“The presence or absence of conscience is perhaps the deepest human division.”
Last week Donald Trump put another nail in the coffin of health care for American citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones; undermined the painstakingly drafted and internationally supported Iran nuclear deal; challenged his Secretary of State to an IQ test; chastised residents of Puerto Rico for their audacity to suffer and die in a hurricane-caused mayhem, and berated football players for their willingness to protest racial injustice. He also proclaimed the next six days, October 15 to 21, National Character Counts Week.
Yes, you have read that correctly.
The man who lies easier than he breathes (there is that perpetual snort, you know), who takes sadistic pleasure in the pain and suffering of others, and who lives for adulation and revenge without any efforts at disguising his destructive motives, lectures America about character.
Let it sink it.
It is apparent that someone in the White House came up with this bizarre proposal to divert our and Trump’s own attention from the chaos and mayhem he sows around him and spreads upon the world; and to erase, in our minds and his, the awareness of it happening.
Also to silence his critics.
In this past several days we have seen a growing chorus of voices openly questioning Trump’s fitness for duty, starting with Senator Corker’s warning about our unstable leader starting WW3 — a very real possibility if Trump remains in office, let’s be extremely clear about it. The subject of Trump’s disordered character has been gaining renewed attention in the media, not in the least thanks to the new book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” which has quickly gone to second printing and made the NYT bestsellers list the second week in a row. (I have written a chapter for it, on “Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism.”)
Trump and his handlers are determined to obscure and deny what we can clearly see every day: that he is profoundly unfit for his job and poses clear danger to our survival, not to mention to what passes for our democracy. The emperor has no conscience and we are not supposed to notice it.
But we do. It is beyond preposterous to watch a man who is a walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins pontificate about the importance of character, even if the idea and its execution came from his handlers, as it is undoubtedly the case. It is beyond absurd, and unbearable, to watch him carry on his destructive conduct as usual, even though we knew what to expect.
We are only at day three of National Character Counts Week as I’m writing this piece, and so far Trump has managed to
- lie about, insult and pick fights with families of killed soldiers;
- lie about and insult former presidents;
- sadistically and publicly humiliate his Chief of Staff by dragging his son’s death into the fray, a subject John Kelly was adamant about avoiding;
- threaten Senator McCain who battles brain cancer with vicious retribution for daring to criticize him; and
- propose plundering Afghanistan’s national resources.
And that’s just the top of this sordid list. We are not observing National Character Counts Week, but National (or at least presidential) Character Disorder Counts Week. One word, a yuge difference.
Jennifer Rubin sums up the ongoing debacle of the last few days by stating that
Trump may in fact be reaching the point at which the 25th Amendment becomes a consideration. In the future, we must never, ever elect someone as intellectually, temperamentally and morally deficient as Trump. He remains a menace to the country.
She is right, of course. But in order to not ever elect someone as deficient as Trump, a mistake human societies make time and again, we must learn to recognize and name this particular deficiency — because it has a name — to better understand the dangers it represents and ways to avoid it.
Narcissistic psychopathy, a.k.a malignant narcissism is a character defect that manifests, mainly, in a severely impaired or absent conscience and an insatiable drive for power, adulation and revenge. Its other essential features are Machiavellianism — a tendency to deceive, manipulate and use people for one’s own gain; and sadism — a desire to inflict pain on others for one’s pleasure.
Narcissistic psychopathy is fixed (inflexible, unchangeable), permanent (won’t go away with time) and incurable. It is also inherently destructive.
This means that individuals affected with it, especially when in power, cannot be counted on doing the right and decent thing — on the contrary: they prove time and again that they live for destruction as it gives them a sense of power and pleasure.
Narcissistic psychopaths clamor for power and, if skilled and/or lucky enough, they achieve it. Once in power, they fully exhibit their pathology as they are no longer inhibited by the need to curb it to secure other people’s approval. We call it decompensation, but it is actually the narcissistic psychopath coming into his own, unleashing the contents of his defective psyche on the world without any constraints.
Not having a conscience means that narcissistic psychopaths are incapable of experiencing empathy, guilt, shame, as well as understanding and respecting higher human values (compassion, truth, justice, equality, freedom).
Their insatiable and thus usually frustrated desire for power and adulation, and a sadistic, irrepressible need for revenge (this is the narcissist part of narcissistic psychopathy) manifest in acts of aggression, verbal and/or physical, or in draconian, punitive political decisions if NPs happen to have such power. Often both.
