The “Rhodes Scholar” Thing Isn’t Just a Dumb Gaffe
Since parting ways with my narcissist ex-husband, I’ve been struggling to put into words the peculiarities of how he used language.
Trying to have conversations — okay, fights — with him was excruciatingly frustrating for a number of reasons. First, I never felt like I was being heard. And second, I could never really understand what he was saying.
I always felt like I was talking not to a person, but to directly to his anger. There was no rational or analytical filter on the rage that fueled these fights. It was as though emotion was pouring straight out of his limbic system in little bite-sized chunks — and these chunks were words. They never made sense. They had no connection to each other, or to anything I’d said. They were just…like little knifes, or boulders — each hurled with a sort of nihilism behind it.
I’ve been astounded, time after time, over the last four years, at how readily listening to Donald Trump triggers memories of my ex. The reflexive anxiety I feel at hearing a string of word salad and defensive non-rhetoric uniquely stems from sensing a loss of control: an inability to parse a situation, understand it, and take action around it — the feeling that I am being engulfed in chaos.
Chaos is a modus operandi and weapon of choice for narcissists, and certainly for my ex and Donald Trump. One of their favorite tactics is to induce the kind of random noise that makes patterns impossible to discern, and that forces the other party to question their own sanity. To narcissists, the goal of a conversation is not to understand, or to compromise. It’s to control. It’s to confuse you enough that, even if they can’t “win” by some moral or logical standard, they win by virtue of incapacitating you.
I’d been turning the hallmarks of my ex’s speech patterns over and over in my mind: the random chaos. The lack of substance. The inattentiveness. And then, when I heard Kayleigh McEnany (for the record, I am considering the current administration to be a conglomerate narcissist) refer to Amy Coney Barrett as a “Rhodes Scholar,” something crystalized: Narcissists don’t care about the meaning of words. They only care about the reaction words have the power to elicit.
This may seem obvious when we’re talking about an administration that has fueled itself on lies from the get-go. But to me, as a person who uses language as a tool rather than a weapon, it was totally elusive, especially within the context of a (not very) romantic relationship: A place where one should be vulnerable and honest, and where it’s often necessary to do deep work.
Those hallmarks of my ex’s speech? Here they are, explained to the best of my ability:
The world salad and “parroting”
Many of us struggle to find the right words to properly express ourselves. But my ex — and it took me forever to figure this out — didn’t really have a self, or identity. He was entirely motivated and fueled by reactions from other people, in a very surface, call-and-response kind of pattern. There was no depth. No self-reflection, no analysis. He saw the world as constantly assailing him, firing shots that he must instantaneously deflect. There was no absorption.
Meaning-making was therefore beyond beyond him. Rather than try to connect words to feelings, thoughts, concepts, he only connected words to the reactions those words could excavate from others. I imagine that, rather than asses the meaning of words, he kind of evaluated the efficacy — the power — of words or collections of words. If a group of words had the desired effect, it got stored in the “use again later” arsenal.
And this produced what I came to call “parroting.” My ex would occasionally hurl an insult, or a “comeback” that, rather than knock me off my feet with impact, left me cocking my head and scrunching my eyebrows. “Huh?” was a reaction he got from me far more often than I’m sure he liked, “What does that have to do with anything? What are you even talking about?” The would-be zinger failed to land because it was a rhetorical object he’d just grabbed off the shelf and lobbed at me, usually when he’d used up everything else and was desperate. It was something he’d heard before, something that caught his ear because he observed its high impact — likely, a powerful emotional response from the recipient.
So his words didn’t come together cohesively, really. They were hastily thrown-together collections, words he knew had produced results in other contexts. His task then became how to adopt those words to new situations. And that’s what lead to:
The vacuousness and spitballing
There’s a sense of emptiness when speaking with a narcissist. I rarely saw my ex struggle to make himself understood. His rhetorical strategy was not to dig deep, it was to fire things off as quickly as possible to see if something would “stick” or fetch him the reaction he wanted. It was like hearing a robot eject a randomly-selected list of catchphrases that roughly fit criteria for the current moment. For example, “angry,” “accusation,” and “being late” were three of the inputs he might have used for a given phrase-selection algorithm. Then it was a trial-and-error process of testing model fit: Which of the pre-loaded, ready-to-go phrases will be most effective in this case? Which one would surely land under my skin?
My ex was highly intuitive, but in a very primal, survival-driven sense. All his capacities were aimed not at understanding not the “how” or “why” of me, but toward a fine-tuned assessment of my reaction. Did I seem deeply angry? Annoyed, but only superficially wounded (because believe me, they go for blood every time)? If I laughed off one of his comebacks, he was WAY off base. Time to redirect and pick a new strategy.
His shark-like sensors were never aimed at understanding my process — because he couldn’t relate to process. He couldn’t feel or understand the difference between “hurt” or “sad,” because the only emotion he seemed to experience was rage. But my ex was a master of parsing others’ expressions of these feelings. He could conduct an impressively fine-grained analysis of the body language, facial expression, and vocal intonations that betray these different emotions.
My ex never really followed the thread of what I was saying. There was too much emotional complexity that was just straight-up inaccessible to him. I imagine it was like hearing someone speak a foreign language.
What he seemed to do instead was sort of scan my speech for stand-out buzzwords or keywords — things he’d heard before, and for which he had a prepared list of responses. When he heard one of these keywords, he’d immediately interject with that prepared response in order to throw me off my train of thought and regain the upper hand.
The inability to listen
My ex was not curious about feelings or thoughts I’d try to describe. He never asked me for clarification on something — unless it was a trap. I rarely heard him trying to logically analyze something, like “Okay, so I’m hearing you say [X]. Does that mean that you also [Y]?” These deep, contextual connections seemed to be too costly an energy expenditure. He never asked, “Can you explain that in more detail? Do you know why you [do that]/[feel that way]?” Very low inquisitiveness. Sad.
If he could have related to my inner mechanisms, he probably would have found a way to weaponize them. But because healthily-expressed emotions are too complicated, the only way he could deal with them was by negating them or undermining their validity.
No ability to understand — only win
My ex viewed compromise as failure. Because his survival, as he saw it, was contingent on controlling others, he spent all his energy on learning those shallow, surface, input-output relationships, and predicting which words were most capable of destabilizing my position. Going deeper was unnecessary and too difficult for him to justify spending energy on. He just didn’t have the time or the bandwidth for it.
And this brings us back to the “Rhodes Scholar” thing. Dollars to donuts, when someone in that administration — maybe McEnany herself — was reading Barrett’s bio, they were scanning the text like my ex scanned my speech for buzzwords. “Rhodes” popped out, not because the reader had a nuanced familiarity with the Rhodes Scholar program, but because they’d witnessed that word evoke a high level of emotionality from people in the past. They honed in on it immediately because they knew it carried gravity — and for their purposes, that’s all they needed to know.
That this word then got co-opted into the phrase “Rhodes Scholar” suggests that it was selected for use based on its emotional valence and nothing else: no understanding, no curiosity, no depth, no meaning, no interest. It’s just one more (albeit, micro-) sign of an administration whose only goal is to control people by inducing chaos and fabricating reality.