Welcome to Psychopathocracy

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.

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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).

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28 Responses

  1. Netanyahu, Erdogan, Obama (Narcissist), Hillary, for starters, are also in the pshycopatocracy category. It is clear the problem is systemic at this point. Neoliberalism, which has ruled since the days of Reagan and Thatcher (another ‘heartless’ politician) is psychopathic in it’s essence. At this point the US electorate is given no choice but psychopath A or B, the sane candidates are weeded out by the system long before the candidates get to the final stages of a presidential campaign.

    • Actually the article makes an impressive case against Trump and not against those enumerated by you. Also, who , exactly, are the ” the sane candidates are weeded out by the system long before the candidates get to the final stages of a presidential campaign.” ?

  2. May I remind you professor of the well known psychology experiment where an ordinary person is required to give a pretend victim electric shocks by a pretend official personage. The person giving the shocks carries on administering shocks when told to by the official, even though the pretend victim is screaming in agony. There is this very large grey area between the psychopathic tendency and those who feel they have to obey orders. Hitler’s Germany was a good case in point. Drone operators blow up people they don’t know every day and do so from an armchair thousands of miles away. At the end of the day they go home to their family just like normal people who go home from the office etc. The thing is; when is a psychopath not a psychopath? The power of the state to control and manipulate is enormous and many otherwise normal people are sucked into the excesses of the state without realizing it. I don’t know for sure, but I suggest most Americans agree with the death penalty, where a human being is hanged on a piece of rope or half burned alive in an electric chair! Perhaps there’s a bit of psychopath in all of us professor

  3. Psychopathic politicians are definitely a problem but they have been running the U.S. for a long time. Exhibit A would be Henry Kissenger. The U.S. has essentially been propping up fascist governments around the world that have plundered their countries and killed millions. Americans are in denial about this situation. The American officials responsible for these crimes need to be hauled in front of a court. How will this happen? Recently, in Guatemala, some villains have faced this fate.

  4. Trump’s muslim registry will hurt muslim’s severely, and will further weaken our already eroded American civil liberties. One can talk about Trump’s policies without resorting to calling him a psychopath. I’m not trained as a psychologist, and there’s no way I could diagnose him as such. That said, I think it’s not needed. His stated policies are so pernicious that one could just catalog them and critique them.

    There are so many pernicious policies that he espouses that it is sometimes hard to know where to begin, but regardless of which set of policies one chooses at first, any critique would be an evisceration and far superior to calling him a psychopath. One could critique the nepotism that Trump is now displaying by appointing his son-in-law Jared Kushner as Senior Advisor. Or, his appointments of former Goldman Sachs employees to financial regulating agencies. Or, his plan require muslims to register on a database, further stigmatizing them and demolishing the first amendment. This path obviates the rhetorical reply that your post is likely speculation. The sheer amount of harm that such policies would inflict on innocents would be enough for your readers to form their own opinions of Trump without calling him a psychopath.

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2008 democratic nomination campaign on two separate occasions mentioned that she would “obliterate” Iran in a hypothetical situation. One doesn’t need to resort to calling her a psychopath in order to highlight just how pernicious is this stated policy. Or, one can very easily critique that choosing to separate herself from President Obama with her goals to more forcefully arming rebels (extremists) and implementing a no-fly zone over Syria is not good policy. None of this requires calling her a psychopath, but highlights the vast amount of human harm these policies would exact on innocents.

    This focuses the attention on where it’s due: those that are victims of the stated policies. Trump could be a psychopath or narcissist for all I know, but making the focus of a post his psychopathy only further feeds what I imagine to be his narcissism, and diverts attention from the victims.

  5. I wonder about casually diagnosing people as psychopaths from a distance. I spent 20 years at a large law firm and I’ve encountered some real honest to God psychopaths in my time, but I’ve encountered a hell lot more plain old garden variety assholes.

  6. It is possible an internal weakness is manifest in this recent election and that Trump didn’t so much give rise to it as it gave rise to both him and his erstwhile opponent in the hustings. I have long wondered if an element in the broader fracturing of Western societies and their associated values could be debt. Debt does erode freedom and leads to a condition similar in ways to servitude. Debt is now so widespread the majority know nothing else, and many live and die without ever being free of it. So large a number living in quasi-servitude may have eroded not only their personal but a collective sense of responsibility to a degree that has made a more than somewhat dysfunctional situation not only possible but perhaps inevitable. What is equally distressing is that those who see something is seriously wrong and might come together to get things back on the rails appear to prefer bemoaning and analysing from the shore rather than getting feet wet doing something about it. What is surely more important than whether or not Trump shows psychopathic characteristics is how in the name of Hecuba he came to get hold of the keys to the White House.

