By Seth Davin Norrholm, Ph.D. and David M. Reiss, M.D.
In this week’s commentary, the authors discuss the issues, dynamics, and motivations behind the making of a sycophant and its relevancy to this President
In a recent article, I posed the somewhat tongue-in-cheek question, “How is the President’s Approval Rating Not Zero?” – a reference to the observation that despite sweeping measures seeking to strip Americans of numerous rights, protections, and benefits (in addition to the ongoing cloud of the Trump/Russia investigation), the President maintains a sizeable following (reflected by an approval rating of approximately 35 – 40% of the polled population) among U.S. citizens.
In the aforementioned article, I characterized these ardent followers as falling into one of three camps:
(1) those that were largely ignorant (either passively due to lack of access to public sources of sociopolitical information or actively through narrow-minded media intake) of the President’s controversial, unethical, and potentially criminal behavior
(2) those who maintain unwavering support of their political affiliation (in this case GOP) and this group included both private citizens and elected Republican officials alike, or
(3) individuals who endorsed the message of the President and his Administration as a whole including the “super-rich” who stand to benefit from large tax cuts and those whose behaviors suggest that they are isolationists, ultra-nationalists, jingoists, racist, misogynistic, or bigoted in some way.
In today’s column, we delve deeper into the issues, dynamics, and motivations that underlie the syncophantic (or “yes-man”) mentality expressed by the President’s supporters.
More specifically, we will do so using our existing framework that operates according to the observations and principles that encompass the extreme narcissist and those within his orbit. Recent public events have illustrated that these dynamics manifest themselves across population classes including the President’s appointed Cabinet, GOP Congressional leaders and members, as well as the support staff that works within the White House.
Let us first ask some basic questions relevant to undying support and service from the followers of a leader, in general.
How are Sycophants Created?
Structure is inherent to social organizations. One might theoretically wish to have a “true democracy” free of any leadership, but practically, that is hardly possible in a partnership of (or relationship between) even a handful of people. Whenever a social organization needs to take actions based upon decisions (formally or informally), positions of leadership will be designated by the group or some group members will naturally evolve into a leadership role.
Persons with certain traits and abilities, whether socially acceptable or not, will take on a position of leadership or will be designated to carry out specific group-centered responsibilities.
Of course, there can be no positions of leadership, formal or informal, if there are not others who will follow or at least agree to follow. If all group members have the same “leadership” responsibilities and if all members are totally equal in decision-making power, then there truly is no leadership.
It is important to note that the unequal division of decision-making responsibilities within a group does not necessarily imply an inequality in other important “human factors” or in other aspects of interpersonal relationships. In addition, an unequal division of decision-making responsibility (i.e., one member is elected to preside when others are not) also does not imply that others must or should follow without questioning.
A position of leadership implies some distribution of power but not any one specific model of leading/governing/directing.
Due to recent events related to this Presidency and the clear division between supporters and resistors, several follow-up questions have arisen:
· Why is it, then, that even in social organizations (structured to be democratic and egalitarian in nature), from individual families to large-scale civic governments, that there must be a constant vigilance against authoritarianism?
· Why is it that even so many become willfully oppressed or devoted sycophants (”yes-people”) – even against their own interests and against their stated belief system (e.g., moral compass, religious beliefs, true conservatism)?
· Why does there tend to be a “nested” substructure of authoritarianism among the most powerful “leadership” (think Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader) as well as among those who have little control beyond their immediate circle of relationships (think lower tier government officials and conservative/alt-right pundits)?
Let’s revisit Group 1 (Aptitude/Knowledge vs. Lack of Sophistication/Ignorance) described in the introduction.
In the most benign situation, those who are truly more capable of making informed and logical decisions will rise into positions of leadership; while those who are less talented will recognize that respecting knowledge and aptitude is best for all concerned. This need not confer any more power than is inherent to the task at hand or Office in play in order to allow the most talented to lead the way.
At times, the followers will not necessarily fully or specifically appreciate the gap of knowledge or aptitude as much as simply recognizing that they are not qualified or able to effectively perform the tasks at hand. They may sincerely attempt to determine who will be best to lead or they may passively go along with suggestions or prompting.
Now let’s consider Group 2 or those who perceive Social Pressure to maintain group (i.e., party) affiliation. In these circumstances, while leadership may be theoretically based upon meritocracy (those who perform at an exceptional level are rewarded), other forces are at work within the social structure that pressure people to follow leaders, even if the gap in aptitude or knowledge is questionable, illusory, mistaken, or malevolently promoted (e.g., seniority alone)
The followers may recognize that they are as capable of leading, or at least contributing to decision-making, as those in power but there is an explicit risk, danger or threat to challenge the existing order. This can consist of “simple” peer pressure, wherein one does not want to “go against the tide.”
At times, the risk and consequences of alienating friends, family, or larger social groups is truly “not worth” the potential gain; or in overtly authoritarian structures, there is a true danger or threat and one must “pick your battles” or be inevitably defeated.
