Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Trump Effect: Excuses for Bad Behavior

Falling for Successful Psychopaths

(tap for video satire: Trump vs. Sanders) 

Why are millions fascinated, often even seduced, by people whose behavior actually points to pathology? Perhaps we are wired to be attracted by narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths, people so focused on their own central role in whatever takes place that the rest of us are sucked into their reality.

Think about entering a portal and emerging into the head of Donald Trump. What could that level of self-absorption be like? Begin by imagining a complete lack of empathy, one of the tell-tale signs of the psychopath.

Is Trump a psychopath? Well, he does score well on a 20 item checklist. And are there more around us than we think? Not just serial killers and the violent type, but successful, powerful psychopaths who will do anything to win and affect our lives in profound ways?

The checklist, a way to help identify potential psychopaths among us, was developed by Bob Hare, a prison psychologist who conducted remarkable experiments and eventually codified his findings. Jon Ronson provides an excellent history and analysis in his book, The Psychopath Test.

Here’s the basic list, a collection of tendencies and an analytical tool to spot those who might be functioning psychopaths. The last two items relate specifically to criminals, but you don't have to be caught to have "criminal versatility." Keep in mind that having mild tendencies doesn’t make you a psychopath. But a high score – more than 30 on Hare’s 40 point scale – should be a warning sign. Personally, I give Trump high marks:

1.Glibness, superficial charm
2.Grandiose sense of self-worth
3.Need for stimulation, proneness to boredom
4.Pathological lying
5.Conning, manipulative
6.Lack of remorse or guilt
7.Shallow affect
8.Callous, lack of empathy
9.Parasitic lifestyle
10.Poor behavioral control
11.Promiscuous sexual behavior
12.Early behavior problems
13.Lack of realistic long-term goals
14.Impulsivity
15.Irresponsibility
16.Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
17.Many short-term marital relationships
18.Juvenile delinquency
19.Revocation of conditional release
20.Criminal versatility

In his book, Ronson follows the trail of research about psychopaths, gets to know a few, and sees how they have affected society. For example, he tracks down Toto Constant, former leader of Haitian death squads backed by the CIA, who was given asylum in the US but restricted to Queens. Although the guy was basically in hiding, he still thought he was beloved in Haiti (#2), took no responsibility for his crimes (#16), and badly imitated strong emotions. Since psychopaths don’t experience emotions the same as other people (#7), they often compensate through imitation. But not all are excellent actors. Constant even thought he would someday be called back to “help” Haiti again (#13).

Psychopaths could be the reason the world seems so screwed up. If so, humanity’s tragic flaw may be that a few bad apples – people whose amygdalas don’t fire the right signals to their central nervous systems – really can spoil the whole barrel. Prime examples include the corporate psychopaths who trashed capitalism a few years back. To dig into that group check out Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Bob Hare and Paul Babiak. Examining these financial terrorists, you might well conclude that the conspiracy theory about shape-shifting lizards who secretly rule the world isn’t so far off. After all, psychopaths are often social shape-shifters.

So, the question is: Do psychopaths run the country and maybe the world? Among recent presidents Nixon, Bush 2 and Clinton could qualify. The masters of the universe at places like Goldman Sachs are solid choices. And it only takes a few to destabilize a financial system, poison a community or destroy a business. Yet some studies suggest that, percentage-wise, there are more potential psychopaths among CEOs, directors and supervisors than in the general population, or even in prisons.

Who hasn’t known a business type who was borderline, a mercurial tyrant subject to fits of rage and impulsive acts? Or followed a public figure who was charming but also irresponsible, manipulative and self-aggrandizing? The tell-tale signs of the psychopath are often ignored or excused.

In his book, Ronson recalls a meeting with businessman Al Dunlop, a ruthless executive famous for his apparent joy in firing people. Together they go through Hare's psychopath checklist and Dunlop simply redefines many of the traits as aspects of leadership. Impulsiveness becomes quick analysis. Grandiose sense of self-worth? Absolutely, you have to believe in yourself, says Dunlop. Manipulative? Hey, that’s just leadership. Inability to feel deep emotions? Emotions are mostly nonsense, he says. And not feeling remorse frees you up to do great things.