  7. There’s certainly evidence that many of those nominated for high office in the Trump administration are self-centered, but that’s quite distinct from true psychopathy. For instance a selfish person puts themselves first because they value themselves more than others around them. A true psychopath is actually unable to empathize or relate to others around them; it’s different, and there are many shades of unpleasantness on the axis from normality to true psychopath with an actual clinical personality disorder. Anyway, my back-of-the-napkin, interview-free and thus totally unscientific and inappropriate application of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to Trump results in a score of 27 at most (the average person is probably around a 5, the average incarcerated person ~22, and true psychopaths over 30). Probably he’s a lot lower than that, since various areas where I scored him at the maximum based on his public persona are probably much more nuanced.

    Now narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), on the other hand… Trump’s basically a walking textbook case. HRC actually used several techniques in the debates to “push his buttons” that clinicians use in interviews when diagnosing NPD. Trump fell for it every… single… time.

  8. Will someone please write an article about Trump’s MOTHER? We have read about his father Fred, the politically connected NYC real estate guy. But I have never read a word about Mom. What do we know about the mother who produced this needy insecure (not necessarily “psychopathic”–WADR, Professor Cole) man-baby? People used to joke that George W. Bush didn’t have a mother, he had Barbara Bush. Big Baby is Watching You!

  9. 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.

    This is an American tradition that we can presume will be continued by President Trump.

    High schools would do well to incorporate this essay by Professor Cole in their civics and social studies courses.

    The greatest cause for concern should be the data about what a large percentage, albeit a minority, of the people can be complicit in the policies of a psychopathic leader.

  10. The problem with labeling someone a psychopath is the implication that he isn’t entirely responsible for his actions. I prefer good old “evil” and dealing with him on that basis.

  11. I think equally dangerous is the abandonment of reality in politics, especially on the conservative side. Trump is the champion of facts don’t matter, but this has been going on since George W. Bush took office. So many conservatives live in a bubble of delusion and this enables the psychopaths. Groucho Marx said it well in one of the Marx Brothers movies–“Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” And many people choose to believe him rather than their own eyes. Just yesterday Kellyanne Conway said we are to ignore what Trump says and just know what is in his heart, whatever that is. And his supporters will fall for it.

  12. After reading the comments on this article, I would recommend the book “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout. This book clarifies some of the points in Prof. Cole’s article, which I personally agree with completely.

  13. Psychopaths find a much more accommodating in corporate structures rather than in government. Trump only intended to leverage the free and fawning media coverage to enhance his business brand. He grossly underestimated how much the GOP voters had been conditioned to this sort of behavior as normal political posturing.

  14. I have spent a lot of time (way too much time actually) thinking about this. Granted having a psychopath in the WH is not unprecedented, nor is it unprecedented to have a large number of psychopaths in Congress since that has been the case for a decade or more, but it is unprecedented when they simultaneously hold the WH & majorities in both chambers of Congress.

    Trump’s seriously flawed character traits such as immaturity, irresponsible chaotic behaviour, arrogance & ignorance on top of having a flair for grandiosity &/or delusions of grandeur, constant need for attention, self-centeredness & an insatiable desire for adoration among so many other flaws & quirks are not just off-putting, they are troubling – deeply so.

    Furthermore, criticism sends Trump into fits of pique; rages on sometimes for days on end. Even the most trivial slight (usually imagined) will get blown into such a major ordeal that he cannot/will not rest until he has sufficiently taken revenge on the culprit. He becomes unhinged at the drop of a hat! This kind of behaviour is not just unseemly, it is especially offensive & intolerable. It makes him even more desperately dangerous.

    Taken altogether in addition to Trump being a narcissistic psychopath is an explosive combination. The man is frighteningly unconscionable.

    In just a few short days Trump & his psychopathic minions will have the levers of power in their hands. The reign of a governing body of psychopaths marks the beginning of an era of psychopathocracy. May it be short-lived.

