“History lays down events over the struggles of conscience.”
Following news these days is educational despite this being labeled, inaccurately, a post-fact or post-truth era.
Only those who forgot that WWII started on the basis of fake news, or already repressed WMD, Judith Miller, and the rest of journalistic sycophants of the Bush cabal, can call our current moment in time post-factual while in fact it is as it ever was.
Public discourse, especially for political purposes but not only, is always largely post-factual. As rationalizing rather than rational beings we don’t do so well with facts. Dealing with truth is uncomfortable, so we prefer to muddy it and create our own facts to suit our psychological needs — make ourselves feel better — reality be damned.
The two things that make the process different in America today are the faster spread of fake news from a greater number of sources; and the malignant presence of a profoundly characterologically defective leader who, surrounded by an ever-expanding network of similarly disordered characters, infects society with his personal pathology through normalization of blatant lies and other openly unethical behavior.
One of the chief characteristics of a narcissistic psychopath is his flexible approach to reality, which is always distorted to suit his pathological needs; and, inextricably related, a lack of conscience with its recognition and respect for values like truth, justice and honor. A natural penchant for sowing discord and destruction is another of a narcissistic psychopath’s instantly recognizable traits.
We should know this already if we cared about truth, but, generally speaking, we don’t. So what’s being dubbed, not quite correctly, as the post-fact reality now is an enhanced manifestation of this specific pathology spreading rapidly on a mass scale and affecting all elements of our society.
With these developments, we have entered a post-irony era, where the tragically absurd now rules with supreme confidence befitting the triumph of the narcissistic blindness that has paved its way. And thanks mostly, but by no means exclusively, to our soulless soon-to-be Destroyer in Chief — a man with small hands, an even smaller mind, and a big dictators’ envy — we can also call it a post-ethics era, in every possible, imaginable and not, way.
Just this week, we had our healthcare gutted in the middle of the night, and saw Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, who dared to criticize the pathetic charade of Trump’s “solving” his conflicts of interest, being called to “testify” in front of the morally compromised House Republicans, a.k.a Trump’s firing squad (not literal so far, but the dictatorship is still young). Earlier this month, the GOPers wanted to get rid of their own ethics watchdog altogether, but their strategery, to use a Dubyanism, was not quite right: they were too early and too open about it, a mistake they won’t make the second time, to be sure. Those are the kinds of laws still best passed under the cover of darkness and misinformation.
This, and worse, is to be expected in a pathocracy, but one is still somewhat surprised to see how quickly its Trumpian, kleptofascist version is taking hold in America. The man is not even President yet, but his psychopathic network is already fully operational and exerting its sick influence as though this is entirely normal.
The speed of this process just confirms that the pathological network has already been in place and ready for a leader like Trump who would give it permission to come out into the open without any reservations, like some residual inhibitions acquired perhaps, if only by a necessity of decorum, during Obama years — you know, an appearance of scruples and some other manifestations of conscience.
And it is a further proof of how seriously disordered we are as a society.
We can tell how deep we are in the post-irony/post-ethics of the Trumpian swamp by watching the perfectly coiffed and made up talking heads continue calling Trump “unconventional” and “unpredictable” (Vlad must laugh at this one), a man with “unique communication” skills and an “unorthodox style” in his cabinet picks.
It is still somehow unclear to them how he will govern, despite being clobbered with evidence of his defective character for some 30 years or so — evidence which they themselves helpfully and entirely uncritically disseminated all these years, giggling under their breaths.
Now they just tell us to expect more of the “unconventional” from him, in the same bemusedly exasperated tones that wives use to talk about their husbands’ habit of putting butter in their coffee or wearing socks with sandals. “Oh, you know how Gerald is. What can you do?”
The reality of it does not seem to sink in.
Article after article has been written comparing and mostly contrasting Trump with Hitler, in the “yes, maybe he is kinda like Hitler, but here is how he really isn’t” manner, because the truth is either so obscured or unbearable that, unable to acknowledge it, we dilute it with undue focus on inconsequential details which make it easier for us to ignore the dark heart of the matter. Why, if a tyrant must have a mustache and screech in German, in 1930s, about inferior non-Aryans, then by definition Trump is not a tyrant. See? No evil.
Even more disturbingly, his character defect continues to be glamorized by people who should know better. He is still being characterized as a “genius” at media use and repeatedly ascribed special skills, showing how easy we are to mesmerize by the open mendacity of rich and famous narcissistic psychopaths.
People who presumably should know better call him “practical,” which is as far from the truth as almost anything that has come out of his own mouth; and “cathartic,” which, granted, may have some merit, in the same way violent vomiting and diarrhea are cathartic during a norovirus infection. To think of it, that may count as practical, too, in a noroviral cinch.
