Self-Importance Is the New Normal

Obsessive self-importance may be the new normal, and it is not pretty. We have all seen over-inflated egos expressed, from the poorest streets of our cities and dying towns to the elevated offices of CEOs and the White House itself. Likely as not, we have all tried to demonstrate our own self-importance.

Trump.Rally.Rage

Trump Rally Rage

Why is something that should be an aberration, so common? Well, the answer is complicated but clear. Expression of self-importance as psychological compensation for the lack of power and respect in our lives is not new. Yet, today it seems at a peak as it is seen in the new racism, xenophobia, domestic violence, politics, and just about every part of our lives. Security is scarce and anxiety is high. Anger is cathartic.

Self-Worth Shortage

We all need to feel worthy. If secure in our relations with family and community, we do feel our self-worth in our natural relations with others. When we are not sure of where we stand with our peers or “significant others,” be they family, coworkers, or powerful people we hardly know, the likely result is status anxiety. Well, status anxiety runs rampant in modern industrial-consumer societies, as does economic anxiety since so few jobs pay a living wage or are secure anymore.

Anxiety is an expression of fear, the fear of what is to come, how it may affect me, and the fact that I have little or no control over the outcome. Since people can do so little about the sources of modern anxiety, they often compensate psychologically by expressing self-assurance. As often as not, self-assurance comes off as some demonstration of how “I am important, much more important than you.”

Expressions of self-importance are everywhere. People often use the automobile as a tool we can control to show our self-importance. Unfortunately, as with shopping, the benefits do not last. And the risks may be physical, not just economic. Typically, “road rage” asserts power in reaction to someone else’s lack of deference to the offended one, if not just incompetent driving. To the self-important driver, “it’s my road; you must show deference to me.”

RoadRage.in.NJSome years ago, I made a lane change on a busy street, to get to the left-turn lane. The driver behind me was not at all close; that is, I did not cut him off. Immediately, he roared around me to the right, cut in front of me, and slammed on his brakes. This guy was clearly making a statement of self-important rage. I tried to see if he had a gun, as I acted as passive as I could, dropping back as he sped up having demonstrated his vehicular power. Fortunately, I saw none.

Just Because I’m Me

People do not need to work up a case of road rage to express their self-importance in a car. The mere presence of another driver is enough. When I taught social research methodology at Cal State University, I often gave an initial assignment to go out in the world and observe some social behavior, write up descriptions and analyze what happened. I got some boring reports and a few very insightful ones. At least some students discovered that it is not such a simple matter.

One semester, a young woman who had not stood out in another class, chose to observe behavior in the campus parking lot. Shauna focused on the interaction between drivers when one is leaving a parking place while others search for one.

Shauna timed dozens of people leaving their parking places, from unlocking their door to pulling out. When another driver was waiting to take that place, departing drivers consistently took more time to leave than drivers with nobody waiting to take their parking place. They adjusted their mirror, arranged their books or backpacks, put on lipstick, checked their cell phone, or anything that would slightly delay their departure. They seemed to be saying, “This is my parking place and I’ll give it up when I am good and ready.” They were not reacting to some behavior of the waiting driver. They were asserting a bit of self-importance in a world where personal control is a scarce commodity.

A core feature of industrial-consumer economies is the social fragmentation that leaves individuals isolated, alienated, and with little personal power in their lives. They must somehow fit into the institutional matrix to survive; that offers almost no personal basis for self-worth. The alienated expression of a false sense of self-importance is a poor substitute for the healthy social relations that breed self-worth.

America’s False Divide

“According to polls, most Americans think the nation is more divided than it’s been since the Civil War. And these divides are getting worse…”

Really? Exactly what divides America? Well, there are polls and there are polls. In November 2016, a Gallup poll suggested shortly after Trump’s election that 77% of the people perceived the nation as divided. Certainly, if you watch Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, the traditional networks, or participate in social media, you can easily get that impression. Conflict makes the news. Certainly, the nation is going through some major changes, some of which produce more denial than contemplation. That tends to escalate the ‘blame game.’

Nostalgia for imagined “good old days” leads many to wish to “Make America Great Again.” Generational losses of income and status breed fear, resentment and anger. Trump has deftly exploited such fears and resentments, inciting anger and even violence among his base of mostly working and former middle-class white males and some of the women who love them.

We hear formerly politically incorrect expressions of racism, sexism, and xenophobia uttered more openly now in public and semi-public arenas. However, it seems clear that many of the voters who put Obama in office also voted for Trump. That may seem crazy, but it was a complex electoral dynamic that would take many pages just to describe no less explain.

Institutional Divisions by Racism

Did we really become that divided between presidents? Well, of course, the big political division between Obama Democrats and the racist Republican Congress of his second term has grown wider and wider, resulting in unprecedented partisan practices that border on violating at least the spirit of the Constitution.

Is it really that the American people are so divided, or is the actual division between the growing power of the corporate state in conflict with the public interest in seeking a safer more livable world for the American people? Establishment Democrats like to treat Trump as an anomaly, an outlier so bizarre that he does not fit into the standard assortment of political positions.

To be sure, Trump’s impulses are weird and vastly ignorant of national norms of the political process, civil behavior, and the constitutional constraints on his pretentions to unlimited personal power. He blatantly exposes his racism, misogyny, and narcissism in daily Tweets. But is that so different from the perverse behavior of those old white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee who dismiss the entirely credible story of Dr. Christine Blaisey Ford as they did decades before with Anita Hill?

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley speaks as Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington

Chuck Grassley ~  HuffPost

Political operative Brett Kavanagh would surely guarantee a plutocratic majority on the Supreme Court. He represents the same culture of elitist white male entitlement to power embodied in Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Lindsay Graham. For Trump, it is a matter of protection from prosecution even more than plutocracy; for the senators, it is a matter of achieving the corporatist goals of their PACs to dominate the federal government by executive action as well as voter suppression.

Plutocratic Unity and the Veil of Division

Trump’s policy choices – however dangerous in international relations for example – fit well with the notion that his presidency is the logical extension of the trends of the corporate state over several decades, whichever party was in power. The cooperation of Senate Democrats in the unconstitutional Republican wars of choice, just like the bailouts for Wall Street criminals of 2008, but not for their victims, reflects the unity of the plutocrats that underlies and belies surface “party differences.”

One might even conclude that the great divide today is between the people and a federal government that now almost entirely serves the interest of corporate elites and the super-rich. Despite the distortions of demagoguery, the trends now deeply entrenched in the corporate state run counter to some of the most basic of American values.

Because of the dominance of corporate money in national politics, federal elected officials are less and less connected to the people they are supposed to represent. The “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision and the injection of blatant representatives of corporate polluters as executives in the EPA along with sweeping executive orders unwind decades of gradual improvement in modest environmental protections. Abandoning our commitment to the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, like many other actions, runs counter to the interests of the public in safety, security; others constrain the ability of average Americans to earn a decent living.

The demagoguery, confusion, anger, and resentment run high and as usual in such situations, a charlatan who Michael Moore terms a master of performance art. Trump deftly turned that resentment toward scapegoating vulnerable minority populations, including refugees, in order to energize the base of those who resent their losses of status and income under the policies of the same corporate state he serves. The falsely generated divisions among the people conceal a much deeper divide.

No, the real division in America is between the plutocrats and the people.