The World Is Tired of All The Sick Sociopath Narcissists ‘Influencers’
Narcissists had their moment in the sun. But in 2022, some of them got their comeuppance and some of them got worse: our disinterest. “Influencers” need to be recognized as mentally, ill, arrogant assholes that do not deserve any media time!
POLITICO illustration/Photos by Getty Images
By Joanna Weiss
Joanna Weiss is a POLITICO Magazine contributing editor and the editor of Experience magazine, published by Northeastern University.
It’s been a good run for the narcissists.
Over the past decade or so, a mix of shameless self-aggrandizement and self-confident charm has served certain people extraordinarilywell, turning them into venture-capital darlings, licensed-merchandise magnates, Forbes cover models, social media superstars, Oprah confessors, business-conference keynoters, new-money plutocrats and, in one case, president. ElonMusk, Sam Bankman-Fried, Ye (né Kanye West), Elizabeth Holmes, Meghan Markle, Donald Trump: All of them used attention as currencyand ego as fuel, and were rewarded, for a time, with what they craved. We’re drawn to people who love themselves.
But somewhere between the fifth and sixth hour of “Harry and Meghan,” the new Netflix documentary series produced by the formerDuke and Duchess of Sussex and filmed at their California mansion — which suggests that there is no one more in love, no one more socially conscious, no one more aggrieved — my natural sympathy for the couple started turning to irritation, and itoccurred to me that ego has its limits. And it struck me that the overreach that led to the Sussexes’ critically panned mega-seriesis the same impulse that turned Elon Musk into a terror on Twitter, that prompted Ye to up the ante of outrageous behavior until hecrossed the line into blatant antisemitism, that sent Bankman-Fried from the top of the world to a Bahamian jail.
Some of these turns of fate are more dramatic and complete than others. But once we tally up the losses, it could be that 2022 marksthe year our love affair with narcissists started to falter. Many of them met this year with declines in fortunes, falls from grace ornewfound public skepticism. Many seemed to overstay their welcome in the public glare. And if this is the moment when we started to craveboring public figures for a change — well, to a large degree, the egotists did it to themselves. Maybe they couldn’t help it.
“I think right now people are getting sick of it,” said John P. Harden, a political science professor at Ripon College, whenI tested my theory of narcissism’s limits to him over the phone. I’d reached out because Harden studies narcissism in politics: Fora 2021 paper in International Studies Quarterly, he reviewed detailed surveys of presidential historians, correlated them withpsychology research, and created a kind of narcissism index for U.S. presidents up to the early 2000s. Toward the bottom were JimmyCarter, George H.W. Bush and Calvin Coolidge. At the top were Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt. Harden’s theory isthat ego can drive history: In international conflicts, a narcissistic president is likely to fret about being disrespected,threaten opponents and act unilaterally, ignoring advisers or allies.
Narcissism can be a clinical diagnosis, Harden told me, but socialscientists define it as a personality trait. It shows up on a spectrum: All of us have some degree of self-love, which probablyexplains our behavior on Facebook and Instagram. But the people Harden calls “grandiose narcissists” — or, at one point in ourconversation, “charismatic attention hogs” — stand apart. They believe they’re the absolute best at what they do. They go to greatlengths to protect and defend their egos. They strive to be unique and promote themselves energetically.
The Guardian compared Meghan and Harry to “a pair of ancient mariners with a TV contract, condemned to tell their tale to everyonethey meet.” | Courtesy of Prince Harry and Meghan, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
That’s the story, in a nutshell, of Harry and Meghan, who at first seemed uncommonly savvy for the way they’ve managed theirpublic lives: breaking free of British royal misery, then cashing in spectacularly on the drama. In 2020, they inked a reported $100million development deal with Netflix. In 2021 came their blockbuster Oprah interview and a reported $20 million advance for Harry’s tell-all memoir, Spare.
Their current Netflix series premiered to high ratings and an explosion of media thinkpieces (made you look!). Part of it ischilling: an up-close look at the British tabloid press, complete with heart-wrenching footage of Harry’s mother, Diana, hounded bypaparazzi. But the legitimate complaints are wedged between glamour shots, from footage of Meghan getting fitted for ballgowns to a vastcollection of flattering photos and videos they took during their royal exit, apparently preparing for a photogenic tell-all. Evensympathetic critics have groused that there’s little new here, beyond the vanity. In The Guardian, Marina Hyde compared the couple to “a pair of ancient mariners with a TV contract, condemned to tell their tale to everyonethey meet.”
