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.

 

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!

 

Alexandria & San Francisco: Thoughts and Prayers

Originally published June 15, 2017 at Eat Pray Vote

Yesterday morning we had two mass shootings. In one several people were injured, in the other several died. The former has been reported widely, the latter barely at all. Like all American papers, The New York Times featured an extensive coverage of the first one, while the other merited a brief mention hidden on the bottom of the page.  By the end of the day, the details of the first incident, including the private life of the perpetrator, have been analyzed in all media, but we still don’t know the basic facts about the second case and seemingly no one is curious about them, not in major news organizations and outlets.

The difference between reporting of those two events could not have been more glaring. We could call it the tale of two shootings perhaps, except the second one, which happened at a UPS facility in San Francisco, does not really have a tale.

Full text.

Springtime for Twitler: Truth a la Trump

The human mind is not able to disprove every single falsity which has been suggested to it.

Andrzej Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology.

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On the 90th day of Trumpism, Our Leader gave to us: lotsa flip-n-floppin’,  60 bombs exploding, one Southern White House, much kleptofascism, a missing armada, botched legislations, conflicts of interest, Russian collusion, a bunch of Nazis gloating, dozens lost attorneys, journalists a-leaping, Steely Smile Spicer, and a sense of unreality.

To name just a few of his many accomplishments.

The sense of unreality, compounded by chaos and associated anxiety, is slowly but surely becoming our default state of existence as it always is when pathocracy — a rule by psychopaths and narcissists — spreads in any more or less normal so far society. Norms and laws are being set aside and/or redefined, while (the healthy part of) the public watches in horror and disbelief, and organizes protests and anti-pathocratic movements trying to stop the progress of this malignant social disease.

Full text.

Quote of the Day, by Erich Fromm


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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 reactions in consequence to any set-back, 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.

From The Heart of Man, 1964

The Leader of the World Meets a Petulant Antisocial Toddler, Embarrassment Ensues

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So this happened after today’s meeting between this cool, classy and composed adult woman who is one of the few non-psychopathic leaders of the world left, and our so-called president:

Trump, totally in line with his character pathology, pretends not to see, hear, or understand Merkel’s and journalists’ requests; his sheepish facial expression, however, tells us that he is ignoring them on purpose. Because of course.

The man is so grandiosely arrogant that he believes he can bend reality to fit his perceptions and pathological needs — and, sadly, this dangerous delusion has worked for him so far. Mainly because people are too stunned and/or afraid to confront him about it.

Our preposterously obliging press is part of that cowed crowd. When reporting this incident, Time captured the video with a caption:

Angela Merkel Asked President Trump to Shake Hands. He Appeared to Ignore Her

They know — or one hopes they still do — that he did not “appear” to ignore her, but did ignore her in the most breathtakingly rude manner. It’s too bad the writers cannot bring themselves to state the obvious. Being too afraid, or maybe confused, to trust one’s eyes and speak the truth is what plays directly into the ethos of post-factual unreality purposely propagated by Trump/ism.

In the classical for any narcissist, and particularly a malignant one, fashion, Trump can “disappear” inconvenient facts and people from his own and everyone’s field of vision — or at least awareness. It’s a feat of magical thinking, typical for toddlers — and while it can be charming and amusing in toddlers, in adults not so much. In adults who run the world, it is downright dangerous.

This is not the first time we’ve witnessed this behavior in public in recent weeks: on multiple occasions, Trump has simply ignored questions posed to him, pretending he did not hear them. If there is anyone left who believes this behavior is normal or harmless, especially in a president, this person should take a long vacation somewhere warm and safe, to recover their senses and sensibility.

Watching the Merkel-antisocial toddler press conference shows so well the difference between a mature, psychologically intact adult, and a developmentally arrested, dangerous, and petulant toddler-man. His body language and facial expressions speak volumes of his fear and contempt — for Merkel, for the press, and for the entire world which dares to still insufficiently champion his greatness. But that’s going to change soon, if he can help it, as he always has. It’s up to us to make sure that this time he does not succeed. For the world’s and everyone’s sake.

By Their Budgets You Shall Know Them

Trump released his budget proposal that elicited praise from other psychopaths and gasps of horror from normal people, proving that Trump/ism remains as reliable a test of a person’s character as it ever was. It is frighteningly easy, for better and for worse, to tell who is conscience-deficient, and usually in what ways, by knowing where folks stand on matters Trump.

Here’s one useful visual of the proposed changes (not included in this “skinny budget” are health care programs and Social Security):

Unveiling of this proposal was followed yesterday by an appearance, during a press conference with Melissa Sean “Steely Smile” Spicer, of Mike Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), who explained what’s what.