Donald Trump would likely have a similar response if confronted with his own psychopathic tendencies. And
 they may not disqualify him from becoming president. 
Warren Harding, the Ohio senator who became president in 1920, carried on a 15-year affair both before and during his presidency. The "other woman," Nan Britton, gave birth to a son. This was shortly after the end of World War I. People were disillusioned with Woodrow Wilson, and Democrats deserted the party to give Harding the biggest landslide in US history, 60 percent of the vote. 
That year Eugene Debs, who was in federal prison at the time, got his best turnout. Less than three years later, in the middle of a “goodwill” tour,” Harding dropped dead suddenly in San Francisco. He was replaced in August 1923 by Calvin Coolidge, a native Vermonter and Massachusetts governor who had been picked for vice-president in the original smoke-filled room.
Harding provided his own epitaph in advance. “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here,” he once admitted. That self-awareness suggests, despite his shortcomings, that at least he wasn’t a psychopath.

The point: if Harding could become president, why not Trump? It's certainly possible. And just think of the huge, "sensational" controversies and pathological behavior we would get to witness. Bad behavior, after all, is pure catnip for millions of "infotainment" consumers. When will we get enough?
Originally written and broadcast in May 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2016

1968: When the World Was Watching

Opening a Senate investigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in early March 1968, Senator J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a "spiritual rebellion" of the young against a betrayal of national values. The Resolution, passed in 1964, had given President Johnson a blank check to wage war against Vietnam, based on a trumped-up military incident. Subsequently, over half a million troops were mobilized to prevent a North Vietnamese victory, using fears of communism and falling dominoes to rationalize what soon became a major invasion. 

By 1968, the operative logic was that it might be necessary to destroy the divided Asian nation in order to save it.

Back in the US, anti-war and "stop the draft" protests were on the rise. Even members of the Johnson administration and media establishment were having second thoughts. On returning from Vietnam, Walter Cronkite, the nation's TV "uncle," announced that the only "rational way out" was to negotiate a settlement. Meanwhile, the president's "wise men" advised that a change of policy was unavoidable.

But other forces were also at work. Responding to campus and New Left activism, the FBI concluded that a counter-intelligence program was needed to "expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize" the growing anti-war movement. Suggested tactics included instigating personal conflicts and animosities, spreading rumors that movement leaders were Bureau informants, arresting activists on marijuana charges, using "misinformation" to "confuse and disrupt," sending damaging anonymous letters to parents and officials, and exploiting "cooperative press contacts." If anyone was bringing the war back home, it was the FBI.

In mid-March, Eugene McCarthy, an ardent opponent of the war, won an astonishing 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote for president in New Hampshire. Four days later, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and by the end of the month Johnson announced he wouldn't seek re-election. But on the same day that Kennedy made his move, US soldiers lined up hundreds of old men, women, and children in the South Vietnamese village of Mai Lai and shot them dead, one of several massacres that remained secret until the end of the decade.

Just as the US was looking for a way out, it was losing its soul.

"Everywhere we talk liberty and social reform," wrote the prescient muckraker I.F. Stone in the midst of growing chaos, "but we end up by allying ourselves with native oligarchies and military cliques – just as we have done in Vietnam. In the showdown, we reach for the gun."

On April 4, a shot rang out in Memphis, ending the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterward, riots erupted in 125 cities, resulting in over 20,000 arrests and the mobilization of federal troops and the National Guard. Two months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary race. By July, there had been over 220 major demonstrations on campuses across the country. Despite clear signs of deepening social conflict, however, the war overseas continued to escalate. In the first five months of the year, almost 10,000 soldiers died in Vietnam, more than in all of 1967. At home, the violence and repression were just beginning.

"Keep clean for Gene" buttons were a familiar sight at the 1968 Democratic National Convention that August. But the protesters maced and beaten outside the meeting hall knew that McCarthy, the peace candidate, and his supporters inside were symbolically undergoing the same ritual. Barbed-wire fences around the amphitheater had led to the grim joke that the delegates were all prisoners in "Stalag 68." Keeping clean obviously wouldn't be enough.

