An Authoritarian or a Madman?

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By Elizabeth Mika and Frederick Burkle

Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s WaPo opinion piece from Nov. 30,  No, Trump is not a madman — because he knows exactly what he’s doing, posits that Trump’s not a madman but an authoritarian. She says that the historical framework of authoritarianism, rather than psychology and psychopathology, is best used to explicate the Trump/ism phenomenon.

We would like to add that this framework, although useful and necessary, is incomplete without understanding the psychology and psychopathology of the strongmen, their followers, and societies that enable their rise. Even though the question of strongmen/tyrants’ “madness” keeps coming up with cyclical regularity in discussions about tyrants past and present, it has never received a satisfactory response. It also has never been fully applied to an American leader until now (for good reasons).

One of us, Dr. Burkle, is a psychiatrist by training (among other specialties) and has a long and distinguished record of working the world over for humanitarian and peace causes, which involved diplomatic dealings with various strongmen in power, including Saddam Hussein. He has studied the psychology of strongmen and written a seminal paper about it, noting the increase in their numbers since the Cold War, which, not surprisingly, corresponds to the spread of fascistic ideologies all over the world today. The co-author, raised under an oppressive political system in Eastern Europe and trained as a clinical psychologist, has authored a chapter on Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism in the recently published NYT bestseller, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.”

We maintain that the knowledge of psychology, and specifically psychopathology of the autocrats/tyrants and their followers, is crucial to grasping the rise, development, and inevitable fall of tyrants and the socio-political movements they inspire and lead. This knowledge is also necessary to create the shared understanding of conditions that give rise to fascism and other oppressive political movements, as they are all built on the same fundamental individual and collective psychopathology, fueled by specific socio-political factors. Such understanding, we hope, will help prevent development of these movements in our future and make the world a safer, better place.

Studying biographies of strongmen/tyrants shows that they all share the same essential character structure, or more accurately a character defect (disorder): a severely impaired conscience — which makes them unable to experience pro-social emotions like empathy, guilt and shame, and understand higher human values — combined with an insatiable drive for power and adulation. A clinical name for this specific character structure, which is not mental illness, is narcissistic psychopathy, also known in its extreme form as malignant narcissism (which is comprised of paranoia, sadism and Machiavellianism, in addition to narcissism and psychopathy). Neither term is included as a diagnostic category in DSM, and there are some mental health experts who don’t believe that narcissistic psychopathy or malignant narcissism constitute pathological conditions. Some see them as just garden-variety “badness.”

Nevertheless, it is a specific character disorder with well described symptomatology and prognosis, which allow us to recognize it and predict its progression inevitably leading to dire outcomes for the afflicted individual’s behaviors, those around him and the society at large. In fact, understanding the psychology or rather psychopathology of the strongman/tyrant-wannabe and that of his supporters has allowed us to correctly predict Trump’s presidential win, along with the subsequent general political developments, in early 2016.

Strongmen differ in their individual personality characteristics, but they share essential easily recognizable core features, specifically the aforementioned deficits of conscience and an abiding and insatiable desire for power and adulation.

Not all strongmen turn tyrants; those who do exhibit unusually high levels of narcissism of the malignant type characterized by sadism and paranoia. Once the strongman/tyrant-wannabe achieves the ultimate position of power, these malignant characteristics intensify, leading to what we call psychological decompensation. His grandiose expectations balloon, along with his sense of aggrieved entitlement and rage when they are frustrated, which happens sooner or later. The rage fuels his paranoid distrust of others and the compulsive (sadistic) need to hurt them.  With time and progressing decompensation, no one is immune to the tyrant’s escalating rage. This is when his pathology becomes most apparent, although his sycophants and enablers are the last ones to notice it (or at least to admit it), invested as they are in placating him and protecting their privileged positions or even lives.

Bereft of a conscience and driven by the insatiable need to dominate others and avenge their non-ending humiliations, real and imagined, strongmen/tyrants are compulsively and sadistically vindictive. This assures that whenever they achieve ultimate power, a destruction of democratic institutions will follow, leading to chaos, disorder, oppression and eventually bloody conflicts.  It’s not a matter of if it happens, but how soon.

