Progressive Narcissism

By David Horowitz

(Excerpted from How to Beat the Democrats and Other Subversive Ideas)

 

The subject is Hillary Clinton as America’s foremost left-wing politician. This is not an obvious idea to those leftists who identify themselves as radicals. Purists of the creed are likely to regard both Clintons as opportunists and sellouts of their cause. Hillary’s embrace of Palestinian terrorism one day during her New York campaign for the Senate, and her retreat under fire the next does not sit well with ideologues. But no political purist ever won an election. Moreover, the left is not and has never been a monolith, and its factions have always attacked each other almost as ferociously as their political enemies.

 It is possible to be a socialist, and radical in one’s agendas, and moderate in the means one regards as practical to achieve them. To change the world, it is necessary first to acquire power. Transitional goals may be accomplished by stealth and deception even more effectively than by frontal assault. Politics is never simple. A politics that appears too moderate and compromised to radicals may present even greater dangers to the unsuspecting. In 1917, Lenin’s political slogan was not “Socialist Dictatorship, Firing Squads and Gulags!” It was “Bread, Land and Peace.”

Yet Hillary Clinton perceived as America’s first lady of the left, is also not obvious to many conservatives. Since conservative politics is really about the defense of America’s constitutional order, this is a far more significant myopia. Underestimating the foe on any battlefield can be fatal; the political battlefield is no exception.

The problem of perceiving Hillary is exemplified in a brilliantly etched and elegantly deconstructed portrait of Mrs. Clinton by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. The focus of Noonan’s book, The Case Against Hillary Clinton, is not Mrs. Clinton’s kitsch Marxism or her perverse feminism or her cynical progressivism. It is her narcissism. In this psychological nexus, Noonan finds the key to unlock Hillary’s public persona. In Noonan’s analysis, it is almost as though Mrs. Clinton’s political beliefs were merely instrumental to her career, and as changeable as her famous hairstyles.

“Never has the admirable been so fully wedded to the appalling,” Noonan writes of the subject and her faithless spouse. “Never in modern political history has such tenacity and determination been marshaled to achieve such puny purpose: the mere continuance of Them.”

The wit is razor sharp, but the point just wide of the mark. There are many unprincipled narcissists in politics. But there has never been a White House so thoroughly penetrated by the political minions of the left. Noonan’s psychological characterization is surely correct. But if Hillary and Bill Clinton were unable to draw on the dedication and support of this left – if they were conservatives, for example -- there would be no prospect of a continuance of Them.

Ever since abandoning the utopian illusions of the progressive cause, I have been struck by how little the world outside the left seems to actually understand it. How little those who have not been inside the progressive mind are able to grasp the cynicism behind its idealistic mask or the malice that drives its hypocritical passion for “social justice.”

No matter how great the crimes progressives commit, no matter how terrible the futures they labor to create, no matter how devastating the human catastrophes they leave behind, the world outside the faith seems ready to forgive their “mistakes” and to grant them the grace of “good intentions.”

It would be difficult to recall, for example, the number of times I have been introduced on conservative platforms as “a former civil rights worker and peace activist in the 1960s.” I have been described this way despite having written a lengthy autobiography that exposes these self-glorifying images of the left as so much political deceit. Like many New Left leaders whom the young Mrs. Clinton once followed (and who are her comrades today), I saw myself in the 1960s as a Marxist and a revolutionary. What was idealistic about exploiting an issue like civil rights, for example, to achieve the destruction of the social order that made civil rights possible?

New Left progressives like Hillary Clinton and Acting Deputy Attorney General Bill Lann Lee were involved in supporting, or promoting, or protecting or making excuses for violent anti-American radicals abroad like the Vietcong and criminal radicals at home like the Black Panthers. We did this then -- just as progressives still do now -- in the name of “social justice” and a dialectical world-view that made this deception seem ethical and the fantasy seem possible.

As Jamie Glazov, a student of the left, has observed in an article about the middle-class defenders of recently captured Seventies terrorist Kathy Soliah: “if you can successfully camouflage your own pathology and hatred with a concern for the ‘poor’ and the ‘downtrodden,’ then there will always be a ‘progressive’ milieu to support and defend you.” Huey Newton, George Jackson, Angela Davis, Bernardine Dorhn, Sylvia Baraldini, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Mumia Abu Jamal, H. Rap Brown, Rigoberta Menchu and innumerable others have all discovered this principle in the course of their criminal careers.

