Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism


The opening of the 11th Olympiad in Berlin, 1936. [source]

The text below was published as “Who Goes Trump? Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism” in “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.”

By Elizabeth Mika

Tyrannies are three-legged beasts. They encroach upon our world in a steady creep more often than overcome it in a violent takeover, which may be one reason why they are not always easy to spot before it is too late to do much about them. Their necessary components, those three wobbly legs, are: the tyrant, his supporters – the people – and the society at large that provides a ripe ground for the collusion between them. Political scientists call it “the toxic triangle” (Hughes 2017).

The force binding all three is narcissism. It animates the beast while, paradoxically and not, eating it alive, bringing its downfall in due time. This force and its influences that knit the beast into such a powerful and destructive entity remain invisible to us for reasons that are clearly hinted at, but somehow continue to evade our individual and collective comprehension. They make sure we don’t recognize the tyranny’s marching boots, which can be heard from miles and months away, until they show up on our doorstep, and that’s despite the fact that this very same process has repeated itself countless times in history.

We have known who tyrants are and how tyrannies form since antiquity: this knowledge has been supported by the ever-growing tragic evidence of the tyrannies’ effects on humanity. Yet, despite making promises to ourselves and each other to “Never forget,” we seem not to remember and not to know, always with devastating consequences. Our forgetting stems partly from miseducation (Giroux 2014) and partly from denial. It gives us clues to the kind of work – psychological, social, political, and economic – that we must do if we are to avoid self-destruction promised by tyrannies today.

Let’s take a look at tyranny’s components and their interactions.

The Tyrant

Tyrants come in different shapes and sizes, and, depending on perspective, various writers stress similarities or differences among them (Newell 2016). This paper will not delve into those classifications, but rather attempt to simplify and maybe even illuminate their most salient common features.

Although dictators and tyrants are terms used interchangeably, it makes sense perhaps to stress that not all dictators are tyrants. Tyrants are dictators gone bad. A leader may start as a seemingly benevolent dictator but turn into a tyrant as his reign progresses, becoming ruthlessly destructive with time, something we have seen repeatedly in history.

All tyrants share several essential features: they are predominantly men with a specific character defect, narcissistic psychopathy (a.k.a malignant narcissism). This defect manifests in a severely impaired or absent conscience and an insatiable drive for power and adulation that masks the conscience deficits. It forms the core of attraction between him and his followers, the essence of what is seen as his “charisma.” In his seminal paper on Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century (2015), Frederick Burkle observes that narcissism augments and intensifies the pathological features of a psychopathic character structure, making those endowed with it especially dangerous, not in the least because of their ability to use manipulative charm and a pretense of human ideals to pursue their distinctly primitive goals. We talk about the chief feature of narcissistic psychopathy, the impairment of conscience, and its destructive consequences, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Narcissist (Mika & Burkle 2016).

Impulsive, sensation-seeking, and incapable of experiencing empathy and guilt, a narcissistic psychopath treats other people as objects of need- and wish-fulfillment. This makes it easy for him to use and abuse them, in his personal relationships and in large scale actions, without compunction. His lack of conscience renders him blind to higher human values, which allows him to disregard them entirely or treat them instrumentally as means to his ends, the same way he treats people.

This dangerous character defect, however, serves him well in the pursuit of power, money, and adulation. Not having inhibitions and scruples imposed by empathy and conscience, he can easily lie, cheat, manipulate, destroy, and kill if he wants to – or, when powerful enough, order others to do it for him.

The characteristics indicative of narcissistic psychopathy are observable already in childhood. Biographies of tyrants (Fromm 1973, Miller 1990, Newell 2016) note the early manifestations of vanity, sensation-seeking, and impulsivity often accompanied by poor self-control, aggression and callousness, manipulativeness, and a strong competitive drive and desire to dominate co-existent with a lack of empathy and conscience. Plato remarked on the “spirited” character of a future tyrant showing the above-mentioned symptoms already in his youth.

Another common, but not universal, biographical finding is a history of childhood abuse and/or trauma. Here, however, accounts vary; for example, while some, like Miller (1990), stress Hitler’s purported severe abuse in the hands of his stepfather, others (Fromm 1973, Newell 2016) note that his childhood was uneventful in this respect. Biographies can be incomplete or tendentious, intentionally and not, and so it is not always possible to verify the truth. It is impossible to rule out narcissistic upbringing involved in raising a future tyrant–creating a narcissistic injury that shapes the child’s life and sets him on a path of “repairing” it through a ruthless and often sadistic pursuit of power and adulation–even when there is no evidence of overt abuse and/or neglect in his biographical data.

While the exact causes of this character defect are a matter of speculation, their possible origins offer intriguing possibilities explaining their clinical manifestations. For example, a narcissistic injury in the first years of a child’s life could possibly impair development of the object constancy capacity. This results in an inability to grasp and adhere to the solidity of facts and, consequently, leading to a disregard for truth and other human values, understanding of which comprises a large part of our conscience. The narcissistic psychopath’s propensity to lie, whether on purpose to achieve a specific result, or seemingly effortlessly invent a universe of “alternative facts” that just happen to affirm his grandiose and guiltless image of himself, could be a result of that impaired object constancy capacity.

His lack of empathy, whether resulting from an inborn cause or narcissistic/authoritarian upbringing, would further (or separately) limit development of his conscience and influence not only the child’s socio-emotional development but also his cognitive capacities, resulting in what Burkle (2016) calls being smart but not bright. Dąbrowski (1996) termed this as one-sided development, where intelligence and certain cognitive skills develop more or less normally but one’s emotional growth remains stunted. The capacity for emotional development is crucial, as this is the only kind of growth possible throughout our whole lifespan: expanding and deepening our conscience, and spurring us to learning and meaningful change.

Whether the developmental arrest typical for this form of pathology is inborn, acquired, or a combination of both nature and nurture, it results in the narrow and inflexible character structure with intelligence subsumed under primitive drives (for power, sex, and adulation).

As Dąbrowski (1986, trans. E. Mika) writes,

“A psychopath is emotionally rigid and narrow. He has strong ambitions and significant talents, but they remain narrow and under the influence of primitive drives. He does not experience inner conflicts, but instead he creates external ones. He is not capable of empathy, and so he strives to gain control over others, or, before he can gain dominance, he submits to the control of others. He is usually deaf and blind to the problems of others, to their development and developmental difficulties. He relentlessly realizes his own goals. A psychopath exists on the level of primary integration and is emotionally stunted.

We can distinguish “small” and “big” psychopaths. We find the big ones among the most notorious world criminals, and among aggressive tyrants and dictators (e.g., Nero, Hitler) who do not hesitate to sacrifice others for their own goals. For a big psychopath, a person and a social group do not have any moral value. To him, rules of justice do not exist. Genocide or concentration camps are not a moral problem for him, but a means to an end.

Small psychopaths are miniatures of the big ones. In general, they submit to big psychopaths in the right circumstances. A small psychopath looks for opportunities to realize his own interests and to satisfy his desire to wreak havoc in society. A psychopath thinks that laws are to be broken and that they do not apply to him. He uses any circumstances to secure his position, money, and fortune, regardless of the consequences for others, without any consideration for ethical norms. Psychopaths do not know how to emotionally compare themselves with others, they cannot emotionally understand others, and they lack an empathic attitude.”

The individual distinctions between “small” and “big” psychopaths, a.k.a tyrants, appear to lie predominantly in the level of their narcissism, observed by Burkle (2015), but also in the presence of some socially approved skills, an ability to modulate and/or mask their aggressive impulses and deeds, as well as life opportunities and luck. A narcissistic psychopath without sufficiently developed self-control and advantageous life opportunities may turn into a mass killer whose crimes will land him in prison before his grandiose dreams of power and domination come to fruition.

