Ponerology 101: The Political Psychopath
by Harrison Koehli, sott.net, June 13, 2010
Before their research into corporate psychopathy, Paul Babiak and his colleagues raised several questions in need of answers. They are equally relevant to the study of political psychopathy and can be rephrased as follows:
- How could a psychopath outshine other candidates and achieve success in politics?
- Why would a psychopath want to enter politics?
- How long could a psychopath successfully operate in such an environment?
Jim Kouri, who served on the National Drug Task Force, has trained police and security officers throughout the United States, and is currently the fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, answers the first question in an editorial for examiner.com:
Quite simply, most [psychopathic] serial killers and many professional politicians must mimic what they believe are appropriate responses to situations they face such as sadness, empathy, sympathy, and other human responses to outside stimuli. ... If violent offenders are psychopathic, they are able to assault, rape, and murder without concern for legal, moral, or social consequences. This allows them to do what they want, whenever they want. Ironically, these same traits exist in men and women who are drawn to high-profile and powerful positions in society including political officeholders.
Politics is a dog-eat-dog world. Not only must politicians be relatively thick-skinned to handle attacks on their character, they must be capable of dishing it out in return. Psychopaths lie with ease; they do not have any moral scruples when it comes to character assassination, empty promises, shameless self-promotion, cutthroat tactics, and using any means to justify the end. These qualities give them the leading edge over their more honest (and often naive) competition.
Politics is little different than any other con-job. In a Ponzi scheme, for example, the con artist targets members of an identifiable group, whether religious, racial or age-based. Regardless of whether or not the scammer is a member of the target group he pretends to represent the group. While political psychopaths are instrumental in the rise of totalitarian political groups, they play an equally important role in apparently Democratic governments. Their use of a party mask (no pun intended!) is so common that it can easily be called their primary modus operandi
But why would a psychopath enter politics in the first place? Simply ask the question, "Who is the most powerful person in the world?" and many will answer: 'the President'. Psychopaths seek positions of power and influence, and politics offers publicity, prestige, and other perks. It also provides positions of ultimate authority over military, industry, and entire populations. In a world where psychopaths are understandably viewed as morally repulsive, often finding themselves at home in the criminal world, politics offers an opportunity to create a new world, to be free from the ridiculous (in their minds) moral and legal rules of society.
Scanning recent headlines, we regularly see examples of the corruption and fraud typical of white-collar psychopaths:
In what could turn out to be the greatest fraud in US history, American authorities have started to investigate the alleged role of senior military officers in the misuse of $125bn (£88bn) in a US-directed effort to reconstruct Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The exact sum missing may never be clear, but a report by the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) suggests it may exceed $50bn, making it an even bigger theft than Bernard Madoff's notorious Ponzi scheme. (Patrick Cockburn, "A 'fraud' bigger than Madoff", The Independent, February 16, 2009)
Defense Department Cannot Account For 25% Of Funds - $2.3 Trillion
On Sept. 10, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ... said money wasted by the military poses a serious threat. ... "According to some estimates we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions," Rumsfeld admitted. ... Rumsfeld promised change but the next day - Sept. 11-- the world changed and in the rush to fund the war on terrorism, the war on waste seems to have been forgotten. ("The War on Waste", CBS, January 29, 2002)
Israeli police have recommended charging the country's hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, with several counts of corruption as part of a bribery investigation, in a move that could lead to his resignation and a significant government reshuffle. Lieberman, head of a popular far-right party, is suspected of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and obstruction of justice in a case dating back over nine years. If charged and convicted on all counts he faces up to 31 years in jail. (Rory McCarthy, "Israeli police recommend corruption charges against Avigdor Lieberman", The Guardian, August 2, 2009)
In 2008, Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich came under similar media scrutiny, with several commentators speculating as to his mental health. Blagojevich was impeached for attempting to auction off newly elected President Obama's vacant Senate seat. However, even before his impeachment, the signs were obvious. In his profile of the governor for February 2008 issue of Chicago Magazine
, David Bernstein portrayed Blogojevich as narcissistic, arrogant, vindictive, charismatic, irresponsible, impulsive, untrustworthy, and with presidential aspirations (how typical!).
After interviewing more than 20 associates of Blagojevich ("from current and former members of the governor's administration and his campaign staff to state lawmakers, Democratic benefactors and operatives, academics, pundits, and political prognosticators"), Bernstein noted that several "resorted to colorful, four-letter language when describing the governor. The list of printable insults included "greedy," "dumb," "paranoid," and "phony."" They described dramatic displays of temper over items as trivial as office stationary, "alleged illegal hiring and political kickback scandals", his unapologetic lateness for meetings and even funerals, and a litany of political failures and embarrassments. As Bernstein puts it, for the man who once bragged of his "testicular virility" in standing up for himself against the offender in the stationary incident, "all the withering criticism, negative newspaper headlines, and next-to-nothing approval ratings should feel like a kick to the groin. But if he's fazed, he doesn't show it. In public, he looks easygoing, unshaken, even self-assured. He still cracks jokes and smiles that big, toothy grin
Cool under pressure, Blagojevich obviously saved his temper for more profitable situations:
"He can't control himself," says Miller. "I've heard people say that on his own staff." A Democratic insider adds, "Rod sometimes just goes out of his way to have a fight, just because he can. It's as though he relishes them." ... Last summer, the downstate newspaper the Peoria Journal Star declared that the governor was "going bonkers." Privately, a few people who know the governor describe him as a "sociopath," and they insist they're not using hyperbole. State representative Joe Lyons, a fellow Democrat from Chicago, told reporters that Blagojevich was a "madman" and "insane." "He shows absolutely no remorse," says Jack Franks, the Democratic state representative. "I don't think he gives a damn about anybody else's feelings. He tries to demonize people who disagree with him; he's got delusions of grandeur."
