Malignant Normality

Malignant normality: The psychological theory that explains naked emperors, narcissists and Nazis

If one person's crazy beliefs suddenly become mainstream, that is malignant normality


There are many variations to Hans Christian Andersen's classic literary folktale "The Emperor's New Clothes," but most have the same basic plot points: A vain emperor is duped by two con men into buying clothes that don't exist. They trick him by saying that the non-existent fabric is actually visible, but only stupid and incompetent people can't see it. The emperor pretends that he can see the clothes, and then ordinary people follow his lead — whether because they believe him, or because they are simply afraid to state otherwise. It is only when a child blurts out that he is naked that the illusion is shattered.

Andersen was unfamiliar with the psychological concept known as malignant normality, but his tale captures it perfectly. The folktale also teaches an important lesson about standing by one's own common sense, even when social pressures are insurmountable, and remembering that confidence in your correctness is not enough on its own — particularly if those around you don't buy in too. And the idea — of a narcissist with power and/or popularity normalizing an "alternate reality" that is patently absurd — clearly has analogues in schoolyard politics, global politics, and everything in-between. 

The concept of malignant normality, as explained by psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, is rooted in history — specifically, in our understanding of Nazi Germany. Lifton argued that many Nazi doctors weren't active ideologues, but were willing to send Jews to gas chambers because this was their job — even though they had taken a hippocratic oath.

The reality of institutionalized genocide, which had not seemed plausible to Germans only a dozen years earlier, had become a malignant normal. Not everyone had to buy into the ideas of Nazism, at least not in full. They simply had to live in a society where actions that would usually be considered atrocious are instead perceived as routine. In turn, while they didn't have to believe in Hitler's lies, they had to at least accept that a social order based around those lies could be legitimate. The moral system and fundamental political beliefs of millions of people had been radically altered — and all of it based on a narcissist's word.

That last detail is crucial to understanding malignant normality, clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula told Salon. Durvasula, who has done research in the area of narcissism and high conflict personalities (which is part and parcel to malignant normality), told Salon that malignant normalities are mass delusions that originate from a specific source. In the case of the Nazis, Adolf Hitler channeled his personal grievances and ideological obsessions into a philosophy that was embraced by millions who held his word to be infallible. Hitler flat-out fabricated conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination, plots against him and other Nazis, and the supposed causes of German woes. By virtue of him saying these things, they were held to be true — and the consequences were World War II and the Holocaust.

"Delusion as a psychotic symptom is a break from reality," Durvasula told Salon, citing as examples people who think they can talk to Martians or believe the FBI is reading their thoughts.

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“The poet, the artist, the sleuth - whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely "well-adjusted", he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists between antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power is manifest in the famous story "The Emperor's New Clothes".”

        ― Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage :::

‘Trump Anxiety Disorder’: A psychologist explains how the president is making America sick

Tom Boggioni

February 3, 2019 10:24AM ET

While psychologists have speculated from afar about President Donald Trump's mental instability, a psychologist said his manic episodes and the need for constant attention is making Americans anxiety-ridden and in need of mental health care.

According to a psychologist who spoke with Politico, Trump's distinctive brand of "provocation, brinkmanship, and self-drama," is leading to what she calls "Trump Anxiety Disorder" that is affecting even those who don't follow politics.

Jennifer Panning, the psychologist from Evanston, Illinois, who coined the malady, explained it as marked by such symptoms as “increased worry, obsessive thought patterns, muscle tension and obsessive preoccupation with the news."

According to a therapist Cynthia Baum-Baicker, who is treating a couple whose sex life has been undermined by conflicting opinions about Trump, the president -- as an omnipresent figure -- looms darkly over everyone's lives.

“Authority figures represent the parent, [so] President Trump seats in the seat of parent for all Americans,” explained Baum-Baicker. “So now, my ‘father figure’ is a bully, is an authoritarian who doesn’t believe in studying and doing homework. ... [Rather than reassurance] he creates uncertainty.”

Trump's deleterious effect on peoples' mental health isn't just affecting liberals --even conservatives are having anxiety issues.

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Trump May Not Be Crazy, But the Rest of Us Are Getting There Fast

Psychologists’ couches are filling up as Americans seek relief from Trump Anxiety Disorder.


October 12, 2018

CNN before lovemaking is not his idea of a turn-on.

But she can hardly turn it off—engrossed as she is in the latest unnerving gyrations of Washington.

Who else to blame but Donald Trump? A president who excites hot feelings in many quarters has cooled them considerably in the bedroom of a Philadelphia couple, who sought counseling in part because the agitated state of American politics was causing strain in their marriage.

The couple’s story was relayed to POLITICO by their therapist on condition of the couple's anonymity. But their travails, according to national surveys and interviews with mental health professionals, are not as anomalous as one might suppose. Even when symptoms are not sexual in nature, there is abundant evidence that Trump and his daily uproars are galloping into the inner life of millions of Americans.

During normal times, therapists say, their sessions deal with familiar themes: relationships, self-esteem, everyday coping. Current events don’t usually invade. But numerous counselors said Trump and his convulsive effect on America’s national conversation are giving politics a prominence on the psychologist’s couch not seen since the months after 9/11—another moment in which events were frightening in a way that had widespread emotional consequences.

Empirical data bolster the anecdotal reports from practitioners. The American Psychiatric Association in a May survey found that 39 percent of people said their anxiety level had risen over the previous year—and 56 percent were either “extremely anxious” or “somewhat anxious about “the impact of politics on daily life.” A 2017 study found two-thirds of Americans’ see the nation’s future as a “very or somewhat significant source of stress.”

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