It is hard to keep up with Trump’s insults and other expressions of his defective character, but a recent one stands out in particular for its educational value.
During a twittering temper tantrum late last month, Trump attempted to denigrate Mika Brzezinski by calling her a neurotic:
This prompted a chivalrous response from Mika’s co-host / insufferably pompous on-screen husband, Joe Scarborough:
✔@JoeNBC Neurotic and not very bright? Look in the mirror. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/767683204039974912 …
Trump has continued his assault on Mika and Joe this past week claiming that Mika had a “mental breakdown” on air. Based on this, some commenters have accused “Dr. Trump” of being “a master of projection.” As a conscienceless narcissist, he is indeed that; but in this case, we are not dealing with projection. It is just a classic example of the psychopathic contempt for people who experience mostly conscience-based psychological difficulties and other mental problems completely alien to psychopathic characters.
However, in the twitter exchange above, Trump is (mostly) right, and Joe is (mostly) wrong, and if we had any sense, this exchange, like everything else about Trump’s campaign and his existence in the world, would necessitate a thoughtful exploration of issues related to mental health and pathology. But as this won’t be happening on a large scale ever any time soon, we must do our little bit to push the debate along.
Trump can be quite skilled in recognizing and exploiting the weaknesses (or “weaknesses”) of others. It is believed that the empathy deficit typical for Trump’s character defect comprises the emotional component of empathy, but that its cognitive aspect — the ability to understand people’s (especially primitive) behaviors and motives without co-feeling with and for them — is often intact in psychopaths and narcissists and other toxic / manipulative characters. This is one reason why they are such effective exploiters / predators.
And like all people without a functioning conscience, Trump believes that neurotics — individuals whose psychological and life problems are often the result of an overactive conscience — are deficient and inferior because they lack the ruthless decisiveness characteristic of psychopaths and are inhibited in their behavior by empathy, guilt, shame, and higher values (i.e., conscience). Of course Trump and his ilk are wrong; although our culture, unfortunately, too often sides with psychopaths in their judgment on the matter.
But Joe is also wrong in suggesting that Trump himself is neurotic. Nothing can be further from the truth: individuals without a conscience are not susceptible to neurosis, which arises on the basis of (usually unconscious) anxiety and inner conflicts motivated in a large measure by a clash between primitive impulses (id) and higher values (superego / conscience). Neurosis / psychoneurosis* is, generally, the antithesis of psychopathy. If Trump were neurotic, he would not be Trump, but a more or less psychologically normal, or even healthy, human being. That is because psychoneurosis is the evidence of mental health defined as the capacity for emotional development, which is completely absent in psychopathy.
Neurosis / psychoneurosis is no longer recognized as a diagnostic entity in the contemporary DSM. Psychological disturbances considered neurotic in the past have been re-classified and subsumed under other categories, although it is not always clear whether this is necessarily an improvement in our understanding of mental problems. Interestingly, however, our culture is keeping up with the DSM as much as it is the other way around, in that the problems which could be classified as neurotic / psychoneurotic — i.e., problems that arise from an oversensitive conscience, as it were — are less frequently encountered both in the clinical practice and the society at large. As George Simon puts it, our times are the times of character disorders, most notably (and dangerously) those based on the impairment of conscience, like psychopathy and narcissism.
I thought it would be useful to explain just how (psycho)neurotics differ from psychopaths, and the below fragment from Kazimierz Dabrowski‘s Polish book, Trud Istnienia (The Toil of Existence), comparing psychopathy and psychoneurosis, is excellent for the purpose. (The book has not been translated into English yet; this translation is by yours truly. The terminology used throughout — disintegration / integration, multilevel(ness), dynamisms, psychic milieu, psychic excitability, syntony — is largely specific, but not exclusive, to Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, which is one of the best, and at the same time least known, theories of human development.)
Psychopathy and psychoneurosis
Psychopathy and psychoneurosis represent two diametrically different psychological and social structures. The first one is a structure of primitive drives, integrated on a low level; the second is disintegrated, unilevel or multilevel.
A psychopathic structure uses intelligence as a tool subordinated to its aims.
In psychoneurosis, intelligence is subsumed under many different disintegrated structures. This subordination is rather loose, either changing in its connection with emotional dynamisms, or closely related to them in a case of advanced, positive development of a psychoneurotic.
A psychopath does not experience any inner conflicts, neither unilevel, nor multilevel; instead, he frequently creates external conflicts.
