Saturday, January 14, 2017

Reason #1: Trump’s psyche & “the hubris-nemesis complex” (2nd of 4 posts)

Trump’s psyche exhibits a “hubris-nemesis complex”. Analysts often note that his personality is riddled with narcissism. What I call the “hubris-nemesis complex” (1994) is a dire form of this, a step beyond ordinary narcissism.

The hubris-nemesis complex reflects an ancient dynamic in Greek mythology. Accordingly, hubris is man’s vainglorious pretension to be god-like, the capital sin of arrogant overweening pride. Nemesis is the goddess of divine vengeance and retribution; she strikes down people who display hubris. That is the classic dynamic. The myth of Narcissus illustrates it. So does the Christian saying “Pride goeth before a fall”. Likewise, the fates of President Nixon and later the Shah of Iran.

Normally, the two forces — hubris and nemesis — function apart. However, rare leaders sometimes arise who embody both forces — they have enormous hubris, and also want to be the Nemesis of an external force they accuse of greater hubris. That is, they have a hubris-nemesis complex. Modern exemplars include Hitler, Mussolini, Castro, Ahmadinejad, and Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab (also, maybe some self-exalting hypercritical talk-show hosts?)

In such leaders, the complex means more than exhibiting hubris and nemesis as separate qualities. The integration of the two forces and their interaction appears to result in something more complex, more pathological, than the description of either force alone may imply at first glance. For, to be as powerful as their hubris requires, such leaders must act as the nemesis of an outside power; indeed, it is part of their hubris to be a nemesis. At the same time, to fulfill the nemesis role against such a power, they yearn for expanded if not absolute power for themselves at home and abroad — they want the capability to impose their hubris.

In the classic dynamic, then, the two forces stand apart, opposing and contradicting each other. In this extraordinary dynamic, the two forces no longer stand apart. They get fused in a single psyche. They become compatible contradictions — mutually reinforcing each other in a fusion that, far from destroying the bearer, imparts enormous invigorating energy, ambition, dynamism, and charisma, along with a thirst for absolute power. The two forces feed on each other such that the stronger one is, the stronger the other may become as well.

The mentality and behavior of a leader under the spell of both forces will be substantially different from those of a leader affected by only one or neither of the two forces. A hubris-nemesis complex seems to impart a rationality that differs from a conventional cost-benefit rationality. A leader inflated with that much grandiosity and vengefulness tends to believe that he or she is above the law. They may not make what are normally regarded as reasonable pragmatic calculations of interests, goals, benefits, costs, and risks. They prefer unbounded space-time-agency perspectives.

From what I’ve seen and learned, Trump has regularly shown signs of hubris and of wanting to play nemesis against one actor or another (e.g., the Establishment, Washington, the Media, whatever is “rigged” — not to mention specific individuals). He repeatedly displays the tremendous energy, ambition, arrogance, charisma, and even demagoguery that attends this self-exalting complex. And he repeatedly displays a vengeful desire to confront, humiliate, punish, and defeat whomever he deems an adversary guilty of hubris (even just a questioning critic).

In sum, I worry that he has a hubris-nemesis complex that is going to prove troublesome. The American political system, with its checks and balances etc., is designed in ways that should temper and contain leaders who have an excess of hubris or nemesis or both. Other aspects of Trump’s psyche, as well his family dynamics, may also help temper and contain his hubris-nemesis impulses. But I still see reasons to continue wondering and worrying.

Sources: Monograph titled Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex: A Concept for Leadership Analysis (1994), plus a blog post on “Space-time-action orientations of leaders who have a hubris-nemesis complex” (2014).


Speculative aside: To the standard explanations for Trump’s appeal, I have wondered about adding an aspect of Hollywood. Its movie and TV industries are often said to be rife with liberals who exert liberal influences on our culture, to the chagrin of conservatives. But what about the following?

Over the past decade or so, there has been a vast increase in movies and TV shows that revolve around super, magical, extraordinary, and special powers — indeed, around scripts and roles filled with hubris and nemesis dynamics. Some of these shows are fun entertainment. But there is so much of this now, it may not only reflect something amiss in our society but also be serving to tilt people in less rational directions, away from preferences for ordinary narratives and explanations.

Trump, more than any candidate, was able to present himself like a superhero who has special powers. Meanwhile, Clinton and other candidates continued to talk in terms of large mundane factors and forces — an ordinary way of thinking out of step with how aggrieved populists may now be inclined to think. My guess is that, if you asked people to list favorite kinds of movies and TV shows, Trump voters would prefer the kinds noted above, Clinton voters much less so.

If so, this would amount to quite a shift in how Hollywood may be said to influence our society.


Slightly edited version of text first posted on my Facebook page, December 28, 2016.

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