[The OpEd I would have liked to write for the Wall Street Journal – and would’ve written, if I’d had a more pliable editor and 1800 words to play with.]

Venezuela’s Narcissist-in-Chief

If you’re looking for insight into Venezuela’s political crisis, section 301.81 of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is an excellent place to start. The entry reads eerily like a brief character sketch of Venezuela’s embattled president, Hugo Chávez: “Has a grandiose sense of self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance; requires excessive admiration; has unreasonable expectations of automatic compliance with his expectations; shows arrogant behaviors or attitudes, etc.” Actually, it’s the DSM-IV’s diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD.)

Venezuelan psychiatrists long ago pegged Chávez as a textbook example of NPD. According to the DSM-IV, a patient has NPD if he meets five of the nine diagnostic criteria. But Dr. Álvaro Requena, a respected Venezuelan psychiatrist, says Chávez “meets all nine of the diagnostic criteria.” Dr. Arturo Rodríguez Milliet, a colleague, finds “a striking consensus on that diagnosis” among Caracas psychiatrists. Not that it really takes an expert: you only need to watch Chávez’s weekly five-hour talk-show on state television once to understand the extent of his narcissism.

Of course, lots of politicians have some narcissistic traits – Washington, D.C. is notorious for the size of its egos. NPD, however, is what happens when those traits run amok. People with NPD are so intimately convinced of the crushing weight of their historical significance that they lose the ability to interact with the world in anything like a reasonable way.

Narcissism and political power make an explosive combination. As Dr. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, puts it, “the narcissist’s grandiose self-delusions and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience are exacerbated by real life authority.” And President Chávez has amassed more real life authority than anyone in Venezuela’s contemporary history.

But those grandiose self-delusions co-exist with a fragile sense of self-worth, often masking deep insecurities. As Dr. Vaknin writes, “the narcissist’s personality is so precariously balanced that he cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism and disagreement.”

In Venezuela, over the last four years, this has led to a systematic winnowing of the president’s pool of confidants, as people with views that differ even slightly from the comandante’s have fallen out of favor. Only sycophants and yes-men survive in Chávez’s inner circle. What’s perverse about that mechanism is that some people close to him have clearly learned to manipulate his narcissism for their personal purposes. Once you’ve caught on that feeding the president’s narcissism is the way to get ahead in palace politics, what’s the reasonable response? Feeding the president’s narcissism, of course.

Overtime, this has left Chávez worryingly isolated. It’s probably been months since the president has been brought face to face with ideas different than his own, with versions of reality that don’t conform to his own sense of grandeur. Under those circumstances, anyone’s sense of reality would suffer. But if you’ve started out with narcissistic tendencies, that level of isolation is liable to push you over the edge altogether. With no critical thinkers around anymore, no one willing to sit him down and tell him the awful truth, there are no checks left on his pathological relationship with reality.

It’s important to bear this in mind as you read the news coming out of Venezuela these days. Last week, for instance, the president repeated again and again that there is no strike in Venezuela’s key oil industry, just a conspiracy by a few privileged executives who have sabotaged its installations. Exuding confidence, he assured Venezuelans that production had risen to about 1.5 million barrels per day and said the industry would return to normal soon. The remarks were picked up by the world’s journalists more or less at face value. An unsuspecting reader would probably have believed him.

Meanwhile, back in reality, Venezuelans faced lines over 24 hours long to pump gas, and more and more households reverted to cooking with firewood for absence of kitchen butane. Independent experts estimated production at 450,000 b/d at best, and the nation was refining 90% less oil than usual. Nine out of every ten oil workers were off the job, and the nation faced its gravest fiscal crisis in a century.

To a narcissist, though, none of that matters. As Dr. Milliet points out, “his discourse might be dissonant with reality, but it’s internally coherent.” Chávez’s only concern is to preserve his romantic vision of himself as a fearless leader of the downtrodden in their fight against an evil oligarchy. If the facts don’t happen to fit that narrative structure, then that’s too bad for the facts. So it’s not that Chávez lies, per se, it’s that he’s locked up within a small, tight circle of confidants that feed an aberrant relationship with reality. To lie is to knowingly deceive. Chávez doesn’t lie. He just makes up the truth.

Obviously, there are more than a few inconveniences to having a pathological narcissist as president. For instance, it’s almost impossible for narcissists to admit to past mistakes and make amends. The narcissist’s chief, overriding psychological goal is to preserve his grandiose self-image, his sense of being a larger-than-life world historical force for good and justice. Honestly admitting any mistake, no matter how banal, requires a level of self-awareness and a sense for one’s own limitations, that runs directly counter to the forces that drive a narcissist’s personality. So for all the crocodile tears on April 14th, Chávez cannot, never has, and never will sincerely make amends. It’s just beyond him.