Ye, who has a perennial need for attention, recently lost a lucrative Adidas contract for his Yeezy shoes after embracingantisemitism. | Seth Wenig/AP Photo
If the Sussexes’ addiction to the public eye is benign — they seem tiresome, but genuinely well-intentioned — a narcissist’sconstant quest for eyeballs and acclaim can get a lot more dangerous. For the worst of it, see Ye, whose perennial need for attention has evolved from outbursts at awards shows to wearing “White Lives Matter” T-shirts and making antisemiticcomments on podcasts, social media platforms and TV shows — losing, in the process, a lucrative Adidas contract and what was left of thepublic’s goodwill.
For other cautionary tales, see Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried, who won over investors by creating myths aroundthemselves: Young geniuses in signature clothing (she, the black turtleneck; he, the cargo shorts), smarter than the skeptics and theexperts. Holmes, through her blood-testing company Theranos, was going to change medicine; Bankman-Fried, with his cryptocurrencyexchange, was going to upend finance and philanthropy.
The more adulation they got, the more dramatic the fall. Bankman-Fried appears to havebeen running a garden-variety Ponzi scheme; this month, he was indicted for fraud and money laundering. Holmes hid the fact that hertechnology didn’t work from investors and consumers; this year, she was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 11 years in prison. At hersentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Edward Davila pondered why she’d done it: “Was there a loss of moral compass here? Was it hubris?Was it intoxication with the fame?”
Top left: Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes and FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried won over investors by creating myths aroundthemselves: Young geniuses in signature clothing, while Elon Musk has gone from iconoclastic role model to popular punching bag. | NicCoury/AP Photo; Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File)
Investors are probably asking similar questions of Musk, who was recently dethroned as the richest man in the world. Musk has always been a volatile public figure, but his stewardship of SpaceX and Tesla gavehim an aura of hyper-competence. Then he took control of Twitter, firing staff and picking fights, as his brand and businessessuffered. Twitter is bleeding users. Tesla stock was down nearly 30 percent in December. Musk has gone from iconoclastic rolemodel to popular punching bag. “It’s amazing,” the British broadcaster Shaun Keaveny tweeted at him after a recent eruption, “how you manage to be, on the onehand, one of the most powerful people in the world, and on the other, a massively needy attention-seeking tool.”
But Harden says the need to constantly up the ante, seeking more attention even if it’s self-destructive, is part of a narcissist’snature. “These people have this hyperactivity, this constant need to do something … filtered through this inflated self-view,” hesays. They draw the spotlight, attention wanes, and they try to do it again.
Maybe that explains the Trump NFTs, which put an outlandish cap on a not-so-great year for the 45th president. It’s been arough stretch, between the January 6 committee hearings, New York Attorney General’s investigation into his company and the JusticeDepartment’s raid of Mar-a-Lago. But nothing was worse for Trump than the midterm elections, when his chosen candidates almost allfailed, and he lost his claim to be an enduring political kingmaker.
If Trump is no longer invincible, his allies of convenience finally have reason to ignore him. And for Trump, there’s nothingworse than being ignored. The Washington Post recently reported that he’s so miserable in Florida, without a press corps to summonat will, that an aide asks his friends to call him with affirmations. On Truth Social in December, he promoted a “MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT”that turned out to be a line of Trump-branded NFTs. They look like an artist’s rendering of his ego: Trump riding a blue elephant, surrounded by flying gold bars, wearing asuperhero getup with lasers coming out of his eyes.
Even his allies mocked him. On the other hand, 45,000 of the tokens sold out in less than a day — whether out of devotion or curiosity or the sense that they’d be bizarre collector’s items someday.It’s hard to count any narcissist out; it’s not in their nature to give up the stage, even in exile, sometimes from jail. When theywant attention, they get creative.
The Washington Post recently reported that Donald Trump is so miserable in Florida, without a press corps to summon at will, thatan aide asks his friends to call him with affirmations. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
It’s the public that has to decide whether to bite. In the political realm, Harden has seen cycles: After the public tires of aparticularly narcissistic president, voters choose new leaders with more modesty and restraint. Nixon’s resignation gave way to GeraldFord, then pathologically humble Jimmy Carter. The midterm elections seemed to match the pattern. Trump-endorsed candidates and electiondenialists — some of them Trump-like media hogs — were largely passed over in favor of less flashy moderates and split-ticketvoting.
Whether people will also refrain from buying the next Sussex book or worshiping the next business wunderkind is a story for 2023. Butthere are signs, at least, that our patience is fading. Last week, before Christmas, Musk asked Twitter users whether he should stepdown as CEO, and 57.5 percent voted “yes.” Somebody wants quiet time, at least until the next appealing narcissist comes along.