There are also those among his opponents who erroneously compare him to Chauncey Gardiner, a fictional character without qualities whose improbable rise to power was a function of luck and the ignorance of his supporters, not noticing the glaring differences between the two characters. Chauncey was a man without convictions; Trump, in contrast, has a few and strong ones, the chief among them that of his greatness and entitlement to power and adulation. Chauncey was empty, Trump is full — of his bloated self.
Even someone as astute as Noam Chomsky who understands the dangers posed by Trump’s presidency, does not fully grasp the extent of his character defect when he says that the man evidences “some loose similarities to other demagogic figures” — an understatement of the year.
Among those Trump’s critics who misunderestimate (oh, Dubya) the grave importance of his individual pathology is The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Frank.
In his piece, What if a President Loses Control?, he writes,
There’s no need to dwell on the particular character of Trump, who will be sworn in on January 20th. But it is worth examining what remedies exist if any President is too careless, inattentive, or impulsive to deal sensibly with questions affecting the nation’s survival.
That one phrase, “no need to dwell,” is a perfect dismissal of evil, which is the inherently destructive and sadistic nature of a narcissistic psychopath, especially dangerous in one in power but not only.
This dismissal is solidified by the author’s focus on the carelessness, inattentiveness, and impulsivity of Trump (or any other “hypothetical” President — as if we ever had, or could have, anyone remotely so pathological in this position).
What he and most others don’t seem to realize is that one can possess all three of those characteristics, and still be a benevolent person. The greatest danger of Trump’s character defect lies not in his poor attention, impulsivity and carelessness, problematic as they are, but in his lack of conscience and co-existent grandiosity and unbridled drive for power and adulation.
Further down in the article, Frank equates the not-so-hypothetical presidential “incapacity” that may require external intervention with “insanity” and even a physical illness. This is not just factually slippery (character disorders are not mental illness), but again the denial of evil we are faced with in Trump and other defective characters like him.
Of course the “no need to dwell” may just be the author’s way to avoid shipment, in the near future, to a concentration camp. But purposeful abstaining from identifying evil when faced with it still amounts to its denial, if not endorsement.
Another good example of the well-meaning but misguided attempt of assessing Trump and his political (and not only) influences is David Bell’s article Donald Trump Is Making the Great Man Theory of History Great Again, published in a recent edition of Foreign Policy.
Bell is a historian, so his mild-mannered confusion, unlike that of some experts on psychopathology, may perhaps be excused. But that confusion is instructive all the same.
The problem is already evident in the title which, with the kind of irony that jars in our post-ironic age, still ascribes greatness to Trump as if it were 2016 (it’s a safe bet, though, that Donny himself would love it).
The title refers to a specific strand of academic (and not just) thought, which Bell examines as he tries to take a critical look at the ways that historians and sociologists use to assess socio-political trends in the world. He grapples with the importance assigned to historical “great men” — his examples include both “heroes and villains:” Lincoln, Bonaparte, Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill, among others — in shaping world’s events; and, after protracted explanations of his internal deliberation process, he concludes that “it is hard not to agree with my academic colleagues who have put populism, more than personality, at the center of their analyses of the election.” See, no evil.
Populism has become a catchphrase this season for the pearl-clutchy astonishment of our elites shocked, shocked, by the vulgarians at their designer gates. And like working class in America, it is a term that’s loosely defined but emotionally pungent since it serves as a repository for the elites’ contempt, horror, and pity, as well as — and most importantly — the comfortable dullness of their consciences.
It is true that without the support of the working stiffs, Trump, like Hitler et al., would not attain the highest position of power; but discounting or minimizing his character defect and its predictable destructive influences is puzzling, at the least, especially after one already used other similar characters (Hitler and Stalin) for comparison.
And blaming, directly or not, the nebulous working class for his win is just another way that the privileged, in their time-honored tradition, scapegoat the unwashed for the social ills that their own greed, arrogance and indifference inflicted on the world.
Let’s not forget that the Trumpists on and off TV and other media, his most vocal supporters and sycophants, are wealthy and educated, with only a passing, if that, acquaintance with the working class.
His well-heeled critics are not much better.
After the tragic farce of Trump’s “press conference” this week, the WaPo editorial board issued a statement faintly praising his purported step in the right ethical direction. One is forced to ask if they watched the same sordid spectacle, complete with hired cheerleaders, as the rest of us did; and if so, whether they understood what happened there. Judging by that editorial, the answer would be a qualified no.
