We must now ask if the President of the United States is a psychopath

August 31, 2017

As a criminologist of extreme acts of violence, I spend a lot of my time talking about psychopaths and sociopaths (essentially the same social types with different focuses on causes). I’ve lectured about psychopathic serial killers and sociopathic hate criminals. My 2000 book with Wayne S. Wooden, Teenage Renegades, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency, included a large piece I wrote about the psychopathic tendencies of school shooters. Boys with guns and without impulse control in places like Springfield, Oregon and Littleton, Colorado.

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Now it’ time to talk our president and sociopathy. His visit to Texas on Tuesday in which he didn’t visit with a single victim of the devastating bomb blast of Hurricane Harvey raised a giant red flag. (Such visits are a typical response from the consolers in chief).  He didn’t even mention them. He did mention the crowd size that came to see Him and how big and expensive His disaster was. “What a turnout!” he said. Nothing for the millions of Americans suffering . To be fair, a day later in Springfield, Missouri, he did read a speech that someone prepared for him, after much hand-wringing over the president’s lack of empathy, mentioning the flood victims. “All America is grieving with you,” he read.

Donald Trump has shown this cold lack of empathy before. Refugees fleeing war in Syria, the children of undocumented immigrants, families that will lose health coverage if Obamacare is repealed, our men and women in the military who are transgender, females he was accused of groping; he could care less about their stories. Women who get cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood? Meh. People who live downstream from deregulated chemical plants? Screw ‘em. DACA kids in college? Criminals.

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Lack of empathy doesn’t make you a psychopath. It makes you an asshole. But the lack of empathy is one of the hallmarks of sociopathy. Psychopaths often have an early history with animal cruelty. Most of us see a puppy and think, “How cute! Snuggies!” A psychopath sees the same puppy and wonders what it would look like doused in gasoline. The clinical diagnosis is Antisocial Personality Disorder. The APA estimates that it impacts about 1% of the population (although in prison populations, it can be as high as 23%) and I’m guessing our president is one of them.

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The best way to explain sociopathy is with some Freudian imagery. Imagine a cartoon character with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The devil is the primitive id that acts on basic impulses and the angel is the social superego that restrains those impulses with society’s rules. That’s why Freud put so much emphasis on potty training. It’s the first real attempt to put the “If it feels good, do it” idea in social check. You can’t poop in your diapers forever. There are rules up in here.

Most of us have a nice balance, and we know when to listen to the angel and when it’s okay to listen to the devil. But psychopaths are dominated by their ids. They say and do whatever they want. They can say something and they say the exact opposite minutes later just because they want to. They can grab women by their genitals just because they think they’re entitled. They can threaten nuclear war just because it’s kinda fun. They never apologize because they never feel guilt. It’s everyone else’s problem. They’re the greatest person in history.

The research on sociopathy is fascinating. Some of it explores the role a dysfunctional cerebral cortex plays in preventing psychopaths from seeing themselves in other’s shoes. Some of the research looks at the role of early childhood trauma, like sexual abuse. Research has demonstrated that the more comfortable a person is, the less empathy they show to others who are less comfortable. We also know that sociopaths tend be both narcissistic and compulsive liars. It’s all about them and what they can get away with. Sound like anybody we know?

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Not all sociopaths become serial killers or school shooters. It’s a continuum. Mild sociopathy might be rewarded on Wall Street or in the military, or anywhere where there’s a “take no prisoners” or “show no mercy” value set. Psychopaths are common in the world of hate as it rewards the ethic of cruelty without guilt. If you ever wondered about people who make Hitler their role model, like Trump fan James Fields, who drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protests in Charlottesville, there’s a good chance they’re a psychopath. These “evil” people tend to show some red flags early in life, including what’s known as the Macdonald Triad. Kids who engage in animal cruelty, fire-starting, and bed-wetting are at a higher risk of later sociopathic behavior. Is Trump’s nanny still alive? I have a few questions.

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So sociopathy can range from a cruel boss who could care less about your sick kid to a serial killer who has sex with the heads he’s chopped off. The scariest part of sociopathy is how little we know about it and, therefore, how to treat it.  While I was working on my book on the subject, I read Jonathan Kellerman’s Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children (1994). Kellerman, a psychologist, argues that until a reliable treatment for Antisocial Personality Disorder is found, the best course of action is to lock up psychopaths at the earliest opportunity, even if they are children, to protect society from their impulsive acts of terror.

