Mirror, mirror: Why Perry’s not being enough of a narcissist has done him in.

Good morning Austin:

Four years ago, Rick Perry ran for president as the candidate of swagger and bluster. It didn’t last long, and this time around he retooled as a candidate of substance. Put a lot of effort into it.

Bad move.

He zigged when he should have zagged.

He talks a lot about humility.

Oh boy.

Turns out that 2016 is the year of swagger and bluster.

Humility is for losers.

In a line of work – running for president – that demands narcissism, it appears that Perry, believe it or not, may be insufficiently narcissistic.


What makes me think that?

Well, he’s a good listener.

The first time I met, at the annual holiday party at the Governor’s Mansion in 2012, he asked all the questions. He wanted to know about me, where I came from, about my wife and my children, and everything I told him he remembered and would come back to on subsequent encounters.

Mike Dennehy, far left, in Merrimack, N.H., July 4
Rick Perry with Mike Dennehy, far left, in Merrimack, N.H., before the July 4th Parade.

Same thing happened to Mike Dennehy, who Perry hired to direct his New Hampshire campaign this year, and Jamie Johnson, who came on board as the senior director for the campaign, based in Iowa. And both Dennehy and Johnson, in almost identical language, described to me Perry’s uncanny ability to draw virtually everyone he meets into conversation, teasing from them some connection of interest or background or geography.

Perry listens in Iowa Falls
Perry listens in Iowa Falls

When I showed up to cover him in Rockwell City, Iowa, last month, I told him I had just moved into a house with air-conditioning, and minutes later, as he explained to the assembled audience that people have been moving to Texas in droves,  and “it’s not for the weather in August,” he pointed to me, saying “Jonathan lives in Austin and he just moved into a house with air conditioning.”

People smiled.


This may not seem remarkable, but for the truest narcissist, that is rare.

From a 1983 Town & Country piece – 12 Surprising Facts About Donald Trump:

Number 5. He’s not a great listener. “Donald is driven. He’s so consumed with what he believes and feels that he has a tendency not to listen well,” a business acquaintance told Masello. “He’s a good merchant. He knows how to sell himself and his property.”

I don’t know if that counts as a surprising fact.

In a January-February 2000 piece in The Harvard Business Review, Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons, which focused on corporate CEO’s, Michael Maccoby, wrote that they are notoriously “poor listeners.”

 One serious consequence of this oversensitivity to criticism is that narcissistic leaders often do not listen when they feel threatened or attacked. Consider the response of one narcissistic CEO I had worked with for three years who asked me to interview his immediate team and report back to him on what they were thinking. He invited me to his summer home to discuss what I had found. “So what do they think of me?” he asked with seeming nonchalance as we walked together. “They think you are very creative and courageous,” I told him, “but they also feel that you don’t listen.” “Excuse me, what did you say?” he shot back at once, pretending not to hear. His response was humorous, but it was also tragic.

At the end of August, Maccoby wrote another piece for The Harvard Business Review – Why People Are Drawn to Narcissists Like Donald Trump.

 No one pushes Trump around, and no insult goes unanswered. He fights back. He is not cautious or fearful of offending a critic or any of America’s adversaries. In this, Trump has a personality type that’s common to the charismatic leaders who emerge in times of turmoil and uncertainty, when people are ready to follow a strong leader who promises to lead them to greatness. Sigmund Freud called people with this personality type “normal narcissists” and he described them as independent and not vulnerable to intimidation, also noting that they have a large amount of aggressive energy and a bias for action. Freud included himself in this group and saw these narcissists as driven to lead and to change the world. Such narcissists can be very charming, and indeed, research has shown most of us like to follow narcissists.

As I thought about it, I realized Perry’s “oops” moment was less about making an embarrassing mistake, than it was about his acknowledging it, letting the world see his wounded pride, and punctuating it with an aching, indelible “oops.”

He could never be seen the same again.

He had revealed himself to be an incomplete narcissist.


Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 3.08.38 PM

This time around, Donald Trump can make more oops-worthy statements in a day than Perry made in a month, but Trump has mastered the art of presenting himself as infallible no matter how wrong he may be.

Last week, Trump was interviewed by Hugh Hewitt.

HH: Are you familiar with General Soleimani?

DT: Yes… but go ahead, give me a little, go ahead, tell me.

HH: He runs the Quds Forces.

DT: Yes, okay, right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior —

DT: The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by —

HH: No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces, the bad guys.

DT: Yes, yes. Right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior to change as a result…

DT: Oh, I thought you said Kurds, Kurds.

HH: No, Quds.

