Move over, Donald. Kevin McCarthy has now replaced you as political pundits’ favorite object of amateur psychoanalytic musings. After psychologically scrutinizing McCarthy’s every move in his self-debasing, unprincipled concession-laden bid to be House Speaker, they’ve declared McCarthy’s “victory” to be pyrrhic.

Pundits emphasize the ungovernability of fractured House Republicans, especially given McCarthy’s cave-to the-Freedom-Caucus weaknesses. But they seemingly haven’t noticed McCarthy’s failure to demonstrate a sufficiently extreme degree of the two personality traits that MAGA Republicans revere most—narcissism and sociopathy (aka antisocial personality).

Narcissistic individuals also tend to be sociopathic, and vice versa. That’s because narcissists and sociopaths tend to exploit others to fulfill their desires, regardless of the pain they may inflict in the process. Moreover, “truth” is typically whatever they need to “believe” to meet their needs and goals of the moment. They may look self-assured, but they typically lack the solid sense of self necessary for life-guiding principles and values.

Many psychologists view people with personality disorders, including narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders, as having common personality traits, but at extreme, pathological levels. At lower levels, narcissistic and sociopathic traits are common among politicians. Yet MAGA politicians possess these traits to such high degrees that it makes others appear to them to be weak, and thus vulnerable to manipulation.

The narcissism and sociopathy of successful MAGA politicians contribute to their characteristic flamboyance, bringing them desired attention. But their need for “reality” to “be” whatever they want it to be in the moment makes them dangerously untethered from genuine reality—or at least immune to truth. Think Trump’s Big Lie and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s ready embrace of countless conspiracy theories.

By contrast, McCarthy, though hardly devoid of narcissism and sociopathy, is nonetheless too deficient in those traits to suit MAGA Republicans. He’s playing out of his league in the MAGA game of personality pathology. This, despite pundits who justifiably see him to be as empty and feckless as Trump himself, whose “power-over-principle” politics have infected the GOP.


To illustrate, consider these narcissistic/sociopath rules for MAGA success, which McCarthy failed to follow:

1.Never Have a Moral Moment

McCarthy had a moral moment when he heeded his conscience by begging Trump to stop the carnage during the Insurrection, and another when he characterized the 25th amendment to remove Trump from office as taking “too long.” But then he reversed course to fly to Mar-a-Lago to “kiss the ring,” which may have given Trump pause: After all, what’s to stop McCarthy from having another moral moment in the future, as unlikely as that may seem? Once you demonstrate an iota of moral conviction, you signal an internal capacity that lies in wait despite all efforts to ignore it.

2.Never let them see you sweat

McCarthy’s show of confidence about winning the Speakership was an obvious attempt to look strong, but his bravura was more apparent than real. His limitless concessions to the Freedom Caucus revealed his needy desperation. Did Trump ever give away the candy store? Did Lauren Boebert tone it down after her near defeat in a Colorado red district? McCarthy may have thought that moving into the House Speaker’s chamber before he sealed the deal signaled an “I’ve-got-this” mindset. But I take this move to be a display of profound anxiety.

3.Strength means never having to say you’re sorry


McCarthy’s trip to Mar-a Lago after the insurrection amounted to an apology for his moral moments at the time of the insurrection. Trump no doubt loved the suck-up, but he also probably noted that if McCarthy can apologize to Trump, he can apologize to anyone. This makes him appear weak and capable of being exploited for virtue as well as for vice. He’s therefore hardly a safe bet in MAGA world.

We’re left to wonder whether McCarthy’s inner moral compass will sneak past his efforts to keep it suppressed, thereby hastening a MAGA-member motion to vacate the Speakership. Though I wouldn’t bet against that motion coming from one of the more moderate Republicans, who stood by McCarthy steadfastly while he pandered pathetically to the radicals.

Speaking of cancelation, the MAGA-fueled Speaker-vote debacle reminded me of this line from Woody Allen’s “Bananas”: “It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.” I imagine this apt description might be seen as an understatement in the eyes of our thankfully non-narcissistic/non-sociopathic Maine U.S. House Representatives.

Barbara S. Held is the Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. 

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