Narcissistic psychopaths-turned-tyrants possess the right combination of manipulativeness, self-control and intelligence to convince others to support them long enough to put their grandiose ideas to work on a large scale. They also appear to possess skills that are seen as charisma, most frequent of which is the ability to deliver public speeches that inspire others to follow them. More often than not, however, this “charisma” is simply their ability to tell others what they want to hear, i.e., lie, to make them go along with whatever scheme they’ve concocted for the moment. Their glibness is something that easily fools normal people who do not understand the kind of pathology that results from a missing conscience.

Once in positions of power, tyrants can fully unleash their sadism under the cloak of perverted ideals which they peddle as a cover for their primitive drives. Instead of turning into common criminals condemned by society, they become oppressors and/or murderers of thousands or millions, with their atrocities always justified in their own minds and those of their supporters. This is why Pol Pot could say without hesitation “(…) you can look at me. Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear” (Mydans 1997), even though he was directly responsible for deaths of millions of his compatriots.

Tyrants identify with other tyrants and find inspiration in their successes, while remaining oblivious to their failures. They recognize and respect power as much as they are jealous of and despise its wielders. The greater and more ruthless the living or historical tyrant, the bigger an inspiration he is for the aspiring ones. Their disdain for morality and law, and their unbridled aggression in pursuit of power appeal to the tyrant in the making and form a template for his behavior, showing him what is possible.

On the eve of invading Poland in 1939, Hitler, after issuing orders to “mercilessly and without pity” annihilate “every man, woman, and child of Polish ethnicity and language,” spoke admiringly of one of such role models:

“Genghis Khan had sent millions of women and children to their deaths, and did so consciously and with a happy heart. History sees in him only the great founder of states.” Then he exhorted his subordinates in Poland to “be hard, spare nothing, act faster, and more brutally than the others” — and they eagerly obliged. (Gellately 2007, 355)

The upcoming tyrants dream of becoming as great and preferably greater than their favorite tyrannical role models; and, if those role models are alive, the tyrant-in-the making can be expected to curry favor of the existing ones while plotting their demise and besting them in the tyrants’ world rankings. But to accomplish this, he must obtain a position of ultimate power within his own nation first.

This brings us to the second leg of the tyrannical beast…

The Tyrant’s Supporters

The process through which the tyrant gains popularity and power usually baffles the outside observers and historians looking at it from the perspective of time, as its main ingredient, narcissism, somehow remains invisible to both its participants and observers.

The tyrant’s narcissism is the main attractor of his followers who project their hopes and dreams onto him. The more grandiose his sense of his own self and his promises to his fans, the greater their attraction and the stronger their support. As Plato wrote in The Republic, “The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness.”

Through the process of identification, the tyrant’s followers absorb his omnipotence and glory and imagine themselves as powerful as he is, the winners in the game of life. This identification heals the followers’ narcissistic wounds, but also tends to shut down their reason and conscience, allowing them to engage in immoral and criminal behaviors with a sense of impunity engendered by this identification. Without the support of his narcissistic followers who see in the tyrant a reflection and vindication of their long-nursed dreams of glory, the tyrant would remain a middling nobody.

The interplay of grandiose hopes and expectations between the tyrant-in-the-making and his supporters that suffuses him with power and helps propel him to position of political authority is an example of narcissistic collusion: a meshing of mutually compatible narcissistic needs. The people see in him their long awaited savior and a father figure, hinting at the narcissistic abuse implicated in the authoritarian upbringing that demands obedience and worship of the all-powerful parental figure. In their faith and unquestioning admiration, he in turn receives a ready line of narcissistic supply, thousands of mirrors reflecting his greatness.

Describing the narcissistic collusion between the tyrant and his supporters, Erich Fromm (1980) stressed the elements of submission to and identification with the strongman:

“The highly narcissistic group is eager to have a leader with whom it can identify itself. The leader is then admired by the group which projects its narcissism onto him. In the very act of submission to the powerful leader, which is in depth an act of symbiosis and identification, the narcissism of the individual is transferred onto the leader. The greater the leader, the greater the follower. Personalities who as individuals are particularly narcissistic are the most qualified to fulfill this function. The narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him. The half-insane leader is often the most successful one until his lack of objective judgment, his rage reaction in consequence to any setback, his need to keep up the image of omnipotence may provoke him to make mistakes which lead to his destruction. But there are always gifted half-psychotics at hand to satisfy the demands of a narcissistic mass.” (Fromm 1980, 87)

Jerrold Post (2015) underscored the authoritarian parenting aspect of that identification when discussing Hitler Youth:

“Especially for the Hitler Youth Movement, which was at the forefront of Hitler’s support, Hitler’s externalizing hate-mongering rhetoric was a comforting and inspiring message, and Hitler provided the strong inspiring father figure that these children could not find within their own families. But, in rebelling against their own families, they submitted uncritically to Hitler’s authoritarian leadership. Importantly, Adolf Hitler’s unleashing of the demons of war was turning the passive humiliation of defeat [in WWI] into the active experience of redemptive action.” (Post 2015, 34)

The narcissistic mixture of elevated expectations, resentments and desire for revenge on specific targets and/or society in general for not meeting those expectations is what sociologist Michael Kimmel (2013) called aggrieved entitlement. Although Kimmel talked specifically about white American men in the 21st century, some form of aggrieved entitlement has been driving tyrants and their supporters, as well as organized and “lone wolf” terrorists, world over since time immemorial.

The tyrant makes many good-sounding but also openly unrealistic, bordering on delusional, promises to his supporters, and usually has no intention or ability to fulfill most of them (if any).  He holds his supporters in contempt, as he does “weaker” human beings in general, and only uses them as props in his domination- and adulation-oriented schemes.

The narcissistic collusion between the tyrant and his supporters is also driven by their need for revenge, for the tyrant is always chosen to perform this psychically restorative function: to avenge the humiliations – narcissistic wounds – of his followers and punish those who inflicted them.

However, as the wounds often date to the supporters’ personal ancient past and more often than not are perceived rather than real, the choice of the object of this vengeful punishment is not based on reality but displacement and projection characteristic of the scapegoating process that becomes an inextricable part of the narcissistic collusion between the tyrant and his followers.

The scapegoating designates the Others as an object upon which the narcissistic revenge will be inflicted. The Others always represent the split-off, devalued and repressed in narcissistic individuals parts of their own psyche which are projected upon them. These projections are shared and augmented through narcissism of small differences (Freud 1991) which allow us to focus on and enlarge insignificant differences between ourselves and the Others in order to solidify our negative projections and justify our contempt and aggression toward them.

The tyrant and his followers typically choose as vessels of their negative projections and aggression members of the society who are not just different but weaker than themselves. The tyrant fuels that aggression in order to solidify his power but also to deflect it from himself, shield his own narcissism, and repair his own narcissistic injuries dating to his childhood days. The figure of the narcissistic parental abuser / tyrant is protected through the scapegoating and the return to authoritarian, order-and-obedience based mode of social functioning promised by the tyrant, as he himself assumes the mantle of father-protector and directs his own and his supporters’ aggression onto the Others who have nothing to do with their real and perceived wounds.