However, in a supposed democratic structure or government based in equality, the situations and interpersonal dynamics thus far discussed do not explain why intellectually and/or practically able and/or talented people fall into blind allegiance, cult-like worship, or subservient sycophancy (i.e., becoming yes-people) to persons whom the followers have every ability to recognize as less able, less informed, less effective and very often, of extremely questionable moral standing.
In other words, why do the more qualified individuals in, say government, fall into party line and not speak out against the less qualified leader?
Obviously, it is this latter situation that has marked the rise to political power – and (to this time) maintenance of political power of Donald Trump.
How can this imbalance in qualifications and regression into sycophancy be explained?
We suggest that one possibility is the search for “Shared Omnipotence.”
Before we further define what this phenomenon is in the sense of leadership, we must first better understand the process by which personal maturity develops, including the personality traits and the interpersonal dynamics that lead to authoritarian leadership and sycophantic obedience (if not worship).
For these purposes, this process can be divided into five Stages of normal psychological/characterological development (i.e., every person passes through these Stages). These are not discrete and separate phases of development.
These stages form a continuum that begins with an infantile state (as an infant or toddler) and moves towards mature adulthood – keeping in mind that there is always a risk of stagnation/fixation (getting stuck in a Stage) or regression (falling back to a previous Stage).
For the purposes of this article, we will discuss the nature of this phenomenon without going too deeply into the reasons why development to emotional maturity may fail.
Stage 1) Infantile Dependency
Persons functioning on a level of infantile or childish dependency perceive themselves as extremely vulnerable, lacking an ability for autonomy or even an idea of what being autonomous or independent is like. Therefore, they must rely upon powerful figures in their environment for care, sustenance, and nurturing. This reliance is often blind, unquestioning, and without the ability or luxury of considering whether the controlling power is ethical, “good” or malignant – as long as the basic needs for survival are provided.
Stage 2) Paranoid/Fearful Stage
At this level of development, a person does recognize him or herself as an individual who is capable of autonomy and independent decision making, but they perceive an outside entity as so powerful, so dangerous, or so threatening that they have no reasonable choice but to consciously suppress or unconsciously repress any disagreements or doubts and reject any effort to be independent or think independently.
This may reach the point wherein of internally accepting and following a belief system that the source of the power merits or deserves the power and worship (i.e., a cult-like relationship) or they may appreciate that “something is wrong” but feel that it is too dangerous to do anything but to pretend that they are willfully accepting the status quo. The closer a person approaches to “true belief”, the more likely they are to believe, against all logic, rationality or reason, that they will inevitably benefit from the magnificence of the leader (with “the ends justifying the means”).
Within our society and government, there is a portion of the population that is functioning at this level and within overtly totalitarian systems, there is explicit reinforcement for fixation at this state.
But this still does not explain the sycophancy of either the members of the public or the members of our government who truly “know better” and who, if asked, will steadfastly deny that they are authoritarians.
Stage 3) The Stage of Shared Omnipotence
This brings us to what we believe is the central developmental Stage of our culture, the Stage of "Shared Omnipotence." At this stage of emotional development, it is cognitively-intellectually recognized that other persons, even those in positions of leadership or power, are not super-human, are not endowed with unimaginable power or magnificence – they are essentially equal human beings, capable of having strengths and weaknesses, with areas of expertise and areas of incompetence.
However, the childhood fantasy remains that under the proper circumstances – if I find the “right” relationship; if we accept the “right” leader; if the leader forms the “right” circle of advisers (and “drains the swamp”), if we form the “right” alliance – then we will fulfill the greatest lie ever told to children, “And so, they lived happily ever after…”
One need not go very deep into popular culture (literature, music, drama – and of course, “advertising” in different forms) of recent years and generations; the relatively recent past (e.g., Romeo and Juliet) or the distant past (e.g. Helen of Troy) to find explicit or implicit promise that “if all goes well”, a relationship will be formed that conveys upon the participant a state of “shared omnipotence” – the promise of “living happily ever after.”
While this dynamic is most often portrayed (and on an individual basis, acted out) within romantic relationships, the exact same dynamics apply to political relationships.
Look around you. Look at different levels of social organization. We submit that you will unfailingly find that given enough time, the organization stagnates at, or regresses, to a phase of seeing Shared Omnipotence.
The basic theme of this fantasy is, “Together, we can do ANYTHING!” (we can even “Make America Great Again”). However, if you, the American citizen, reject me/my leadership/our leadership; if you do not ignore all of the blemishes and faults to maintain this relationship – it is not just that we will be apart, but we will be broken.
In other words, we will be pathetic, inept, powerless, and vulnerable individuals who not only will never “life happily ever after” – but we will be lucky to maintain above a level of chaotic minimal sustenance.
Remember, in his Inaugural Address, the President described the American state of affairs as “carnage” that he would work to fix.