In practical terms, it means that, for example, our narcissistic psychopath may go to a disaster-stricken area for a photo-op and once there, will toss paper towels to people who have lost everything, hamming it up for the cameras and bragging afterwards about his humanitarian efforts.
Then, when criticized for it, he will contemptuously chastise his critics, call them names, and try to refocus his own and everyone else’s attention on the softness of the paper towels he tossed. Meanwhile, he redoubles his efforts to starve the afflicted of the desperately needed governmental assistance and blames them for their predicament.
This is not just cluelessness, this is sadism, a feature of narcissistic psychopathy. It is also glaring evidence that he cannot be counted on understanding sentient beings and their suffering, and, for that matter, reality as such. His incurable emotional and cognitive deficits make it impossible. He can be counted on, however, to destroy anyone and anything that will interfere with his drive for power and adulation. Ultimately, this will be the world.
Normal people may not understand this pathology. They look for normal explanations, which often assume, incorrectly, that a narcissistic psychopath may change; that “deep down” he suffers from repressed guilt and/or low self-esteem; that he does evil “accidentally” and/or out of fear of something.
There is nothing accidental about the destruction narcissistic psychopaths, especially in power, inflict on the world. Destruction is coded in their character defect. They not only lack empathy and conscience, which makes them incapable of understanding human values, but they are driven to hurt and destroy everyone and everything that stands on their way to power and self-aggrandizement, and/or reminds them of their weaknesses. It is not a question of IF a narcissistic psychopath in power will destroy his world, but how soon.
Narcissistic psychopathy is the most dangerous form of psychopathology known to humankind. It is shared by all tyrants in human history, among other unsavory types. It is not mental illness, although this term is sometimes used to describe it, and there are some forms of mental illness, most notably paranoia, that are often associated with it. Diagnostic nomenclature aside, this character pathology is not a medical issue as there is no medical (or any) cure for it (although some associated symptoms may be medically managed). Narcissistic psychopaths are also not known for seeking help, although normal people who have a misfortune to live or work with them often do. But it is a public health problem since character defective individuals are responsible for most man-made evil in the world. They destroy families, organizations and countries. And we let them, mostly because we don’t understand what is happening and why.
This makes it imperative for us, human beings world over, to educate ourselves about dangers of these character defects and their consequences, and to keep those afflicted from power, since once they achieve it, their destructiveness is exponentially magnified.
The moral injury, for one, that blatant violations of norms and contemptuous disregard for values by a conscience-defective leader cause in people with a more or less functioning conscience is real and damaging. It induces anxiety, confusion, hopelessness, helplessness and defeat, eventually leading to depression, anomie and alienation. And that is by design, however unconscious it may be, as people alienated from their own selves and each other are more easily exploited by toxic leaders.
In his recent article for The Atlantic, Norm Ornstein described Trump’s government as kakistocracy — a governance by the incompetent and unscrupulous fools, the worst of society. A more accurate term, however, is pathocracy — governance by individuals with a seriously defective or missing conscience, specifically psychopaths, narcissists and their ilk. “States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters,” as Plato reminded us in The Republic, ca. 380 BC, describing how democracies turn into tyrannies.
The distinction (kakistocracy vs pathocracy) matters, as this kind of governance and destruction of society it ushers is not a result of some bumbling foolery, but of malignant and predictable actions of character defective individuals. Conscience-based character defects represent a well described though often misunderstood form of psychopathology; and those afflicted with them are drawn to power and influence others, including society at large, in predictable ways. Andrew Lobaczewski’s Political Ponerology is devoted to the problem of pathocracy and the character pathologies behind it. SystemsThinker‘s website has a good summary of Lobaczewski’s work.
Pathocracies — pathological human systems run by conscience-deficient people — establish themselves so easily (yes) mostly because normal people remain either uneducated or in denial, and perhaps both, about the character pathology that gives rise to them.
Usually, pathocracies develop around a charismatic leader with a narcissistically psychopathic (malignantly narcissistic) character disorder. Lobaczewski called such charismatic narcissistic psychopaths “spellbinders.”
Narcissistic psychopaths are both malevolent and incompetent, as people without a conscience are incapable of building and supporting anything that expresses higher and lasting human values, no matter their IQ or expertise. Their intelligence, typically narrow and one-sided, bereft of broad abstract thinking abilities, is subsumed under primitive drives for power and adulation.