The tyrant’s own narcissism hints at the level of woundedness of his supporters. The greater their narcissistic injury, the more grandiose a leader they require to repair it. While his grandiosity appears grotesque to non-narcissistic people who do not share his agenda, to his followers he represents all their denied and thwarted greatness which now, under his rule, will finally flourish. Hitler’s bizarre dream of the Thousand-Year Reich spread upon the world did not seem at all preposterous and dangerous to so many Germans suffering from the pain, humiliation, and privations inflicted upon them by the fiasco of WWI–just as Stalin’s vision of communism as dictatorship of the working class taking over the world did not appear strange and dangerous to his beleaguered followers. Narcissism is blind to itself.

The natural consequence of scapegoating that stems from the projections of the narcissist’s devalued parts of oneself is dehumanization of the Others, which then justifies all kinds of atrocities perpetrated on them. The ease with which this attitude spreads in narcissistic groups is frightening and indicative of a narcissistic rage that fuels it, a rage that is focused on purging, psychically and physically, all that is weak and undesirable from the narcissists’ inner and external worlds.

That rage, along with dreams of glory, is what makes the bond between the tyrant and his followers so strong that it remains impervious to reality. It also makes the tyrant’s rule easier as he does not have to exert himself much to infect his followers with contempt for the dehumanized Others and incite aggression against them. In fact, the tyrant’s permission for such aggression appears to be a large part of his appeal to his blood- and revenge-thirsty followers.

The tyrant’s and his followers’ projections always reveal much about their own pathology. In his private notes about Jews in the Nazi occupied Poland, Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote that they were “not people anymore” but “beasts of prey equipped with a cold intellect” (Gellately 2007, 372) — the latter description obviously more applicable to Goebbels and the Nazis themselves rather than their victims (who, it must be stressed, were observed by Goebbels in captivity, under dehumanizing conditions of ghetto life).

Once we dehumanize the Others and imbue them with a murderous motivation directed at us, we can easily rationalize any act of violence we perpetrate upon them as self-defense. And so removing en masse and without mercy those “beasts of prey” become one of the main goals of the Nazis who believed that Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and other non-Aryans threatened their existence. The fear, whether genuine or faked, stemming from this false belief was used as a sufficient justification for mass murder on a scale unseen previously in the so-called civilized world.

It must be noted that the tyrant’s supporters and especially sycophants within his closest circle tend to share his character defect. The sycophantic echo chamber around the tyrant magnifies but also hides his pathology. His surrogates usually serve as ego substitutes to his rampaging id, and are responsible for introducing and implementing his destructive plans in ways that would seem rational and acceptable to the public.

Their role becomes more important with time as he psychologically decompensates, which inevitably happens to narcissistic psychopaths in positions of ultimate power. As his paranoia, grandiosity, and impulsivity grow, his aides, family members and surrogates, fearful for their positions and often life, scramble to preserve an image of his normalcy and greatness for public consumption to the very end. Their loyalty can be fierce and undying, unlike that of the tyrant himself.

The Society

Tyrants do not arise in a vacuum just as tyranny does not spring on the world unannounced. It takes years of cultivation of special conditions in a society for a tyranny to take over. Those conditions invariably include a growing and unbearably oppressive economic and social inequality ignored by the elites who benefit from it, at least for a time; fear, moral confusion, and chaos that come from that deepening inequality and a breakdown of social norms, and growing disregard for the humanity of a large portion of the population, as well as for higher values. In effect, we could see that the pre-tyrannical societies, whether nominally democratic or based on other forms of political organization, exhibit signs of a narcissistic pathology writ large. Those involve the inevitable split into their grandiose and devalued parts, including those of the society’s self-image, and a denial of their shadow, which is projected outward onto others.

Oppressive, dehumanizing – narcissistic – systems, like narcissists themselves, cultivate their delusions of superiority on the basis of that internal, unseen and unspoken, split between the grandiose blameless I/Us and the devalued, inferior Others.  The Others become repositories of the narcissists’ repressed vices, just as the tyrant is the vessel for their grandiose beliefs of themselves.

Another narcissistic aspect of such societies is the growing and ruthless competition, jealousy, and aggression within its borders, but also directed externally toward other nations in a scapegoating mechanism that is meant to prevent an internal breakdown of a society by redirecting its narcissistic rage onto external objects. Oftentimes, these vulnerable societies reel from some form of a narcissistic injury like the humiliation of a lost war, international sanctions, or treaties perceived as unfair, as Germany did after the Treaty of Versailles post-WWI.

None of these processes are openly acknowledged or even noticed by the members of these societies, save by a few typically ignored Cassandras. Just as individual narcissists are incapable of experiencing guilt, taking responsibility for their vices, and making genuine efforts to set things right in their lives, narcissistic societies also persist in their self-destructive blindness. While the chaos and discord brew in the underclasses, the elites ensconced in their narcissistic bubbles remain oblivious to the suffering of their fellow citizens and the fate it portends for their nations.

Fritz Stern (2005) said that “German moderates and German elites underestimated Hitler, assuming that most people would not succumb to his Manichean unreason; they did not think that his hatred and mendacity could be taken seriously.” Hitler was seen by many as a bombastic but harmless buffoon, while many others, including the members of clergy, intellectual elites, and the wealthy were nevertheless mesmerized by his grand visions of Germany’s future glory and eagerly supported his agenda.

Narcissism of the elites makes them also blind to the encroaching tyranny.  It is a convenient – and yes, narcissistic – myth that only the dispossessed and uninformed would support the tyrant. It is not the economic or educational status that determines such susceptibility, but one’s narcissism, and that cuts across socio-economic strata. Dorothy Thompson describes it brilliantly in her 1941 essay, Who Goes Nazi?, where she identifies those threads of frustrated grandiosity, resentments, and hatreds in the well-heeled individuals’ characters that make them fall for tyrannical ideologies and movements. She also observes those who would naturally resist the toxic pull of Nazism, noting their humility and depth.

Stern (2005) quotes a letter from philosopher and Nobel prize-winning physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker, who confessed to him “that he had never believed in Nazi ideology but that he had been tempted by the movement, which seemed to him then like ‘the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.’ On reflection, he thought that National Socialism had been part of a process that the National Socialists themselves had not understood. He may well have been right. The Nazis did not realize that they were part of a historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason.”

Note that the process which the Nazis themselves had not understood is the very narcissistic collusion, a near psychotic infection with this virus of grandiosity and rage on a mass scale. It is rarely grasped, not even from the perspective of time, as our blindness makes it impossible to acknowledge it, rendering our narcissism the last taboo in a world that has dispensed with taboos. Our denial and social amnesia further entrench our incomprehension and ensure that history repeats itself.

Part of our forgetting involves distortions of historical and psychological facts. Safely removed, time- and distance-wise, from the latest tyranny-caused mayhem, we tend to imagine tyrants as instantly recognizable evil beings and tyrannies as something exotic enough to never happen to us. But as history and experience demonstrate, power hungry narcissistic psychopaths do not look different from others; and if they stand out, it is often for socially approved reasons: their resolve, charisma, decisiveness, and ability to inspire others.

No tyrant comes to power on the platform of genocidal tyranny, even though such ideas may be brewing already in the recesses of his mind. Each and every one of them promises to bring back law and order, create better economic conditions for the people, and restore the nation’s glory.

These empty promises – for he has little desire and even less ability to fulfill them – are always tied together with the thread of scapegoating of the Others, a necessary component channeling the narcissistic rage outward and increasing the society’s cohesion. But the tyrant sows discord and division among his own peoples as well. He cannot help it: pitting people against each other satisfies his irrepressible sadistic urge and makes it easier for him to dominate and control them.

