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Donald Trump’s ‘conspicuous symbols of economic success’ appealed to voters rather than repelled them, Schulich professor Russell Belk says.

TOM BRENNER/The New York Times News Service

The theory of “collective narcissism” — that is, an exaggerated sense of greatness held by members of a particular group — dates back nearly 100 years to the days of famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

But marketing expert Russell Belk believes it’s as relevant today as it ever was, and goes a long way to explaining a variety of current events — from Brexit and Donald Trump to the rise of antiglobalism, a growing resistance to international refugees, and China’s dominance on the world stage.

“Collective narcissism is a powerful card to play in national politics,” Dr. Belk, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, writes in a recent paper published in the Markets, Globalization & Development Review.

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Dr. Belk’s paper arises from his work with an organization called the Society of Markets and Development, which sponsors the academic journal. At the time he began writing, Brexit and Mr. Trump’s election as U.S. president had just happened, and many people were left scrambling for answers on what was behind these political swings to the right and the possible motivations of those who voted to make them happen.

Having written extensively on issues related to consumption and materialism, Dr. Belk was already familiar with the power of individual narcissism to drive consumer behaviours.

Narcissists, after all, seek to gain attention, recognition and attention via consumption and, with an inflated sense of self, feel entitled to special treatment, indulgence and immediate gratification.

It’s no different when talking about collective narcissism, in this case referring to a widely held belief in a country’s greatness.

For example, the struggling middle-class voters’ lack of resentment for Mr. Trump’s extreme wealth and penchant for gilded furniture might seem paradoxical, he says.

“But as a symbol of the nation, what better way to signal strength and superiority than through conspicuous symbols of economic success?”

When one group has an unrealistic belief in its own superiority, those on the outside are bound to suffer. In the examples of Brexit and Mr. Trump, immigrants and foreign workers became central targets in both campaigns.

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“It is easy to see how Trump’s slogans that ‘China is killing us in trade’, ‘illegal Mexican immigrants are taking American jobs,’ and ‘we don’t win anymore’ engaged and enraged collective narcissists,” he writes.

Mr. Trump is far from the only leader to appeal to collective narcissism. Chinese President Xi JinPing has similarly fostered a sense of outsized national pride in his country, says Dr. Belk.

But, unlike many European and U.S. leaders who have embraced isolationist policies and played to xenophobic fears, China’s collective narcissism has manifested as a push toward globalism. Dr. Belk cites China’s growing economic strength, underscored by a fast-rising and affluent middle class, long history of interdependence with its government, and a lack of influx of visible migrants as key factors in shaping an alternate sense of national pride than what’s emerged in the West.

Rather, Dr. Belk says, Chinese leaders have rallied a “collective narcissistic fever” by bolstering the belief that the country deserves all of its current successes in the world after suffering for years at the hands of other nations.

Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahkristine@gmail.com.