Many who went to Chicago that summer and witnessed what became a police riot emerged either broken or radicalized. For them, the power structure had crossed a basic boundary, moving dangerously close to fascism. Even after McCarthy's headquarters was raided, the Democratic candidate for president, Hubert Humphrey, couldn't bring himself to criticize Mayor Daley's Gestapo tactics. Meanwhile, the party's plank on the war offered little solace, supporting the logic of its most hawkish elements. In short, the war was destroying the country, just as the US military was destroying Vietnam.

In the months that followed the 1968 Democratic Convention, activists preached liberation with even greater zeal. But the obstacles also increased, including a crescendo of busts aimed at leaders of the expanding movement. The FBI's counter-intelligence program was starting to take hold. Several pretexts were used for the arrests, among them dope, assault, obstruction of justice, and an “anti-riot” law. There were also lesser charges, such as "Failure to fasten the seat belt on a Rochester-Buffalo flight" – filed against the Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, vandalizing a representation of Smokey the Bear, and disrespect for the flag by hanging it as a curtain – even though advertisers were using the same design to sell canned tomatoes and deodorant. Apparently, it was all a matter of "intent." Using the flag to sell products was patriotic, but hanging it across a window was disrespectful, an un-American act.

In November, Richard Nixon profited from the polarization and disillusionment, winning the presidential election in one of the closest votes in US history. During his campaign, he promised to end the war "and win the peace." Once in office, he quickly reversed himself, expanding it into Cambodia with over a year of secret bombings. Meanwhile, his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, called anti-war activists "ideological criminals."

Before the end of the decade, the list of martyrs included Che Guevara, executed in Bolivia after a misguided attempt to export the Cuban revolution; Andreas Papandreou, the Greek reformer overthrown in a military coup that put CIA agent George Papadopoulos in power; Kwame Nkrumah, the brilliant anti-imperialist president of Ghana whose socialist leanings sparked another CIA-backed military takeover; and Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther leader who was shot in his bed on December 4, 1969 as part of the FBI's obsessive crusade to destroy militant black groups.

Historian Eric Hobshawm wrote, "If there was a single moment in the golden years after 1945 which corresponds to the simultaneous upheaval of which the revolutionaries had dreamed after 1917, it was surely 1968, when students rebelled from the USA and Mexico in the West to socialist Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, largely stimulated by the extraordinary outbreak of May 1968 in Paris, epicentre of a Continent-wide student uprising."

In France, student strikes sparked a nationwide revolt that demolished the liberal myths of permanent stability in advanced societies. In Czechoslovakia, reformers defied Soviet power during the revolt known as Prague Spring. In Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, student uprisings challenged authoritarian rule. But the backlash was fierce and deadly. As Soviet tanks canceled reform in the East Bloc, soldiers opened fire on hundreds of students in Mexico City, and legalized repression came to the United States. 

Half a century on, the wounds still haven't healed and the betrayals and lies continue.

From Dangerous Words: Part eight of “In the 60s: Education of an Outsider.” 

Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir

MUCKRAKING MEDIA CONSPIRACY CIA TERRORISM RIGHTS FBI UN-AMERICAN REPRESSION DOOMSDAY NARCISSISM COLD WAR SURVEILLANCE LITERACY ANTI-NUCLEAR ANARCHISM FATALISM FREEDOM LIBERATION REACTIONARY MERGER DISINFORMATION PEACE MISSILES ALTERNATIVE CONTRAS DOUBLESPEAK FASCISM DRUGS SECRET IMPERIAL SUPERPOWER MULTIPOLAR RELIGION ECOLOGY CRIME NON-ALIGNED DISSENT DEMOCRACY...            Chapter Index


Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir

By Greg Guma

Contents

Audio Prologue ON THE AIR: Burlington Reflections (May 2016)
Part One: Education of an Outsider (1960-1968)

Part Two: Fragile Paradise  (1968-1978)


Part Three: Prelude to a Revolution (1974-1978)