“I was going to hit one guy in particular, a very little guy. I was going to hit this guy so hard his head would spin, he wouldn’t know what the hell happened.”
Candidate Trump at a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, July 2016
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.”
President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, Washington D.C., February, 2017
“States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters.”
Plato, The Republic, Greece, ca. 380 BC
“Character is destiny.”
Heraclitus, Greece, ca. 450 BC
Tyrants. Can’t live with them.
Can’t even see them coming — and that’s as they announce themselves loudly, clearly, and repeatedly.
Raised on dystopian fiction, steeped in virtual reality overrun with aliens and shenanigans in galaxies far, far away, and preoccupied with power games of imaginary empires, we do not notice our homegrown tyrant’s climb to power until he signs a gaggle of executive orders undoing what we believed were our inalienable rights.
We have come to expect our tyrants to be clad in long capes and black helmets, breathing heavily in and out as they issue death orders — and if they must be more realistic, then at least they should have mustaches — so having one who looks like everyone’s obnoxious rumpled uncle, wearing ill-fitting suits and breathing heavily only on the intake, throws us off.
He is so familiar — has been part of our collective TV-shaped consciousness for decades — and we are so used to making fun of him that we are shocked to discover that all this time when we ridiculed him, he plotted his payback and waited for the right moment to unleash it, on a scale commensurate with the gargantuan size of his rampaging id. Derided as a clueless child or insane clown (he is none of those), like a school-shooting loner whose character defect he shares, he too has come to claim what he believes is his due: revenge and glory.
Some are dismayed to discover how brute and unceremonious he is — why, we’d never! It almost feels like a personal insult. Don’t we deserve a tyrant who’d fit our narcissistic ideas of ourselves? Surely we could manage one better dressed and quoting Nietzsche or at least Bukowski. He is so anti-climactic, so out of line with our post-modernist expectations that many still cannot decide whether he is a greater affront to our aesthetics or to our democracy — to the extent they can tell a difference between the two. For autocracy’s sakes, he could at least pop a few tic-tacs before grabbing our Constitution by its articles.
Others still can’t see him for who and what he is, and persist in half-denial, half-stupefaction, creating endless theories of “How could it happen?” and almost coming to understand how he operates — but then always taking a step back, because the truth, even staring them in their faces, continues to be unacceptable. They bemoan that “there is no blueprint” for what’s happening, as if wholly unfamiliar with the tragedy of human history marked by these very same processes time and again.
Many are the same people who did not take him seriously nor literally (and it should have been both) — and some persist in that approach.
Acting from the framework of perpetual irony, if not cynicism, they have come to expect that everyone lies, in politics especially, so they have assumed — against all available evidence — that his authoritarian posturings were just a ploy to win the election, but nothing more sinister. A “bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused,” as the NYT wrote of a similar leader in 1922 Germany. Once in office, he’d pivot, you know — mellow under the responsibility that will dawn on him and no doubt grow that missing conscience.
As David Frum writes in How to Build an Autocracy,
If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.
A few, however, do see him clearly, and some members of that group surprise.
One of many profound ironies of our rapidly developing kleptofascist unreality is the sudden emergence of what appears to be a good judgment — and maybe even a semblance of conscience? — in people who eagerly served another leader with a very similar, albeit less pronounced, character defect.
Former members of the Bush cabal are issuing warnings about Trump’s presidency, some of them remarkably prescient, making one wonder why, if they can see evil so clearly, they readily cooperated with it just a few years ago? What, if anything, is responsible for this appearance of their moral discernment now, while not that long ago they themselves constructed, aided and abetted a pathological regime that destabilized the world and created ongoing human suffering?
Surely if they have retained some semblance of a conscience, they must understand that Trump’s developing tyranny is just a continuation, by slightly different means, of their own grandiose Project for the New American Century, and likely its closing chapter. Bush’s reign, followed by Obama’s mightily imperfect attempts at stanching the flow of the misery it produced, was a prelude to Trump’s full-on destruction already in progress.