We have delineated the specifics of the narcissistic psychopath’s psychological functioning elsewhere. Dr. Burkle’s seminal 2016 paper on Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century talks about political leaders with this character pathology and notes the increase in their numbers since the Cold War. Not coincidentally, this increase corresponds to the current rise in fascistic movements world over.

Prof. Ben-Ghiat goes on to describe the main features of the authoritarian strongman’s pathology — his disruptiveness, shape-shifting, a proclivity toward violence, and disregard for norms and values– which in the right socio-political context, that of widespread inequality and growing social unrest, as well as shared narcissistic woundedness that stems from frustrated expectations of collective and individual greatness, become his assets.

The strongman/tyrant-wannabe’s withdrawal from our shared reality into his own version of it, suffused with a grandiose sense of entitlement and eternal victimhood, and seasoned with dreams of redemptive glory and punishment for his manufactured enemies, appeals to the segment of the population that feels similarly aggrieved and looking for scapegoats onto which they can unload their misery. The tyrant-in-the-making would not amount to much if it weren’t for his supporters who see in him the embodiment of their own hopes for the settling of scores, avenging their humiliations and restoring their personal power.

This is the case where narcissistic pathology of an individual colludes with the needs of his similarly afflicted supporters. This process of narcissistic collusion is what fuels the growth of anti-democratic parties as well as cults and other destructive social movements. Such movements eventually fall, as do their leaders, crippled by their own pathology, specifically by unchecked grandiosity and paranoia that drive them to commit acts of political suicide and /or destruction evoking pushback and rebellion.

Ben-Ghiat is right that the behavior of strongmen in general is methodical in that it is designed to achieve a specific goal: maximize power and adulation, and minimize resistance and personal humiliations. It is not quite rational, however, as the needs for power and adulation driving it are insatiable and because of that ultimately lead to destruction of others and usually himself as well. His behaviors, even though purposeful and effective in helping him achieve his goals, something that renders the label of “madness” questionable in many observers’ eyes, are not normal, and certainly not healthy. While such adjectives like mad and crazy, strictly indicating a psychotic break with reality driven by delusions and hallucinations, may not necessarily apply to the strongman’s functioning, certainly not at all times, his incurable character defect makes him not only mentally unhealthy but also dangerous.

Where “madness” is concerned, it is crucial to note that one can be abnormal without being mentally ill. Not having a conscience – a main feature of psychopathy — is not an illness but a defect, still an abnormality, just like not having a limb would be considered an abnormality but not an illness. Psychopaths are not “mad” in the colloquial (or even clinical) sense of the word — their reality testing is intact and they are capable of effective, goal-oriented functioning in the world. Being free of scruples and treating other people as objects to exploit turns out to be an asset in the world that champions greed and the pursuit of power. There is logic, consistency, and predictability in their actions, and they can be seen as reasonable from the point of view of realization of their personal objectives and an effective adjustment to — and/or exploitation of — a society where primitive goals rule.

It is important to remember, as difficult as it may be to accept, that the problematic behavior of a narcissistic psychopath in a position of ultimate power will not change for the better, but will most certainly grow worse with time. We know that he will be destructive. We know that he will sow chaos, legitimize and incite violence, and quite likely start wars. We know that with the help of his always eager sycophants and supporters, he will dismantle anything that stands in his way to power, and that includes institutions, norms and values that support human civilization. Eventually this destruction will also reach many, if not most of his supporters, especially if they fail to provide him with the adulation and obedience he craves.

The debate about mental un/health of the current occupant of the White House as well as strongmen/tyrants in general is a good opportunity for educating our society about still poorly recognized dangers of conscience-impairing character defects like narcissistic psychopathy and malignant narcissism. If there is one lesson that we should be able to learn already, based on our historical and psychological knowledge, it is that of the necessity of keeping individuals with these defective characters away from power. That is because once they achieve a position of ultimate power, there isn’t much that can be done to prevent the predictable destruction they unleash on society.

Elizabeth Mika is an educational consultant and therapist in private practice in the Chicago area. Frederick Burkle is a psychiatrist with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.


