article

11.18.09

Palin's Ego Trip

Does Sarah Palin suffer from narcissistic personality disorder? Michelle Goldberg puts America’s hottest author on the couch.

All politicians may lie, but not all politicians lie like Sarah Palin. Many people in public life lie to avoid getting caught when they do something wrong; call them “I did not have sex with that woman!” lies. Or they mislead about their own experiences and accomplishments, like Hillary Clinton and her untrue tales of dodging bullets in Bosnia.

Palin, however, lies when there’s little to be gained by lying, and she lies when everyone knows the truth. If Bill Clinton were a Palin-style liar, he’d still be insisting that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was entirely chaste, or he’d claim that he never denied it in the first place. If Hillary Clinton lied like Palin, she’d put the Bosnia anecdote in her next memoir. Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, coupled with her recent media appearances, evinces a dishonesty that seems as much clinical as opportunistic. Maybe Palin really does suffer from narcissistic personality disorder.

“She probably does believe that the basic narrative really is true,” says Bella DePaulo, author of Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives. “And if the specifics of the anecdotes she tells are not so accurate—well, to her, they add up to a bigger truth.”

To be sure, some of the factually incorrect stuff in Going Rogue may be the result of ignorance as much as dishonesty. On page 391, she writes, “Ronald Reagan faced an event worse recession. He showed us how to get out of one. If you want real job growth, cut capital gains taxes and slay the death tax once and for all.” Every assertion in these sentences is untrue. The current recession is far worse than anything Reagan faced. Reagan did not get rid of the estate tax, which Palin calls the “death tax.” And capital gains taxes are lower now than they were during the Reagan administration. But Palin might not be being deliberately misleading; maybe she just doesn’t know any better. The same could be true when she claims that Barack Obama “opposed laws that would protect babies born alive after botched abortions.” Maybe it was ignorance rather than deceit that led Palin to sound off about “death panels” a few months ago.

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Surely, though, Palin knew that she told the McCain campaign, in writing, that Bristol was pregnant, and so her story about McCain’s ace investigators digging the information up on their own was a lie. Either she was lying last year, when she told Sean Hannity that before accepting the offer to join the McCain ticket, she’d taken a family vote, or she was lying on Monday, when she told Oprah Winfrey she’d done no such thing. Emails released by former McCain staffers show that she was lying about her eagerness to appear on Saturday Night Live. A number of reporters and bloggers have tirelessly catalogued all this mendacity, particularly Palin nemesis Andrew Sullivan.

The Associated Press fact-checked Palin’s false claims about relying on small donations in her political campaigns, allowing for open, competitive bidding on a natural gas pipeline and avoiding conflicts of interest as Wasilla mayor. (Palin accused the AP of doing “opposition research,” as if any attempt to hold her accountable for her own words must be a partisan plot.) As the Boston Globe reports, there’s overwhelming evidence that Palin is lying when she disavows all responsibility for her infamous $150,000 shopping spree.

Palin is still lying about the notorious Bridge to Nowhere—or, rather, she’s lying when she says that the press was lying about it. She repeats the right-wing myth— debunked by Politico, among others—that a broken teleprompter forced her to wing it during her RNC speech. “By God’s grace I was having a ball, and that broken teleprompter was pretty liberating,” she writes, lying.

This level of dishonesty, much of it utterly gratuitous, is remarkable even by the degraded standards of our cynical political culture. To try and get some insight into it, I called Charles V. Ford, the author of Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit, and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. Ford made it clear that it would be unethical for him to attempt to diagnose Palin from afar. Years ago, during the Goldwater campaign, so many psychiatrists publicly speculated about the Republican candidate’s psychology that the American Psychiatric Association adopted guidelines prohibiting such analysis. But Ford was willing to talk about the psychology of lying more generally, and to anyone who has followed the debate about Palin’s mental state, it’s likely to sound familiar.

This summer, remember, Todd Purdham wrote in Vanity Fair that several Alaskans had told him, “independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—‘a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy’—and thought it fit her perfectly.” At the time, this struck me as a stretch, since all politicians are narcissistic and grandiose to one degree or another. But it turns out there’s a real connection between this disorder and Palin’s chronic dishonesty.

Narcissistic personality disorder, Ford says, is one of the personality structures associated with chronic lying. For the narcissist, his or her internal world is more real than the external world. “Internal reality is not necessarily the same as external reality,” says Ford. “Therefore when they say things it’s a product of their internal reality, they way they want things to be, the way they believe things to be. They’re not very sensitive to those correcting mechanisms that most of us have that bring us back [to reality].” He continues, “[T]hey do not experience themselves as lying, because they are saying things out of their internal world, and they manufacture their internal world to fit [their] internal needs. Obviously that makes people like this dangerous in positions of great power.”

When confronted with evidence of their lies, says Ford, “typically the person with narcissistic personality disorder or personality traits will then come up with something such as, ‘I was misquoted, you didn’t understand what I had to say, it was somebody else’s fault, somebody else gave me the information,’” says Ford. “It’s always externalized.”

After a series of public disgraces, perhaps such a person might blame Katie Couric, or Nicolle Wallace, or Steve Schmidt, or the diabolical liberal media more generally. “Sarah Palin is selling a story about the evil elites and the bumbling double-crossing staffers,” says Bella DePaulo, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard and authored Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives. “She probably does believe that the basic narrative really is true. And if the specifics of the anecdotes she tells are not so accurate—well, to her, they add up to a bigger truth. The psychology is similar to James Frey claiming that he told the “emotional truth” in A Million Little Pieces, so that makes all the actual, factual untruths OK.”

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.