If you didn’t watch it, you may want to, since it is notable for several interesting occurrences. Among them was Mulvaney explaining that food programs for hungry children and seniors will be slashed because they do not bring desired results.

When asked by incredulous journalists just what exactly such results should be, Mulvaney repeatedly emphasised that denying food to poor seniors was “a compassionate thing to do” because it stopped wasting  money. Same thing with depriving hungry kids of their government rations, although here he gave an explanation of the missing results. Turns out, as he said, that feeding poor kids does not appear to improve their academic performance. A waste of money then.

He may have a point there, I suppose. If Making America Great Again is about turning it into The Hunger Games (as suggested by yours truly on this very blog months ago, during our age of innocence), then it’s best to start the process of natural selection early.

Let the young ones from the slums learn to fend for themselves as soon as possible — they don’t need education anyway, that’s for the kids of rich people — so we can cull the herd to retain the strongest specimens, most able to serve as soldiers in the bloated military that Our Leader is preparing for his many war adventures. Let them eat bootstraps if that’s what it takes.

And those who have a misfortune to nevertheless survive being a cannon fodder and grow old(er) will be eliminated by the lack of health care. If that doesn’t work, we’ll starve them. See? The GOPers have it all worked out. That’s what Paul Ryan calls “mercy.” And he too may be on to something, for death sooner rather than later will seem merciful in the Great Again America prepared for us by Trump&Co.

Let’s face it: the GOP’s vision of MAGA is a version of eugenics designed to eliminate the weak and undesirable members of society to make more room and a much pleasant atmosphere for the wealthy.

Robert Reich calls Trump’s budget “bonkers” and in his post An Orgy of Unnecessary Cruelty describing Trump’s presidential actions to date, he asks, twice:

Why is Trump doing this? He has no compelling justification. 

Not if you are a normal person. Because if you are a narcissistic psychopath who lacks a conscience and is driven by unbridled and sadistic (key word) grandiosity and a desire for power, which makes you see other people, at best, as objects of need- and wish-fulfillment (if you notice them at all), then this is exactly the kind of budget you’d create.

More from Reich on the budget’s specifics:

Trump’s Latest Rage Attack


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I’m sure the Twitter act was orgasmic!” wrote my psychiatrist friend in an email discussing Trump’s latest pivot from a narcissistic psychopath to a malignant narcissist (the distance is zero, in case you wonder).

Those impressed last week by Trump’s ability to read from a teleprompter for about an hour without mocking the disabled (though he came close by exploiting a grieving widow of a soldier who died as a result of his desire to appear commander-ish-in-chief) or grabbing whatever, may perhaps re-evaluate their cheery estimates of the man. Or perhaps not, because if there is one thing — among oh-so-many — we learn from Trump/ism it is that being a pundit means never having to say you’re wrong. Or sorry.

Here’s what happened (for those who were inexplicably not focused on our national nightmare): After his Tuesday speech, which no doubt created a much needed sense of victory in him, Trump and his cabinet members were faced with new accusations of improper contacts with the Russians during his campaign. Damn the fake media.

Dark circuses ensued.

Jeff Sessions suddenly realized these were not the Prussians he thought he talked to; Carter Page (who, you ask? I know — nobody knew) underwent what appeared to be some form of an existential crisis in public, leading him to question the nature of reality and his place in it; and everyone was reminded that we should have paid attention to Paul Manafort as his behavior begged us to. Sadly, attention is not among American strengths.

And at the center of this chain of matrioshka dolls was a solid Soviet apparatchik named Sergey Kislyak.

Our so-called president, meanwhile, went ballistic on his staffexactly as predicted — blaming them for not stanching the truth as he demands of them (that’s their no.2 job; no.1 being soothing his tender ego — though the two are closely related). He stormed off to his “Southern White House,” another weekly trip costing taxpayers gadzillions of $$, leaving Steve Bannon crushed, to the extent a cheap imitation of Darth Vader is crushable.

BTW, those among Trump’s associates and external observers who believe that Bannon controls Trump should give up that illusion as well. It’s time. Really.

Then, in the quiet hours of early dawn, when most of America was still asleep, Trump unleashed a torrent of jaw-dropping tweets accusing President Obama of spying on him and, essentially, causing the whole TrumPrussianGate.

Here I will quote my psychiatrist friend, whose analysis is spot on (slightly edited for clarity):

(…) No narcissistic rage attack ever goes unanswered and MUST be answered in a fashion over and above how it impacts the narcissist — that is why such attacks lead to [violent] actions (all justified in their eyes) even as murder!