That’s how quickly, under toxic leadership, the profoundly pathological becomes normal, something that surprised even Chuck Todd. (Now that’s progress. Of sorts.)
Even such cogent critics of Trump like Jennifer Rubin and Kurt Eichenwald succumb to peculiar ambivalence allowing them to cultivate delusions of the man’s harmlessness, and they do that as they describe his pathology within the same sentence or paragraph.
A week from today, President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn in. More than most presidencies, uncertainty (for some, panic) may be the defining sentiment as the country embarks on a journey that may test America’s democratic principles, decency and common sense. We have elected someone who has very little of any of those three precious commodities. Honesty demands that we all concede we have no idea whether he’ll be among the worst presidents (perhaps not even finishing his term), remarkably mediocre or a surprising success.
We have no idea? Rubin must be speaking for the pundits. That’s because we non-pundits know what the future brings for leaders with Trump’s character defect — we have seen it too many times before. She then proceeds to ask 10 questions showing that indeed she has no idea. At this point that’s not honesty we are talking about — especially given the breathtaking denial of the indisputable fact which she herself brought up (“we have elected someone who has very little of any of those three precious commodities”) — but some form of psychological dimness, willful ignorance, or worse. That’s how post-factualness happens.
Eichenwald, detailing his romp through Trump’s twitterverse, observes that,
it is impossible to know if Trump is giving a considered argument reflecting the direction of his administration based on input from experts, or is just reacting to something he read on a cereal box.
This, after he presents a damning record, stretching back years in time, of Trump’s impulsively vindictive, bombastic, and inane tweeting life. (Psst, Kurt! The answer is B, a cereal box — but don’t tell anyone, lest they lose their last illusions.) Later, he offers Trump all kinds of “helpful” advice, somehow believing that the man understands it or cares to hear it.
On the same broadcast of PBS Newshour, where the well-mannered hosts were (and continue to be) mildly-to-moderately baffled by the president-elect, there was a segment featuring young winners of a prestigious science competition.
What with news being educational in unexpected ways, we learned from it that we are capable of inventing a device that “can detect a disturbance of (…) one part in 1,000 billion billion, or something like 1/1,000 of the diameter of a proton,” but we cannot see a malignant, inherently destructive narcissist prominently ensconced in our midst, one whose character defect, which he does not even bother to mask, is — or should be — starkly obvious to people with a conscience. This is a disconcerting fact, one of the few that remain unchanging in this supposedly post-factual world.
To America’s credit, people with a functioning conscience appear to outnumber those without it. But, as this election and its aftermath show as well, the number of those with an impaired conscience is also greater than we always hope.
The problem, as always, is that those without a conscience find it too easy to seize power and impose their pathological ways on the conscience-full majority. Sick, disordered, and decaying societies, whose members are emotionally lost and morally confused, are especially vulnerable to influences of character defective leaders, those human weeds that proliferate with such an ease and suffocate everything that’s tender, noble, and most worthy in the world.
We don’t like talking about it, however. We don’t even want to see it.
The powers-that-be understand and always exploit this reluctance, creating their versions of facts and ethics for mass consumption. This is nowhere as apparent as in totalitarian systems, where truth is always the first casualty of the tyrant du jour and his ruling cabal. The pathological characters in power thrive on our confusion and do what they can to plant it firmly in our minds and souls. They do it through all the means available to them and in every sphere of our activity.
Andrzej Lobaczewski, creator of ponerology, distinguishes two major reality-bending maneuvers instituted by pathological (mostly psychopathic and narcissistic) leaders and their propagandists:
Paralogisms – Particular manners of twisting logic to falsely make the illogical appear logical and vice-versa.
Paramoralisms – Specific methods of twisting morality to falsely portray the unethical as ethical and vice-versa.
These two go hand in hand, since you can only twist the truth through paralogisms if you make people morally weak and confused via paramoralisms, and thus render them susceptible to such manipulations.
And it is a vicious cycle, because when you consistently distort the truth, you also confuse people’s sense of right and wrong, turning them into complacent instruments of evil, something that, with time, becomes normal or necessary in their minds.
One consequence of this confusion is our lack of awareness of how dangerous Trump’s character defect really is, in itself and in its influences on the rest of us. This lack is rooted in our ignorance of psychological problems, but also, and more importantly, in our lack of understanding and a denial of evil.
Howard Ditkoff, whose blog gives a comprehensive presentation of Lobaczewski’s work (and goes far beyond it), looks at our most common reactions to evil, and reasons behind our denial of and/or non- or anti-scientific approach to it:
- Some simply philosophize about evil, treating it as an abstract, rather than practical, matter.