There is a superficial sense, of course, in which we were civil rights and peace activists -- and that is certainly the way I would have described myself at the time, particularly if I were speaking to an audience that was not politically left. It is certainly the way Mrs. Clinton and my former comrades refer to themselves and their pasts in similar settings today.

 

But they are lying. When they defend racial preferences now, for example, a principle they denounced as “racist” and fought against as “civil rights” activists then, even they must know it.

The first truth about leftist missionaries, about believing progressives, is that they are liars. But they are not liars in the ordinary way, which is to say by choice. They are liars by necessity, and often, therefore, without realizing that they are. The necessity for lying arises because it is the political lie that gives their cause its life.

Why, if you were one of them, for example, would you tell the truth? If you were serious about your role as part of humanity’s vanguard, if you had the knowledge (which others did not), that would lead them to a better world, why would you tell them a truth they could not “understand” and that would only servie to hold them back?

If you believed that others could understand your truth, you would not think of yourself as part of a “vanguard.” You would no longer inhabit the morally charmed world of an elite whose members alone can see the light and whose mission is to lead the unenlightened towards it. If everybody could see the same horizon and knew the path to reach it, the future would already have happened and there would be no need for the army of the saints.

That is both the ethical core and psychological heart of what it means to be a part of the left. That is where the gratification comes from. To see yourself as a redeemer. To feel anointed. To be among the elect. In other words: To be progressive is itself the most satisfying narcissism of all.

That is why it is of little concern to them that their socialist schemes have run aground, burying millions of human beings in the process. That is why they don’t care that their panaceas have caused more human suffering than any injustice they have ever challenged. That is why they never learn from their “mistakes,” why the continuance of Them is more important than any truth.

If you were active in the so-called “peace” movement or in the radical wing of the civil rights causes, why would you tell the truth? Why would you concede – even long afterwards -- that no, you were never really a “peace activist,” except in the sense that you were against America’s war. Why would you draw attention to the fact that you didn’t oppose the Communists’ war, and were happy when America’s enemies won?

What you were really against was not war, but American “imperialism” and American capitalism. What you truly hated was America’s democracy, which you knew to be a “sham” because it was controlled by money in the end. That’s why you wanted to “Bring The Troops Home.” Because if America’s troops came home, America would lose and the Communists would win. And the progressive future would be another step closer.

But you never had the honesty – then or now -- to admit that. You told the lie then to gain influence and increase your power to do good (as only the Chosen can). And you keep on telling the lie for the same reason.

Why would you admit that, despite your tactical support for civil rights, you weren’t really committed to civil rights as Americans understand the meaning of the term – as rights granted not to groups but to individuals, not by government but “by their Creator”)? What you really wanted was to overthrow the very Constitution that guaranteed those rights, based as it is on private property and the autonomous person – both of which you despise.

Since America is a democracy and the people endorse it, the left’s “progressive” agendas can only be achieved by lying to the people. The unenlightened must be kept ignorant until the revolution transforms them. The better world is only reachable through deception of the people who need to be saved.

Despite the homage it pays to post-modernist conceits, despite its belated and half-hearted display of anti-Communist sentiment, today’s left is very much the ideological heir of the Stalinist progressives who supported the greatest mass murders in human history, but who remember themselves today as civil libertarians -- opponents of McCarthy and victims of political witch-hunts. (Only the dialectical can even begin to understand this logic.)

To appreciate the continuity of the Communist mentality in the American left, consider how many cultural promotions of McCarthy’s victims and how many academic apologies for Stalinist crimes are premised on the Machiavellian calculations and Hegelian sophistries I have just described.

Naturally, today’s leftists are smart enough to distance themselves from Soviet Communism. But the head of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, was already a critic of Stalin forty years ago. Did his concessions make him less of a Communist? Or more?

Conservative misunderstanding of the left is only in part a product of the left’s own deceits. It also reflects the inability of conservatives to understand the religious nature of the progressive faith and the power of its redemptive idea. I’m sometimes asked by conservatives about the continuing role and influence of the Communist Party, since they observe quite correctly the pervasive presence of so many familiar totalitarian ideas in the academic and political culture. How can there be a Marxist left -- even a kitsch Marxist left -- without a Marxist party?

The short answer is that it was not the Communist Party that made the left, but the (small ‘c’) communist Idea. It is an idea as old as the Tower of Babel, that humanity can build its own highway to Heaven. It is the idea of a return to the Earthly Paradise, the garden of social harmony and justice. It is the idea that inspires Jewish radicals and liberals of a Tikkun Olam, a healing of the cosmic order. It is the Enlightenment illusion of the perfectibility of man. And it is the siren song of the serpent in Eden: “Eat of this Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and you shall be as God.”