My PhD is not in psychology, but I’ve been studying sociopaths long enough to know the red flags when I see them. Donald Trump’s trip to Texas, that served as a campaign stop instead of a sincere effort to understand the on-the-ground suffering, is one flag too many. He seemed more concerned with hawking his $40 USA hats than wading in the dirty water with Americans who have lost everything. I don’t know if Donald J. Trump is a psychopath and therefore unqualified to lead this great nation. I just think it’s a vitally important question to ask and answer as soon as possible.

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Postscript: There’s a pattern where Trump does or says something stupid (Remember his initial comments about Charlottesville earlier this month?), but then his handlers set him back on script. Trump is going to donate one million dollars OF HIS OWN MONEY to flood relief. But the True Trump always comes back to undercut Teleprompter Trump.

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Bring on the anal phase!

November 15, 2016

What goes in must come out. That’s the mantra for the transition from the oral phase to to the anal phase. Sigmund Freud may have gotten some bits of our psychological development wrong, but, at least in Western culture, potty training is a watershed moment. (Are desert nomad toddlers potty trained? I don’t know.) Suddenly, “poop” becomes the most important word in the entire language! Poop!!!! There’s a bit of an anal fixation in the house at moment. Just ask Cozy.

I tried to calculate how many diapers I’ve changed in the last 27 months. It’s gotta be over 3000. (I know my wife has change a few, as well.) I’m about done. Let’s get this kid on the john, stat!

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Doctor Freud put a lot of weight on this stage of child development. The first phase is the ORAL PHASE, taking up the first two years of life. Here, baby is just a raging ID, feeding its hella selfish “pleasure principle” by sticking anything and everything in its mouth: binkies, boobs, toes, Cheerios, checkers, and mortgage checks. Cozy was a freaking Hoover. I’m surprised I didn’t have to Heimlich the house keys out of her esophagus. The oral phase is just me, me, me! Feed me! Wipe my ass! Vote for my best interests!  It’s exhausting.

The oral phase is followed by two years in the ANAL PHASE. “Me” is balanced out by “They” as Selfish Baby learns there are external rules to play by, called “society.” You just don’t eat whenever you want, there is mealtime. Get a good night’s sleep because day is wakey wakey time. And you can’t crap in your pants forever, we have something called a TOILET. (Although, this past week, adults were excused for profusely pooping in their pants.) So potty training is one of the ways we first learn about the expectations of the culture we live in.

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Freud put a lot of weight on this rite of passage. It’s meant to balance the pleasure seeking Id with the socially oriented SUPEREGO. Think of a devil on one shoulder (The Id) and an angel on the other (The Superego). The head in middle is our EGO and decides who to listen to. If parents don’t potty train a child in time, they can become an Id-driven sociopath. (Don’t mention Trump. Don’t mention Trump.) But if the potty training is too severe, parents can produce Superego-dominated little neurotics. Jerry Seinfeld must have been potty trained at 6 weeks. So a lot of weight is placed on parents not to create future serial killers.

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Cozy is starting her Superego training. It must me nice to have someone change you whenever, but she needs to start letting us know when she has to go. Even just after she goes would be helpful. We’re spending more and more time on the potty, trying to make something happen. I like to grunt like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “Constipation Blues,” to give her the hint to put her back into the effort. She’s starting to get it. She’s currently obsessed with farting, so we’re almost there. (Sorry, Mom. That’s on me.)

For Freud, potty time is supposed to be “They” (society) time, but it can also be me time. I’ll see her sitting on her IKEA kids’ potty with a book or singing to herself, or just pondering the merit of the electoral college. As much as I’m ready for this to be the norm, I don’t want this sweet child to inherit my neuroses because I was in a rush to cancel the diaper service.

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They must be smarter at her daycare because she had a BM in the toilet last week (getting a blue star!) and I’m still trying to coax a tinkle. I feel like the balance of her entire personality rests on this process. She seems strangely comfortable in a wet diaper which has me worried she might become an arsonist or an ultimate fighting fan. She’ll say, “Daddy, poop,” not when she needs to drop a deuce but when she’s trying to get out of taking a nap. Psychopaths tend to be highly manipulative. Should I start to worry?