A psychoneurotic in general experiences unilevel inner conflicts, and, even more often, inner multilevel conflicts; but his external conflicts are weak and disappear with advancing personality growth.
A psychopath may show disingenuous, superficial syntony. In general, however, he does not experience real syntony, and much less authentic empathy. He strives to be in good graces of others, looking for opportunities to secure their favors for himself.
A psychoneurotic is in general empathetic, although he may not always be able to show his empathy. He demonstrates sympathy, understanding of others, feels their hurt and sadness and is willing to help.
A psychopath does not understand global, broad multilevelness, is blind and deaf to higher values, is “narrow” and stereotypical. In his ambitious strivings, he shows strength and disregard for others. It is said that these people achieve their goals “over dead bodies.”
Psychoneurotics are inhibited, often fearful, anxious, experiencing depressions and obsessions. They are extremely sensitive to the hierarchy of values.
Psychoneurotics are disintegrated up to a certain level of development, exhibit weaker or stronger developmental dynamisms, have or are in the process of developing their inner psychic milieu. Their multilevel and multidimensional attitude, and manifold dynamisms breaking down lower and building up higher levels of instinctual and emotional functions, are a source of rich creativity, but also of dramatic, difficult, and even tragic experiences related to their strivings toward the ever higher levels of personality, toward secondary integration.
Psychopaths do not have an inner psychic milieu. They are primitively integrated, in general do not have difficult experiences, and do not show the above mentioned dynamisms. They are not perturbed by their own dramas or tragedies, because in their experience those dramas and tragedies have no depth, no great tension or psychic agony. Psychopathic individuals are always motivated by narrow ambitions and goals. They think mainly of their own careers and of achieving status in society.
Psychoneurotics in general have broader, hierarchical goals, which include social, philosophical, and existential elements. Their hierarchy of values causes psychic tensions of moral and existential nature, and creates a desire to understand themselves and their environment, as well as strivings toward reaching higher levels of development and higher values. Personality ideal plays a crucial role in the lives of psychoneurotics. Dynamization of this ideal has an important meaning in the individual’s development.
Psychopaths usually do not have deep, exclusive relationships based on friendship and love. If we see beginnings of such relationships, they are completely subordinated to their interests, their goals, and their lifestyles.
Psychoneurotics usually treat love and friendship in an idealistic manner. They have a need for exclusiveness and unrepeatability of feelings, they want to strengthen their emotional bonds and work toward their deepening, and create “schools of marriage” and “schools of family.” They experience never-satisfied needs for friendship and love.
Psychopaths are usually seen by society as efficient, strong, with good organizational skills, devoid of inner conflicts. During initial interactions, they are perceived in a positive light. They engender trust in their strength, self-confidence, and resourcefulness. This creates an impression that they are trustworthy, that they can guarantee another a secure existence. Oftentimes, that’s how candidates for marriage, especially women, perceive them, thinking that a secure life is possible with a man of such character.
Psychoneurotics have much less success in this area; they appear to be less trustworthy and get much less approval. They create a poor impression and alienate others with their inhibitions, increased psychic excitability, hesitations, depressions, anxieties, and sometimes certain eccentricities.
We have compared two diametrically different psychic structures: psychopathic and psychoneurotic. The first one is characterized by moral and emotional retardation; the second one expresses positive disintegration through difficult experiences, suffering, hesitations, anxieties, through hierarchical strivings, neuroses and psychoneuroses.
The middle group comprises so-called normal individuals situated between psychopathy and the statistical norm. They are the” borderline” group. Some of their characteristics are amenable to growth, others are not. On the border between the higher norm and psychoneurosis there is another group of people, who are more capable of development and of understanding psychoneurotics, and are open to their influences. The more numerous are the individuals between psychopathy and the so-called norm, the more dangers to the development of society. The more populous is the group between the higher norm and psychoneurosis, the greater hopes for positive social development.
It is therefore important for psychologists, psychiatrists, and educators to understand the differences between the above mentioned three groups of people and the great positive role of individuals with increased psychic excitability and psychoneurotics in the social development. And frequently — in the accelerated social development. (pp. 130-133).
*The difference between neurosis and psychoneurosis is a predominance of conscious and psychological symptoms over unconscious and somatic ones in the latter, thus evidencing a higher developmental potential (this according to the theory of positive disintegration, which is the basis of this post).
See part 2, Psychopathy.