AMERICA WAS RIPE FOR PLUNDER BY A PSYCHOPATH (PART TWO)
The Moral Regression Of Our Body Politic
By 2016, it was not only the media landscape but also the political landscape — at least that significant parcel staked out by Republican-leaning voters — that was ripe for plunder by a clinical psychopath. The GOP had become a party that had devolved into a beyond truth and shame institution. Thus, it was ripe for takeover by someone who embodied the defining traits of a clinical psychopath: pathological lying, the shattering of norms abetted by the lack of of a functioning conscience, the unyielding drive to dominate, and the preternatural ability to sow division. These defining traits had become the business model of the Republican Party. (These four cardinal traits have been identified through rigorous and extensive research. For an examination of the scientific foundation of psychopathy, see here: for a description of what it is like to be a psychopath, see here.)
These core traits, and the behaviors emanating from them, have always been a part of the dark political arts associated with the rough and tumble of hard-fought campaigns, which are, after all, about the pursuit of political power. But the Republican Party had typically relegated them to the department of dirty tricks or the province of political operatives, self-designated henchmen such as Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and Karl Rove. However, by 2016, these traits had been openly embraced by the GOP. This allowed for the hostile (but relatively easy) takeover of the Party by Trump.
The assault on truth has been trumpeted by the GOP at least since 2000. The disinformation campaign to justify the war in Iraq was, we now know, extensive, carefully planned, and celebrated within the Bush administration. Karl Rove had disdained the “reality-based” community and crowed that the Bush administration played a “meta-game” based on tribal warfare, faith, and narrative. In his response to climate change, financial deregulation, and Iraq, Bush put the word of scientists, intelligence officials, and career civil servants alongside that of partisan hacks. Beyond truth was the new normal.
The shattering of norms without apparent concern for consequences has been a feature of the GOP at least since Newt Gingrich came onto the scene and normalized vicious and scathing attacks on any colleague who deviated from party orthodoxy. W’s administration abandoned the pretense of any sober-minded conversation about the serious issues of the era, such as climate change and Mideast policy. They defied international law by embracing torture. Mitch McConnell took it to another level with his refusal to allow a hearing for Merrick Garland, contempt for Senate rules and decorum, and anti-constitutional tactics.
The spirit of bipartisanship and the ability to collaborate yielded to the all-encompassing drive to dominate and secure power. Obama came into office on a wave of goodwill and strong approval ratings, determined to heal the divide between Red and Blue America. He extended an open hand to the GOP but met a closed fist. From the outset of his administration, the Republicans adopted an explicit and united effort to nullify his governance attempts. “Winning” at all costs had eclipsed statesmanship.
Divisiveness had become the operating principle of the GOP by 2016. Negative partisanship — hatred of the other tribe — was the driver of electoral success. The preternatural ability to divide had become a desirable trait in a candidate. Hello, Donald, the master divider. His rallies were improvisational masterpieces. The stagecraft was right out of Celebrity Apprentice and World Wrestling Entertainment. He pitted the “real” Americans (God-fearing, flag-loving, beer-drinking, hard-working) against the “other” Americans (snobbish elites and the tax-eating, job-usurping brown skinners). He personified the divisive message, which converted to rapture with the GOP base. Michael Moore discerned this underlying dynamic of the 2016 campaign when he said:
He is the human Molotov Cocktail they’ve been waiting for. The human hand grenade they can legally throw at the system which stole their lives from them. On November 8 (2016), the dispossessed will walk into the voting booth, be handed a ballot, close the curtain and take that lever and put a big fucking X in the box by the name of the man who has threatened to up and overturn the system that has ruined their lives: Donald J. Trump. Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history and it will feel good.
Lying, the shredding of norms, winning at all costs, and fomenting polarization are the observable traits that have taken over the political culture the past twenty-some years. But what fueled the emergence of these traits? What dark forces privileged these traits over more virtuous ones, and favored politicians who embodied these characteristics?