The tyrant shows up in a society that is already weakened by disorder, blind to it, and unable and/or unwilling to take corrective measures which would prevent a tyrannical takeover. Once he and his sycophantic cabal assume power, they deepen and widen the disorder, dismantling and changing the society’s norms, institutions, and laws to fully reflect their own pathology.

Andrew Łobaczewski (2007) discusses at length the formation and progression of pathocracies – political and not only systems ran by characterologically impaired individuals, predominantly psychopaths and narcissists. He describes how pathocracies change the society by introduction of paralogisms – ways of distorting reality and truth; and paramoralisms – methods of perverting moral values. Under tyranny, paralogisms and paramoralisms are unleashed on a large scale through various propagandist means that include repetition of flat-out lies, accompanied by denials and obfuscations served through the increasingly centralized and controlled media. Fortified by magical thinking and contempt for reason, these distortions lead to a creation of the kind of absurdist unreality well known to people raised in authoritarian regimes where up is down and black is white, and what one knows to be true may have nothing to do with the officially sanctioned version of the truth.

We can see the tyrant’s own pathology influencing every area of a society’s functioning, from politics through culture and social mores to science and technology. What is being seen, said, and studied, and what’s ignored and silenced, depends on the tyrant’s whims, and soon enough the society itself and its ideology are structured in ways that meet his pathological needs for power and adulation. The implementation of this ideology is usually a gradual process that is eventually reinforced by the use of violence against persistent objectors.

As freedom of speech, press, and assembly disappears and the tyrant’s destructive “reforms” take hold, an ethos of The New Man – an ideal of a human being compatible with the disordered ideology – is being forced upon the populace.

This New Man is a dehumanized caricature of a human person, usually exemplifying the tyrant’s distorted views and thus meeting his pathological needs, mainly for dominance and adulation. He (we will use the male pronoun, but there is of course a compatible version of The New Woman to go with The New Man) is wholly devoted to The Cause and The Leader, which in tyrannies is often one and the same, an ultimate expression of the tyrant’s narcissism, and acts in prescribed ways meant to demonstrate this devotion in his life. Hero worship and utmost loyalty become parts of The New Man’s proscribed behavior, reinforced by new laws and norms, but also by individuals who eagerly cooperate with the authoritarian rules by spying on and denouncing their fellow citizens’ ideologically improper behavior.

Our human propensity to submit to inhumane rules established by pathological authority cannot be overestimated. We have plenty of historical and contemporary evidence for it, as well as experimental data (Milgram 1974). An approving nod from an authority figure, no matter how insignificant or even real, can easily absolve us of responsibility in our minds and override any scruples imposed by our conscience, proving its perplexing malleability.

In this ease of shutting down their conscience, many so-called normal persons are not very different from functional psychopaths. This disturbing fact of human life is something the tyrant counts on when he establishes his reign. He knows that he can expect loyalty from his followers and successfully demand it from the majority of society. And those unwilling to follow his dictates and/or actively opposing them will be eliminated.

The New Man’s thoughts must of course change, too, to better aid his transformation. Thus the criteria of mental normalcy and pathology are redefined as well, and psychology and psychiatry, like other branches of social science, are co-opted to serve the regime. What’s considered normal, both in the sense of statistical norm and mental health, is in fact pathological, and mental health, defined as the capacity for multilevel and multidimensional development, is pathologized.

The ease with which the tyrannical ideology spreads is always greater than we want to imagine. Our narcissistic blindness makes it impossible for us to believe that it could happen here and we, too, could be as susceptible to it as any other human beings in our history.

Tyranny feeds on the irrationality of narcissistic myths and magical thinking, even though its ideology may be disguised as hyper-rationalism, as it was the case with Communism. In this, it very much resembles the narcissistically psychopathic character of the tyrant himself: solipsistic, withdrawn from reality, full of grandiose and paranoid beliefs impervious to the corrective influences of objective facts.

These pathological factors ensure that eventually the tyrant’s reign collapses. The inherent and violent irrationality, bereft of internal brakes that stem from a conscience, and unchecked by external forces, is the main reason why tyrants and their regimes are doomed to fail (Glad 1997). Their growing malignancy – corruption, aggression, and oppression – provokes opposition, which eventually brings the tyranny down, but not until its pillaging and violent reign create much human suffering. The reset of a society’s mores that follows the tragic aftermath of a tyrannical rule usually leads to a greater appreciation of the importance of universal human values – equality, justice, truth, and compassion – but if care is not taken to implement these values in consistent practice, our narcissistic tendencies creep in and lead to social disorder, making us susceptible to tyranny again. Given our growing potential for self-destruction, the stakes go up with every tyrannical turn.

Conclusion

Narcissism is as much a character problem as it is an error in our thinking. Seeing oneself as “above” is the general attitude of a narcissist toward the world, and the error of the tyrant and his followers. This error appears to grip many so-called civilized human societies, and is especially pronounced in those where inequality grows despite any official sloganeering to the contrary. Our narcissism is what gives rise to inequality, and inequality fuels our narcissism. The resultant suffering and despair, along with a desire for revenge, are among necessary conditions for the emergence of tyranny.

As Burkle (2015) observes, we are seeing a resurgence of tyrannical leaders around the globe, even in nations that supposedly have learned the lessons of tyrannies past in the most painful ways. It is a sign of our pressing need to reckon with our collective shadow.

If we as a species are to flourish and prosper, we need to understand that our urgent and necessary task is transcending and dismantling of our narcissism, both individual and collective.

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Hughes, Ian. 2017. “The Solution to Democracy’s Crisis Is More Democracy.”  In: Disordered World. Accessed May 13, 2017. https://disorderedworld.com/2017/05/04/the-solution-to-democracys-crisis-is-more-democracy/

Kimmel, Michael. 2013. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. New York: Nation Books.

Łobaczewski, Andrew M. 2007. Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes. Grande Prairie, AB, Canada: Red Pill Press.

Miller, Alice. 1990. For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. New York: Noonday Press.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row.

Mika, Elizabeth, and Frederick M Burkle. 2016. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Narcissist.” Medium, May 13.  Accessed May 14, 2017. https://medium.com/@Elamika/the-unbearable-lightness-of-being-a-narcissist-251ec901dae7

Mydans, Seth. 1997. “In an Interview, Pol Pot Declares His Conscience Is Clear.” New York Times, October 23. Accessed May 14, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/23/world/in-an-interview-pol-pot-declares-his-conscience-is-clear.html

Newell, Waller R. 2016. Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice and Terror. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Plato, Grube, G. M. A., and C. D. C. Reeve, eds. 1992. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Post, Jerrold.  2015. Narcissism and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stern, Fritz. 2005. “Reflection: Lessons from German History.” Foreign Affairs, May-June. Accessed May 13, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2005-05-01/reflection-lessons-german-history

Thompson, Dorothy. 1941. “Who Goes Nazi?” Harper’s Magazine, August. Accessed May 12, 2017. https://harpers.org/archive/1941/08/who-goes-nazi/

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Nothing is Wasted: On Brokenness and Grace

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There is grace in brokenness. We don’t see it at first, it takes time to reveal itself. Time, and sufficient enough shattering to remove all–or most–obstacles to its manifestation.

That’s what brokenness does–it strips us of what’s superficial and unnecessary, of all pretense, of fake (and not) attachments and strivings, leaving us emotionally and spiritually bare and ready to see the truth. That’s where grace comes in, bringing the truth along.