The intoxicating vision of a social redemption achieved by Them – this is what creates the left, and makes the believers so righteous in their beliefs. It did so long before Karl Marx. It is the vision of a redemptive future that continues to inspire and animate them despite the still-fresh ruins of their Communist past.

It is the same idea that is found in the Social Gospel that impressed the youthful Hillary Clinton at the United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Illinois. And it is the same idea that she later encountered in the New Left at Yale and in the Venceremos Brigade in Communist Cuba, and in the writings of the New Left editor of Tikkun magazine who introduced her to the “politics of meaning” after she had become First Lady. It is the idea that drives her comrades in the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Organization for Women, the Al Sharpton House of Justice and all the other progressive causes which for that reason still look to her as a political leader.

For the self-anointed messiahs, the goal, “social justice,” is not about rectifying particular wrongs, which would be practical and modest -- and therefore conservative. Rather, their crusade is about rectifying injustice in the very order of things. “Social Justice” for them is a world reborn, in which prejudice and violence and inequalities no longer exist. It is a world in which everyone is equally advantaged and lacks fundamentally conflicting desires. It is a world that could only come into being through a reconstruction of human nature and of the social order itself. Even though they are too prudent and self-protective to name it anymore, the post-Communist left still passionately believes in their totalitarian future.

But this new world that has never existed, never will, while the attempt to reach it can only bring back the gulags and graveyards we have come to know too well. The century has taught us, to attempt the impossible is to invite the catastrophic. But progressives have failed to learn the lesson, to make the connection between their utopian ideals and the destructive consequences that flow from them. The fall of Communism has had a cautionary impact only on the overt agendas of the political left. Its moral arrogance is not diminished.

No matter how opportunistically the left’s rhetoric has been modified, no matter how generous the concessions it has made, the faithful cannot give up the belief in their mission to the future.

Because the transformation they seek is still total, the power they seek is total. No matter how many compromises they strike along the way. The compromises are themselves integral to the strategy of their mission. The transformation of the world requires the permanent entrenchment of the saints in power. Therefore, everything is justified that serves to achieve the continuance of Them.

In Peggy Noonan’s psychological portrait one can trace the outlines of the progressive persona I have just described. Noonan observes that the “liberalism” of the Clinton era is very different from the liberalism of the past. Clinton-era liberalism is manipulative and deceptive and not ultimately interested in what real people think because “they might think the wrong thing.”

That is why, according to Noonan, Hillary Clinton’s famous plan that would have socialized American health care was the work of a progressive cabal that shrouded itself in secrecy to the point of illegality. Noonan labels Clinton-era politics “command and control liberalism,” using a phrase with a deliberately totalitarian ring. But, like so many conservatives I have come to know, Noonan is finally too decent and too generous to fully appreciate the pathology she is confronting.

She begins her inquiry by invoking Richard Nixon’s comment that only two kinds of people run for high office in America, “those who want to do big things and those who want to be big people.” She identifies both Clintons as “very much, perhaps completely, the latter sort,” and clinically examines their narcissism by way of unlocking the mystery of who they really are.

Regarding the husband, Peggy Noonan is probably right. I do not think of Bill Clinton as a leftist inspired by ideas of a socially just world, or as having even a passing interest in the healing of cosmic orders. He is more readily understood as a borderline socio-path. Fully absorbed in the ambitions of self, Clinton is a political chameleon who assumes the coloration of his environments and the constituencies on which his fortunes have come to depend.

Hillary Clinton is not so slippery. Despite the cynicism she shares with her husband, one can clearly observe an ideological spine that creates political difficulties for her he would instinctively avoid. This is not to deny the force of her personal ambitions, or the power of her narcissistic regard. But these attitudes could also be expected in any member of a self-appointed elite, especially one like the left, which is based on moral election.

For this reason, it is difficult to separate the narcissistic from the ideological in the psychology of the political missionary. Do they advance the faith for its own sake, or because advancing the faith leads to their canonization as saints? Do the Lenins of history sacrifice normal life in order to achieve “big things” or because they crave the adulation the achievement brings? It is probably impossible finally to answer the question. But we can observe that the narcissism of Stalin -- ex-seminarian, Father of the Peoples and epic doer of revolutionary big deeds -- makes the Clintons’ soap opera of self-love thin gruel to compare.