If these sudden prophets do possess a conscience, we would see some expressions of guilt and shame, and attempts to take responsibility for their part in creating this disaster. But so far there are none. This makes their motives suspicious and renders their warnings about Trump, correct as they are, unintentionally ironic at best.
It also makes them tainted and easy to dismiss by Trump/ists, who are only too eager to point out the political and moral failures of previous administrations. Unfortunately, they do have a point: war-mongers and murderers by proxy (and not) do not have a moral standing to criticize the new autocrats who follow them into power.
These peculiar — tragically absurd, really — twists of our political and not only fate vividly illustrate one of the eternal human problems brought to the forefront of our awareness today: that of the dangerous malleability of our conscience crippled by narcissistic blindness and uniquely vulnerable to corruptibility by power. This is an issue central to the establishment of tyranny, which is spurred on by a specific character of one person, but forms only through eager (and not) cooperation of others.
Once we understand the tyrant’s character, which at its core is universally recognizable regardless of a historical era and socio-cultural differences, we can see how tyranny forms, grows, and eventually falls, as it always does. That’s because the oppressive socio-political regime is mostly the tyrant’s psychopathology writ large, augmented by narcissistic collusion with similarly defective individuals in power around him, and infecting the whole society and the world.
As tyrants go, so do tyrannies
In her paper, Why Tyrants Go Too Far: Malignant Narcissism and Absolute Power, late Betty Glad used Aristotle’s definition of a tyrant as
one who (1) rules without law, (2) looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and (3) uses extreme and cruel tactics — against his own people as well as others.
Lacking concern for elementary considerations of justice, he needlessly creates enemies and sets himself on a path that leads to increasingly chaotic behavior on his part. In short, the tyrant is one who seeks and exercises powers for his own rather than the general interest, does it outside the law, and creates a political order based on extreme cruelties and distrust.
Glad’s otherwise excellent article, in which she discusses the tyrants’ psychopathology using detailed examples of Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, has two minor weaknesses.
One is her view of the decompensation and de-evolution of The Tyrant’s character as “paradoxical,” while even her own analysis shows that there is nothing paradoxical about it, as it flows logically and consistently from The Tyrant’s pathology and its predictable consequences on his psyche, his relationships with others, and the world at large. The other are her suggestions on dealing with tyrants, which we’ll get back to later.
All tyrants, past and present, suffer from the same essential character defect — a severely impaired or missing conscience, combined with an insatiable drive for power and adulation. There is a name for it: narcissistic psychopathy or malignant narcissism (used interchangeably here). You will not find it in DSM, and, in fact, there are mental health professionals who do not see it as pathological.
It is not mental illness — although some forms of mental illness, most frequently paranoia, are typically associated with it, particularly as The Tyrant grows in power. Paranoid tendencies are a built-in feature of narcissistic psychopathy, due predominantly to the faulty reality testing and sadistic projections which are central components of this character defect.
The progress of tyranny generally mirrors the progress — or de-evolution, to be accurate — of The Tyrant’s personal pathology. It is a largely predictable process, with individual variations that do not invalidate its universal and repetitive pattern.
Not understanding his character defect and its effects on others, even experts under- and overestimate the tyrant-in-the-making, and not a few remain in complete denial about his emergence, despite the sound of his and his sycophants’ marching boots, literal and/or symbolic, reverberating throughout the land.
The underestimators may characterize him as a cheap huckster, for instance, not seeing the malevolence lurking behind the buffoonish, over-the-top facade.
The overestimators see signs of political astuteness in his primitivism, mistaking the eruptions of his id for rational and calculated maneuvers. They try to divine what they suspect are cunning grand designs for the world hegemony from ongoing expressions of his personal vindictiveness.
It is helpful to understand his pathology to know that The Tyrant almost never has well-thought-out world (or any) designs, even though in his grandiosity he likely nurtures hopes for such in his black-and-white, inflexible mind. A one-dimensional being with no ability for abstract thought and rational planning is incapable of playing three-dimensional chess. Might is right, here and now is more his style.
Yes, he has an overarching vision of the world, which reflects his pathology: it is a dark, brutal realm populated by winners and losers, with a special place reserved by gods / destiny for him, soon-to-be The Grandest Winner of all, with all the perks that come with this superior position to which he feels naturally entitled.