“Each time the losses and deceptions of life teach us about impermanence, they bring us closer to the truth. When you fall from a great height, there is only one possible place to land: on the ground, the ground of truth. And if you have the understanding that comes from spiritual practice, then falling is in no way a disaster, but the discovery of an inner refuge.” Sogyal Rinpoche

Only when we are broken we can see it more clearly: the truth about ourselves, others, the world and God–or whatever one wants to call this grand principle responsible for our existence on earth that shows itself in it with such insistence, even if for a time through its seeming absence. It is also called the Source, Spirit, Force, All There Is, the Ground of All Being, Oneness, Universe; however you want to name (or not) this higher power, God has only three letters so it’s easier to use, therefore I’ll stick with it. This God is not a bearded father figure fuming in judgment over his sinful creation, but rather omniactive loving intelligence, as psychiatrist Thomas Hora put it. It is precisely grace working on and through our brokenness, by the way, which allows us to see and understand, to the extent it is possible, that this higher power is compassionate and set up in ways to manifest this truth to, in and through us. Grace is God’s middle name, as Richard Rohr says.

Brokenness, in all its forms–physical, emotional, spiritual–empties us of false beliefs and illusions, making thus room within us for God/Truth/Love, for grace. This emptying is a process that usually takes a long and difficult time, while grace manifests instantanously, appearing in a flash of insight, or more often an epiphany, when the pain of our broken existence becomes unbearable. Its benevolent work, which so often begins in such a transformative flash, continues throughout the rest of our earthly life, changing us–little by little–from the people we were to the people we are meant to be.

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through adversity.” Malcolm Muggeridge

Grace working through brokenness is the process of uncovering our Innermost, True Self and its God-like nature, the kingdom of heaven within.

Pain and suffering are its necessary antecedents. Disappointments, losses, grief, loneliness, anxiety, depression, abandonment, despair, physical and mental illness, addictions, inner conflicts and self-doubts; all those states also known as soul sickness, or a dark night of the soul. It cannot be otherwise. And none of it is wasted. Grace works upon us in this darkness whether we realize it or not.

“The seed must be buried deep down in the darkness under the weight of the earth. Then the seed must be subject to the winter, the season of frost, of long darkness and short light. The slow pace, the long pause in periods of growth is the condition of bearing fruit.” Caryll Houselander

And as the Zen proverb reminds us,

“No seed has ever seen the flower.”

We learn and transform only through lessons of suffering, and that has not varied yet. It does not mean that all suffering leads to obvious transformation, but transformation does not, will not happen without disintegration and pain.

“Pain is merely pain, but pain for a worthy cause is suffering. What is more worthy than your soul–than creating a life through which the energy of your soul can flow unimpeded into the Earth school? What is more worthy than fulfilling your most noble aspirations?” Gary Zukav 

This is the way of positive disintegration, initiated and guided by grace. The transformation effected through grace working on and in our brokenness has a spiritual (and/or religious) character, regardless of our belief system. It opens us to previously unseen, though perhaps sometimes intuited, vertical dimensions of reality and also unknown depths within ourselves. It lets the light of God to penetrate our being, but also allows the light of our True Self shine through the cracks of the broken facade that was once our false self (or ego, or individuality). With time, that inner light grows stronger and shines brighter, illuminating any corners where darkness may have lingered.

In our brokenness, we begin to see what really matters. Just as grief and suffering empty us, making room for God, they also prepare inner space for gratitude that disperses our inner darkness and allows us to see life more clearly, including our own characters and those of others.

“Karma draws your attention to what you have created. Is your attention not captured when you are in pain? Asking why the Universe is treating you badly when you experience painful circumstances in your life is like asking a mirror why you look the way you do. Your reflection will not change until you change.” Gary Zukav

Grace is a manifestation of God’s existence and boundless love for us. But we cannot see it when, functioning as the false self and assured in its certitude, we are in thrall of our self-seeking pursuits and the fleeting rewards they offer. Being broken opens us up to see and receive that love, and to be transformed by it into people we were meant to be, as the image and likeness of God.

“If there are supernormal powers, it is through
the cracked and fragmented self that they enter.” William James

A friend sent me a brief video from a Japanese spiritual teacher showing the beauty of broken objects, the pieces of which were put back and glued together with gold, bringing a new look, and a new quality, to their appearance and function.

The gold glue holding our pieces together is God’s love filling and pulsing through the previously disjointed seams, transmuting their brokenness into a now coherent whole. It not only fixes the broken fragments, but creates a new entity, full of new life. This spiritual alchemy transforms pain and suffering into compassion and love.

“The wound is the place where Light enters you.” Rumi

During Easter at my Mom’s house, I heard a Polish radio interview with Helena Studencka who is Secretary General of the Polish Highlander Organization in America. Helena talked about the loss of her son in 2015 and how it has affected her life.  It is difficult to describe this interview, but I am certain it captivated all listeners, accidental and not, such was the power of Helena’s voice as she talked about her grief and how it has been transforming her. Nobody wants to know the pain of losing a child; but as most of us will experience–and, if of a certain age, already have experienced–grievous losses, the journey, even though unique to each of us, feels familiar in many ways.

Helena said that nowadays, three years after her son’s death, her grief turned into a sort of numbness and described what it feels and looks like. It is still very difficult, but it is different now. She is learning humility, meekness, she said; the calm warmth of her voice confirmed it. She may or may not know–although her interviewer made a comment to this effect–that through such open and vulnerable sharing of her pain she has helped others heal. The grace working through her brokenness already influences others.

“All suffering prepares the soul for vision.” Martin Buber

We don’t always see or know right away how grace works through suffering and brokenness.

Pat, a kind and loving mother and grandmother started to show first symptoms of Alzheimer’s in her mid-50’s. Within several years marked by the rapid progress of the disease and the heartbreaking challenges it created for her impoverished family, she became unresponsive and confined to her bed, lingering there for nearly 20 years in a vegetative state, plagued by infections and other problems associated with her illness and incapacitation.

Her younger daughter, Kasia, took care of her in a tiny two room apartment that was home to four more people: Kasia’s chronic schizophrenic husband, Ian, unemployed for decades due to his disability; their two young sons; and Kasia’s ill and requiring progressively more care dad, Pat’s husband. Kasia was the only healthy and more or less functional adult in that household, tasked with generating income from her secretarial salary, keeping the family together and organizing their life, as well as caring for her mother, and her ill husband and father. The stress of their living situation bordered on unbearable most of the time.

As Pat’s state deteriorated, however, something unexpected happened: Ian spontaneously started to care for her and attend to her needs around the clock. Soon enough, he became her main caretaker, performing his duties with attention and compassion that nobody knew existed within his capacities. This man, lost and locked within his seemingly disordered mind and diagnosed as an incurable case, turned into a skilled and devoted nurse, finding purpose in his own life and serving through it as an example for others.

“God uses everything to construct this hard and immortal diamond, our core of love.” Richard Rohr

Nothing is wasted, least of all our suffering.

A Letter from an Educator

January 16, 2018

Dear Ms. Mika,

I am an educator. After the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, I spent over a decade doing research in order to find out “why.”

Of the over 400 psychology books I read, fully one quarter pertained to “why” of the Holocaust.

I discovered that the reasons 38% of German voters cast ballots for a charismatic demagogue in 1932 mirror the reasons why 38% of American voters today comprise the ardent base of our leader.

The Germans who supported their demagogue all had fathers whose every trait was exactly like him, even including his theatrical rants. One exception:

This new father never blamed them for causing all problems, as their own parents had done.

Instead, he blamed others for every societal problem.

This token of parental love, never given by their own parents, engendered absolute, hungered devotion.