- Some principally focus on evil through literature or art in which it is portrayed as a shadowy mystical or, at times, even romantic force.
- Some are drawn to and stubbornly cling to unsupported, oversimplified explanations or wild conspiracy theories.
- Some take a theological approach, framing evil as the product of vague supernatural agents such as spirits or demons.
- Some relate to evil primarily emotionally, experiencing or expressing sentiments, in regard to it or its manifestations, ranging from deep sadness to furious rage.
- Some mainly relate to evil moralistically, experiencing themselves as proudly superior to “wrong-doers,” stridently demanding righteous behavior from others and even impulsively advocating for aggressive or violent revenge against those who do not comply.
- Some say that we can simply never truly understand the origins and nature of evil.
- Some, for a variety of reasons, refuse to even discuss the topic.
Even many professionals, when forced to confront and speak about questions of evil raised in the course of their work, limit their role to a descriptive one, while evading any responsibility to more deeply explore its core nature or origins.
And all of these cases can involve a sometimes egotistical refusal to risk the shattering experience that can result from thoroughly considering whether one’s impression of evil may be incorrect or incomplete.
All those reactions, and the reasons behind them, serve to normalize evil. If we cannot admit evil’s existence, or minimize it through various self-serving rationalizations that we confuse with intellectual and/or moral sophistication, we either won’t notice it or will explain it away, to ourselves and others, in ways that dilute it and its pernicious influence on our lives.
Granted, character defective individuals like narcissists and psychopaths, who are the embodiment of evil, are good at deception, aided in it by what some call “charm,” which is nothing other than manipulative glibness exploiting our own vanity and ignorance.
Last July, This American Life featured a story about Doug Deason, a wealthy Republican donor unwilling to support Trump “on principle” — until he briefly met with the man and had a doubt-dissolving epiphany of the kind that Bush experienced when he saw “soul” in Putin’s eyes. When asked what specifically about Trump changed his opinion about him during their 30-minute meeting, the awe-stricken Deason gave a list of embarrassing platitudes and empty compliments, which lead him and his even wealthier father to a conclusion that Trump is “a really nice guy.” See, no: Evil.
That story is much worth listening to, or reading about, for many reasons; one of them is an illustration of how money warps not just the perceptions of those awash in it, but also reality for the rest of us through its purposefully controlled influence on everything from politics to education. We know it, of course, but hearing it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, delivered with a matter of fact (here’s that word again) calm cynicism gives it an extra dark, yet familiar, tinge. All it takes for evil to prevail is its narcissistic nod of approval. And money.
At best, the opinionators vaguely aware of the looming disaster pat themselves on their own backs for issuing clever pronouncements on how history rhymes without repeating itself. It somehow makes sense to them, and that’s because it makes them feel better about themselves.
Only people who do not understand history and the human suffering that suffuses it all around us, every step of its bloody way, can be so blithe about it. And that’s always a lot of people, always too many of them, as ivory towers are not just for pundits; but this may possibly change now, since Trump/ism is here to help with that by shattering these comfortable illusions, along with the world as we know it.
We are facing large scale problems of unprecedented severity and scope, growing disasters in every sphere of our functioning that compound and reinforce each other, leading, quicker than we are willing to realize, to undoing of what we know as a civilized world. Yet instead of acknowledging and addressing these problems head on, in a concerted and cooperative manner, we, allergic to truth as we have always been, continue to pursue primitive goals that speed up our destruction and get bogged in petty squabbles, often leading to wars and mayhem and accelerating our self-annihilation. We do this by, among other things, electing characterologically defective leaders and then normalizing their toxic reign.
We don’t lack intelligence, and our technological powers grow exponentially in ways that should enable us to successfully tackle most of our problems, or at least slow down their progression. But we severely lack one most significant ingredient: an active conscience. Our conscience appears to be the most scarce and vulnerable of our resources, and one most desperately needed.
Conscience, with its empathy, guilt, shame, and a lived understanding and respect for higher values confers immunity, individual and collective, against the virus of psychopathization. We can tell how weakened our consciences, and moral immunity, are by our inability to recognize and name evil in our midst.
It’s no accident that fate, such as it is, sent us the conscienceless embodiment of the seven deadly sins to choose as this nation’s leader. And choose we did, for good reasons.
He is a mirror of all our vices, including our moral confusion; and if we are still healthy enough, then, horrified by this dark reflection, we’d take its lesson seriously and learn from it, changing our complacent ways, and fast, by activating our conscience and putting it to work. We still have it, even though it’s laid dormant in many. This is a perfect time to awaken it, once and for all.
Updated on 1/19/17.