There are two animating forces: racism and grievance.
There has been an evolution in the treatment of race within the GOP for the past 50 years. By the late 1960s, most saw the mission of ensuring black people’s civil rights as a virtuous quest. Politicians could debate, justifiably, the merits of a particular piece of civil rights legislation or court case, but they could not appeal directly to racial resentment. It was no longer acceptable in our moral discourse. Barry Goldwater was obliterated in 1964, mainly because he opposed the Civil Rights Act. George Wallace was the last open proponent of segregation. Any politician after him who tried to (think David Duke, the White Nationalist Party) was branded as unfit, out of the mainstream, and morally dubious.
Still, the civil rights movement engendered a good deal of animus, particularly in the south, but also in the midwest and northeast, as the nation shakily embraced integration. That allowed for a chunk of votes for anyone that tapped into that resentment. The GOP pounced. While they couldn’t appeal directly to racial resentment, the “dog whistle” emerged as a sufficient modus operandi. Just think of Nixon’s “southern strategy,” law ’n order rhetoric, and the “silent majority”; of Reagan’s campaign launch in Greenwood, Mississippi (the site of the murder of civil rights workers, the town an iconic symbol of civil rights resistance); of George H.W. Bush’s use of racial innuendo in the Willie Horton ads as the central component of his presidential campaign; of W’s embrace of the Confederate flag in his South Carolina primary campaign where his team disseminated misinformation that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child.
Even with these dog-whistle messages, the resentment never dissipated. The Republican base was ready to eschew the dog whistle of racial animus for the braying of a white nationalist. Well, Donald cooperated, and the Republican base went wild. He rode into the public arena on his tale of birtherism: the charge that Barack HUSSEIN Obama was foreign-born, a Muslim, supported by jihadists and out to undermine America., Nothing subtle here. A naked appeal. Polls showed that a majority of Republicans believed this calumny. And the establishment Republicans, politicians, how did they respond to the birtherism canard? They tried to dog-whistle it by smirking and refusing to repudiate it. That probably would have worked in the past, but now looked wimpy and ineffectual next to Trump’s open support for “very fine people” and the Proud Boys.
The base adores him for his flouting of politically correct norms for racially sensitive speech. And to be clear, Trump did not create the populist backlash to Obama marked by furious racial scapegoating. He simply took advantage of it. And by doing so revealed the ignorant and white nationalist beating heart of the Republican base.
Trump has also tapped brilliantly into the marrow of grievance that has been part of the bases’ DNA for decades. Frank Rich was on to this in the Spring of 2016 in an article in New York magazine titled “What The DONALD Shares With The RONALD: The Trump Candidacy Looks A Lot More Like Reagan’s Than Anyone Might Care To Notice”:
Reagan’s and Trump’s opposing styles belie their similarities of substance. Both have marketed the same brand of outrage to the same angry segments of the electorate, faced the same jeering press, attracted some of the same battlefront allies (Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Phyllis Schafly), offended the same elites (including two generations of Bushes), outmaneuvered similar political adversaries, and espoused the same conservative populism built broadly on the pillars of jingoistic nationalism, nostalgia, contempt for Washington, and racial resentment (Page 39).
Trump shone a light on this animating spirit of the GOP base; their conviction that they (beer-drinking, pious, American flag-lapel wearing, plain spoken) are the REAL Americans as opposed to them (the “tax eaters,” “the line cutters,” and their benefactors — the wine-drinking, Godless, highbrowed snobs with their fancy education). And them, led by the devils Obama, Clinton, and Biden, are usurpers of the American Dream.
Such orthodoxy is the fundamental and dangerous conceit of the GOP base.
This hardened divide was illuminated in a research-supported treatise, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, written by Katherine J. Kramer, a professor of political science. In this National Book of the Year Award nominee, she reports on the in-depth interviews with residents of Wisconsin crafted to explore the partisan divide.
