Our dangerous narcissists

Mona Charen, syndicated columnist

If you’re like me, you’ve gotten a bellyful of AI analysis, speculation and dire warnings over the past few months. Alongside hopes of cancer cures, obedient home robots, personalized tutors, energy efficiency and wildlife preservation, we’ve heard from leaders in the field that AI will definitely … kill us all. Soooo, that somewhat dims enthusiasm for those tidying up robots.

But it strikes me that we have a different, more pressing problem. It concerns not artificial but organic intelligence, specifically one of its most destructive traits — narcissism. And while it may not have the capacity to annihilate humanity, it is dragging us closer to calamity than we can afford to ignore. From Donald Trump to Elon Musk to Tucker Carlson, our society is being deformed by egomaniacs. Like Cerberus, these ravening, devouring ego monsters destroy anything in their path. And for what? Not for some imagined utopian future — the delusion that has propelled others to depraved crimes — but merely to burnish their personal brand.

Trump’s world-historical ego needs, in tandem with his grubby criminality, have brought us to the point where almost every major institution — from the press to the intelligence services to the military to the so-called deep state to the electoral system to the judiciary — has been discredited in the eyes of tens of millions. The Republican Party has been so corrupted that, as Mitt Romney put it, “a very large portion” of it no longer believes in the Constitution. Trump has engineered this wholesale destruction of civic trust to hide or excuse his wrongdoing — or to spare himself from the truth, such as that he lost an election. Or both.

Elon Musk’s voracious ego may have cost hundreds of even thousands of Ukrainian lives when he refused to extend Starlink coverage to a Ukrainian mission to retake parts of its own country. Trusting in his own assessment of the risk of nuclear escalation (translation: falling hook, line and sinker for Vladimir Putin’s crude threats), he took it upon himself to alter the course of a war. His boundless narcissism meant that he made this decision without consulting with the secretary of Defense, the intelligence agencies or even any scholar of Russia. He might have turned to someone who actually knows the region, like Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who analyzed what Musk’s catastrophic egotism has meant for the war: “After three major battlefield victories last year, the Ukrainians had a chance to put an end to the Russian occupation by striking south. … But without comms, a meaningful advance was impossible. This gave the Russian side time to build the fortifications and lay the mines that make this year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive so much harder.”

And that’s not even counting the continuing destruction of standards of civic discourse that Musk has encouraged on X, formerly Twitter. In the style of our modern egoists who imagine themselves supreme in all endeavors, Musk bloviated regarding free speech without understanding the first thing about centuries of jurisprudence on the subject. He might have asked someone who knew, but the narcissists never admit ignorance. That might detract from their self-worship.

Tucker Carlson is gifted, handsome, intelligent and rich. Yet he has transformed himself into a MAGA gargoyle; the far right’s propaganda minister spreading sinister lies and stoking violence between Americans. Why? Because if he had been content to uphold basic standards of decency, he would not be a right-wing star, and the ego must be propitiated.

There have always been narcissists. What distinguishes this era is that their self-absorption isn’t regarded as a fault. I recall Rush Limbaugh’s schtick about “talent on loan from God.” He made swaggering self-promotion part of his gimmick. I wonder whether a point came in his long career when he no longer had his tongue in cheek and listeners stopped feeling that they were in on a joke, but rather that he really was some sort of genius because he said so. (I know people of whom that was true.) Did he soften up the right wing for Trump’s bombastic boasting?

I wonder whether anyone ever tells children anymore that “self-praise is no praise at all”? Or does our culture of self-esteem forbid that?

Everyone, not just kids, needs a reminder that humility is a virtue not just because boasting is obnoxious, but because no one is always right.

Shriveled souls like Trump and Musk fear that recognizing others or admitting ignorance amounts to a confession of inferiority. On the contrary, it’s a sign of confidence. Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Our small-minded narcissists cannot begin to grasp that. It’s long past time to resume pitying narcissists rather than revering and elevating them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her new book, “Hard Right: The GOP’s Drift Toward Extremism,” is available now.


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