The same is underway in America today. Unloved children, even decades later, gravitate toward someone who will give them permission to release pent-up, unconscious hatred toward their parents, for the mistreatment received, upon innocent scapegoats. Unloved children, unless helped by a teacher or another adult, are the origin for racism and all hate.

Robert L.

A Letter to Congress from Concerned Mental Health Experts

December 11, 2017

Dear Congress Member:

Since the election of 2016, an increasing number of mental health professionals have come forth to warn against President Trump’s psychological instability and its implications for national and international security. Recently, the signs of his instability have grown markedly worse: a return to conspiracy theories, more frequent tweets, and an attraction to violent imagery. We would like to discuss these concerns further with you, at the contacts below.

Seven months ago, a group of us put our concerns into a book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. Since release, it has become an instant bestseller with the public. Macmillan, a top publisher, could not keep up with the demand for weeks.

Much of what we warned about in the book has come true. Our ultimate concern is happening now. The developments with the special counsel’s investigations are not just a matter of criminal indictment but of critical concern with respect to the president’s mental stability. He has shown marked signs of impairment and psychological disability under ordinary circumstances, unable to cope with the slightest criticism or unpleasant news. With additional stressors, his condition will assuredly grow worse. We fear that this difference will bring us over the brink into disaster, where even ultimate destruction will be possible.

As mental health professionals, some of us with an expertise on violence, we deal with the risk of harm as a routine part of our practice. When someone exhibits signs of danger to oneself, others, or the general public, it is considered an emergency. All 50 states confer to us the legal authority, sometimes obligation, to act. When someone poses a threat, our response is as follows: (a) containment; (b) removal from access to weapons; and (c) an urgent evaluation. As health professionals, we cannot choose not to treat in an emergency, regardless of whether the person is our patient or has offered consent.

Mr. Trump has far exceeded our usual threshold for an urgent evaluation for signs of danger. Just a few of these signs would be: verbal threats of violence, a history of sexual assault, incitement of violence, an attraction to violence and powerful weapons (the more powerful the weapons, the greater the temptation to use them), and the taunting of hostile nations with nuclear power. Traits that are highly associated with danger include: impulsivity, recklessness, paranoia, loss of touch with reality, a lack of empathy, rage reactions, and a constant need to demonstrate power. These traits make one incapable of thinking rationally, and the usual inhibitions, such as a nuclear holocaust or even the annihilation of humankind, will not likely deter someone who is preoccupied by internal needs.

We are concerned enough to be ready to present to your office, at the soonest occasion possible, to explain our observations in person. While mental health experts who contributed to the book number at 27, there are thousands of us with the same medical consensus—and we are ready to communicate our case to you, should you choose to hear us.

Our contacts are: (917) 328-2492; bandy.lee@yale.edu; and dangerouscase.org.

Sincerely,

Bandy X. Lee, M.D., M.Div.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT
Judith L. Herman, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Craig Malkin, Ph.D.
Lecturer of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Lance Dodes, M.D.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry (retired), Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Michael J. Tansey, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor (retired), Northwestern Medical School, Chicago, IL
Leonard L. Glass, M.D., M.P.H.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
Henry J. Friedman, M.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA
James Gilligan, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY
Diane Jhueck, M.A., L.M.H.C.
Designated Crisis Responder, Island County, WA
Howard H. Covitz, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
(Former) Director, Institute for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies, Philadelphia, PA
Betty P. Teng, L.M.S.W.
Psychotherapist, Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, New York, NY
Jennifer C. Panning, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, Evanston, IL
Harper West, M.A., L.L.P.
Licensed Psychotherapist, Clarkston, MI
Luba Kessler, M.D.
(Former) Faculty, Institute for Psychoanalytic Education (New York University), New York, NY
Steve Wruble, M.D.
Private Practitioner of Psychiatry, New York, NY, and Ridgewood, NJ
Elizabeth Mika, M.A., L.C.P.C.
Psychotherapist, Chicago, IL
Edwin B. Fisher, Ph.D.
Professor of Health Behavior, Gillings School of Global Public Health,
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
Nanette Gartrell, M.D.
(Former) Associate Professor of Psychiatry,
University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, CA
Dee Mosbacher, M.D., Ph.D.
(Former) Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry,
University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, CA
Frederick M. Burkle Jr., M.D., M.P.H., D.T.M.
Psychiatrist, Pediatrician, and Professor of Emergency Medicine (retired),
Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

Additional Signatures
Scott Banford, M.S.W., LCSW
Fort Lee, NJ
Susan G. Bednar, M.S.W.,LCSW
Monticello, IL
Brenda Berger, Ph.D.
New York, NY
Cherylynne Berger,
M.S.W., LCSW
Pasadena, CA

Susan Edelman Blank,
M.S., LPC, NCC
Atlanta, GA
Paula Bloom, Psy.D.
Atlanta, GA
Suzanne Burger, Psy.D.
Pound Ridge, NY

 

Kimberly Corbett, Psy.D.,
LMFT, SAP
San Diego, CA
Tammy Dale, M.A.
Lee’s Summit, MO
E.D., MSW, LCSW
Portland, OR
Jennifer Farris-Young,
LMHC
Largo, FL
Ellen V. Garbuny, LSW
Butler, PA
Patricia Geller, Ed.D.
Lexington, MA
Carolyn Jankowski, M.A.,
CDMS, LPC
Laurel, MD
Maureen S. Kapatkin, M.S.,
NP
FL and GA
Gabriella Janet King, M.S.
Laurel, MD
Emily Krestow, Ph.D.
LMHC
Hollywood, FL
Barbara Lavi, Psy.D.
Weston, CT and MA
Avigail Lev, Psy.D.
CA
Sarah Church Liebman,
M.S.
Oakland, CA
Lynn Groff Loomis, M.Ed.
Harrisburg, PA
Diane K. Mahoney, Ph.D.
Marstons Mills, MA
Robert McDonald, Ph.D.
Fairview, NC
Raechel McGee, MSW
Somerset, MA
Julia McLaughlin, M.A.,
LPC
Columbus, OH
Melissa Mendenhall,
M.S.W., LISW
Cedar Falls, IA
Cheri Parmely, Ed.D.
Newton, MA
Michelle Pawkett, M.A.,
LMHC
Buffalo, NY
Sandra Petrakis-Childs,
L.C.S.W., LMFT
Atlanta, GA
Emily Polak, Ph.D., LCSW
IL and Crown Point, IN
Randye Semple, Ph.D.
Los Angeles, CA, and New
York, NY
Gail Sheehy, Ph.D.
New York, NY
Claire Silverman, Ph.D.
New York, NY
Andrew Spitznas, M.D.
Johnson City, TN
Sunda Friedman
TeBockhorst, Ph.D.
Boulder, CO
Margaret Thompson,
M.S.W., LCSW
Salt Lake City, UT
Barbara M. Turk, Psy.D.,
LPC, NCC
Harrisburg, PA
Karin Wandrei, Ph.D.
LCSW
Rohnert Park, CA
Harper West, M.A., LLP
Rochester Hills, MI
Elizabeth Zoob, LICSW
Cambridge, MA

An Authoritarian or a Madman?

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.

Pathological Narcissism and Sociopathy in Political Leaders Are More Pervasive Than You Think

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.

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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.

 

National Character Counts Week: Welcome to Pathocracy

Image result for trump offends soldiers widow

“The presence or absence of conscience is perhaps the deepest human division.”

Ian Hughes

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

  1. lie about, insult and pick fights with families of killed soldiers;
  2. lie about and insult former presidents;
  3. 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;
  4. threaten  Senator McCain who battles brain cancer with vicious retribution for daring to criticize him; and
  5. 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.

