I am an historian. I know of many societies that have fallen, or began to decline, when they ended up being led by an insane person or persons. I define insanity as a state of being seriously mentally ill, often including delusional behavior and being out of touch with reality. Antisocial personality disorder is a type of insanity that fall on a spectrum ranging from simple narcissism to psychopathology. Generally, it is more prevalent in males. Many world leaders (Hitler, Stalin, Amin, Putin, Trump, et al) meet the definition.
Two of the most dangerous types of insanity are sociopathy and psychopathy. Mayo Clinic defines sociopathy as “…a mental disorder in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior. Individuals with antisocial personality disorder often violate the law, becoming criminals. They may lie, behave violently or impulsively, and have problems with drug and alcohol use.”
Sociopaths and psychopaths tend to act in similar ways. They may be charismatic, charming, unreliable, controlling, selfish and dishonest. They feel entitled and deny responsibility for their actions. They usually lack empathy, emotional responsiveness, and insight into their personality disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) declares both sociopaths and psychopaths, to be potentially dangerous. Both are arrogant, grandiose with a sense of status, preoccupied with their own attractiveness, have delusions of power, exploit others, lack empathy, and have a perceived sense of entitlement. They show no regard for what is right and wrong and willingly ignore the rights and feelings of others. Both types of individuals are frequently a danger to themselves and to society.
It is estimated that this personality disorder shows up in 1% - 4% of the general population throughout our species, with environment being the behavior mitigation factor. Historically when societies are weakening, they are unstable and fertile ground for the rise of all manner of insane behaviors. These structural issues enable personality disordered individuals to reach positions of power much easier than when society is strong. Since Donald Trump came into America’s political spotlight, sociopathy, and all of its confusing aspects, has come into America’s consciousness almost as strong as during the rise of Hitler. Trump is a symptom of the condition of our society’s disintegration of our democratic and social structures. He and his followers are consistently positioning to kick out the corner posts of our democracy. The recent attack on the husband of the Speaker of the House, the person second in line to the presidency is a harbinger of increased violence in society.
I believe that this is where we are right now. It is my opinion that as a nation, and perhaps even the world, we are being set up for capture by potential leadership (autocracy) that is sociopathic in nature. That’s why I think it so important to name it and discuss it in the open so we understand what we’re dealing with.
Unmasking a Personality Disorder
I recently read an article by David J Lieberman, The Six Common Signs of a Sociopath (10/16/22), Lieberman is a psychotherapist, researcher and author specializing in human behavior and interpersonal relationships. In his article, he lists common signs of anti-social personality disorders. Let’s apply his definitions of socio-pathology and psychopathology to the known qualities of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
First of all, it’s important to realize that a sociopath has no real sense of self. They project into the world a carefully crafted personality. Their habitual lying is just another layer of that masking. What’s difficult to decipher is that they have the capacity to mimic genuine honesty when they lie. Their tendency is toward hyperbole such as we see in Donald Trump. For example: "I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words." Or, again from Trump, "I'm the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody's ever been more successful than me. I'm the most successful person ever to run.”
Sociopaths don’t have a moral compass that tells them right from wrong. What they consider to be ‘right is simply that which is in their best interest. From their perspective, whatever they do is completely justified. They feel no remorse and live without fear of social disapproval. They style their personality to charm or provoke others, effectively shackling and manipulating them. Some lack impulse control and exhibit a range of erratic behaviors, faults and destructive habits. They are dangerous in the sense that they are impulsive, even to their own detriment. But the ones playing the long game, such as Putin, are especially harmful because they are perfectionistic, skillful and slippery, yet they are able to come across as just the opposite. Their contradictions leave those around them, and those they influence, confused and captured by their chaos. This is especially toxic and treacherous when these people are in positions of leadership because their status enables them to get away with far more than the average individual.
Sociopaths know how to trigger the psychological buttons to gain control in relationships, both close and distant. This behavior is designed to gain some degree of compliance that enables them to assess their target’s emotional stability. Their fickleness and unpredictability keeps their target off-guard, and although sometimes a sociopath is hard-wired for randomness, other times what they do is carefully calculated. If their target is not compliant, they’ll move into attack mode and drop all semblance of decorum. This is most frequently recognized in domestic violence situations, but it holds true in corporate and political environments when a sociopath is in a leadership role.
When it serves their purpose, sociopaths may display great humility, appearing to come out from behind their mask. The truth is, it’s just another mask. Since they have a hard time gauging their impression management, they’ll typically go overboard, which is a tip as to their insincerity. They are volatile, erratic and prone to emotional decisions, which make sociopaths in many ways, far more dangerous than psychopaths, who tend toward keeping a very low social profile.
Lieberman concludes in his article, “Unmasking personality disorder is tricky. Avoid disagreeing with them publicly. This may lead to humiliation, and any word or action that causes them to feel shamed cuts very deeply and can trigger severe reactions.” As we look at Trump’s MAGA operations, egregious personal behaviors, compulsive lying and volatility, it becomes clear that this is a person who has never been held accountable for his actions and will do anything for profit without remorse, and Putin’s aggression against Ukraine while threatening to use nuclear weapons, as well as his willingness to publicly and painfully annihilate opposition without contrition, it becomes clear why there appears to be no obvious pathway out of their influence without removing them from position of power.
That said, NOT to deal with them has far-reaching, potentially horrific implications. In the case of Putin and his ability to launch an all-out nuclear war, the approach that Joe Biden is taking by helping Ukraine stop his aggression before it spreads throughout Europe strains Putin’s resources and keeps him from being backed into the very corner that could trigger him. And on the domestic front, surrounding and fortifying democracy against the influence of Trump and his minions, is akin to blocking pathways before he gets to them.
Eliminating the options and variables that sociopaths so expertly know how to manipulate can buttress the world against their destructive potential. It makes total ruination unprofitable for them and provides an off ramp from the world stage. I believe this is the best way to retire them from public leadership and the damage that they do.