October 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Rudd the narcissist

By Judith Brett
Rudd the narcissist
The 2013 election campaign came down to a contest between constancy and charisma, but Labor should have reined in its leader.

When Bob Hawke faced off against Malcolm Fraser in 1983, the political psychologist Graham Little, writing for Meanjin, saw it as a contest between personality and character:

Character is organised, socially responsible, predictable; personality is fluid, radically individual, elusive. Character is repeated again and again so that it seems to be human nature itself; personality seems ephemeral because it is always in process and revealing new facets. Most importantly, personality is assigned to the outer surface where persons interact, while character refers to a solid hidden core; character is solid where personality is a kind of hidden chemistry between people.

Personality brings excitement to political life, and the hope of a better world; character offers reassurance that things don’t need to change too much. 

In 1983 character was dominant: Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the US, and Australia had just had eight years of Malcolm “Life wasn’t meant to be easy” Fraser. But the pendulum swung back to personality with the election of Hawke. “Hawkey” was a big, public personality: ambitious, vain and enormously popular. Reaching out to the people, he offered a politics of consensus after the combativeness of Fraser, and promised to bring back Labor’s spirit of reform after the crash and burn of Gough Whitlam’s government. 

Last month we likewise had a choice between character and personality. Tony Abbott, while not charmless, offered himself as reliable and trustworthy, promising to lead a government with no surprises and no excuses, and to take us back to the way things were under John Howard. Then there was Kevin Rudd, Mr Personality, a brilliant communicator but slippery and hard to pin down.

The Liberals did not talk about character during the 2013 election, but they did talk a lot about DNA, the metaphor of the moment for what is unchanging and essential. “Deep in our DNA we are committed to surpluses and to paying off debt,” Abbott told the Rooty Hill “People’s Forum”. “Labor will never deliver a surplus. It’s not in their DNA,” said Joe Hockey at his National Press Club address. Translated into the language of character, this was the Liberals’ traditional claim to the virtues of frugality and self-control against the extravagances of spendthrift Labor. It’s the ant and the grasshopper of Aesop’s fable, and it strongly resonated with the electorate. After all, everyone has to manage their money. 

There is an obvious fit between personality and parties with a reforming agenda. The politics of change needs the buzz, the extra energy that personality brings, to break through settled assumptions and give people the confidence to think differently. Max Weber called personality in politics “charisma”: the political authority that comes not from tradition, the way things have always been done, nor from a constitution, what is legal, but from the capacity of the individual to take others with them, beyond the boundaries of the present, towards a possible future. Charismatic Australian leaders have mostly been of the left: John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Paul Keating. A case could be made for Alfred Deakin, but not for any other Liberal leaders.  

For political leaders, both character and personality have their strengths and their dangers. The dangers of character lie in relying too much on the ways of the past: the leader is unable to respond effectively to changed circumstances and the inevitable unpredictability of events; they approach new problems with the solutions that worked last time their party was in government. This is what Fraser did, as if reversing Whitlam’s policies would be enough to restore Australia’s prosperity, but the world economy had changed and it didn’t work. 

This is the risk for Abbott, who based his election campaign on the Labor legislation he would repeal, rather than on what his party would do in government. He has been far too ready to point to the solutions and achievements of the Howard governments, while saying very little about Australia’s dramatically different current economic circumstances. By presenting his static front bench as a virtue during the campaign, Abbott showed evidence of character’s reluctance to risk the untried, even when it lumbers you with a couple of duds. Still, Abbott may well go on to develop the flexibility and responsiveness needed to be an effective prime minister.

It is the dangers of too much personality that have been most visible over the past few months, as Rudd returned on a crest of jubilation that dropped away before Labor’s decisive electoral defeat. A big personality is often associated with narcissism, and Rudd has been widely described as a narcissist. The Friday before the election, Angela Liati, who gained notoriety for perjuring herself by claiming to have been in the car of former Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld (now there is a personality) at the time of a traffic offence, flung the epithet “narcissistic megalomaniac” at Rudd as he walked down a mall amid balloons and supporters. Labor colleagues, journalists and pop psychologists have similarly diagnosed him over dinner or drinks. 

According to Pamela Williams of the Australian Financial Review, the Liberal Party used an informal diagnosis of Rudd, supplied by a friendly psychiatrist, to guide its psychological tactics in the campaign. The psychiatric report claimed Rudd suffered from a destructive personality disorder known as “grandiose narcissism” and drew attention to his sensitivity to criticism and absolute conviction of his intellectual superiority. Challenging the latter would rattle him and might tempt him into a tantrum or the condescending mode of the know-all. This was on display during an episode of the ABC TV show Q&A, when a pastor raised with Rudd the Bible’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Rudd was rude, claiming to know the Bible better than the pastor, and talked him down. It was an ugly sight. But, as Williams points out, the Liberal Party’s secret diagnosis of Rudd’s narcissistic personality disorder raised a riddle: if the symptoms were so obvious and the character flaws so marked, how was it that Labor chose Rudd not once, but twice, to lead the country?

The answer is that narcissism is more than just a personality disorder. Freud gave it a bad name, associating it with the self-centredness of infancy and presenting it as a developmental stage through which individuals pass en route to psychological maturity. Hence the Liberals’ claim that with them “the adults” would be back in charge of our politics. But Freud also saw in the narcissistic character an unequalled potential for leadership and linked it to the capacity to inspire cultural change. Many later psychoanalysts, most notably Heinz Kohut, have come to see narcissism as present in the joys and creativity of human life as well as in its destructive vicissitudes. 

Kohut wrote a 1972 essay on “narcissistic rage”, which may well have informed the diagnosis passed on to the Liberals. It identifies many of Rudd’s personality traits: his perfectionism and micromanagement, his love of the limelight, his suspicious nature and need for revenge, and his outbursts of temper, as documented in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay Power Trip, about the politician with “rage at his core”. But Kohut also helps us to understand how narcissism can be creative and serve greater ends. The key is for the self-love, the grandiosity, the self’s urgent need to avenge wrongs done to it, to be invested in a cause or an institution that is strong enough to contain the narcissistic energies and to harness them for general social use. 

Rudd is not a monster, and there is much in his biography that points to a man trying to contribute to a fairer Australia in which the humiliations of his dispossessed widowed mother and her children will not be felt by others, and in which bright kids from poor backgrounds have the means to get on. He had the personality to connect people with the Labor Party and make them feel that it mattered which side won the election. But the party was too weak to contain and control the destructive aspects of Rudd’s narcissism. Endowed with an eroded sense of purpose beyond winning power, with too many untalented time-servers and with too much focus on the distribution of spoils, the Labor Party did not provide Rudd with the powerful constraining ideals narcissists need to become effective leaders. Getting rid of him alone is hardly going to restore its moral authority.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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