Exploring aspects of early childhood relationships and how the relationship and the personality is affected by even normal frustration or feelings of deprivation, let alone situations of dysfunction or overt abuse, leads to a deeper appreciation of the emotions and thought processes that promote fixation at the stage of Shared Omnipotence and discourage a higher level of maturity. That discussion is beyond the scope of this article.
Yet even without needing to understand the full pathway to emotional stagnation, we can clearly observe the effects.
Simply put, we highly doubt that all (or even most or many) of those who continue to support Donald J. Trump, whether members of the general population, cabinet members/advisers or politicians of the highest level, are paranoid authoritarians, no more mature than infants or young children or are “merely” succumbing to social pressure.
Rather, dig deep enough, and you will find the unrequited fantasy that aligning with Donald J. Trump – again, despite all logic, rationality or reason, will lead to a shared sense of Greatness and Shared Omnipotence and “living happily ever after.”
Just this past week, VP Mike Pence described his role in the Trump Administration as the “greatest privilege of my life” and WH Chief of Staff Reince Priebus declared this:
“On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people,”
We note that this dynamic is not unique to Donald Trump. In fact, there is nary a reasonably-high level politician who does not engender this type of allegiance to at least a subtle degree (listen to “spin” for ten minutes) and there are few political organizations that do not at least implicitly gravitate toward trying to obtain this unspoken fantasy.
Rather, what is unique about Trump is that the personality he portrays in public (whether that is “truly who he is” or whether it is to some extent an intentional or evolved “act”) is so grandiose, so pompous – so narcissistic – that rather than subtly and implicitly playing into the public’s wish for Shared Omnipotence, as is the case of most politicians (on both sides of the aisle, as well as the backbone of the message of non-political advertising), Trump openly, unashamedly, and without compunction, empathy or concern, encourages all around him to join him in (what is probably his own constantly-active) fantasy of gaining sufficient power, allegiance, loyalty and worship so as to effect Shared Omnipotence and the (realistically ridiculous, futile and eventually tragic) expectation that he/we will “live happily ever after.”
Stage 4) Acceptance
For the sake of completeness, we will note (but not discuss) that the fourth stage of development is that of Acceptance. Simply put, accepting that fairy tales are just that – fairy tales. There is no magic. There is no omnipotence, personal or shared. As individuals and as groups of individuals, we are imperfect. We can strive for “the best” but only intermittently and for brief periods of time do we reach an optimal level of success.
Stabilizing at this level requires a process of grief and mourning for losing the fantasy we all took part in during our early years: that there can be a magical ending; that we can “live happily ever after.”
It might be asked, “How can you grieve or mourn a fantasy that never actually existed?” Perhaps the easiest answer is to observe and talk to a child who just found out that there is no Santa Claus.
This stage involves developing the ability to form relationships with other imperfect people, to allow for social structures and positions of leadership – but to do so as equals, without relinquishing the ability to question, doubt and challenge. In other words, to become responsible mature adult citizens rather than chasing after childish fantasies.
We are not there. And we are therefore vulnerable and at risk. Perhaps someday we will get there. But then, that, too, might only be a “meta” unrealistic fantasy that eventually, we will live “happily ever after.”
In the meantime, we have no alternative than to be satisfied with putting on our boots, wading through the shit, and making the best of it that we can - by courageously embracing logic, rationality, ethics and empathy (i.e., to soundly reject the dangerously fantastical world view of Donald Trump).
Rejecting the world view of Trump is totally independent of agreeing with or disagreeing with specific policies or political philosophies he may spread through his prepared speeches, Tweets, or WH statements – policies and “political philosophies” that are objectively fluid and inconsistent in that their goal is establishing a state of immature and magical Shared Omnipotence as opposed to mature and realistic Mutuality.
About the Authors:
Seth Davin Norrholm, PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, a full-time faculty member in the Emory Neuroscience Graduate Program, and a member of the Emory Clinical Psychology Graduate Program. Dr. Norrholm has spent 20 years studying trauma-, stressor-, anxiety-, depressive-, and substance use-related disorders and has published over 80 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters. The primary objective of his work is to develop “bench-to-bedside” clinical research methods to inform therapeutic interventions for fear and anxiety-related disorders and how they relate to human factors such as personality, genetics, and environmental influences. Dr. Norrholm has been featured on NBC, ABC, CNN.com, USA Today, WebMD, Scientific American, and is a regular Contributor to The Huffington Post.
David M. Reiss, M.D. has been a practicing psychiatrist for more than 30 years, specializing in “front-line” adult and adolescent psychiatry. He has evaluated and treated over 12,000 persons of diverse social and cultural backgrounds, from every occupational field. Dr. Reiss has been recognized internationally for expertise in character and personality dynamics. He is often interviewed and quoted in the print, Internet and radio/TV media, nationally and internationally, to help the public understand the psychological aspects of current events. He is an authority on issues regarding social and political phenomena, medical and mental health treatment, PTSD, violence in society, and the functioning of the current mental health system.