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Psychologists Hold the Future of Democracy in Their Hands

A psychohistorical lens helps to understand the current chaos in the U.S.

By Ian Hughes, Ph.D.

Source: JStone/Shutterstock

Psychologists are in the vanguard of the resistance to Donald Trump. During the election campaign, many mental health professionals warned that Trump is mentally unfit to be President. In the turmoil that has followed his inauguration, the possibility that Trumps suffers from a dangerous personality disorder is now being openly discussed.

Psychologists, however, can and must play an even greater role in helping understand and address the chaos currently enveloping America. In fact, given the disregard that Trump has shown for the institutions and norms of democracy, it is no exaggeration to say that psychologists may hold the future of American democracy in their hands.

For decades a steady stream of psychologists has been raising the alarm on the devastating effect that people with certain personality disorders have on society. The Mask of Sanity published in 1941 by Hervey Cleckley, Robert Linder’s study Rebel Without a Cause from 1944, Theodore Millon’s 1981 Disorders of Personality, and Robert Hare’s Without Conscience have sounded a series of clear and persistent warnings. All of these authors have warned that the destruction wreaked by psychopaths and those with certain other dangerous personality disorders, namely narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder, is vastly underestimated. History vindicates this concern. The world’s most destructive tyrants, including Hitler, Stalin and Mao, all exhibited characteristics of these disorders. Together these despots were responsible for the deaths of millions.

While many questions remain, a clear narrative is now emerging that links experts in childhood development, psychiatry, psychobiography and psychohistory, political psychology, and the psychology of human well-being, that can help us understand how individuals with these dangerous disorders are shaping our world.

Childhood Development

Psychotherapists since Freud have championed three core ideas. The first is that, as infants, we require a loving environment to foster our mental development. Second, that our personalities, for good or ill, are formed in early childhood and have an enduring influence on our values and relationships throughout our lives. And third, that inadequate care in childhood can result in arrested mental development and disorders of personality.

While not every child who experiences neglect and abuse will develop a personality that endangers others, (the resilience of the human spirit sees to that), a minority do. And the persistence of primitive narcissistic and paranoid states in the mind of an adult, particularly an adult in power, can pose a clear danger to society.

Lessons from Psychohistory

History clearly shows what that danger is. Tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao each displayed traits associated with psychopathy and narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders. The lethal mixture that each of these leaders displayed in terms of their total disregard for human life, their pathological paranoia, and their narcissistic inability to doubt their own beliefs, were significant factors in the warped decision making that led to the Holocaust, the Gulag, and Mao’s Great Famine.

The severe danger posed by such leaders is, of course, not confined to the past. Psychologically trained biographers and historians continue to elucidate the devastating role that such dangerously psychologically disordered individuals have in shaping past history and contemporary events.

Dangerous Leaders and the Toxic Triangle

The course of politics and history, of course, is not determined solely by strongman leaders. Political psychologists use the term ‘the toxic triangle’ to describe the conflation of elements which allow dangerous leaders to come to power. The three sides of the toxic triangle are a toxic leader, a critical mass of susceptible followers, and an environment conducive to the leader’s rise. Today’s political circumstances are a perfect storm of inequality, terrorist threat and democratic decline. Social psychologists can help us understand how the pathology of an individual leader in such an environment can spread to envelop an entire society, and the ways in which demagogues can use prejudice and fear to aid their ascent to power.

Democracy as a Defense against Pathology

Democracy is much more than elections. In fact, Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, the press, and the rule of law present psychologists with a crucial opportunity to help redefine democracy in the public mind as not only one form of government among others, but as a system of defenses against dangerous authoritarian leadership. Free and fair elections are one of seven core pillars of democracy. The others are the rule of law, a constitution to which rulers must abide, a prohibition on the state from imposing a single ideology on citizens, taxation and redistribution to protect citizens from destitution, protection for individual human rights, and sharing of sovereignty among nations to ensure that fundamental rights are upheld. From a psychological perspective, these pillars together form an indispensable system of defenses against the rise of malignantly narcissistic, paranoid, or psychopathic leaders.

Is a New Democratic Consciousness Possible?

Trump’s challenge to American democracy is clearly not limited to his attacks on the formal institutions of democracy; he is also leading an onslaught on the fundamental norms and values that allow democracy to function. Saving U.S. democracy will not only require reforms to strengthen democracy’s ‘hardware.’ A fundamental change in the ‘software’ of society, in the form of a more democratic consciousness, is also urgently needed. In the words of Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, concepts such as truth, justice, and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks that stand against ruthless power. Here, the psychology of human well-being has a unique role to play in elucidating the conditions under which our ‘better angels’ win out over our ‘inner demons.’

By urging us to see clearly that leaders with dangerous personality disorders pose a threat to society, and that democracy is our principal defense against such individuals, psychologists can help defend U.S. democracy and restore the space for civil behavior in American politics and society. This is the key challenge of our time to which psychologists must now collectively turn their minds.

Dr. Ian Hughes is trained in physics and psychoanalysis. He is currently completing a book 'Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy', based on six years of research on the most dangerous political figures of the 20th century. He is lead author on, 'Power to the People: Assessing Democracy in Ireland' (Tasc at New Island, 2007).