The early hours of Nov. 9, 2016 marked the first completely Republican government since 1928. Millions of young Americans watched in horror as an orange-painted bigot gained state after state in the frenzied climax of a hotly contested election. The entire process has divided us further on partisan lines, leaving our generation jaded by an allegedly democratic process. No matter how hard they pushed for Clinton or Sanders, or even Stein, their efforts were outmatched by the zeal and fervor of millions of disenfranchised blue-collar workers rallying behind Trump. Many of those anxious young people will spend the next four years in indignant protest, trying to unite and support each other. Those ideas are too idealistic for my tastes.
I have no problem with the idea of unity and solidarity in the face of chaos and such dominant conservatism. But I do take issue with those of us who believe this banding together can take place so easily among college-aged millennials. After nearly a lifetime and a complete academic career spent working in groups with my peers, I can confirm they are incapable of working together. Group work is an inherently dysfunctional method of forcing us to collaborate and work together, but group members almost always shove their work onto one of their more talented peers because they just don’t want to work. Be it a small project or a massive protest, millennials struggle to see past their own views, opinions and desires to compromise and create truly organized, collaborative efforts. Most of this concern is for ourselves — “is this project really worth wasting my time?” the millennial asks. “Will I gain anything for myself?”
If you consider American culture, we’ve developed an obsession with the idea of the self-made person, that one lucky guy or gal who left home, worked hard throughout their life and wound up rich. They worked hard and got to where they were on their own, and now they don’t have a single care in the world. “Care about your own interests enough, and you’ll never have to care about anything,” we believe falsely. Once you give it some thought, it’s quite a twisted mindset: one person must create their place in the world with no help at all. While this individualism has been admired since the country’s onset, touted by men such as Benjamin Franklin and later propagated through Horatio Alger’s dime tales of rags to riches, it has ultimately proven harmful to our cultural growth. In our current society, this staunch individualism has devolved into a stubborn narcissism that has done more harm than good to the millennial generation.
Narcissism has become a predominant personality trait of young Americans. In a study performed by psychologist Jim Taylor, 30 percent of young people identified as narcissists. In some cases, narcissism and apathy is societally valued and even encouraged. In David Brooks’ essay, “The Organization Kid,” he cites the creation of a newly enthusiastic brand of student fueled by an over-scheduled life of activity and goal setting. He has neglected to consider that these children did not always choose their own activities or make their goals; they were often shoved into these fields and interests at the behest of their parents. Already, millennials were given activities to do and schedules to follow, not learning or bothering to make choices based on their own interests. They did not learn to care about what they wanted or what would truly benefit them in the long run.
From these activities — sports games, piano recitals, pageants — and the constant encouragement of their parents, millennials gained a strange sense of self-importance. Though the world became more open than ever with the advent of the Internet and mass media, we grew up more closed off from it. Our parents kept us safe from the rest of the world, scheduling our lives like a series of computer commands. Rather than becoming organization kids, we were organized kids, delivered into our current lives by the demands of our parents and our society. We were the best of the best, the generation that was supposed to be invested in our world despite our lack of involvement in it. We turned inward on our own lives, believing the world was our oyster. Here, we developed a sense of entitlement — we were the best, so we deserved nothing less than that. Our own personal needs outweighed a more necessary social good, diverting our attention from caring for others. Instead, our peers became our competition, a series of roadblocks to move against rather than a herd to move with. How difficult it is to cooperate with these overtly paranoid values.
This unstable view of collaboration pushes millennials to create a more superficial level of social interaction based on mutual antagonism and unspoken distrust. Social interaction has devolved into a contest of who gets more attention and pity rather than building true connections based on mutual respect. The wave of cyber-bullying and harassment is a testament to this trend. Lacking their own source of self-esteem, some millennials berate their peers both publicly and through social media to gain a sense of self-worth. This behavior shows a need for both power and attention. They exemplify what psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne calls the “grandiose narcissist,” an individual who feels that they can do no wrong and should be given the attention they crave regardless of whether or not they deserve it. When called out for their behavior, grandiose narcissists will react angrily, exploding like a bomb constructed of insecurity, bratty entitlement and a desire for approval. Whitbourne theorizes this behavior stems from a harsh childhood full of discipline and rigid order — likely a component of the overly scheduled life of the organized millennial kid.
Going hand-in-hand with this growing narcissism is a distinct decline in empathy, almost 40 percent according to a survey performed by Jim Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, on the self-identification of narcissism in young people. Growing up with such a competitive mindset would naturally reduce the millennial’s capacity for empathy. In the mind of the millennial, other people are not to be trusted or even considered people if they stand in your spotlight. Therefore, when they struggle, the narcissistic millennial will not care, only seeking to outdo the sufferer in their misery and regain the spotlight.