Catherine Kramer grew up in small-town Wisconsin and eventually worked her way up to political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She loves her state. She is grateful to have grown up in a culture in which people are “notoriously nice, seriously nice.” What she found in her research was distressing: the culture she grew up in has been seriously fractured.
You can feel the heartbreak in her core observation that contemporary politics is most accurately viewed thru the lens of resentment. The resentment was not over issues, or ideas, or politics in general, but between citizens. During a recall effort involving Scott Walker, the Republican governor, boundaries broke down. She notes:
People stole yard signs from each other. They stopped talking to one another. They spit on each other. ln one case, they even tried to run each other over, even if married to one another… This is shocking. Unfortunately, it is not unusual in Wisconsin anymore. It has gotten downright nasty around here. People in casual conversation are treating each other as enemies(page 147).
Cramer found that the resentment ran mainly in one direction: from the rural/small town to urban; from the high school educated to college and beyond educated; from the private sector to the public sector; from the white working class to the black/immigrant underclass. It’s one thing to identify resentment; it’s another to grasp its essence. Cramer emerged from her five-year journey shaken, “I went into this project with a love of Wisconsin; I came out of it with a deep concern for the nature of democracy in the state and in the United States in general.”
This resentment runs deep and, until recently, mostly from the Red to the Blue. Those Americans, primarily white Americans, who had been trampled by the shift to the post-industrial information economy, were now fed up. Fed up with the economic decline. Fed up with the political class responsible for it. Fed up with the “coalition of the ascending.” Fed up with not being recognized. Trump heard them. Trump connected with them. Even if we decry that this resentment enables a delivery system for falsehoods and exacerbating divisions, we must acknowledge that Trump spoke effectively to their “we’ve been screwed’ deep story. He delivered what the base felt: pure, unadulterated grievance.
Yes, Trump had the psychopathic chops to deliver this message better than anyone. The ability to lie smoothly, ridicule elites, sow division, scapegoat immigrants, swallow the dog whistle of racism, and play the victim card, enabled Trump to cement his connection with the base. At the time, it seemed shocking, but now obvious that he would have no trouble dispensing with the clown car group of retrogrades that he ran against in the Republican primary.
But make no mistake. Trump was an outlier in GOP land only in style. In substance, he is the apotheosis of Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, McConnell, and the rest of them. The psychological ground had been seeded for Trump’s particular set of traits to flourish. Misinformation, winning at all costs privileged over governing, loss of decorum, white nationalism, and grievance had already become the GOP land’s cash crops. It was easy harvesting for a man who didn’t just want to exploit those traits, but exuded them.
AMERICA WAS RIPE FOR PLUNDER BY A PSYCHOPATH (PART THREE)
…and She was fleeced by a master practitioner
By 2016, the media and political landscapes had become friendly territory for someone seeking the presidency who suffered from a severe and dangerous psychopathological condition called Psychopathic Personality Disorder. This condition consists of a set of hard-wired, immutable traits, including the absence of a conscience, deceit, arrogance, and divisiveness. It is easy to condemn such traits as destructive, but they have also been characterized as “malignant charms” because they can lead to a kind of short-term, winning-the-moment domination and success. By 2016, since our media and political culture had descended into a beyond truth and shame state, these traits (sadly) operated as advantageous “charms” for someone pursuing political power.
The conflation of news and entertainment had created a media landscape that was user-friendly for a candidate skilled in the beyond truth and shame expressive style. Fox News, talk radio, evangelical TV, and other conservative media companies have become purely political operations, ratings-driven conglomerates absent of any journalistic standards or accountability. Also, the tabloid-style of social media allows for the delivery of emotionally provocative content untethered from reality. Trump’s Twitter feed is but one example of a delivery system designed to stoke emotion and blunt reason.
Likewise, for the political landscape. Pathological lying, the shredding of norms, winning at all costs, and fomenting polarization are the uncontested traits that have taken over the political culture the past twenty-some years. In particular, these traits were openly embraced by the GOP, as evidenced by the Gingrich slash and burn mode of political combat, George W. Bush’s administration’s disdain for the “reality-based” community as “clueless,” and Mitch McConnell’s contempt for Senate rules and norms.