In that world, pathological ends justify any and all means. As Trump’s surrogate Michael Flynn boasted,
we will do whatever it takes to win… If you are victorious, the people will judge whatever means you used to have been appropriate.
One is reminded of Niccolo Lucci’s  observation that
The problem is not how to get rid of the enemy, but rather how to get rid of the last victor. For what is a victor but one who has learned that violence works? Who will teach him a lesson?
Unable to understand and predict other people’s motives and actions beyond the most primitive, based on violence, fear, greed, or lust, The Tyrant continually fumbles and overreaches. It cannot be otherwise. Conscience-free individuals drunk on fantasies of their own grandeur and power do not reason clearly, if at all.
His primitivism, however, seen too often as “charisma,”manages to inspire a large enough following of conscience-deficient individuals to propel him, legally and not, to the position of ultimate power and help him stay there for a while.
If he possesses some capacity for abstract reasoning and planning, it is distorted by his irrepressible need for adulation and immediate gratification of his primitive power drive, along with his sadism manifesting in an impulse — not to be thwarted under any circumstances — to punish his critics and opponents.
When he engages in any long(er)-term planning, it is usually with the help of his sycophants, who are ego-like extensions of his id augmenting its wishes, and whom he will discard in a blink of an eye when they stop fulfilling that function. They always serve at his pleasure and they better do what he says or else.
So even though The Tyrant indulges feverish and intensifying dreams of glory, we rarely can discern a rational grand design to speak of within his rule. Instead, we find bumbling, vitriolic, step-by-step, trial-and-error (and more error, as learning is impaired and not desired anyway) plodding based on the whims of The Tyrant’s id, fueled by narcissistic rage. It is the audacity of dope.
His sycophants, who are often more rational and in touch with reality, but usually as conscience-deficient as he is, may have some long-term designs of their own and try to put them into action through their influence on him. But that influence is more limited, time-wise, than they realize, because as the tyrant grows more paranoid — and he always does — he will dispose of them as he does of his adversaries and enemies. He is a destroyer-in-chief, after all.
In the beginning of his rule, however, The Tyrant, high on his victory, is usually positively predisposed for a while and rational enough to try to placate The People by giving them a little of what they want, while consolidating his personal power and already secretly enriching himself and his cabal through behind-the-scenes deals and machinations. Should any of them come to light and become a cause for potential public outrage, he’ll divert The People’s attention with some form of circuses which may involve a war or two.
Wars and ongoing conflicts, international and domestic, are inevitable anyway, because of The Tyrant’s tendency to induce chaos and discord wherever he goes. Nothing satisfies his sadism and thirst for power like killing and mass destruction. And, as Aristotle wrote, “the tyrant is inclined constantly to foment wars in order to preserve his own monopoly of power.” He “is also fond of making war in order that his subjects may have something to do and be always in want of a leader.”
The Tyrant has no difficulty spilling other people’s blood, even as he assures The People to the contrary and may put on performances of sorrow over fallen soldiers. Remember, for a narcissistic psychopath other people are merely objects of wish- and need-fulfillment.
His violence is all the more acceptable as it is directed at The Others at first.
The Tyrant, like all narcissists and many psychopaths, including most of his followers, suffers from an inner split into grandiose and devalued parts of self. Consequently, he divides the world and people, via projection, into black and white, the good me/us and the evil not-me/them categories. (The good ones are those who fulfill his needs for power and adulation through submission and flattery.)
This process allows for scapegoating, which is the unloading of projections of the repressed, negative, devalued parts of his psyche — all of his unglorious vices — on The Others and therefore justifying the inevitable mistreatment and violence against them.
Part of The Tyrant’s appeal to The People is that open willingness of his to scapegoat The Others. It gives The People a permission to do the same, allowing them to purge their pain and sense of misery, narcissistic and not, through the hate directed at The Others. The bloodbath — or a so-called victory — that typically ensues as a result of scapegoating restores a belief in The People’s, as well as The Tyrant’s, might and superiority, which is necessary for the narcissists’ and psychopaths’ sense of well-being and group cohesion. (Team sports serve a similar function in less bloody ways.)
