Don’t Underestimate The Cheater-In-Chief
Chapter 1: Trump’s psychopathic personality disorder is an asset in his quest for re-election.
Some 70 days out from the election and America faces twin threats from the president: he could win re-election, and he could further decimate our democratic norms. The former is a distinct possibility, the latter is an unfolding reality.
As always, Trump’s hard-wired personality traits tell much of the tale. Alas, these destructive tendencies – which have wrought so much damage to the country – serve his re-election efforts
The purpose of this chapter is not to depress you but to alarm you. If a predator is lurking outside your tent, alarm is the appropriate reaction, particularly if it fuels an adaptive response. To receive objective information about the president’s personality structure should evoke alarm.
However, the advantage in understanding Trump’s pathology is to help get off the cortisol roller coaster – driven by his latest assault on the country or insult to our moral sensibilities and undergirded by his domination of the media landscape. Some 70 days out and, we need to channel our anxiety into defeating him, not spending our time and energy obsessing over him. We need to translate apprehension into practical action.
But first understand this: one way to help ensure the psychopath prevails is to fail to appreciate his true nature and the advantages that flow from his psychopathic tendencies.
Psychopathic personality disorder (PPD) is a clearly-defined and impressively validated condition that afflicts 1% of the population. PPD appears to be largely a heritable condition with an insidious and spontaneous onset between the ages of 6 and 10. What is inherited are brain abnormalities that help explain the tragic deficiencies in conscience, ability to bond, and impulse control that plague the psychopath (from the German word psychopastiche, which translates to ‘suffering soul’).
State-of-the-art research strategies have enabled us to identify and understand the core features of PPD. Factor analytic and multi-pronged validation studies have resulted in a ‘3 factor’ model of the disorder. There are three distinct symptom clusters or sets of traits found in all those who meet the strict diagnostic criteria for PPD: (1) A ferocious drive to dominate others, fueled by a manipulative and deceitful mode of behavior.
(2) An utter lack of conscience, which is explained by an inability to experience states of guilt, shame, or fear, emotions that might curb behavior that could harm others.
(3) An inability to inhibit impulses, leading to reckless and unreliable behavior.
These traits are easy to condemn. It is hard to imagine how any of them could represent an advantage to the suffering souls that are afflicted with them. Yet, the drive to dominate and the lack of conscience are assets to the president in his quest to retain power. These traits animate his mastery of certain political arts, the dark political arts that we find in 2020. To understand how requires some elaboration of the nature and strength of these pathological traits.
The drive to dominate is one of the central features of the psychopath’s makeup. It fills the void left by the psychopath’s inability to form a loving connection with others. This inability is related to deficits in the paralimbic section of the brain which is associated with the processing of feelings of love, empathy, tenderness, and compassion. Psychopaths are missing the gear to connect deeply. Thus, their marriages are usually short-term, loveless affairs where the partner is viewed as a possession, one that they may feel angry to lose, but never heartbroken. Relationships are about securing status and benefits, not about giving or receiving love.
Although bereft of the ability to form a warm bond with others, the psychopath is turbocharged to achieve dominance in a relationship. That is his sole goal. His focus is one-dimensional and aggressive (“grab ‘em by the pussy”). He concentrates on immediate gains and gratifications driven by his egocentric needs. Incapable of being moved by feelings of love, he is deeply moved by the drive to achieve and maintain superior status. The threat of losing status, since it is the only game in town, elicits frantic, no-holds-barred efforts to maintain his authority.
“ I am smart and powerful…the rest of you are idiots and there to do my bidding” is the hard-wired mindset of psychopaths ( See this for a compilation of Trump’s assertions of superior intelligence). This operating principle of arrogance will dictate Trump’s choices and decisions. He does not lack confidence. Life is reduced to the game of winning. And to be fair, he has racked up a lot of wins. His instincts in that realm are savage and unfettered.
And he has plenty of emotional fuel. As noted above, there is the drive that comes from the monomaniacal focus on maintaining status ( which may be tweaked at the moment by a whiff of desperation emanating from recent polls). But the psychopath also draws energy from his preternatural abilities to bully and lie. The psychopath enjoys bullying. He also enjoys what is referred to in the clinical literature as “duping delight,” which is a kind of glee at putting something over someone.
If we put to the side ethical considerations or concern for others and restrict ourselves to the arena of “winning,” the psychopath does not lack focus, confidence, or drive. An election fight, of course, is just such an arena. Trump transforms all endeavors into a game of winners and losers, which he gleefully referees. Trump, of course, is the clearcut winner (“I’d give myself a 10”, “I’d say I’m doing a fabulous job”). In comparison, losers would be those who outline a detailed, scientifically-based response to Covid-19 (that would be you ‘sleepy Joe’ and Dr. Fauci) or offer robust proposals to the economic crisis (that would be you ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘nervous Nancy’). Politicizing the pandemic is only one example of the expression of Trump’s PPD. And now he is in the election cycle, a more natural arena for his formidable, natural inclinations. The wind is at his back.