These altered landscapes — populated by Vichy Republicans, Fox News, and conservative talk radio — licensed bad actors who would engage in the assault on truth, ruthlessly pursue domination of others outside their tribe, and undermine norms without regard to the damage that may cause. The clinical psychopath is like a cold-blooded machine designed to lie, dominate, and act without remorse. Dangerous though they may be, psychopaths have just the “malignant charms” to thrive in our current political environment.
And Donald Trump does meet the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy. He scores in the moderate to severe range on the gold-standard measure of clinical psychopathy (which does not require an interview in order to administer). And thrive he did.
In addition to the advantages conveyed by his core psychopathic traits, Trump possessed other skills that were instrumental in his rise. These include:
His ability to brand. He knows how to make a label stick e.g.“Little Marco,” “Pocahontas.”
His ability to turn failure and disgrace into gold.
His ability to spin a capitalist fairy tale about his life, as he did in “The Art Of The Deal.”
His ability to swallow the dog whistle of racism and appeal openly to white nationalists.
His persona, the gangster capitalist, fit naturally into our postmodern slot of the flawed antihero. Like Tony Soprano or Walter White, he would do anything to make sure his family came out on top.
He played the anti-intellectualism card effectively. Book learning, expertise, power points, and policy analysis were for “losers” (“Where has it gotten us?”)
Until the past year, for fully one-third of the country, he transmogrified the country’s governance into a spectacle that was fun. His rallies are mostly riffs, as expertly executed as Chris Rock’s: a display of narcissistic preening, Mussolini-like gestures, and scatological rhetoric. Burlesque and politically incorrect authenticity fused in his performance, resulting in a gay dance between the cult leader and his minions.
Just as importantly, for fully one-third of the country, he turned the experience of being an American citizen into torture. He recognized that partisan hatred was the most potent political dynamic in the land. And no one could make liberals cry harder than Donald Trump.
Most critically, his years in front of the camera with Celebrity Apprentice and Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment had honed his skills as a Reality TV performer. He understands the fundamental modus operandi of Reality TV: to be riveting.
To meet that goal, he utilized the ratings-tested tropes of low-brow entertainment, such as:
Simple plot lines, with an emphasis on good vs. evil. Low art sells because it is digestible and 100% pleasurable; high art, with its emphasis on complexity, empathy, and suffering, not so much. In the former, the payoff is immediate; in the latter, well down the road, if at all.
Evocative, easy to digest, and crude dialogue. This is the ‘ he talks like l do’ refrain. Studies show Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level (e.g.,” shithole countries.” “If l were running “The View,” I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. l mean I’d look at her in that fat ugly face of hers. I’d say “Rosie, you’re fired!”)
Paint a vivid setting. He typically describes Blue America as a hellscape.(e.g., “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store.”)
Theprotagonist as an antihero The “villains” are more popular in Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment; the ruthless one often prevails in The Apprentice; the “bad boy” has the edge in The Bachelor.
Assert superior intelligence (“I’m like really smart, a very stable genius.”)
Rapidly interchange and exaggerate facial expressions. Compare Trump to any other politician on this dimension: it’s like watching a high- energy cartoon vs. a staid PBS show.
Liberal use of dramatic twists and cliffhangers (“You’ll find out soon…”)
– Reference to conspiracy theories (“Obama and Biden spied on me.”)
Yes, our media and political landscapes were morally-compromised and allowed for the ascendance of someone like Trump. But Trump himself deserves a fair share of the credit. The set of his psychopathic traits, coupled with his Reality TV skills, were a formidable combination.
We may not have imagined the conflagration that has ensued, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. If white grievance and disgust with the political class were the kindling, then those combustibles didn’t just ignite with a match, but the blowtorch who is our 45th president of the United States.