As The Tyrant’s rule progresses and his paranoia grows, the circle of the devalued Others widens in his mind and encompasses his, soon to be former, associates and even family members. He won’t think twice, or at all, before sending them to a gulag or the gallows when they displease him.
It is crucial to remember something seemingly obvious but consistently forgotten — that no tyrant ever runs and comes to power on the platform of genocidal tyranny. Each and every one of them gathers the support of The People by promising them a better life, along with restoration of law and order, old-fashioned values, and healing of their wounded national and personal pride. The latter is a key element in forming the narcissistic collusion between him and The People.
The Tyrant, bereft of conscience and poorly cognizant of objective reality, has no desire or ability to make good on those promises, and particularly those that may sound as though rooted in higher values; but, true to his character defect, he always tells others what they want to hear without any regard for truth. And to his most ardent followers, it does not matter since
His irresistible pull lies not in any specific policies he may be promising (and being blissfully unacquainted with reality, he is always short and/or vague on those), but in the feelings his words engender in his followers, specifically a narcissistic identification with the strongman, which compensates for his followers’ inadequacies; and narcissistic rage, which the strongman embodies and already unleashes on the nation through inciting chaos and violence. The only promises that matter are those which bring in a possibility of revenge for the real and imagined hurts of his followers.
If he possesses some remnants of a conscience and superego, The Tyrant may even believe in a good-sounding ideology rooted in what may appear as higher values. If that’s the case — and even when not — his speeches will be peppered with references to such values (peace, equality, progress, love, care for the forgotten people); but examining his behavior and life quickly shows that his personal understanding, respect for, and adherence to such values is non-existent. For instance, his repeated invocations, with a distinctly fake concern, of his care for the forgotten people ring hollow when we witness how quickly and easily he forgets his own wife when rushing to the limelight and his throne.
The signs of truth, along with portents of things to come are always firmly there, visible in The Tyrant’s actions and life story — we just need to pay attention to them.
Radovan Karadzic’s narcissistic psychopathy with its blood-thirsty strivings was chillingly clear in his award-winning poetry, for example, and confirmed early in his behavior. It should have been obvious that this poet and psychiatrist (yes) was not a person to place in any position of power. But he told The People ready for a “change” what they wanted to hear, and, by electing this “one of the most prominent sons of our Lord Jesus Christ working for peace” as the Greek Orthodox Church declared Karadzic in 1994, they got what they wanted — and more.
It is worth noting the Western journalists’ disappointment upon discovering how untyrannical, according to their imaginations, Karadzic was when they met him for an interview titled, instructively, He Didn’t Seem Like a Psychopath. One hopes that this would be a lesson, so urgently necessary, that The Tyrant’s pathology does not necessarily manifest in his appearance and face-to-face demeanor, but in his deeds and speech (which is a deed as well), reflecting the blackness of his soul. And manifest it does — always, without exception, which makes it tragic that we continue to elect such leaders, and then remain unaware of what they have in store for us, despite ample warning signs.
Whether it’s The Slav Guest, Mein Kampf, or The Art of the Deal, The Tyrant’s-to-be pathology is on full display in his words and actions, present and past; but we either do not see it or don’t want to see it, ignoring, minimizing or excusing its obvious existence.
With tyranny in progress, every political development is a function of The Tyrant’s disordered ego, or more accurately, his id — which is driven predominantly by Thanatos (death instinct) and not Eros, as some claim — and as such it serves his personal pathological needs.
While The Tyrant is blissfully free of the constraints of our common reality with its pesky facts and values, his own reality — which is the only one there is — is based on three major principles:
1. I am great.
2. People unfairly malign me.
3. I will show them (they will pay).
Those are not just beliefs — they are facts etched deep in his psyche, and they evoke corresponding emotional states of 1. grandiose pride, 2. sense of victimhood and resentment, 3. desire for revenge, all of which form the core of his sense of self and motivate his actions.