Once you have a basic understanding of how their pathological personality structures drive the behavior of people with NPD, Hugo Chávez is an open book. Lots of little puzzles about the way the president behaves are suddenly cleared up. For instance, you start to understand why Chávez sees no adversaries around him, only enemies. It makes sense: the more he becomes convinced of his “with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance” the harder it is for him to accept that anyone might have an honest disagreement with him. Chávez is a man in rebellion against his own fallibility. “As far as he can see,” explains Dr. Requena, “if anyone disagrees with him, that can only be because they are wrong, and maliciously wrong.”

People with NPD are strongly sensitive to what psychiatrists call “narcissist injury” – the psychic discombobulation that comes from any input that undermines or negates the fantasies that dominate their mindscape. Chávez clearly experiences disagreement and dissent as narcissist injury, and as any psychiatrist can tell you, an injured narcissist is liable to lash out with virulent rage. Often, his slurs are almost comically overstated. He insists on describing Venezuela’s huge, diverse, and mostly democratic opposition movement as a “conspiracy” led by a tiny cabal of “coup-plotters, saboteurs and terrorists.” These attacks not only demonstrate the tragic extent of his disconnect with reality, they have also thoroughly poisoned the political atmosphere in Caracas, creating what’s been described as a “cold civil war.”

But it’s not just a matter of some overly sensitive folk taking offense at some rude remarks. Chávez’s brand of intolerance has turned the Venezuelan state into the most autocratic in the Americas short of the one led by his hero, Fidel Castro. It’s no coincidence. In Dr. Milliet’s view, “narcissism leads directly to an autocratic approach to power.”

President Chávez has systematically placed diehard loyalists in key posts throughout the state apparatus. When you come to understand his behavior in terms of NPD, that’s not at all surprising: someone who understands the world as a struggle between people who agree with everything he says and does vs. evil will obviously do everything in his power to place unconditional allies in every position of power. And indeed, today, every nominally independent watchdog institution in Venezuela, from the Supreme Court to the Auditor General’s office, is run by a presidential crony. With the National Assembly operating like a branch office of the presidential palace, the formal checks-and-balances written into the constitution have become a farce.

The case of the Attorney General is especially worrying. With nothing like a special counsel statute and no state criminal jurisdiction, the A.G. must approve every single criminal investigation and prosecution in Venezuela. Control this post, and you have total veto power over the entire penal system. For this reason, the A.G. is not a cabinet position in Venezuela like it is in the US. Because of its key role in fighting corruption and keeping watch over the legality of the government’s actions, the A.G. is set up as a fully independent, apolitical office in the Venezuelan constitution. But that clearly wouldn’t do for Chávez. For this most sensitive of offices, Chávez tapped perhaps his most unconditional ally, a doggedly loyal chavista fresh from a stint as vicepresident.

Not surprisingly, not a single pro-Chávez official has been convicted of anything, ever, despite numerous and well-documented allegations of serious corruption, and a mountain of evidence to suggest the government has organized its civilian supporters into armed militias. Chávez loyalists realize they’re beyond the reach of the law, and behave accordingly. A growing list of armed attacks on opposition attests to the fact that the president’s shock troops act under a kind of tacit blanket amnesty: several times the attackers have been fully identified by amateur video footage, but the government has never made the slightest attempt to arrest any of them.

[Last minute digression: In fact, it goes out of its way to make sure its activists enjoy total impunity. If you don’t believe me, ask Marcos Vivas, the Judicial Police investigator for the Valles del Tuy region who was hurriedly taken off his post yesterday, apparently because he started to [gasp!] seriously investigate the Charallave shootings. They’re now talking about re-deploying this poor guy to the damn Amazon jungle…a none too subtle hint to other would-be crusading cops who haven’t been purged yet somehow…]

Once Chávez had every branch of government safely under his thumb, he set out to control society as a whole. On that score, he’s been far less successful. An early attempt to grab the labor movement backfired disastrously when union members elected his most ardent critic to head the country’s main labor federation. The independent news media has responded to four years of presidential threats, and insults by becoming strident, singleminded opponents of his government. Even the discredited old political parties that Chávez once thrived on vilifying have made something of a comeback.

In short, Venezuelans have wised up to the dangers of having a narcissist president, and they’re now fully mobilized against him. Credible independent polls suggest some 60-65% of the voters want the president to resign. Most importantly, a remarkable proportion of those who oppose Chávez do so vehemently, actively, on the streets.

Venezuelans will not surrender their freedom to a narcissist-autocrat. The massive opposition movement has made the country impossible to govern, leaving only two options: a presidential transition or ongoing chaos. Many here worry that as his hold on power slips, Chávez could lash out, deploying the kind of widespread, indiscriminate violence he has so far shunned. The United States must make it clear that it will not tolerate such actions – not to the narcissist-in-chief, who is beyond reasoning with, but to his associates.