Despite their life-long collaboration, Bill and Hillary are different political beings in the end. Indeed her marital rages provoked by a partner whose adolescent lusts put their collective mission at risk is probably a good measure of how different they are.

“In their way of thinking,” Noonan writes of the Clintons, “America is an important place, but not a thing of primary importance. America is the platform for the Clintons’ ambitions, not the focus of them.” The implication is that if they were principled emissaries of a political cause, the ambition to do big things for America would override all others. Instead, they have focused on themselves and consequently have made the American political landscape itself  “a lower and lesser thing.”

They have “behaved as though they are justified in using any tactic in pursuit of their goals,” including illegality, deception, libel, threats and “ruining the lives of perceived enemies …” They believe, she continues, “they are justified in using any means to achieve their ends for a simple and uncomplicated reason. It is that they are superior individuals whose gifts and backgrounds entitle them to leadership.” They do it for themselves; for the continuance of Them.

But the fact is that they all do it. The missionaries of the big progressive causes, the Steinems, the Irelands, the Michelmans, the Friedans, and Hillary Clinton herself all were willing to toss their feminist movement and its principles overboard to give Bill Clinton a pass on multiple sexual harassments and, in fact, a career of sexual predation that reflects utter contempt for the female gender. Indeed, the Clinton-Lewinsky defense that the feminists made possible can be regarded as feminism’s Nazi-Soviet Pact. Their calculation was as simple as it was crude: If Clinton was impeached and removed, Hillary would go too. But she was their link to patronage and power, and they couldn’t contemplate losing that. Their kind was finally in control, and the conservative enemies of their beautiful future were not. There was nothing they wouldn’t do or sacrifice to keep it that way.

Almost a decade earlier -- in the name of the very principles they so casually betrayed for Clinton -- the same feminists had organized the disgraceful public lynching of Clarence Thomas. Despite fiercely proclaimed commitments to the racial victims of American injustice, they launched a vicious campaign to destroy the reputation of an African American jurist who had risen, reputation unblemished, from dirt-shack poverty in the segregated south to the nation’s high courts. They did it knowingly, cynically, with the intent to destroy him in his person, and to ruin his public career.

Has there ever been a more reprehensible witch-hunt in American public life than the one organized by the feminist leaders who then emerged as vocal defenders of the White House lecher? Was there ever a more sordid betrayal of common decency than this collective defamation -- for which no apology has been or ever will be given?

What was the sin Clarence Thomas committed to earn such judgment? The allegation – that he had talked inappropriately ten years previously to a female lawyer and made her uncomfortable -- appears laughable in the post-Lewinsky climate of presidential gropings and borderline rapes that the same feminists sanctioned for their political accomplice. Thomas’ real crime, as everybody knew but was too intimidated by the hysteria to confirm at the time, was his commitment to constitutional principles they hated. They hated these principles because the Constitution was drafted with the explicit idea of thwarting their socialist dreams – “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or any other improper or wicked project” -- as James Madison wrote in Federalist #10.[1][5]

Peggy Noonan is right. The focus of Hillary Clinton’s ambition is not her country. But it is not merely herself either. It is also a place that does not exist. It is the vision of a world that can only be realize when the Chosen accumulate enough power to destroy this one.  

That is why Hillary and Sid Blumenthal, her fawning New Left Machiavelli, call their own political philosophy the politics of “The Third Way.” This distinguishes their politics from the “triangulation” strategy that Dick Morris used to resurrect Bill Clinton’s presidency. Morris guided Clinton, in appropriating specific Republican policies towards a balanced budget and welfare reform as a means of securing his re-election. Hillary Clinton was on board for these policies, and in that sense is a triangulator herself. But “triangulation” is too obviously tactical and too crass morally to define a serious political philosophy. Above all, it fails to project the sense of promise that intoxicates the imaginations of political progressives. That is why Hillary and Sid call their politics “The Third Way.”

“The Third Way” is a term familiar from the lexicon of the left with a long and dishonorable pedigree. It is the most ornate panel in the tapestry of deception I described in the beginning of this essay. In the 1930s, Nazis used “The Third Way” to characterize their own brand of National Socialism as equidistant between the “internationalist” socialism of the Soviet Union and the capitalism of the West. Trotskyists used “The Third Way” as a term to distinguish their own Marxism from Stalinism and capitalism. In the 1960s, New Leftists used “The Third Way to define their politics as an independent socialism between the Soviet gulag and the democracies of the West.

