Erich Fromm on Group Narcissism

In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm discusses group narcissism as one of the most important causes for aggression. Ordinary narcissism is, according to Fromm, the attempt to feel safe by convincing oneself of one’s intrinsic superiority, as opposed to trying to overcome existential anxieties through work and connection to others, which would be the healthy solution. Questioning the narcissist’s sense of superiority and entitlement leads to narcissistic rage and retaliation, because the narcissist’s sense of security is threatened.

Defensive aggression is aggression with the purpose of defending against something that threatens one’s life or the resources and circumstances necessary to survive. This kind of aggression is useful and necessary under certain circumstances. The problem with narcissists is that they regard it as their vital interest that everyone and everything behave according to their wishes, and any opposition to this triggers aggression.

Group narcissism is, as the name implies, the narcissistic sense of superiority of a group of people. Even the least important member of the group can feel like a giant through his/her affiliation to the group, because the group is superior to everyone else. The individual in the group identifies with the group’s superiority; attacks on the image of the group as superior are perceived as a threat to the self-esteem of the individual. Group narcissism is socially much more acceptable, because it can be presented as patriotism and loyalty. Someone who believes himself to be intrinsically superior to other people may be regarded as crazy, but someone who believes his country to be superior to all other countries is a patriot, because it is a belief that is shared by many.

Group narcissism is deeply entrenched, because the members of the group reassure each other that their worldview is correct. Since the members are deeply invested in defending their group, criticism of the group identity trigger anger and aggression.

In politics, group narcissism is an easy and cheap way to create social cohesion as well as a sense of meaning and satisfaction in the population, albeit at the expense of those who do not belong to the “superior” group. Historical examples are Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. More recently, Donald Trump and other populist politicians have been using group narcissism to garner popular support.

Group narcissism is, however, not limited to politics, where it manifests in the form of nationalism. It can be found anywhere in society: in the intellectual elite and in academia, where some people believe themselves above the rest of the population, among the wealthy and rich, among doctors, in the Church. Any social group is vulnerable to succumbing to the need to feel superior.

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