Each political decision of The Tyrant — every single one — stems from or is heavily colored by these “facts” and the emotional states they activate in him.
We can trace grandiose pride, a sense of victimhood, and sadistic desire for revenge in all of his pronouncements and interactions with others. This makes him quite transparent, predictable, and easy to manipulate — to a point. Because of course he won’t stop before annihilating his opponents when he discovers they’ve tried to game him — or when he merely imagines so, something his paranoid tendencies make frighteningly easy.
After The Tyrant achieves ultimate power, his grandiosity is no longer constrained by the need to pretend to be more benevolent than he is in order to bring The People to his side. His win provides the validation of his specialness that he very much expected. With this boost to his already overblown sense of self-worth, he is confirmed in his belief that there are no limits to his power and glory.
This frees him to become more openly violent, as primitive aggression is his modus operandi, and his rule becomes more destructive. That in turn fuels his sense of power, and his grandiosity soars too.
The People are treated to ever-more-bizarre displays of his glory: parades and pageants extolling his awesomeness, grand palaces and other structures built in his name, demands of worship that may include having his portraits displayed in every household, reciting poetry glorifying his greatness, creating national holidays in his name, and so on.
The bombast serves two main purposes: self-glorification and deflection of The People’s attention from the mayhem and disorder he sows in the world, as well as his own growing corruption and instability.
But like a balloon that will eventually burst when overinflated, his expanding grandiosity and the sense of invincibility it creates usually (not always) lead to a collapse. No tyrant seems to remember that “Pride goes before the fall,” nor does he want to hear it or anything else that might pierce the bubble of his grandiosity.
Never keen on facts and objective information, with time The Tyrant becomes even more withdrawn from reality. His “knowledge” and inspiration that inform his decisions increasingly come from his own fantasies, isolating him even more from his formerly close associates, confidantes, and family members who do not share his pathology (and there often are some remaining), and thus from opportunities for a corrective, reality-based intervention. The number of those able and willing to risk such an intervention rapidly dwindles with time, however, as no one wants to be demoted, sent away for “re-education,” or killed.
As his reign progresses, his pathology — grandiosity, aggression, paranoia, inner split (fragmentation), and disinhibition — grows. With time, his corruption too will become more apparent and eventually impossible to hide. And it’s usually the corruption rather than any of his inhumane and murderous policies, which are a given but easily overlooked when directed at The Others, that becomes a major factor in his collapse and that of his regime, as it will provoke jealousy and rage of both The People and his rivals eager to replace him.
His downfall is precipitated by increasing paranoia that leads to more fantasy-based, irrational behaviors, many of which turn out to be self-defeating and even openly self-destructive. His grandiosity prevents him from seeing the grave error of his decisions, and looking for ways to protect himself from the inevitable revenge of his enemies and/or that contingent of The People who finally have enough and are able to effectively mobilize against him.
Glad writes that
The particular finale to the tyrant’s story, however, will depend on the political structure in which he operates and the vicissitudes of fortune. If his extreme behavior leads to the creation of opposing alliances, new boundaries may keep his potential for fragmentation in check. But if he has undertaken a path that permits no face-saving exit, he may take a route that risks the structures he has built.
This is where a possibility of a total annihilation of the world as he knows it, sometimes with himself in it, becomes a “reasonable” option in The Tyrant’s mind.
Glad also offers suggestions on dealing with the tyrants (“maintain clear, firm, but non-provocative boundaries;” don’t compromise, because “compromise with him is likely only to whet the appetite;” avoid humiliating confrontations as those would lead to eruptions of destructive aggression), concluding that
Short of keeping such a person from ever coming to power, the creation of countervailing constraints that are both clear and impersonally used may be the best alternative available.
Glad’s suggestions appear to be directed at the diplomatic personnel dealing with foreign tyrants; and, in what is a second minor weakness of her paper, she does not mention — maybe because it would be superfluous — that such interventions did not work with the three tyrants she discusses at length. The conclusion, for the reader, is inescapable: there are no good answers to the question of How do you solve the problem of The Tyrant? Who will teach him a lesson?