Given the figures we are taught to admire and imitate, it is no surprise that we have become so self-centered and uncaring. Take a look at the man we’ve somehow elected into office as our next president. Donald Trump exemplifies every trait of textbook narcissism: he has belittled and mocked his critics to defend his own fragile ego at every turn. When speaking to the public, he has always touted his past achievements and future plans for the country as the only ideas that could make our country great. Yet countless times, there has been little to no sense, logic or practicality in his policies. He is merely spouting whatever outlandish statements will get him the most free media coverage, treating the media as another social network site used to grab attention.
The most disturbing aspect of this spectacle is its success. He managed to sway at least enough of the country to follow his twisted, self-beneficial message, becoming a prime example of American narcissism at its finest. Millions of disenfranchised, white, blue-collar workers appealed to Trump’s boastful success — he is a white man who owns his own business and has a lot of money. In their eyes, he is the very definition of success, one deserving of such high self-esteem. These voters believed that if they believed in his ideals and gave him their support, they too would prosper, earning a self-confidence they lack and a dignity that was taken from them by immigrants and minorities. This trend exemplifies what Whitbourne considers “vulnerable narcissism” — a need for attention and validation to create self-esteem. Trump validates their anger, and, by doing so, emboldens their hatred against other groups in similar or worse plights. They can’t possibly be in the wrong if a future president believes in their cause, and so they have the right to express these beliefs without any care for the economic, social and political consequences.
Despite his grandiose image and gaudy displays of wealth, Trump lacks the confidence he projects to the public. Recall his acceptance speech on the night of the election: he looked scared, almost petrified to address the crowd. He did not take pleasure in his victory, appearing stressed and intimidated in all of his public appearances following the night of Nov. 8. He denied all future attempts at press conferences, becoming defensive whenever they confronted him. He refused to live in the White House, planning to live in his own New York City penthouse rather than the official presidential residence; he is more concerned with his desires rather than his duties as a public official.
When Saturday Night Live made several jabs at his nerves, cabinet appointments and outlandish policies, he took to Twitter with the following statement: “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live — unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad.” Here, we see that he shies away from the attention given to him by the popular media. Trump cannot handle criticism, so he lashes out; if his confidence was real, he would have recognized the parody as a mere joke in line with those made about countless political figures. Rather than accept criticism with grace, he defends his ego in a display of self-preservation and cocky power. Beneath the shiny gold penthouse, orange-sprayed skin and rapid-fire Twitter damnations, he is merely a selfish man seeking to expand his empire and get what he wants, America be damned if Trump fails.
If this overly-defensive mindset becomes a dominant factor in our culture, imagine how the next generation will grow up. Given that current millennials have spent more than enough of this election hiding behind social media and fake news rather than actively working to change its outcome, their prospects are uncertain. Will they look to this model of excessive self-preservation as a new norm, becoming more inwardly focused and self-centered? Their path will be lonely, pulling them farther away from others and deeper into the hole of stress and depression we’ve dug for ourselves.
Humans are a naturally social species — we naturally want to be together. Yet American culture is distinctly selfish to the point of social rejection. We live with an isolationist mindset that pushes us away from each other and our own social nature in favor of our own, stubborn ambition. What will happen when we inevitably realize the crisis we’ve caused and need to finally reach out to others for help? If and when that day comes, Americans will need to re-learn empathy and recreate a sense of community interest in our country. Our culture has been dominated by so-called “rational minds” — defined by scholar Wendell Berry as individuals concerned more for regimented productivity than human emotion and empathy — for long enough to create a toxic, impersonal environment. Such an excessive concern for the self can only make our lives more isolated.
In contrast, those with “sympathetic minds,” focused solely on emotion and sympathy, will not reverse the prevalent narcissism present in America. These efforts must be conscious and strategic, focusing on the vulnerable need for attention before tackling the grandiose hatred and bombast that comes with it. Once those ignored and insecure people receive their attention, they must use it to vent their complaints and resentments — the government’s neglect of the working class, the racial and social conflicts between incoming immigrants and existing citizens, the loss of American jobs caused by corporate machinations — as fuel for a solution. The community must work together to understand how these rapid changes have affected the neglected portion of the population, strengthening its tenuous bonds into those of mutual trust, and create a more equitable solution based on the needs of the neglected, unhappy many. Once this trust has been created and earned, perhaps we will be able to take on the grandiose narcissists who claim to have the answers to all of our problems at our own expenses.