Psychopaths as politicians

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” – William Shakespeare

It is widely known that the United States faces a severe problem dealing with issues of mental health. We also know there is a disconnect between the needs and desires of the people and the policies promulgated and implemented by the politicians who supposedly represent us. Sadly, we could say the same about most other countries. This brings to mind a political science finding first articulated by Plato: those who seek power do not deserve to have it. 

A disproportionate number of those who seek power may suffer from the disease of “callous and unemotional traits,” shorthand for a cluster of characteristics and behaviors, including a lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt, shallow emotions, aggression and even cruelty, and a seeming indifference to punishment, which is a euphemism for psychopathy. We just don’t connect the dots because we pay so little attention to mental health.

Psychopathy and sociopathy are considered forms of “antisocial personality disorder.” The American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual (DSM-5) defines antisocial personality as someone having 3 or more of the following traits:

    * Regularly breaks or flouts the law.

    * Constantly lies and deceives others.

    * Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead.

    * Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness.

    * Has little regard for the safety of others.

    * Is irresponsible and can’t meet financial obligations.

    * Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt.

Does this remind you of a prominent politician?

Up to three percent of the population may qualify for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, and according to an article in The Atlantic, When Your Child is a Psychopath, researchers believe that nearly one percent of children exhibit psychopathic traits, about as many as have autism or bipolar disorder. Until recently, the condition was seldom mentioned. But in 2013 callous and unemotional traits were added to the DSM-5. The condition can go unnoticed because many children with these traits—who can be charming and smart enough to mimic social cues—are able to mask them. 

Some experts consider this condition “terminal” and untreatable. One out of five of these children at risk becomes a psychopath. Psychopaths, however, make up about one percent of the general population and as much as 25 percent of male offenders in federal correctional settings, according to the researchers. It follows that probably one of five adult psychopaths evolved into psychopathy at least partly because of environmental and nurturing circumstances. As a society, we seem to be insufficiently concerned about providing the proper environmental and nurturing circumstances to our children. This failure occurs perhaps because of the psychopathy of some politicians to begin with, who create a vicious circle with their focus on exploiting people instead of promoting sanity and well-being. As a society, we manifest some psychopathic tendencies when we ignore the millions of children who go to bed hungry every night, the millions of homeless spread throughout our cities, and the tens of millions without medical insurance.

Psychopaths commit fifty percent of the violent crimes. We can infer they are capable of committing crimes against humanity if and when they reach a position to do so. If they are charming and smart enough to mimic social clues and mask their psychopathy, they could justify their aggression against the public according to popular ideologies and using brainwashing techniques to control their allies and subjects. In fact, psychopaths are known for being cunning and manipulative, according to Michael Woodworth, a psychologist who studies psychopathy at the University of British Columbia. “It is unbelievable. You can spend two or three hours [interviewing psychopaths] and come out feeling like you are hypnotized.” Many powerful politicians and cult leaders have the same ability, which can be mistaken for genuine charisma. Woodworth, however, has shown that speech patterns give them away. 

The population of the U.S. is approximately 331 million. The number of politicians at all levels (local, state and federal) in the country is estimated at 520,000 according to the latest available data. Therefore, about 1/16 of a percent are politicians and could all be psychopaths. I’m not saying they all are. I’m saying that the subset of psychopaths can fit within the set of politicians with room to spare. I do believe they exert disproportionate influence on our polity.

There is no way to directly prove that many politicians tend to be psychopaths, but inductive reasoning supports it. “Psychopaths are typically profoundly selfish and lack emotion.” In lay terms, psychopaths seem to have little or no ‘conscience,'” according to an article in LiveScience. Infamous dictators like Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, and Stalin manifested those characteristics in the extreme. Closer to us, Trump and some of his closest associates manifest similar traits, as demonstrated by their willingness, for example, to separate immigrant children from their families, imprison them in cages, and then give them to strangers knowing there was no adequate mechanism to reunite them, all for the sake of a perceived political advantage. Trump in particular is known for being profoundly selfish and lacking emotion, particularly empathy. His behavior, according to the author of The Cult of Trump, is typical of leaders who suffer from malignant narcissism and manifest their sadism by a conscious ideology of self-affirmation. Such individuals “have a tendency to destroy, symbolically castrate, and dehumanize others. Their rage is fueled by their desire for revenge.”

Another hallmark of a psychopathic brain is an overactive reward system especially primed for drugs, sex, or anything else that delivers a ping of excitement. A significant number of male politicians certainly seem to be primed for sex (and sexual abuse), even when externally they pretend to condemn philandering, respect women, and uphold the highest moral values. I’m not aware of specific studies on the extent politicians are more likely to be primed for drugs, but there are some interesting figures concerning criminal tendencies, including drug-related charges. After researching public records, newspaper articles, civil court transcripts, and criminal records, the political news site Capitol Hill Blue determined (in a year 2000 report) that, among members of Congress alone:

* 29 had been accused of spousal abuse.

* 7 had been arrested for fraud.

* 19 had been accused of writing bad checks.

* 117 had bankrupted at least two businesses.

* 3 had been arrested for assault.

* 71 had credit reports so bad they can’t qualify for a

credit card.

* 14 had been arrested on drug-related charges.

* 8 had been arrested for shoplifting.

* 21 were then defendants in lawsuits.

* 84 were stopped for drunk driving in 1998, but released after they claimed Congressional immunity.

If we add the massive corruption that exists at every level of government, the aptitude for criminality manifested by the political class can seem boundless.

Researchers have an idea of what an adult psychopathic brain looks like, thanks in part to the work of Dr. Kent Kiehl, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico and the author of The Psychopath Whisperer who have scanned the brains of hundreds of inmates at maximum-security prisons. “Kiehl and others believe that the psychopathic brain has at least two neural abnormalities—and that these same differences likely also occur in the brains of callous children.”

The first abnormality appears in the limbic system, brain structures involved in processing emotions. In a psychopath’s brain, this area contains less gray matter. “It’s like a weaker muscle,” Kiehl says. “A psychopath may understand, intellectually, that what he is doing is wrong, but he doesn’t feel it. ‘Psychopaths know the words but not the music’ is how Kiehl describes it. “They just don’t have the same circuitry.”

Psychopaths not only fail to recognize distress in others, they may not feel it themselves, as reflected in abnormally low heart rates. Studies of thousands of men in several countries all point to this biological anomaly. “We think that low heart rate reflects a lack of fear, and a lack of fear could predispose someone to committing fearless criminal-violence acts,” according to Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania. Or perhaps there is an “optimal level of physiological arousal,” and psychopathic people seek out stimulation to increase their heart rate to normal. “For some kids, one way of getting this arousal jag in life is by shoplifting, or joining a gang, or robbing a store, or getting into a fight.” 

Could it be that a man like Trump has been getting an optimal level of physiological arousal by stealing from the people he contracted with in his many failed businesses, robbing the poor to pay himself and others who are super-rich, joining the gang that is the Republican party, robbing respirators from state governors, and constantly getting into fights with China, traditional American allies, and others? Could it be that other legislators who so often engage in risky and criminal behaviors are doing so to get their fix? 

Perhaps we should be concerned not only about the the physical condition of political candidates, but demand that they have their heads examined by Dr. Kiehl.

Amaury Cruz is a writer, lawyer, and political activist from Miami Beach. He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a Juris Doctor.