D.C. Diagnosed: Why Psychopaths Thrive in American Politics

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As of this minute, the news gives us this to consider: “What I would say to anyone who would try to link this terrible tragedy to anyone who opposes abortion or the sale of body parts, is this is typical, left-wing tactics,” says presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina. Fiorina, of course, made a splash during a GOP primary debate when she fervently spoke of a video, allegedly filmed undercover at a Planned Parenthood facility, depicting the literal butchering of a living baby. The story today is that the candidate is outraged by insinuations that her claims had any influence on a killing spree that took place at, ahem, a Colorado Planned Parenthood facility The attack was conducted by a man who, when questioned by police about his motives, muttered one of Carly’s “no more baby parts” talking points. Yes, of course, Candidate Fiorina. How absurd such accusations are! We simply must ask: where do these killer crazies get their weird ideas? It defies all rational explanation.

Or maybe there’s a more pertinent question to ask: what kind of person would simply invent a grisly story (and as evidenced by scores of fact-checkers, Carly’s description was at best a wild exaggeration of a heavily doctored web clip, or more likely, one big lie) to rally potential voters to her side—bluntly put, for her own self-serving agenda? What human soul could deny wrongdoing when it seems hugely plausible that her heated plea was heard by the man who drew blood for the cause? What sort of antisocial element would then turn said denial into a naked, logically unjustified attack on her political enemies?

Psychopaths. Let’s come right out and say it: this sort of behavior is typical of the psychopath. It’s a word we too readily bandy about ignorantly and inappropriately. So to be clear, we are not using this term in the slasher movie sense of it, nor shall this be a purely editorial appraisal with unduly charged vitriol. We are using this word in the clinical sense, as studied by psychologists and others for uses such as diagnosing the mentally disturbed. It’s a sticky thing to pin down exactly—more a swarm of interconnecting pathologies than a disease in and of itself. But in the words of Kevin Dutton, researcher at Calleva Research Center for Evolution and Human Sciences and author of the book The Wisdom of Psychopaths:

Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers—a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse and the manipulation of others—are also shared by politicians and world leaders […] Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent.

Those with psychopathic traits, then, would not strictly be some murderous Ed Gein or John Wayne Gacy, Jr. characters. Bloodlust aside, the commonalities they share would seem to include a calculating cunning, a total inability to care about or empathize with others, and an overarching need to gratify their own wants, no matter the harm it does others. Critically, they’ve got the uncanny ability to mask not just their intentions but their condition. They routinely put on Oscar-caliber shows of being perfectly nice, perfectly likable, perfectly human. They do not necessarily stalk; often times, they attract their prey directly to them.

Given what some have described as the “natural talents” inherent in many psychopaths, one might expect to find them distributed more or less evenly across different walks of life. It would seem to make sense that they might thrive just as easily in car sales, as blowhard media demagogues, or as the sadistic types who cruise the clubs for their fiendish good times. But data on the issue suggests a different story. Criminal psychologist Robert D. Hare wrote in 1994 that psychopaths constitute only one out of every 100 human beings; this has become an orthodox estimate. Narrow this to a given sector of the populace, and the numbers jump around. Hare’s figure for prison populations leaps, just as we’d expect, to roughly one in six. As per those in merciless fields like politics, the work of psychologists like Paul Babiak and Martha Stout has placed the number at a supposed one in 25—easily less than you’d find on Cell Block D, to be sure, but four times the number you’d encounter most anywhere else in life. As Stout told David Freeman of the Huffington Post:

Yes, politicians are more likely than people in the general population to be sociopaths. I think you would find no expert in the field of sociopathy/psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder who would dispute this…

With this in mind, it would stand to reason that any person who would angle for the most powerful leadership position on the planet might just have that inflated sense of worth; that said candidate’s smile is convincing but never to be trusted; that this person would invent one nonsense issue or another (or a whole campaign’s worth) purely to curry a voting bloc’s favor, and that human lives lost in the wake of such string-pulling were hardly a thing to lose sleep over. In Fiorina’s case as outlined above: Check, check, check, and check.

But why pick on poor ol’ Carly Fiorina specifically? Because as of this minute, the news gives us that to consider. This is, after all, an article about psychopathy in American politics, and given the time of its writing, Carly simply serves as a contemporary reference. But remember that at any given point, the perfect example of the charming, the cheating, and the unfeeling in government will be readily at hand and up-to-the-minute. The psychopath is cold, but can feign passion; he cannot care, but can pretend to brilliantly. The psychopath knows exactly who you need him to be, what parts of you he’s got to tease out and seize upon, to get you willfully dancing through fire for him. To him, all things are but dead matter, there merely to exploit, to serve him, to discard when it is no longer of use—or when destruction seems to him a better use.

Ultimately, what the psychopath wants is unfettered power and control. So ask yourself now: what profession in all of these United States could be any more gratifying for these demented souls than politicking? Exactly what kind of person would not only seek a position in high office, but do so with cutthroat mastery—who would best savage his opponents in his climb to the top? Who’d make it an extraordinary career, and from there make it his family’s birthright, a dynasty that becomes a de facto aristocracy? Where better might the mad find a home than in Washington, D.C.? The names, faces, and particulars will be the stuff of daily news, but psychopathy in leadership has been and will be our history. The job itself demands no less.

Okay, yes, savvy readers will have noticed: much of the above was unduly charged vitriol. But remember, we’d only promised more than a purely editorial appraisal. Opining aside, there’s a compelling case to be made for the strange prevalence of the scheming and destructive in the country’s capitol. And if this is indeed the state of American affairs—if psychopaths are truly at the helm of this great nation—may God help us if we sometimes get worked up about it. Anyone who keeps an eye on Washington will tell you: it’s enough to drive a person insane.

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