7 thoughts on “An Authoritarian or a Madman?

  1. Authoritarian or madman? Trump is obviously both. There comes a time in every collective when it needs destroying, having reached an unbearable level of depravity, corruption, injustice and violence. Enter the psychopath leader, whether “elected” (Hitler/Trump) or carried to power via military take-over (Pinochet/Napoleon/Caesar/Franco). Sometimes the collapse takes time, as in the case of Rome which did not face any organized threat for a long time, and sometimes it is very short as in the Reign of the Third Reich. Trump the psychopath strongman is galvanizing world force against the US with incredible rapidity. Fearing being deposed, not trusting is power base, he wants to place the US in a military condition which he hopes he can use to make himself dictator. He’s tested the waters, his opponents on the home turf are still disorganized, he knows, if the MIC will “use” him, he can launch a war and make himself dictator and there is no one except his own power base, to stop him. That’s the next move. There’s no doubt he wants it to happen and probably so does the CIA, but how committed are the Pentagon/NATO and private military/security services willing to play that card globally? I think they know how badly they’ve fared for so long in real ground wars and have no illusion that in a global confrontation they are totally outmatched. So, stay with “what works” now, getting all that free public money and keep on doing the dirty work of the corporate world by killing unarmed locals, or take that fatal plunge that can only end in ultimate and complete defeat? If it is “fated” the US empire be imploded, global war will proceed apace while the White Whore War House President Poltroon screams invectives at his “inept” generals from his underground bunker.

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  2. Nice. The most difficult task, however, is getting people to see the pathology rather than the ideology. And that includes all those in the Democratic party who haven’t figured it out yet and oppose Trump on ideological, emotional or moral grounds, as well as those in the Republican party who realise that something’s ‘wrong’ but haven’t yet been able to put a finger on it (spoiler alert: if you’re Republican you’re going to walk away from your own party in disgust as the Party gets increasingly pathological. The more decent people whot leave the quicker the Republican Party will become pathological and the more attractive it will then become to other pathological people – see ‘Political Ponerology’).

    Next thing: all those hundreds of thousands of psychiatrists and psychologists who won’t say boo to a goose don’t seem to realise that if / when America becomes totalitarian they’re going to be the first ones to be ‘re-educated’ / ‘disappeared’ since they’re the ones who can point out the pathology of the people in power – which is why the Soviets kept such a tight grip on psychiatry.

    QUOTE regarding the importance of seeing the pathology, not the ideology. Opposing the ideology or reacting in emotional or moral terms to the pathocrat / pathocracy is completely the wrong course of action and actually HELPS the pathocrats:

    ‘Many people suffer an inevitable shock and react with opposition, protest, and disintegration of their human personality when informed of such a state of affairs, namely that they have been under the spellbinding and traumatizing influence of a macrosocial pathological phenomenon, regardless of whether they were followers or opponents thereof. Many people are awakened to anxious protest by the fact that the ideology they either condemned or somehow accepted, but considered a guiding factor, is now being treated as something secondary in importance.

    The noisiest protests will come from those who consider themselves fair because they condemned this macrosocial phenomenon with literary talent and raised voices, utilizing the name derived from its most current ideology, as well as making excessive use of moralizing interpretations with regard to pathological phenomena. Forcing them to an apperception of a correct understanding of the pathocracy will be quite a Sisyphean labor, since they would have to become conscious of the fact that their efforts largely served goals which were the opposite of their intentions. Especially if they engaged in such activities professionally, it is more practical to avoid liberating their aggressions; one could even consider such generally elderly people too old for therapy.’
    ‘Political Ponerology’

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  3. Forgot to add that it’s not just the poor and excluded who are the ‘problem’ in that they voted for Trump – it’s the so-called ‘liberal elite’ as well. Hysterisation (group emotionalism, egotism and twisted thinking from refusing to listen to the voice of conscience or look at their own shadow side) starts with the privileged and works its way down over many generations to the whole of society (Lobaczewski, ‘Political Ponerology’). The privileged are MORE of a problem than the dispossessed because they have to look at themselves – and change. I don’t see that happenning ….

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