Once they achieve ultimate power in society — a process made easier by their lack of scruples, inhibitions, and empathy and respect for others — they start remaking it in their image. They do it through trampling on and dismantling society’s norms and undoing its laws, replacing them with their primitive versions (if at all) meant to satisfy their need for power, money and adulation.
Establishing pathocracy proves to be frighteningly easy when conditions are right, i.e. when the society is weakened by internal strife and facing external threats. It quickly becomes apparent how many so-called normal people are eager to support the narcissistic psychopath’s rule and obey his orders. There is never a shortage of sycophants ready to justify and enact any of his unlawful, inhumane and sadistic orders. Pathocracies are therefore tests of conscience, and what they tend to reveal about human nature does not inspire confidence in it (yet).
Employment of paralogisms — ways of distorting facts and replacing them with their propagandist “alternative” versions; and paramoralisms — perverting values by insisting that evil is good and vice versa, is how pathocrats change relatively normal shared reality of a society into what Robert Jay Lifton calls malignant normality. In the malignant normality of pathocracy up is down, war is peace, vice is virtue, and the conscienceless leader proclaims National Character Count Week to obscure his latest misdeeds. Forty six percent of Republicans believe that attacking North Korea is a good idea, while 46% of all Americans are convinced that the news media make up stories about Trump. Pathocracy normalizes individual and collective disorder and enables its spread.
People without a conscience (psychopaths) are a minority in the human society, about 4 percent, according to Martha Stout; but as their character defect drives them to power they are inordinately represented in leadership positions.
But what does 4 percent really mean to society? As points of reference to problems we hear about more often, consider the following statistics: The prevalence rate for anorexic eating disorders is estimated at 3.43 percent, deemed to be nearly epidemic, and yet this figure is a fraction lower than the rate for antisocial personality. The high-profile disorders classed as schizophrenia occur in about 1 percent of us — a mere quarter of the rate of antisocial personality — and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention say that the rate of colon cancer in the USA, considered “alarmingly high,” is about 40 per 100,000 — one hundred times lower than the rate of antisocial personality. Put more succinctly, there are more sociopaths among us than people who suffer from the much publicized disorder of anorexia, four times as many sociopaths as schizophrenics, and one hundred times as many sociopaths as people diagnosed with a known scourge such as colon cancer. (Stout, 2005, p.8)
Lobaczewski estimated that about 6% of the population becomes part of the pathological ruling class in pathocracy, with another 12% of variously conscience-impaired individuals serving in supportive roles. The rest of the population, people with normally functioning conscience, chafe and suffer under the pathocrats’ rule, which eventually ends as it must. Any human system built on lies and oppression is doomed to fail — people of conscience and human values always prevail, but only after much misery and destruction caused by pathocracies.
Two weeks ago there was a conference at Yale titled How Do Democracies Fall Apart (And Could It Happen Here?). One of the major takeaways from it was a consensus that “democracies don’t fall apart — they’re taken apart” through deliberate decisions of human beings.
Sean Illing writes about it, quoting Nancy Bermeo:
Usually, it’s because the people in power take democratic institutions for granted. They become disconnected from the citizenry. They develop interests separate and apart from the voters. They push policies that benefit themselves and harm the broader population. Do that long enough, Bermeo says, and you’ll cultivate an angry, divided society that pulls apart at the seams.
What Illing and Bermeo describe here is exactly the kind of damage inflicted on society by character defective, conscience-impaired leaders, although there is no indication that character pathologies and their destructive influences on democracy were discussed during the conference.
This is not an unusual omission. For some reason we are unable and maybe unwilling to see how people with conscience-impairing character defects influence our lives, and that’s as there appears to be an increase in the number of these individuals in positions of political power since the Cold War. The corresponding increase in the popularity of fascistic ideologies and parties around the globe is more easily noted in our collective awareness.
We are not very good at spotting those defects in the first place, an ignorance with tragic consequences. Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski warned us, decades ago, that
Our inability to recognize the psychological type of psychopaths causes immense suffering, mass terror, violent oppression, genocide and the decay of civilization.
THE question begging itself time and again is when will we open our eyes?
In February this year, historian Timothy Snyder gave an interview to German English language publication, Suddeutsche Zeitung, that was titled We Have a Year to Defend American Democracy, Perhaps Less. He was correct in his predictions of what would happen to America under Trump, as were those of us who warned about them based on understanding of the psychopathology at work here.
It is incumbent upon our lawmakers to take the warnings of mental health experts and historians seriously.