The text below is a rejected op-ed submission to The Washington Post from October 17, 2016 — one of several on the subject which met the same fate that year. After Trump’s election, The WaPo put “Democracy dies in darkness” as its slogan in the masthead.
PATHOLOGICAL NARCISSISM AND SOCIOPATHY IN POLITICAL LEADERS ARE MORE PERVASIVE THAN YOU THINK
by Frederick Burkle
Millions of Americans plan on voting a narcissist into the White House next month, and large numbers of narcissists of every ilk seek political power and cutthroat business dealings in the world and in our own society today. Historically, narcissists in power are always a grievous problem — so how did we get into this current dilemma? What made us more vulnerable today and what are the risks we face when one governs?
The end of the Cold War brought with it many protracted internal conflicts and wars that have lasted for decades and whose persistent volatility lies at the heart of both chronic nation-state and regional instability. Responsibility for these chronically failed states has been attributed to multiple unresolved political root causes within troubled countries. With previous governance and parties to power no longer trusted or acceptable, the vacuum of leadership in many cases has been filled with “bad leadership”. In a number of cases, opportunistic leaders, suffering from character (personality) disorders of severe narcissism and various degrees of antisocial behavior, have emerged first as saviors, then as despots; or as common criminals claiming to be patriots, sharing a psychological framework that differs little from those responsible for WWII and the Cold War that followed.
Character disorders are not mental illness nor are they treatable by traditional medical, psychiatric or psychological means. The identifying characteristics of this unique and poorly understood subset of the population (about 4%) are levels of narcissism that can reach pathological proportions, manifested in grandiosity, lies, fabrications, and unstoppable need for admiration that is characteristic of a petulant child, now grown up physically but not emotionally.
The narcissism varies over a wide spectrum of behaviors. While we may encounter people every day with lesser degrees of narcissism-driven behaviors that are nothing more than annoying, those who evidence more severe and pathological degrees of narcissistic attitudes and actions cause major problems for every society, especially if they are challenged or shamed. All have difficulties in personal relationships. While they are appreciated by many as being ‘smart’, they are not ‘bright’. Their concrete black or white view of the world and their place in it belies a lack of reflection, abstract reasoning, sound judgment, intuition, and sincerity in their thinking and decisions that may be tolerated in a spoiled child, but remains fixed no matter what age they are. Their constant and insatiable need for power, total lack of empathy, entitlement and inability to handle any criticism leave them easily shamed, which often leads rapidly to excessive rage and contempt. These individuals are driven by impulsive and callous aggression and boldness to seek the ultimate opportunity to control, dictate and live out their fantasies of power on the world scene.
Their presence in the world as heads of state has remained unabated in the 21st Century with many at the helm of current conflicts and dictatorships. Vladimir Putin’s history of contemptuous behavior toward both national political rivals and international leaders is one worrisome example. During the Cold War years, as head of the KGB in East Germany, he investigated Angela Merkel revealing her fear of dogs. In their first meeting years later, when he was Russia’s President and her Germany’s Chancellor, he purposely brought large dogs to the meeting to intimidate her. His pattern of assassinations of his political rivals is legendary, the last being completed symbolically on the steps of the Kremlin. Kim Jong-un is another disturbing example as he has in his possession nuclear weapons which he could easily deploy in a rage, feeling justified by the most insensible of provocations. These pathological leaders are never amenable to conventional diplomatic interventions, negotiations, mediations or international sanctions as evidenced by Serbia’s Milosevic’s invasion of Kosovo after being charmed by Western leaders for signing the Dayton Accords.
The list of narcissists in power, living and dead, is long; the destruction they cause fills countless history books.
We are at the cusp of our first chance at global governance wished for by the emerging millennial generation who see themselves more a global citizens and less as nationalists. By not strongly speaking out with every violation and taking every opportunity to educate through the world stage of communication available to us today, we seriously risk being seduced into losing much of our democracy, freedoms we cherish and an opportunity for global governance that makes sense and addresses humanity’s urgent needs.
Professor Burkle is a Senior Fellow & Scientist at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Senior International Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC and author of “Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century,” Disaster Medicine & Public Health Preparedness, 2016.