Nor does he have to sweat over how to go about winning. Deceitfulness and the talent to generate divisiveness are inherent in this ‘drive to dominate’ cluster of traits with the psychopath. Glibness and superficial charm are well-honed. The psychopath is all about “winning the moment” and “selling” himself. He can be entertaining and seductive. He is always drawn to what benefits him and disadvantages the other. He can lie casually and comfortably. What he cannot do is be sincere.
Cheating and deceit are the psychopath’s natural calling cards. They would have no problem doctoring the accounting, gaming the tax system, stiffing contractors, shredding the Constitution’s emoluments clause, or steamrolling groups who are powerless.
Psychopaths are also adept at stoking grievances in others. Since they often feel aggrieved, they know how to tap into that feeling in others. They know the language of victimization. They are skilled in the art of trolling. They have an exceptional talent in whipping up people’s resentments.
The arrogant and deceitful mode of the psychopath can translate into real or perceived abilities. Psychopaths are persuasive. They can spin creative, believable stories. Their grandiose pronouncements can be taken for self-confidence and charismatic leadership. Their affinity for danger and risk-taking can be alluring to some.
Trump has demonstrated his inability to govern effectively or work collaboratively with others. However, he was born with a preternatural ability to be domineering, deceitful, and divisive. We can hope these tendencies work against him in the election, but it is only realistic to fear they may work for him.
The absence of conscience is at the heart of PPD. Studies reveal this group appears to have an inherited, neuro-developmental abnormality reflected in a diminished capacity to experience three emotional states: fear, shame, and guilt. Psychologists call these states “inhibitory” emotions because they guide us to be sensitive to and cautious toward threat situations, and lead us to have an appropriate concern for the effects our actions might have on others and thus mitigate our selfish or immoral tendencies.
This deficiency in conscience is hard for us to fathom. We all struggle with the strictures of our conscience, even if we are not always successful. That struggle is a fundamental humanizing tendency that drives our protective concern for others and constrains our selfish and exploitive impulses. But there is a small percentage among us (1%) who do not struggle with their conscience. We assume conscience is universal and therefore are at the mercy of those not constrained by one. We are just not wired together to recognize that 1% of us can live totally outside the social contract.
How could remorselessness be an advantage? Let Martha Stout, author of the acclaimed Sociopath Next Door, explain:
Imagine—if you can—not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, harmful, or immoral action you have taken…Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs. Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless…You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their conscience, will most likely remain undiscovered…Maybe you are someone who craves money and power, and though you have no vestige of conscience, you do have a magnificent IQ. You have the driving nature and intellectual capacity to pursue tremendous wealth and influence, and you are in no way moved by the nagging voice of conscience…You choose business, politics, law, banking, or any of a broad array of other power professions, and you pursue your career with a cold passion that tolerates none of the usual moral or legal encumbrances… You have a special talent for whipping up other people’s hatred and sense of deprivation… And all this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever…You become unimaginably, unassailably, and maybe even globally successful. Why not? With your big brain, and no conscience to rein in your schemes, you can do anything at all. (p. 1)
“Anything at all” captures Trump’s modus operandi. His presidency has been a game of how much he can get away with. For the most part, Trump has relied on two dance moves: lying and dividing. He can execute them with impunity. To date, Trump has told over 22,000 lies as president. He is a master at stoking the cold civil war in our country. No one has ever owned the libs like Trump. He had the chutzpah to turn the dog whistle on racism in the Republican Party into a hearty chorus. We can’t blame polarization on Trump, but he has been a master facilitator of our divide. And, because of his remorselessness, deception is as easy as a golf cart ride on one of his resorts. He is not embarrassed by his fabrications and has no concern for being found out for telling unlikely stories. He has no unpleasant feeling of fear or guilt that might serve as a brake on his impulses to deceive and divide.
Some 70 days out…and polls suggest that lying and dividing may not be enough for Trump to eke out another victory. Since the voters from his base may not be sufficient, and since he has forsaken swaying new voters to his side, he and his minions are choosing to cheat citizens who would vote against him out of their votes. And to cheat on a scale we have never seen before in American history.
There have been corrupt presidents throughout history. But no president has brazenly sabotaged a fundamental government service upon which the country relies to hold on to power. No one has ever weaponized the federal government for corrupt means like Trump and his loyalists.
A man with no capacity for restraint is an alarming opponent. He will do anything to win, whatever the risk, whatever the collateral damage.
We need to recognize the political power of remorselessness. In our current civil war, we need to acknowledge that Trump has already won many significant battles. He has already delegitimized the election for a large swath of the country. He has successfully mounted an assault on the concept of truth. He has loyalists in crucial government positions who are abetting the weaponization of federal power. He has shattered the norm that it is unacceptable to operate outside the rule of law. He has infected the body politic with nihilism and cynicism.
We need to not underestimate him.
It is easy to make the case that cheating at cards is not only immoral but also a losing strategy. In the long run, the card cheat will likely be exposed and ruined. But of course, in the short run the card cheat could very well walk away from the card table with all your money.
Please be informed.
Stay in the fight.