In recent days the political news has been like an episode of some TV drama about high-level corruption – call it Criminal Minds meets The West Wing. The head of the International Monetary Fund – the global financial organization that sets terms for development aid -- was jailed in New York for allegedly assaulting a housemaid sexually at his hotel. Meanwhile, in California news broke that the state’s movie-star governor – known as both the Terminator and the Gropinator – fathered a love-child almost a decade ago and it didn’t come out until he was about to leave office.
Then, of course, there’s the presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich, a poster child for bad behavior, launched last week with a series of disastrous missteps and rationalizations.
What the three men have in common, aside from wielding more influence than they can handle or deserve, is that their serial misbehavior went unchecked for years. In fact, it was rationalized as mere exuberance, frequently excused in “exceptional” people, when it actually demonstrated something else – ruling class impunity.
Ask yourself: Is it possible that these were isolated lapses in judgment? In other words, was this the only time Dominique Strauss-Kahn went after the help, or the only instance of Arnold Schwarzenegger cheating on his wife and exploiting those beneath him? Not too likely. And it’s surely not the only time Gingrich has excused his own bad behavior as a side effect of patriotism – while simultaneously trashing the basic humanity of a political opponent.
If these are patterns, why are millions so fascinated, often even seduced, by people whose behavior actually points to pathology? Perhaps we are wired to be attracted by psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, 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 psychopaths 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 has provides an excellent history and analysis in his new 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 and Gingrich high marks:
1.Glibness, superficial charm
2.Grandiose sense of self-worth
3.Need for stimulation, proneness to boredom
6.Lack of remorse or guilt
8.Callous, lack of empathy
10.Poor behavioral control
11.Promiscuous sexual behavior
12.Early behavior problems
13.Lack of realistic long-term goals
16.Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
17.Many short-term marital relationships
19.Revocation of conditional release
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 that 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? Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a strong candidate. 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.
Newt Gingrich would likely have a similar response if confronted with his own psychopathic tendencies. At the moment, he is engaging in a standard strategy – claiming redemption and re-inventing himself. In his case it's an epic rationalization that may not work.
It is widely agreed that Newt is an opportunist and a scoundrel. But that clearly doesn’t 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, got his best turnout, a million votes. 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.
Some people said Harding had been poisoned by his wife, Florence DeWolfe, a cold, snobbish banker’s daughter known as The Duchess. Rumors spread that she was trying to avoid disgrace, possibly even Harding’s impeachment. The administration had become notoriously corrupt. The Duchess fed the rumors by refusing to allow an autopsy.
It remains a mystery to this day. But 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 Warren Harding could become president, why not Newt Gingrich or someone equally disturbed? Just think of the future scandals and all the pathological behavior we would get to witness. Bad behavior is, after all, catnip for millions of information consumers. Can they ever really get enough?
This is adapted from Maverick Media’s Rebel News Round Up,* broadcast live at approximately 11:15 a.m. Friday on WOMM (105.9-FM/LP – The Radiator) in Burlington.
*Edited transcripts don’t include extemporaneous comments and last minute changes or additions.
Check out The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and popular Movements