But as the history of Nazism, Trotskyism and the New Left have shown, there is no “third way.” There is the capitalist, democratic way based on private property and individual rights – a way that leads to liberty and universal opportunity. And there is the socialist way of group identities, group rights, a relentless expansion of the political state, restricted liberty and diminished opportunity. “The Third Way” is not a path to the future. It is just the suspension between these two destinations – a holding pattern while the stigma of leftist disasters recedes. It is a bad faith attempt on the part of people who are incapable of giving up their socialist schemes to escape the taint of their discredited past.

Is there a practical difference in the modus operandi of Clinton narcissism and Clinton messianism? I think there is, and it is the difference between “triangulation” – a cynical compromise to hang onto power until the next election cycle, and “The Third Way” – a cynical deception to ensure the permanence of Them. It is the difference between the politics of getting what you can, and the politics of acquiring power to change the world.

 

A capsule illustration of these different political ambitions can be found in the book Primary Colors, which describes, in thinly veiled fiction, Bill Clinton’s road to the presidency in 1992. It is an admiring portrait not only of the candidate but of the dedicated missionaries – the true believing staffers and the long-suffering wife -- who serve Clinton’s political and personal agendas.

These functionaries -- Harold Ickes and George Stephanopoulos are two examples -- serve as the flak-catchers and “bimbo eruption”- controllers who clean up his personal messes and shape his image for gullible publics. But they are also the idealists who design his political message, and who enable him to succeed.

It is Primary Colors’ insight into the minds of these missionaries that is striking. They see Clinton quite clearly as a flawed and often repellent human being. They see him as a lecher, a liar and a man who would destroy an innocent human being in order to advance his own career (this is, in fact, the climactic drama of the text). Yet through all the sordidness and lying, the personal ruthlessness and disorder, the idealistic missionaries faithfully follow and serve their leader.

They do it not because they are themselves corrupted and bought off through material rewards. The prospect of material return or fame is not what drives them. Think only of Ickes, personally betrayed and brutally cast aside by Clinton, who nonetheless refused to turn on him, even after the betrayal. Instead, Ickes kept his own counsel and protected Clinton, biding his time and waiting for Hillary to make her move, then joined her staff to manage her Senate campaign.

The idealistic missionaries in this true tale bite their tongues and betray their principles, rather than betray him. They do so because in Bill Clinton they see a necessary vehicle of their noble ambition and their chiliastic dreams. He, too, cares about social justice, about poor people and blacks (or so he makes them believe). They will serve him and lie for him and destroy for him, because he is the vessel of their salvationist hopes. Because Bill Clinton can gain the keys to the state, he is in their eyes the only prospect for advancing the progressive cause. Therefore, they will sacrifice anything and everything to make him succeed.

But Bill Clinton is not like those who worship him, corrupting himself and others for a higher cause. Unlike them, he betrays principles because he has none. He will even betray his country, but without the slightest need to betray it for something else – for an idea, a party, a cause. He is a narcissist who sacrifices principle for power because his vision is so filled up with himself that he cannot tell the difference.

But the idealists who serve him -- the Stephanopoulos’s, the Ickes’s, the feminists, the progressives and Hillary -- can tell the difference. Their cyncism flows from the very perception they have of right and wrong. They do it for noble ends. They do it for the progressive faith. They do it because they see themselves as gods, as having the power -- through correct politics -- to redeem the world. It is that terrifyingly exalted ambition that fuels their spiritual arrogance and justifies their means.

And that is why they hate conservatives. They hate you because you are killers of their dream. You are defenders of a Constitution that thwarts their cause. They hate you because your “reactionary” commitment to individual rights, to a single standard and to a neutral and limited state obstructs their progressive designs. They hate you because you are believers in property and its rights as the cornerstones of prosperity and human freedom; because you do not see the market economy as a mere instrument for acquiring personal wealth and stocking political war chests, but as both means and end.

Conservatives who think progressives are misinformed idealists will always be blind-sided by the sheer malice of the left -- by the cynicism of those who pride themselves on their principles; by the viciousness of those who champion sensitivity; by the intolerance of those who call themselves liberal; and by the ruthless disregard for the well-being of the poor on the part of those who preen themselves as their champions.

Conservatives are surprised because they see progressives as merely misguided, when they are, in fact, morally – and ontologically -- misdirected. They are the messianists of a false religious faith. Since the redeemed future that justifies their existence and rationalizes their hypocrisy can never be realized, what really motivates progressives is a modern idolatry: their limitless passion for the continuance of Them.