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 some 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
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 less than a decade ago. 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 might 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 give a similar response if confronted with his own psychopathic tendencies. And they apparently don’t seem to 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? Just think of the “sensational” controversies and pathological behavior we would get to witness. Bad behavior, after all, is pure catnip for millions of “infotainment” consumers. Can we ever really get enough?
Greg Guma is the author of The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. This essay was originally developed for radio in 2011.