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.
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fleeing war in Syria, the children of undocumented immigrants, families that will lose health coverage if Obamacare is repealed, our men and women in the military who are transgender, females he was accused of groping; he could care less about their stories.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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.