Stout says:

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.

Our Positive Disintegration

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Patient Trust

These are the times of disintegration.

Its first symptoms became vaguely sensed and then reported by the therapists, massage and others, concerned about the rising anxiety levels of their clients, as well as their own, in the spring of last year. And we know that there is a problem when the East Coast massage therapists report it. It ain’t real till the $250-per-hour-masseur’s comfortably afflicted client bemoans. Canaries in coal mines and all that.

The more tangible yet ignored disintegration, of the unmassageable kind, has been progressing in America for decades, driven by the corporate greed that has shrank the middle class and enslaved the working (and not) poor, fed the war machine and violence within our borders, led to the declining health of the populace, and an erosion of social bonds. It has been growing a split, on every level of existence, between the haves and have-nots, the comfortable and the afflicted, between men and women, between people of different religions and races, between human beings and other living species. We are seeing now that there never has been one America indivisible under God, but several disparate ones existing in opposition and a perpetual, deepening conflict fueled by rapacious capitalism.

The disintegration we are experiencing now was not caused by Trump/ism, but revealed through it. At its core, as it is always the case, lies a clash of values, specifically the clash of primitive, dehumanizing pursuits of power, money and self-aggrandizement, with higher universal human values, the importance of which, and their dearth in our lives, has been dramatically unveiled in this conflict. This clash has pierced our willful blindness, unearthing the rifts in our society which we pretended, for too long, did not exist.

The breakthrough is not done yet, however — the revelation is rarely if ever complete. Neither the powerful and privileged, nor those who seek a sense of power and validation through identification with the strongman understand it. Yes, judging by the proliferation of the poverty porn — the journos’ heartfelt dispatches from the forgotten America where despair and decay rule — the awareness of this one rift, among many, may be growing; however, history teaches us that narcissism is not broken by seeing but only through living, if that. As long as poverty is something the haves use as topics for their award-winning exposes, books and sermons from the Mount of TED (at $7,500 a pop), rather than see as an affront to their humanity demanding direct personal engagement through decisive social action, they will not see well, if at all.

We don’t like to talk seriously about our values, certainly not how they relate to mental health of individuals and nations, because such conversations, if honest, would necessitate change — and nobody likes change. Yes, we trot out values for important speeches and other special occasions, bragging about them and using them as weapons with which to clobber our opponents. In general, though, we relegate them to the domains of religion and/or the feel-good, for those comfortable enough in life, monetized spirituality. There they can be either safely ignored, and/or dangled over the heads of the suffering masses as something to maybe aspire to, some day. But as long as the masseurs’ clients remained mostly satisfied, authentic values, or rather their lack, had no emotional impact on the consciousness of the nation. Until now.

Now,  as the darkness is making itself rapidly visible, thanks to the short-fingered vulgarian whose lack of manners has made even the well-mannered panic, it cannot be ignored so easily — although it is not for the lack of trying, because if there is one thing that America has perfected is the art of denial. This is why the country, as we believed we have known it, is disintegrating now, and with it our complacent, erroneous beliefs about it and ourselves. This process is inevitable; and although it is and will be painful, it is also potentially positive, for many individuals and maybe even the entire nation.

That because even though disintegration, personal and not, is something that is typically feared — understandably so, as it means destruction of what’s known and thus safe – there is also another, positive way to look at it.

Positive Disintegration

The alternative view of disintegration of the personal kind was articulated over half a century ago by a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who observed that his patients struggling with neurotic and especially psychoneurotic symptoms (the difference is the predominance of the mental over somatic problems in the latter) were creative, thoughtful, and yearning to change themselves and the world.

He also noted that all creative people who have left the positive mark on the world – especially artists, philosophers, moral exemplars and saints – frequently struggled with similar psychological difficulties which, painful as they were, often enriched their characters, stimulated their creativity, and propelled their development. Thus rather than pathologize such symptoms, or otherwise make his patients conform to the status quo, Dabrowski stressed their positive value as both harbingers and mechanisms of personality development.

His clinical experience led him to develop the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), which posits that, far from being destructive and undesirable, many forms of psychological suffering — anxiety, depression, doubts, inner conflicts, even psychosis — are positive and necessary for emotional and personality development. More often than not, they are expressive of the emerging understanding of the multilevel nature of reality, inner and external, and, related, an objectively existing hierarchy of human values. This understanding becomes a basis of personality growth through positive disintegration.

Dabrowski’s theory is well worth knowing, but even though its creator spent part of his life in the US and he and his work were warmly received for a time by the greats of American psychology, it never gained popularity here, for some reasons that are more obvious than others. Two of them seem to loom large.

One, people in general, and Americans in particular, do not like being reminded that pain and suffering are an inextricable part of the human condition. We understandably want to avoid both; and when we can no longer do so, we still try — through distractions, medication, or employment of various forms of magical thinking, from self-help to positive psychology. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with such attempts; however, they offer only temporary solutions — and sometimes no solutions at all; sometimes they obscure the source of our suffering and the means of its amelioration, which is authentic growth and change.

Two, the theory is counter-cultural in that its ideas go against the prevailing (unilevel, as Dabrowski would call them) beliefs and social mores, with a potential to revolutionize our outlook on mental health and disorder, and our life in general.

Unlike other theories of human development, TPD presents, and assists, the human being in the dynamic, arduous and often tragic process of becoming.

It postulates that mental health is the capacity for personality development, which is understood as a conscious dismantling of our more or less primitively integrated (egocentric) individuality, and replacing it with a consciously chosen and created (altruistic) personality. That process, called positive disintegration, is rooted primarily in our emotional-motivational sphere, and guided by deeply felt and lived universal values embedded in our conscience. A recognition of an objectively existing hierarchy of universal human values is essential for development, although Dabrowski avoids specifying what that hierarchy looks like. Instead, he advocates studying the lives of moral exemplars to arrive at its understanding and empirical verification.

Personality development, if done right, inevitably sets us on a collision course with the unjust world in which we live, and with everything that is primitive, unevolved and destructive within ourselves.

One of the major developmental dynamisms — internal forces guiding our individual growth as described in TPD — is positive maladjustment: a lack of adjustment to the world as is, guided by our vision of what ought to be which turns us into eternal misfits, “guests of reality,” to use a title of Par Lagerkvist’s story.

Positive maladjustment is always rooted in universal human values embedded in our conscience and gives rise to our protest, internal and external, against the inhumane status quo. Sometimes this protest can take a form of non-cooperation and/or silence, or even mental illness, but it is still positive and expressive of better mental health than unreflective adjustment to what is. Jiddu Krishnamurti reminded us that “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Positive disintegration may start with positive maladjustment, which then awakens other developmental dynamisms such as guilt, shame, astonishment with oneself, disquietude with oneself, subject-object in oneself, and others that create the basis for transcending our biological and social limitations through personality growth.

This growth through positive disintegration, from primitive egocentrism / narcissism to conscious altruism, can be also expected, to some degree at least, in human groups and entire societies inspired and guided by moral exemplars. We can see it clearly in the social and political changes which expanded human rights and affirmed human values like freedom, equality and justice that took place thanks to the work of Gandhi, MLK, or Anna Walentynowicz, the mother of Solidarity movement in Poland.

While the full scope and depth of TPD are impossible to summarize in one article, one aspect that begs special attention here is its conceptualization of human society on the spectrum of emotional development.