  15. Trump is an emotionally and ethically primitive man, with no actual knowledge whatsoever relevant to the job he is about to take up; he has no sense whatsoever of the meaning or value of the pursuit of truth and understanding, and his brain in general is not that good. His speech is literally meaningless and provides no basis for even a sensible conversation, let alone a rational one, so that one can not learn anything from what he says, but we can only wait until actions are carried out or policies enacted and then react. He has his hobby horses, and the entire intelligence, such that he has one, is directed toward getting what he wants by any means whatsoever. He has nothing, nothing at all but pathology, and there was no possible good reason for voting for this demonic figure, no matter what a voter’s interests were. All this and much more was evident all along, yet millions voted for him. There is definitely something wrong with a lot of people. There is a socio-cultural pathology as well, since this kind of response to adversity is not adaptive and not effective, not rational. I don’t think this phenomenon is new, either. While he is pursuing his self-aggrandizement, others — Bannon, Putin, Kushner, Sessions, Tillerson, Icahn, McConnell and all the rest — will be pursuing their own antisocial agendas. With regard to the people who voted, there is a type of mentality out there that is pathological, characterized by lack of ability to empathise, panicky fear-based response to threats, distrust of out group people, and preference for the hard line approach, with reliance on superior strength. Nothing good ever comes from all of this. The idea of learning as a public good, necessary for a healthy polity, has been forgotten by this society.

  16. I do believe that the governmental-structure-behavior you describe has been seen in more than a few historical realities: certainly Stalin’s Russia was one, Idi Amin’s Uganda is likely another, some of the East European regime allied with the Axis in the 30’s and 40’s, and odd cases all over the world in historical times — off the top of my head, the regime of the younger Lopez in Paraguay around 1860’s-70’s that got into a lost war vs Brazil and others, or the regime of naked plunder and enslavement carried out by Columbus’s men in Hispaniola in the years following his “discovery” of them for the Spanish state.

    To have it occurring in the so-called leader of the so-called civilized world, which is also our home and a repository of our hope for our posterity’s futures, is quite alarming and depressing and worthy of extraordinary attention and concern.

  17. Watching his news conference just now, I was struck by just how much livid hatred he was showing for the press – the nerve to ask him bothersome questions !!! He is really festering under that wig he wears ! I think we have a malevolent person as President who is likely to get mad at all his cabinet one-by-one unless they worship at his feet – and I think they know that , so watch the butt-kissing ! Sick, sick, sick !

  18. Cleckley, in his book, “Mask of Sanity”, describes sociopaths-psychopaths. One characteristic of psychopaths is that they prefer to be in the company of other psychopaths and tend to personally dislike individuals who are not psychopaths.

  19. I think Aristotle described “kakistocracy” as “rule by the worst.” So he had this covered.

    If we have observed kakistocracy in our lifetime, it was probably in the worst regimes in Africa, Mobutu or Bokassa or Charles Taylor. Yet even these regimes, as far as I can tell, have an ethnic support faction based on a belief by followers that the crimes on top will benefit them too – even if only by destroying the lives of people from rival tribes.

    The Destroyer has come. When he’s finished, will we hold his followers and apologists responsible?

  20. I lack many of the markers of a true Muslim.
    I was born and raised Catholic, and still practice that faith.
    But under the concept of the Umma, which I understand to mean the brotherhood of all mankind, that I understand to be a tenet of Islam, I intend to register as a Muslim when that registry is opened. I ask all of you brothers and sisters to join me.
    .
    They can only destroy our society if we let them. Don’t let them.

  21. We might think that we’re in for rule by the strong authoritarian leader, but I think we’re actually in for “rule by nobody”. Additionally, the press conference today demonstrated Trump’s complete contempt for the idea that there is a reality that exists as it is independently of us, the observers, and that we can gain a more and more accurate understanding of this independent reality by paying attention to evidence and comparing it to knowledge claims, and making adjustments. He would like to deprive us of the ability to say, “what you just said is not only not true, it doesn’t make any sense, and we’re not buying it”. He is not using language in any normal way, it’s apparently impossible to converse with him in a normal way, and it’s impossible to regard his words as having any constant meaning, apart from the fact that the words spewing from his lips now are the same as the ones spewing out before; there’s nothing new.

    (In the fullness of his moment he said, “Do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me? Give me a break.” He can’t get past the fullness of his feeling that he’s a big tough guy and Hilary’s just a woman; so why didn’t Putin want Hillary to win?)

  22. I agree wholeheartedly with the Prof’s assessment of psychopaths and Mr. Trump. Add in an insatiable greed and lust for power and you have our government, as it is about to be constituted.

    A lot of time has been spent on Trump, Trump, Trump. But what of Pence? Since it’s quite likely this Christian Dominionist will be elevated to the Presidency, it might serve us to have Prof. Cole take a long hard look at him, too.
    While it’s hard to define Trump’s agenda, I don’t think that will be the case with Mr. Pence. And he may be the more terrifying of the two.

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