In their WaPo essay, Dan Zak and Monica Hesse ask, Shock. Outrage. Resistance. Repeat. Is this the new normal in Trump’s America?
The answer is yes, as this sequence is a mirror of The Tyrant’s personal pathology and its effects on others, and it marks the beginning of his rule and its enforcement.
Repeated shocks to our individual and collective systems are meant to sow fear and confusion, and cow people into submission. Frightened and confused people are easier to govern (= accept The Tyrant as their savior).
The shocks also serve as the means of making the abnormal normalized and acceptable by habituation and inevitable fatigue, a process we are witnessing now and confirmed by historians familiar with tyrannical regimes of the past.
Tyranny, true to the demands of The Tyrant’s insatiable id — freed of the constraints of his ego that provides effective reality testing, as well as those normally imposed by superego with its scruples, and conscience with its empathy and higher values — starts with and depends on squashing dissent and eliminating truth, at least from the public sphere and discourse. The Tyrant himself is not bound by reality and facts; his “truth” is determined by his changing feelings reflective of his id’s desires:
Living in a reality of his own making, a narcissist is unconcerned with truth or objectivity. Honesty and consistency are for mere mortals or losers; he is not bound by them in any way. What is more, he will glibly manage to convince you that he is correct in whatever opinion he is voicing at the moment. Those who live with a narcissist are prone to fall for his reality distortions and may have difficulties after a while telling truth from fiction, even as it pertains to their own perceptions, feelings, and thoughts.
This — attempts to pull the entire nation into The Tyrant’s unreality — is what we are witnessing now.
It is best accomplished by a steady stream by paralogisms and paramoralisms, or what Kellyanne Goebbels calls “alternative facts,” which are as shocking and awe-inducing, though more insidious in their effects, as The Tyrant’s assorted decrees that violate established norms and laws.
The lies, distortions and obfuscations are always accompanied by attempts to shame and guilt the truth-tellers into silence; followed by intimidation, threats, and other means of marginalizing and delegitimizing them; and then elimination — from their positions and/or life when the time comes.
Seasoned tyrants at the peak of their power don’t bother with threats, but go straight for physical elimination of their critics, something our tyrant-in-the-making appears to approve, at least tacitly so far.
Some observers ask whether these shocks are intentional or signs of incompetence perhaps; the answer, strangely and not, is neither — and both. It is like asking whether the destruction caused by an avalanche could be classified as intentional or indicative of incompetence. Just as with avalanches, framing the destruction caused by tyrants in these terms somewhat misses the point.
Tyrants are both incompetent and intentional in the mayhem they inflict because they cannot be anything else. They have no choice. Their pathology makes them inherently destructive and blind, archetypal instruments of fate.
The awe today comes from witnessing the upsurge of humanity revolted by The Tyrant-in-the-making and his pathological rule. This is not your grandfather’s revolution, especially since it is populated and led so heavily by women. However, we have seen this happen in response to tyrants of the past and present in every society. Street protests and demonstrations only go so far, and The Tyrant knows it, no matter how dim he may be.
Unpleasant as it is for him to see, with time he stops being concerned about the “little people” rising against him, because he knows he can squash them through legal and not means. And he will, unless there is a concerted effort of people of conscience using all available peaceful means to prevent it — but even that may not stop him. He has an arsenal behind him, among other things.
It is easier to describe and explain The Tyrant and the general progression of his rule than find effective ways to thwart it. But whatever happens and whatever we do, we have to always remember that this is not normal, no matter how insistently the propaganda masters want to convince us otherwise.
Predictable, yes, and, unfortunately, probably inevitable as well — but not normal. And definitely not healthy; although there are positive aspects to it — side-effects, if you will — one of them the moral and political awakening of humanity on a global scale in response to the threat to its existence.
Those who make claims to the contrary, and who aid and abet the tyranny-in-the-making are either blind or corrupt, maybe both. Time and history will sort them out and put their role in this sorry enterprise in the proper perspective, if that’s any consolation. Meanwhile, we persevere and nevertheless persist remembering that this is not only a test of our democracy, but also of our values — not just American, but human.
 From unpublished diaries of Peace Pilgrim.