DT: Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said Kurds, because I think the Kurds have been poorly treated by us, Hugh. Go ahead

From The Hill:

Donald Trump is blasting Hugh Hewitt after stumbling over foreign policy questions in an interview with the conservative radio host.

“[He is] a third-rate radio announcer,” Trump told hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday morning.

Trump clashed with the radio host on Thursday evening’s “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” Hewitt began asking him what he called “commander-in-chief questions” about international affairs. The exchange became heated when Trump mistook a question about Iran’s Quds Force as a query about the Kurds.

On Friday, Trump said that the broadcaster’s show is beneath him despite his multiple appearances with Hewitt since launching his 2016 campaign in June. Trump said Hewitt was trying to embarrass him by asking about obscure topics.

“Every question was, ‘Do you know this one or know that one?’ ” Trump said.

“I do think the Kurds are not being utilized properly or being used properly,” he added.

Hewitt is also slated to co-moderate the second GOP debate on CNN on Sept. 16.

Reports emerged on Friday that Trump’s campaign staff are furious over Hewitt’s questioning of their candidate and is considering blacklisting him from future interviews.

Now that’s an appropriate narcissistic approach. Don’t know an answer, blame the question.

In fairness, Kurds, Quds, come on. Life is short. Quds is New York Times crossword puzzle material. though, the fact that this was a phone interview means that, were Trump not such a narcissist, he could have been Googling on his end as the interview proceeded, though I guess he would have had to ask Hewitt how to spell “Quds.”

But Trump, unlike Perry, is gaffe-proof. He’ll have committed a gaffe only when he says he’s committed a gaffe. And he won’t do that.

As Jack Shafer wrote last week in a political obituary for Perry’s candidacy in Politico:

Alas, it take more than a single campaign event, press expose or unfortunate utterance to throttle a campaign. There are just too many variables governing defeat and victory. As the loose-mouthed Trump campaign demonstrates daily, “gaffes” have no superpower to scuttle a popular candidate, especially if the candidate remains unrepentant about his gaffes. (Ronald Reagan was similarly unrepentant about his. Joe Biden is almost as good.)

In a very interesting piece in the New York Times over the weekend, The Narcissist in Chief,

Wtih the presidential campaign in full swing, a perennial question has resurfaced: How much weight should voters give to candidates’ personalities? The political rise of Donald J. Trump has drawn attention to one personality trait in particular: narcissism. Although narcissism does not lend itself to a precise definition, most psychologists agree that it comprises self-centeredness, boastfulness, feelings of entitlement and a need for admiration.

We have never met Mr. Trump, let alone examined him, so it would be inappropriate of us to offer a formal assessment of his level of narcissism. And in all fairness, today’s constant media attention makes a sizable ego a virtual job requirement for public office. Still, the Trump phenomenon raises the question of what kinds of leaders narcissists make. Fortunately, a recent body of research has suggested some answers.

In a 2013 article in Psychological Science, we and our colleagues approached this question by studying the 42 United States presidents up to and including George W. Bush. (The primary data were collected before Barack Obama’s presidency.) First we took a data set compiled by the psychologists Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer, who for an earlier study asked experts on each president to complete personality surveys on the subjects of their expertise. Then, using standard formulas from the research literature on personality, we produced estimates of each president’s narcissism level. Finally, we correlated these personality ratings with data from surveys of presidential performance obtained from independent panels of historians.

We found that narcissism, specifically “grandiose narcissism” — an amalgam of flamboyance, immodesty and dominance — was associated with greater overall presidential success. (This relation was small to moderate in magnitude.) The two highest scorers on grandiose narcissism were Lyndon B. Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt, the two lowest James Monroe and Millard Fillmore.

Grandiose narcissism was tied to slightly better crisis management, public persuasiveness and agenda-setting. Presidents with high levels of this trait were also more likely to assume office by winning election in a landslide (55 percent or more of the popular vote) and to initiate new legislation.

Yet we also found that grandiose narcissism was associated with certain negative outcomes, including unethical behaviors like stealing, abusing power and bending rules. High scorers on this trait were especially likely to have been the target of impeachment resolutions (John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton).

We also considered a less well-understood dimension of narcissism: “vulnerable narcissism,” a trait associated with being self-absorbed and thin-skinned (think of Richard M. Nixon, who was a high scorer on this trait). We found that vulnerable narcissism showed little relation to successful presidential leadership.