TPD posits five levels of development — the table in this article shows how humanity fits on those levels:

  1. primary integration, where a pursuit of biological imperatives and unreflective adjustment to social norms rules;
  2. unilevel disintegration — the time of  ambivalencies and ambitendencies, intense inner conflicts between equally valued, usually unilevel options;
  3. spontaneous multilevel disintegration, when we see inner conflicts between what is and what ought to be; a first awakening of conscience;
  4. organized multilevel disintegration which marks the full awakening of conscience and beginning of inner transformation;
  5. secondary integration where a sense of purpose and meaning derived from the realization of higher values rule and guide us, harmoniously, toward transcending our biological and psychological type; inner peace; universal compassion and empathy are predominant developmental dynamisms.

As we can see,  this multilevel spectrum of character / personality development is also a spectrum of conscience, since our conscience is the active ingredient which makes development possible.

Dabrowski talks about the “overactive conscience” of psychoneurotics, who, endowed with multiple forms of overexcitability, feel and respond to life and its problems more deeply and acutely. This “oversensitivity” leads to frequent frustrations, pain, inner conflicts, doubts, and traumas, but also signals the existence of and activates developmental forces that enable healing and growth. The active conscience is an indispensable condition of emotional development. Dabrowski considered it a separate developmental dynamism and called it the third factor (the first factor is our biological endowment, and the second factor are the influences of our social world). Advanced emotional and personality development is impossible without the third factor.

The health of a society can be measured by the number of people who have achieved the level of personality, and by the emotional and moral health of the average people inhabiting the so-called statistical norm. The greater the number of moral exemplars, but also average people who are closer in their character profiles to psychoneurotics (folks with an overactive conscience), the healthier the society. Unfortunately, in most human societies the so-called average people are closer in their (lack of) development to psychopaths, as Dabrowski noted.

Psychopathy: “the greatest obstacle to development of individuals and societies.”*

Dabrowski was one of the first mental health experts who tried to bring the world’s attention to the dangers posed by psychopaths. His writings show an astute understanding of the effect that psychopathic individuals have on society. He warned that “our general inability to recognize the psychological type of psychopaths causes immense suffering, mass terror, violent oppression, genocide and the decay of civilization” (Dabrowski 1973).

He himself suffered persecution in political regimes created by psychopaths in power. Imprisoned and mistreated first by the Nazis and then by communists, he saw his work impeded and its fruits destroyed, along with his reputation and professional standing under communism. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Dabrowski’s views on psychopathy, which is characterized by an absent conscience, and its (clinical) opposite, psychoneurosis, defined by an “overactive conscience,” and on positive disintegration, are distinctly applicable to this moment in history, so let’s spend a moment on them here.

Psychopathy is a highly integrated character structure where intelligence is subsumed under primitive drives: for sex, money, and power. Psychoneurotics, in contrast, are nearly chronically disintegrated, as their increased sensitivity (overexcitability) weakens their primitive drives through introduction of conflicting motives and ideas, inhibitions, inner doubts, and ambivalencies. Their primitive drives, if present at all, are usually engaged in an inner battle with an overactive conscience, leading to much inner turmoil, which tends to subside with the growth of personality in those predisposed to it.

Psychopaths are incapable of grasping or experiencing higher values, while psychoneurotics are preoccupied with them to the detriment of their “successful” adjustment to everyday life and its requirements. That’s one reason why psychopaths, unlike psychoneurotics, are usually viewed favorably (and erroneously) by society as good leaders since they present as strong, decisive and “level-headed.” Yes, they are strong and decisive, but driven by unilevel — egocentric, primitive and thus destructive – motives, and their actions bring much suffering to others.

Psychoneurotics, on the other hand, are seen as impractical and ineffective, lost in reality, and/or “pathologically” maladjusted to it, since their motivations are “not from this world,” rooted as they are in the realm of the highest ideals which their oversensitive, overexcitable and conflicted nature cannot always, if ever, translate into everyday reality.

Dabrowski said that “Psychopaths have aims but not values. Psychoneurotics have values but not aims. Personalities have both values and aims.” (Dabrowski 1970, p. 160) One of developmental goals for psychoneurotics is to learn how to overcome their doubts and inhibitions and put their idealism with its values into consistent practice. This quest, not surprisingly, is what defines developmental struggles of all idealists, creatives and reformers world over.

Periods of social disintegration provide just the right opportunity to do so.

In times of social strife and upheaval, when the going gets tough because human values come under threat from conscienceless individuals and systems, psychoneurotics often find their mettle and proper role – and goals – in society. Thanks to their lived understanding of human values, they are capable of seeing both dangers of current events and often the correct ways of counteracting them. And so, for instance, people who may have lingered in a limbo of their own inner conflicts and doubts, spring to righteous action when confronted with the threat of encroaching tyranny, organizing and participating in a multifaceted resistance movement. We see this happening today on a large scale in America and the world.

In addition to external threats, such as those caused by oppressive political regimes that engender mass protest and rebellion, situations that spur positive disintegration in predisposed individuals include disappointments and traumas which lead us to a confrontation with our shadow, individual and collective, and a critical re-examination of our way of life. This confrontation, painful and difficult by necessity, enables emotional and spiritual growth of individuals, first, and then entire groups of people. It is the process of making darkness visible, so that we can better understand and tame it to aid our development.

The resultant disquietude, guilt and shame – feelings that are much maligned and unwelcome in our narcissistic society – bring us down to the level of truth, which also contains a possibility of redemption and transformation. This happens through restoration of our most important and cherished values in our daily life.

Such disintegrative experiences teach us that once we confront and comprehend the darkness residing in our hearts, we will choose to replace it with love and compassion. But as long as we lurch toward ritual sacrifice of The Others, instead of examining the fear, rage, and hatred that drive it, individual and mass scale encounters with our shadow will keep repeating with a frightening regularity, enlarging our misery to better direct our attention to what’s going on.

Thanks to Trump/ism, we are entering, or rather opening and deepening, a period of our collective “dark night of the soul,” which is a prolonged confrontation with our shadow. That journey to Hades must be undertaken if we are to see our true nature and choose, freely, its aspects worth cultivating, while abandoning the unworthy ones, which we have allowed to take over our lives for too long.

By opening for all to see the chasm between the primitive, valueless existence of psychopaths and their ilk, and the conscience-driven lives of exemplars of the highest levels of emotional development — or even just the “regular people” who have not shut down their conscience — this confrontation presents a unique opportunity for personal and collective growth. It becomes as clear as never before what’s most important in our short lives on this planet — and for the conscience-endowed, it won’t be the primitive goals of psychopaths. We can no longer deny this truth; but if for some reason we still do, and we are not character impaired, our positive disintegration will continue to manifest through our unsettled conscience.

With the emerging clarity comes freedom and resolve to reclaim and put our cherished values in action — because that’s where they really matter — with the positively maladjusted leading the way.  As difficult as this process is, it is a beginning of a much needed positive change for many, if not for all.

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*In: Dabrowski, K. (1986). Trud istnienia. Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna. p. 123

Dabrowski, K., Kawczak, A., Sochanska, J. (1973). The Dynamics of Concepts. London: Gryf Publications.

Dabrowski, K., Kawczak, A., Piechowski, M.M. (1970). Mental growth through positive disintegration. London: Gryf Publications Ltd.

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Originally written in September 2016. Slightly updated for 2017.

On “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”

Pleased to announce that The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump is coming out in a few weeks. Yours truly is privileged to have contributed a chapter there, on “Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism.”

Here’s Bill Moyers‘ early review of the book and interview with Robert Lifton.

Also, Duty to Warn is organizing various events — marches, lectures and meetings — around the country on October 14, 2017. Come to one near you!