The alchemy of political narcissism

In our new world of real unreality, public figures don’t admit — they just deny.

Much of the legacy of the Western enlightenment — the rules of logic, the recognition of the proven fact and the understanding of, and respect for, opposing arguments — has been suspended, even abolished. Call it the Narcissphere.

It’s a media space in which what is stated and denied addresses only that which the actors within the Narcissphere wish. Like Narcissus, the beautiful god-youth who fell for his own reflection, the Narcissphere hosts those in love with their own purposes, their own images and their own rhetoric — to the point that they brook no challenge to them.

“Everyone,” said the Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” That’s merely quaint in the Narcissphere.

Two notable additions to that sphere came this week. As Melania Trump was speaking to the National Republican Convention on Monday evening, the journalist and interior designer Jarrett Hill, clearly blessed with a fine memory, noticed that the candidate’s wife was repeating phrases from a speech that Michelle Obama gave to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 when endorsing her husband for the party’s presidential nomination. Hill reached for his trusty Twitter account. “OMG Melania. This was literally a whole line from Michelle Obama 2008!” Minutes after, he upgraded “line” to “paragraph.” A moment’s reflection then, “Um. This is a becoming a thing.”

putinnarcissim_small The alchemy of political narcissism

It was. Melania Trump’s speech had significant passages echoing Michelle Obama’s speech, including “your word is your bond and you do what you say.” When TV stations like CNN split their screens to show both women giving their speeches, the truth became painfully clear. Not, however, for Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, who saw Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s hand behind the spat.

Melania herself released a statement to her Twitter account, which said the speech “included fragments that reflected her own thinking.” In a rapid investigation, the New York Times concluded that the “fragments” were most of the address. The candidate’s wife and close advisors had wholly rewritten a speech submitted to her by experienced Republican speechwriters Matthew Scully and John McConnell.

The Narcissphere is an inventive and fascinating place, sometimes full of creativity and wit, sometimes still able to shock with the barefacedness of the lies it hosts.

It’s most weightily the sphere of political leaders who, when faced with certain or near-certain proof of having acted in a way they wish to disguise, simply say it never happened. One example: President Vladimir Putin steadily denying that he sanctioned Russian military involvement in the civil strife in eastern Ukraine – even as Russian newspapers interviewed regular soldiers about their tours of duty there.

Isn’t this just lying, a weapon in the diplomatic and power-struggle armouries long before before Florentine political consultant Niccolò Machiavelli exposed it in his 16th-century work “The Prince?” It is, but it’s also more than that. It is infecting conventional democratic politics, and is both aided and challenged by the mainstream media.

The “independent factor” of the media provides information — constantly — and sustains institutions that strive to present truthful accounts of the main issues and of the power players in public life. But it also sustains the Narcissphere.

Across the Atlantic, around the same time that Melania Trump was endorsing her husband’s candidacy, the United Kingdom’s new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, faced hostile questions from reporters – mainly American — at a news conference he took with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The reporters put to him, among other charges, that he had once called President Barack Obama a “part-Kenyan … with a historic dislike of the UK.” In full classical-rhetorical flow, Johnson said that all his previous statements and newspaper articles “have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know — somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned.”

It was, in fact, a moment that called, if not for an apology, a reflection. It might have pointed out that politicians who come to high office in middle age (Johnson is 52), and who have been in public life for decades, will have said things they no longer believe, or no longer can, diplomatically and politically, stand by. It could have been a lesson both in humility for him and in the vagaries of public life. But no. Like Melania Trump, he reached for someone to blame — in this case, journalists who had “misconstrued” him.

The Narcissphere is more than a place where public figures deny facts and blame others for them. It is where politics are transmuted into fantasy and confusion. It is where those who support Donald Trump and Johnson find solace for any doubts in the assurance that, really, it’s all the fault of Hilary Clinton or misconstruing reporters whipping up a non-issue.

The Narcissphere was for many years the luxurious villa of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and is still the much-visited dacha of his friend Putin. Now, in the Anglo-Saxon political world once admired (most of all by itself) for its relative political sobriety, honesty and responsibility, it’s found in the country house of the British secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, and of the Republican candidate for the president of the United States of America.