From their article in Psychological Science, The Double-Edged Sword of Grandiose Narcissism: Implications for Successful and Unsuccessful Leadership Among U.S. Presidents:

Recent research and theorizing suggest that narcissism may predict both positive and negative leadership outcomes, a duality termed the “bright side/dark side” phenomenon (Hogan & Hogan, 2001). Examples of leaders widely regarded as displaying prominent narcissistic traits range from the largely positive (e.g., Alexander the Great, George S. Patton; Brown, 2005) to the unquestionably malignant (e.g., Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi; Glad, 2002; Horowitz & Arthur, 1988).

On the bright side, narcissistic individuals tend to become leaders in new groups (Brunell et al., 2008) and to excel in job interviews (Paulhus, Westlake, Calvez, & Harms, in press) and other brief social interactions (Küfner, Nestler, & Back, 2013). They perform especially well when others evaluate them (Wallace & Baumeister, 2002). Narcissistic people may also be adept at becoming celebrities; the narcissism scores of reality-television stars—who arguably acquire fame without having obvious talent—are elevated (Young & Pinsky, 2006). Moreover, narcissistic individuals are skilled at selling their ideas as innovative even when they are not (Goncalo, Flynn, & Kim, 2010).

On the dark side, narcissism is linked to overconfident decision making, deceit, and failure to learn from mistakes (Campbell, Goodie, & Foster, 2004). In addition, narcissism is tied to placing the needs of the self before long-term organizational needs (Campbell, Bush, Brunell, & Shelton, 2005). Narcissism is also associated with counterproductive work behavior and poor ethics (Blair, Hoffman, & Helland, 2006; O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & McDaniel, 2012).

President Lyndon B. Johnson laughs with Abe Fortas - LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto
The most narcissistic: President Lyndon B. Johnson laughs with Abe Fortas – LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

The authors also noted that, the increase in grandiose narcissism could reflect a broader trend toward increasing narcissism scores in the general U.S. population (Twenge & Campbell, 2009; see Donnellan, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2009, for a competing view).

Here, from their paper, a table, which enables you to see how your favorite president rates on the narcissism scale.

narcissism scale

The least narcissistic. James Monroe by Joel Jonientz. (ljonientz.com)
The least narcissistic. James Monroe by Joel Jonientz. (ljonientz.com)

Trump remains on the rise, master, for the moment, of all he surveys. And Perry is hanging on by his fingernails down to one paid staffer in Iowa, another in South Carolina, and none in New Hampshire.

From Rebecca Burg at Real Clear Politics

The staffers, Jamie Johnson in Iowa and Le Frye in South Carolina, were put back on the payroll in recent weeks following a prior decision to stop paying all campaign staff, Perry’s campaign manager, Jeff Miller, confirmed Wednesday to RealClearPolitics. Johnson, who had been acting as a senior adviser to the national campaign, has been also been reassigned to lead Perry’s efforts in Iowa, a critical state for the candidate who lags well behind many of his GOP competitors. (Perry is in 13th place in the RCP national polling average, and in 14th place in Iowa.)

Perry’s recent struggles to raise money, coupled with his high spending on television advertisements in the Hawkeye State, have marked an existential crisis for his campaign. Compounding the problem, the money troubles also jeopardized Perry’s slot in the upcoming debate — a precious source of exposure for candidates, even though he will likely be in the “undercard” debate for second-tier contenders. CNN’s rules require that campaigns have at least two paid staffers in the four early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina for a candidate to qualify.

At a press conference Thursday, Trump, with a narcissist flourish, bid Perry’s candidacy adieu.

Perry attacked me; now he’s getting out of the race, He was at 4 or 5 percent, now he’s getting out of the race, he was at zero.

Later that day, on Fox, Gretchen Carlson asked Perry, Is Donald Trump right, Are you getting out of the race?

Perry responded: You know a broken clock is right once a day. So the bottom line is I’m still here, I’m still working.

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 12.34.50 PM

That is, on several levels, a puzzling response.

The expression is that a broken clock is right twice a day.

Perhaps if America had not so recently had a former Texas governor with a talent for linguistic miscues as president, this would simply be endearing. As it is, it’s a minor oops reminder.

I suppose it is possible that Perry relies on a digital clock with AM and PM on the screen, so, if it’s stuck, it’s right but once day. Or perhaps, Perry, the former Air Force pilot, was, already in a commander-in-chief frame of mind, and was thinking of a clock keeping 24-hour military time.

But, this was the first thing he said answering a question he knew he would get. Presumably he had vetted the reply in his own mind. But, even correctly stated, what does it mean?

The best interpretation is that Perry is suggesting that Trump is rarely right, and this is not that once a day when he is correct.

But, he might as well have answered, a rolling stone gathers no moths or you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it think.



Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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