Psychopaths appear to have been with us from antiquity, through medieval times, to the present. Descriptions from Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, and classical literature are remarkably consistent in revealing the presence of those that were intellectually intact, but lacked the capacity for moral reasoning. The advent of modern psychiatry – especially the establishment of reliability and validity in the clinical diagnosis of disorders – has enabled us to confirm the descriptions from classical literature: that there is a distinct clinical entity called psychopathic personality disorder that is stable across history, culture and socioeconomic status.
Our ability to reliably diagnose psychopathy is largely due to the development of rating scales – the Hare Psychopathy Checklists – designed to measure the degree of psychopathy in an individual. The Checklists were designed by Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist, and his colleagues. Hare and his colleagues developed the checklists by listing over 100 behavioral, emotional, interpersonal and lifestyle traits that had been observed in criminal populations or had been emphasized by the pioneering clinician’s who had worked with the “morally insane”
over the past couple centuries. Through statistical analysis and studies to establish reliability and validity, Hare was able to winnow the original list of traits to 20 items which he published in 1991. A second scale, called the clinical version, was distilled down to 12 items and was published in 1995.
Each trait on the Checklists has earned its place by capturing a meaningful ingredient of psychopathic personality disorder. Each trait has a distinct flavor and enables us to better understand the psychopath.
Two traits on the Checklists – irresponsibility and failure to accept responsibility – sound quite similar and therefore require explanation to appreciate the distinction between the two.
But first, let me set the table: Trump, based on his life history data, received the highest score attainable for each of the traits.
Irresponsibility is mostly about not getting the job done, not meeting ones’s obligations and commitments. Psychopaths easily make grand promises, but rarely keep them. They are derelict snd feckless.
Irresponsibility is in the Impulsiveness domain of core psychopathic traits.
Psychopaths avoid responsibility because they know they do not have the skills or temperament to handle more complex challenges. They display significant deficits in focus, planning, organization, and perseverance. Their aspirational horizon does not extend beyond the immediate, tangible gain. They are stuck in a “what’s in it for me?” mindset, and a “winning the moment” mode. They have no bedrock of deeper aims or values that could bolster their efforts to persevere with or even take on demanding responsibilities.
Michael Lewis, in his book The Fifth Risk, describes Trump’s determination to shirk the administrative demands of the office. Trump actively undermined the transition process after he won the election. He quickly disbanded the transition team headed by Chris Christie, telling him “we can take an hour off from the (Inaugural) party to learn everything we need to know about running the government.” Conducting an orderly and substantive transition meant taking on the responsibility of governance. Trump wanted nothing to do with that. He did not have the interest or skill to take on the quotidian details of governing.
The federal nonresponse to Covid was entirely predictable. The crisis demanded discipline and hard work. Trump has no interest in wading into those waters. Golf weekends or coronavirus task force meetings? No contest. Oversee a coordinated federal response? Ha! It has been dereliction and chaos from the start. He is hard-wired to shirk from rather than take on responsibility.
Failure to accept responsibility
Failure to accept responsibility is mostly about not caring if others have been hurt by one’s actions. When confronted about the damage his actions may have caused, a psychopath refuses to take any responsibility.
Failure to take responsibility is in the Remorselessness domain of core psychopathic traits.
Psychopaths disavow responsibility for harming others because of their deficit in conscience. They do not experience guilt or shame, and thus do not feel responsible for their neglectful or destructive behavior. Lacking that basic humanizing function of conscience, psychopaths can behave callously toward others without a glimmer of guilt or shame.
“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said in March when asked about testing snafus and the Administration’s sluggish response to Covid. Since then he has refused to wear a mask, derided the importance of testing, and pressured states to prematurely reopen. Trump’s choice to politicize the pandemic has added grievously to the death toll. Failure to take responsibility for this calamity is the hard-wired response of this remorseless creature.
Irresponsibility and failure to accept responsibility should be understood as two distinct tendencies in the psychopath. But for those in the orbit of a psychopath, they can be experienced as a devastating one-two punch. Irresponsibility allows the psychopath to dismiss his wedding vows and cheat casually on a whim. Failure to accept responsibility allows him to casually dismiss the pain that cheating caused.
Trump’s irresponsibility will continue to harm us. Trump’s failure to accept responsibility will continue to enrage us (60% anyway). Get yourself and ten people to the polls.