Called a "liar" and likened to a "used-car salesman" by lawmakers after one incident, "in an unprecedented move, they demanded that Blagojevich put any promises on paper in so-called memorandums of understanding." In fact, he spent much of his time in office "fending off accusations of ethical irregularities within his administration." But despite the rumors, innuendos, and outright accusations, "Blagojevich has claimed - sometimes indignantly - that he has done nothing wrong. He blames the scandals on "a few bad apples who violated the rules" and who deceived him." In short, Blagojevich shows all the hallmarks of a political psychopath, albeit a fairly obvious one. And he surely isn't the only one. Just as the 'best' psychopaths are those who evade detection, living lifetimes of successful crime, the best political psychopaths operate in such a manner as to hold on as long as possible.
Robert Hare, in his 1970 book Psychopath: Theory and Research
, as well as James Blair, Derek Mitchell, and Karina Blair in their 2005 book The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain
, observe that negative environmental conditions such as low socioeconomic status, abuse, and poor parenting, along with low IQ, are often associated with high psychopathy scores, particularly among those who engage in persistent, violent criminal behavior. These psychopathic offenders are often considered the worst of the worst in courts and prisons. However, these factors seem only to affect the expression
of psychopathy. As Dr. Hare says in filmmaker Ian Walker's excellent documentary, I, Psychopath
, on the diagnosed psychopath and self-styled narcissism guru, Sam Vaknin, while psychopaths often tell of some traumatic childhood that made them the way they are, psychopaths come from all backgrounds, good or bad
. Speaking of successful psychopaths like Vaknin, he says, "If you're very bright, know how to dress well; you have, say, the gift of the gab; you're raised in an affluent family background; [then] you don't go in the bank and rob it, you get in the bank and become a director..."
In fact, Vaknin makes a perfect case study for the type of psychopath that is most dangerous to political institutions, and thus entire nations. Best known as an Internet guru for "malignant self-love", Vaknin was arrested in Israel in 1995 for major securities fraud. The documentary follows Walker, Vaknin, and Lidija (Vaknin's wife) as they visit several European institutions to test if Vaknin is indeed a psychopath. Vaknin ends up scoring 18 (out of 24) on the PCL-SV (Screening Version), developed by Dr. Hare, a score higher than the majority of offenders in US correctional facilities, and the cutoff point for psychopathy
. However, according Walker, Vaknin, like many of the so-called successful psychopaths now being studied by Hare, Bakiak, and others, is not an "archetypal, textbook" psychopath. Contrary to the criminal populations, Vaknin is never physically violent. He has also been married to the same woman for ten years, while most psychopaths are seemingly incapable of such 'commitment', engaging in a string of short-term relationships. (His emotional treatment of her is another matter, however.) Most interestingly, he is remarkably self-aware
, and his insights agree with what the experts have to say. For example, in total seriousness, Vaknin had the following exchange with Walker:
Vaknin: "I like to present a facade of the self-effacing, modest person. It gives people the impression that, underneath it all, I'm human."
Walker: "But you are human, aren't you?"
Vaknin: "I firmly believe that you want to believe that, yes. ... [The psychopath] regards people as instruments of gratification and as disposable things to be used. ... The vast majority of psychopaths, like an iceberg, are underwater, and like an iceberg, they are inert. They do nothing. They're just there. They torment their spouse by being unempathic, but they don't beat her or kill her. They bully coworkers, but they don't burn the office. They are not dramatic. They are pernicious. Most psychopaths are subtle. They are more like poison than a knife, and they are more like slow-working poison than cyanide."
After subjecting Walker to a series of degrading insults (a regular occurrence during filming), and with Walker still visibly in shock, Vaknin coolly, and with disturbingly sadistic insight, described the process to him:
"Your body was flooded instantly with adrenalin and its relatives like norepinephrine ... Now when these moments pervade the bloodstream, your brain reacts. It shuts down certain centers and activates others. This is called the stress reaction, or stress syndrome, actually. Then when the abuse recedes, the adrenalin levels begin to drop. As they drop, the entire system goes into mayhem. So what bullies usually do, they start and stop, start and stop. That achieves the maximal stress syndrome, and this is the great secret of bullying. Never overdo it. Small doses. The victim will do the rest. - Although you are shaking much less [now] ... I must do something about that."
This type of self-aware psychopath is perhaps the most dangerous to humanity. When his instinctive drive for domination of others is coupled with the means to attain to positions of power, he is not only free of the restraints of conscience by nature, but finds himself largely above (or indeed the architect) of the laws that are meant to protect normal human beings from the the deviant impulses so clearly defined by the psychopathic mind. As a president, politician, military or corporate chief, a vast number of people are literally at his mercy.