We both know that he lost sleep, became more vengeful and angry and could not go on until he acted. None of these actions ever make sense, but to hear them as I have they all make perfect sense to the narcissist. He turned to sources that have in the past provided succor to his vengefulness and without question grasped onto the Breitbart story, rushing in glee to Twitter, to blame Obama, whom he despises because he is so admired and is brighter than him. He is even more angry that his political colleagues insisted he admit that Obama is a citizen. I’m sure the Twitter act was orgasmic!

The rationalizations on the TV are so tragic. 

Yes, they are. But they are a necessary part of our tyranny in progress, the part where we normalize it and pretend there’s really nothing to see here, move right along, straight into an abyss.

You may be, um, pleased (?) to learn that this weekend’s crisis was resolved by the resourceful White House staff helping Trump prepare a new travel ban for Muslims — because nothing soothes the pain of a malignant narcissist’s injured ego like inflicting suffering on the weak and innocent, a.k.a The Others. It is an act of “unwounding,” discussed by Dr. Lynne Meyer in Richard Greene’s post.

This time the ban sufficed; but, as his rage escalates, such mild (ha) moves won’t be enough. The sadistic drive to punish and destroy is a malignant narcissist’s modus operandi. And given his lack of inhibitions — a result of a missing conscience — we should expect to see more dramatic and hurtful attempts to satisfy that drive.

For more on Trump and narcissistic rage, see Hell Hath No Fury Like a Narcissist Scorned.

Truth or Dare?


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In a September 2016 post, The Red Herring of the Candidates’ (Physical) Health, I wrote:

If / when Trump is elected and proceeds to dismantle our democracy (yes, we know this is a very real possibility, thanks to correct diagnosis, as chaos and destruction are assured by his character defect; but he also said so, should there be any doubts), will we perhaps revisit and rethink the Goldwater Rule? If we have that chance, of course, and a courage and desire to do so.

The dismantling of our democracy is in full swing now and proceeds according to schedule.

Make no mistake: What we are witnessing is not some incompetent bumbling of governmental novices, but purposeful and vengeful destruction of our government, country, and possibly — if the pathocratic Trump/Bannon cabal is allowed to remain in power — the world.

Destruction and mayhem, in addition to an autocratic rule, are guaranteed when a pathocracy led by a malignant narcissist takes over a government of any nation.

Yet we still cannot, will not, do not want to acknowledge the Destroyer’s-in-Chief character defect and its predictable consequences and prognosis even as they unfold in front of our very eyes, step-by-every-unsurprising-step.

We — some of us, who tried to alert the media and America of the upcoming dangers — have warned about Trump’s reign of destruction early on, predicting his rise to power and its disastrous consequences based on his pathology and the socio-political conditions of the country and the world.

Our warnings were dismissed; instead, the media, in deference to and with support of professional organizations like the APA, engaged in a sort of kabuki theater of denials and obfuscations, not very different from those we see daily from the Trump administration (and typical for narcissistic blindness and the defense mechanisms employed in its service).

The past two weeks have brought a new group of professionals publicly concerned about Trump’s mental unhealth. There is often (though not always) a distinct and understandable caution in the voices of those who suggest that our commander-in-chief may not be fully in command of reality and his own behavior; and one — but not only — reason for it is the inevitable and always aggressive and/or contemptuous pushback that follows.

However, as close as those rightly concerned come to an accurate diagnosis of the problem — and many of them do, with exceptions of some outlandish propositions like syphilis or amorous narcissism  —  they unfortunately misdefine it as mental illness, eliciting the customary now, and not entirely unjustified, criticisms from others.

Interestingly, those professionals who insist that there is something wrong with Trump are met with accusations of launching politically motivated attacks. Those accusations come from both laypeople and other experts.

Yet somehow no one — not in official discussions at least — suggests that those who deny Trump’s character defect may perhaps be politically motivated and unable to see what’s apparent to most because of their own biases. It obviously does not occur to Trump’s defenders.

As usual in this most interesting human enterprise that’s seeking truth, gathering knowledge and shaping it for public consumption, what’s true is being determined not so much by objective facts, but by the acceptable status and visibility of the speaker. To be sure, post-factualness is part of the human condition, rather than something ushered in by Trumpism. Trumpism only fans its flames, spreading it faster and wider, and with vengeance characteristic of its pathology. And yes, it is a pathology.

I see the WaPo‘s new slogan in their masthead, Democracy Dies in Darkness, and the NYT newest ad posturings about the importance of truth, with their bombastic list of what truth is (did their former star Judith Miller approve?). And I view both as profoundly ironic because neither of the papers was interested in the truth and preventing the darkness when it was still possible. Now they act shocked and holy. No wonder they have no credibility with “the people” and Trump can mock them so easily.

Narcissistic blindness is totally a thing.

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See also Steve Becker’s blog.