see," explains Dr. Requena, "if anyone disagrees with him, that can only be because they are wrong, and maliciously wrong."

People with NPD are strongly sensitive to what psychiatrists call “narcissist injury” – the psychic discombobulation that comes from any input that undermines or negates the fantasies that dominate their mindscape. Chavez clearly experiences disagreement and dissent as narcissist injury, and as any psychiatrist can tell you, an injured narcissist is liable to lash out with virulent rage.

This pattern fits Chavez to a frightening t, if only on the rhetorical level. 95% of his political reasoning is made up of ad hominem attacks on those who dare questioning, along with the paranoid preocupation with plots all around him, a kind of conspiracy mentality the fringier parts of the first world left eat up with relish.

So I wonder. If only. If only those first world sympathizers could sit own and hear him talk, and hear him, and hear him like we Venezuelans have heard him, and heard him, and heard him for hundreds of hours of cadenas spanning back 5 years. If they could know the character like we know the character, after hundreds of hours of forced intimacy through the cadena system. Often, his slurs and insults are almost comically overstated. He insists on describing Venezuela's huge, diverse, and mostly democratic opposition movement as a "conspiracy" led by a tiny cabal of "coup-plotters, saboteurs and terrorists." These attacks not only demonstrate the tragic extent of his disconnect with reality, they have also thoroughly poisoned the political atmosphere in Caracas, creating what's been described as a "cold civil war."

If only they could hear him the way we've heard many of them would earnestly consider someone like Chavez fit to rule their own countries? 3%? More? How many pro-autocracy lefties are there left in Europe?

But we, we have heard him. We've been forced to hear him, we've been obligated to participate in the cult of personality through our state funded TV station and those hundreds of hours of Cadenas. So yes, in Venezuela we know the character well by now.

This is precisely his problem: too many of us know too much about him, about the way he thinks and the way he leads to accept his brand of leadership silently.

Chavez's brand of intellectual intolerance has turned the Venezuelan state into the most autocratic in the Americas short of the one led by his hero, Fidel Castro. It's no coincidence. In Dr. Milliet's view, "narcissism leads directly to an autocratic approach to power." Access to state jobs - a key source of livelihood for millions of Venezuelans - is now openly dependent on civil servant's acceptance of political blackmail. The regime no longer even hides it. Anything is fair when it comes to protecting the narcissist-in-chief's self-image.

The other facts are well known, but they are worth re-hashing one-more time for readers who don't follow all the ins and outs of the democratic process here like we do.

President Chavez has systematically placed diehard loyalists in key posts throughout the state apparatus. When you come to understand his behavior in terms of NPD, that’s not at all surprising: someone who understands the world as a struggle between people who agree with everything he says and does vs. evil will obviously do everything in his power to place unconditional allies in every position of power.

The case of the Attorney General is especially worrying. With nothing like a special counsel statute and no state criminal jurisdiction, the A.G. must approve every single criminal investigation and prosecution in Venezuela. Control this post, and you have total veto power over the entire penal system. For this reason, the A.G. is not a cabinet position in Venezuela like it is in the US. Because of its key role in fighting corruption and keeping watch over the legality of the government’s actions, the A.G. is set up as a fully independent, apolitical office in the Venezuelan constitution. But that clearly wouldn’t do for Chavez. For this most sensitive of offices, Chavez tapped perhaps his most unconditional ally, a doggedly loyal chavista fresh from a stint as vicepresident of the republic. It's like having Karl Rove as attorney general, and no independent council statute!

Not surprisingly, not a single pro-Chavez official has been convicted of anything, ever, despite numerous and well-documented allegations of serious corruption, and a mountain of evidence to suggest the government has organized its civilian supporters into armed militias. The bargain is simple: in return for unrestricted political support, the government remunerates the corrupt and the criminal with total immunity from criminal prosecution. It's quite that simple. The only real requisite for admission into the protection afforded by their control of the state is total submission to the leader's cult of personality. Not surprisingly, many take the bargain.

This dynamic can rise to almost incredible heights. Recently, a former student activist with a murky criminal history and credibly linked with no other than Iraq's Ba'ath Party, for God's sake, was recently named to head an important office at the National Identification Directorate! Can you imagine that? If this is the "model of democracy" Chavez has in mind, he will doubtlessly win the referendum with 100% of the vote and 100% turnout!

And indeed, today, every nominally independent watchdog institution in the state, from the Supreme Court to the Auditor General's office, is run by a presidential crony. With the National Assembly operating like a branch office of the presidential palace, the formal checks-and-balances written into the constitution have become a farce.

Only CNE retains a measure of independent credibility from both sides. Nothing will be possible unless both sides solemnly pledge to accept CNEs eventual decision. They should do this right now.

The reality is that CNE has become a beacon of hope in Venezuelan society. On the verge of the presidential recall, CNE stands as the sole exception, the sole entity of the state that Hugo Chavez cannot control at his pleasure, and my feeling is that, despite, must we recall, it's roughly 3-2 nominal chavista majority, a genuinely independent CNE is the biggest problem in Hugo Chavez's immediate future. All five members of CNE must be uniformly lauded for putting legality ahead of party loyalty so far - a precedent that could serve as the seed for a true democratic awakening in the post-Chavez period.

Some may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one

The goal of a new, more dynamic, more participative and much, much more inclusive Venezuela is now within striking distance. The country need not be dominated by a pathological narcissist much longer.