When I was a kid in the seventies, I knew hippie parents who had their children in diapers to almost puberty. Those kids are now all Tea Partiers. But I also don’t want Cozy to be so afraid of pooping in her pants that she becomes sadistically anal retentive. That’s what Virgos are for.

The responsibility is almost too much to bear. I know we’re not the first parents to hold our child’s future psychoses in our sweaty hands. I’m anxious for any helpful hints on this project. We want poop in that pot.

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Saying “No” to Elmo: The Superego vs. the red monster

May 12, 2016

I regularly ask myself about the motives of whoever created Elmo. The little red monster from Sesame Street may be a friend to every toddler and just wants to be tickled. Or Elmo (he/she/it) might be a plot by pint-sized aliens to undermine the very socialization that makes us a civilized race that cares about important things like what to wear to a job interview and/or Tinder date.

I’ve written plenty about how, according to Dr. Freud, kids get a full two years for being raging little monsters, driven by their impulsive Ids, before the expectations of society kick in in the form of the Superego. This is represented by the shift from the oral phase to the anal phase. What goes in must come out and potty training represents (perhaps too figuratively) the collective restraint on the individual pleasure-seeking principle. Basically, it’s time to stop being a selfish little prick.

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Cozy is turning 21 months-old in a few days and you can really see the superego arriving. The theme song at the moment is the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Cozy is learning that just because you want it, you can’t have ice cream for every meal (or any meal). You can’t always play with crayons (or mom’s make up). You can’t always put your hands on mom’s boobs. (That one is a bitter fucking pill.) And soon she’ll learn that you can’t always crap in your pants (unless you are Ted Nugent trying to get out of serving in the military).

This news has not been welcomed by our precious daughter. The first time I tried to stop her from hitting the cat she looked me like, “What the fuck, Dad? What else is this cat good for?” A valid question, but still. Often her response will be a complete meltdown, banging her head against the wall. Or on her hands and knees, banging her head on the floor, yelling “No! No! No!” I just laugh. Is that wrong?

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Where this really plays out is with her worship of Elmo. Now that she can actually say, “Elmo,” it’s clear how important this muppet is to her. (Why couldn’t it be the ever emo Mr. Snuffleupagus?) When the “Elmo’s World” theme song comes on Sesame Street her absolute joy is contagious. It’s hard to not smile as she dances and claps and shouts hosannahs to her little god. But part of me wonders if Jonestown started this way.

Like Elvis, Elmo is everywhere; on the TV, the laptop, the iPad, the smartphone. There are two Elmos in her room and one on her toothbrush. She knows with a swipe or a voice command, she can call up a YouTube video like a prophet calling upon a burning bush. Actually it’s much easier than being a prophet. If only Abraham had had Siri. You don’t have to patiently wait for your god to return “some day.” It’s instant gratification with Lord Elmo.

That’s why it’s even harder to say no. “Elmo is sleeping, dear.” “Elmo will be back later, honey.” “Elmo is off with The Count, tallying broken dreams, pumpkin.” “Elmo has childhood leukemia and can’t get better until you take a fucking nap, sweet pea.” Oh, the holy hell when Elmo is briefly banished. But Cozy gets it. After the obligatory #toddlerlivesmatter protest, she’s on to something else, like taking the peaches out of the peach yogurt.

Freud urged great caution in this transition. Without enough superego training (the “You can’t do that” admonishment), you end up with a little psychopath who will become a serial killer or a Trump supporter. But too much superego training and you end up with a kid who has a neurotic personality. (I see Woody Allen is back in the news.) Since Cozy’s dad has a touch of this affliction, I hope to spare her the worry.

The other day Cozy spilled something and put her hands on her face and yelled, “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” like she had just accidentally deleted her dissertation. The look of horror on her face. Andrea turned to me and asked, “Gee, where did she learn that from?” Being slightly neurotic, I felt slightly guilty.

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So maybe I should give her a bit more Elmo time for now. We’ve got three months before the anal phase officially starts. That should be a real joy.