By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
We are now on the brink of a new form of government, undreamed of by Aristotle, who spoke of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. We are headed to a psychopathocracy, which has something in common with the degraded form of classical regime types that Aristotle warned against (he thought monarchy can deteriorate into despotism, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into demagoguery). Psychopathocracy is the rule of persons who lack a basic ability to empathize with others, to feel their pain or to feel guilty about harming them.
Psychopathocracy is different from mere bad policy. We can all disagree about the direction of government or particular initiatives. Often people backing a policy that harms others do not understand the harm, or think it is averting a greater harm. It isn’t true that all high politicians are psychopaths who don’t care about injury being done to people. And high politicians have put in programs like social security that have lifted millions of elders out of poverty over decades. They did it because they cared about people.
About 1% of the population is comprised of born psychopaths. The condition of a lack of conscience and inability to empathize with the pain of others or feel remorse may well be a condition one is born with, and in a third of cases can be tested for with an MRI scan. It is thought that another 5 percent of the population loses its ability to empathize through brain damage, trauma or other sorts of physical or psychological injuries.
It is further thought that about 12% of the population is easily manipulated by psychopaths into pyschopath-like behavior or ideas. This 18% of the population is potentially extremely dangerous. They do not have a feedback loop for emotional or physical distress. They are the sort of people who would run somebody over and flee the scene without calling for medical help for the victim.
Psychopaths in power are dangerous because of their inability to feel the pain of others. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney set of a chain of events in motion that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and displaced from their homes (i.e. made homeless) 4 million of Iraq’s 30 million people. This is not to mention the 4,486 Us troops killed the 500,000 wounded physically or psychologically). They set up a chain of events that led to a dangerous cult, Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) taking over 40% of Iraqi territory. But if you ask them if they regret what they did, they so ‘no.’ And I think they are being honest. They cannot empathize with the victims they helped create.
Politicians who want to deprive people of their health care so as to lower taxes on billionaires, who want to make women bear the babies of their rapists, who want to torture helpless prisoners, who want to burn fossil fuels for profit when they endanger the planet, who want to carpet bomb or nuke millions of non-combatants to get at a few guerrillas– these are psychopaths.
Psychopaths are not necessarily criminal or violent, though there are four times as many psychopaths in prison as in the general population. All serial killers are psychopaths. Fraudsters like Bernie Madoff are psychopaths.
CEOs of corporations and successful politicians are also disproportionately likely to be psychopaths. Robert Hare developed a 20-point checklist for the condition, which, however, does not exactly overlap with the definition in DSM-V, the description of mental conditions put out by the American Psychiatric Association. Hare did some of his research in prisons and so his checklist is skewed a bit for criminal activity.
You don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize that Donald J. Trump and several nominees to his incoming administration exhibit obvious signs of psychopathy. Having psychopaths in the White House is not unprecedented. It seems pretty obvious that Dick Nixon, a pathological liar who actually derailed the 1968 peace negotiations with Vietnam to keep his rival Hubert Humphrey from looking good to the voters, had this condition. Untold American soldiers and Vietnamese peasants died so Nixon could be president.
What is remarkable about Trump and his cronies is that their hatred is raw and broad-spectrum. Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, white liberals (coded by the Neo-Nazis as N-lovers) and some of them don’t like Jews very much. That is, they seem to hate an absolute majority of the American population.
Trump’s exaggerated estimation of himself, his need constantly to troll the public for stimulation, his superficial charm, his need to lie, his inability to feel remorse or guilt, his emotional shallowness, his promiscuity and lack of impulse control and serial sexual assault, his use of bankruptcy to avoid paying his creditors and his attraction to a business like casinos which preys on people (many games in casinos are skewed for the House at rates of 11% and on up even to 20%). Trump is more disciplined and single-minded about his career than most psychopaths manage, but otherwise he seems a classic case. He also suffers from a distinct but related condition, of narcissistic personality disorder.
Many of the people around Trump, who speak for him on television, who are tapped to advise him on national security, on the environment, on issues like net neutrality, also exhibit clear signs of psychopathy. Since only about 3 million Americans are born psychopaths, the idea that a whole group of them is moving into power in Washington together is pretty scary. And remember that some 38 million Americans are so ethically and emotionally fragile that they will easily fall under the spell of the psychopaths. That is, if directed to beat up members of minorities, they will gladly do so.
Since about a third of psychopaths can now be diagnosed with an MRI for brain abnormalities, maybe it is desirable that candidates for high office in business and government be scanned: Psychcentral writes, a “study found that [cold-blooded psychopathic] offenders displayed significantly reduced grey matter volumes in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles compared to [impulsive psychopathic] offenders and healthy non-offenders.”
Until such scanning can be carried out, the safest thing is to assume that someone who talks and acts like a psychopath is one.
You cannot reason with a psychopath, you cannot shame such a person or appeal to their better instincts. There is no point in writing open letters to them. The usual way of dealing with politicians who develop some wild ideas in the course of their search for voters and campaign funds will not work.
The only thing you can do is recognize their damaged character and try to protect yourself and others from it. When they encourage minorities to be beaten up, we have to stop that. When they encourage universities to put professors on trial, we have to reject that. When they begin beating drums for war, we have to try to avert it. Pressuring the normal people in Congress can be done (they responded quickly to angry telephone calls about plans to weaken ethics requirements for people in congress).