The Narcissist takes place in 2017, a year after Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton. Jim, one of Clinton’s former campaign strategists, has left politics, disillusioned after his warnings that Trump could win were ignored. At the start of the play, he is at a fundraiser for a prominent female senator who is in the early stages of planning a run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. She has her aide arrange for Jim to meet her in the penthouse kitchen for a few minutes, as she’s heard rumours that his 2016 advice, had it been heeded, would have led to a Democratic victory.
I wrote The Narcissist in order to explore what is happening in the American psyche. It is a kind of loose sequel to my 2008 play Now or Later, in which a centrist Democrat took power just as nascent resentments on the right and left were beginning to intensify. Twelve years later, these resentments are the mainstream of American politics, and we are living in a kind of slow-motion apocalypse. But the centre-left establishment still struggles to integrate this cultural development into its conception of the country.
Jim believes he left politics because of the emptiness, cravenness and stupidity of the politicians he worked for. He fancies himself especially keyed in to the American psyche because of his middle-class upbringing outside of elite institutions, as well as his strong feel for pessimism and perversity as motivating forces in American life – dynamics he thinks mainstream Democrats have no grasp of. A central question of the play is: how accurate is Jim’s conception of America, and how much of it is just a projection of his own resentments, desires, and traumas?
Within that question lies a deeper one, for both Jim and the play itself: can politics do any good? The senator who wants to hear out and potentially hire Jim believes passionately that it can – that even if the American system means progress will be piecemeal and imperfect, such small steps aren’t worthless. As Jim gets drawn back into the high-stakes world he left behind, he finds his cynicism starting to melt away, even as his personal life unravels. Is he being seduced again by the comforting allure of status and power, or is it possible that meaningful change is on the horizon? His idealism and cynicism battle it out, confronting him with the narcissism he sees so well in the culture and so dimly in himself.
Act I, scene 1
Kitchen of a penthouse. Jim stands looking at his phone. Senator and her aide enter.
JIM Hello Senator, nice to see you again –
SENATOR I’m told you have five minutes for me.
JIM At your service.
SENATOR So, I’m doing a little late-night talk show circuit next week, ostensibly to promote my book but, you know, people will be watching with an eye towards how I might run for president.
JIM Absolutely, you will be scrutinised.
SENATOR You saw the disaster from ground zero last time –
JIM Yes but – it’s a completely different moment, you’re a very different candidate –
SENATOR In some ways.
JIM OK – fair –
SENATOR If I were to run, what advice would you give me – at this extremely early stage? Two hundred words or less.
JIM First off, don’t think of it as early. I get that the primaries are over two years away – but your persona as it’s defined over the next six months – your “brand” – will not be something you can change down the line. So don’t worry about, say, appealing to the left now so you can move to the centre later – all that old conventional wisdom, throw it out. Technology has made time different. The way people see you now is basically how they’ll see you in 2020.
SENATOR OK. I think that was at least 50 words.
JIM All right – what no one at the upper level of the campaign understood last time is what people – Americans – are really like now. They were obsessed with “data” and their only real sense of actual human beings was this vague image of hard-working, fundamentally decent people who just wanted things to be a little bit easier and a little more fair – and it was felt that if we could get enough of those people, as well as turn out minorities, we’d win.
SENATOR And we were wrong, basically.
JIM Not just basically – we were wrong. Regardless of the fact that we won the popular vote, or any other argument that tries to justify the approach –
SENATOR OK. Continue – I’m granting you a hundred-word bonus.
JIM That sentimental idea of what Americans are like no longer holds in an era where you have the internet, social media, rapidly changing values – and a deep sense of, you know, doom and gloom that people carry around with them all the time. What I felt – and what I still think – is that to win, a candidate has to understand that the average voter is angry, scared, selfish, somewhat perverse probably – but most of all – and this was the hardest thing to argue for, because it goes against everything politicians are taught to think about voters – pessimistic.
JIM Yes. I believe that in 2008, post-financial crisis, Americans became fundamentally cynical. We bailed out the bankers, they all got off scot-free, and then they went right back to business as usual. For them, the party never ended, and the politicians made sure of that. While for everyone else – life got harder. Much harder. So after that – voters could no longer deny the essential corruption of our system. Now when they see a politician speaking in optimistic platitudes, they tune them out – think they’re lying, or out of touch – even delusional. Voters who respond to that sort of cliched positivity are dwindling and not enough to get you into office. Do not listen to, in fact run screaming from, anyone who points to midterm election polls, or party approval ratings – or says that if it weren’t for Russian bots we would’ve won – reject all attempts to convince you that the last general election was a blip or a fluke and we should go back to the failed 2016 model. I think I’ve used up my allotment.
SENATOR Very interesting. Now reduce all that to one sentence.
JIM Do not try to be uplifting because optimistic candidates cannot win any more.
SENATOR Very concise. One last question – how do you weaponise pessimism to win an election?
JIM You use it to show you understand how voters feel – you connect with people as they are. Like it or not, the pessimistic candidate won last time. Lunatic that he was, he understood that the country’s overall mood was angry and dark. And no matter how much we want to think that election was unique – a one-off and next time we’ll return to “normal” because his presidency has been such a shitshow – I honestly don’t believe that’s the case.
SENATOR Thank you, Jim. Are you here next week? I might want to talk again before the TV stuff.
JIM Well I’m working on a book right now, with a co-writer, and we’re behind –
SENATOR Maybe they can pick up the slack if I need you for a day, then. What’s the book?
JIM It’s a “behind the scenes” of the last campaign – but a very literary version.
SENATOR So you can sell the rights to HBO and make a lot of money.
SENATOR Well you certainly have no shortage of material. Thank you, Jim. What you said is very interesting.