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Abusive Power and Megalomania Perpetuate Trauma

Abusive power and megalomania have been amplified by American culture.

Key points

  • There are two basic ways of relating: power and dominance, vs. egalitarianism, reason, love, and compassion.
  • Colonization of the American continent and the founding of the nation involved megalomanic, dominating drives.
  • Cruelty and violence have been amplified, particularly against marginalized and minoritized communities.
  • By strengthening love, compassion, egalitarianism, the common good, and belonging, we can turn the tide.
Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, image by Ravi Chandra
Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, image by Ravi Chandra

Part four of a four-part series on trauma and healing, and excerpted from a talk given on October 2, 2023, Gandhi's birthday and the International Day of Non-Violence, titled “Treating America’s #1 Addiction: Abusive Power.” That talk is linked as a YouTube video below, and includes a Keynote presentation. It is also available as a podcast, in references. This article is an excerpt and summary of the presentation.

I was happy to celebrate Gandhi’s birthday and the International Day of Nonviolence with the talk this article summarizes. The talk, titled “Treating America’s #1 Addiction: Abusive Power” was given in a context of racism, violence and colonialism that goes back hundreds of years, and we gathered to engage with that history and context, and connect, as a caring and compassionate community, with the distress that we feel.

Three weeks prior to my talk, on September 11, 2023, a white man broke into an Asian American family’s home in Georgetown, Texas, and beat a 6-year old boy with a baseball bat. Little Jeremy showed signs of recovery but was recently reintubated and is still in the ICU. We all know what happened on September 11, 2001. But what’s less known is that Gandhi launched his non-violent resistance movement in South Africa on September 11th, 1906. 9/11 has been a distress call since at least September 11th, 1906, and we are launched every day that violence and suffering exists.

There are, fundamentally, only two ways of relating to other human beings.

  1. Power. Relating only through power is fundamentally self- or faction-centered. Others are coded as inferior, threats, enemies, or tools for one’s wiles. Those who relate through power either grandiosely think of themselves as superior, or turn fear and insecurity into a game plan to win at all costs. In the talk, I labeled this the “Manhattan Transference.” No ding on Manhattan specifically, because there are plenty of places that have a penchant for getting full of themselves. But we should all feel the danger of having a “Manhattan Project” going on in our heads. This is also called the “social dominance orientation” by social psychologists including Felicia Pratto and Jim Sidanius, who literally wrote the book on it.

  2. Love. Relating through love recognizes shared humanity and fundamental equality. Compassion recognizes that there is suffering, and that great harm has come from abuse of power. Relating through love, compassion, reason, and egalitarianism requires us to act to alleviate suffering. It also requires that we cultivate "enduring power."

We all have to contend with love and hate, fear and insecurity. But by understanding our inner lives and cultural histories, we can move towards engaging with the world, and not avoiding or dismissing questions central to our individual, social, and political lives.

America has nurtured the drive to wealth and power since the arrival of European colonists. The drive for domination involved a commitment, even an addiction, to cruelty. Power moves have perpetuated trauma and subordinated compassion, shared humanity, and love.

America has struggled with racism, white supremacy, and megalomania, all forms of abusive power, since the arrival of Europeans. For example, when Columbus arrived, he was greeted by indigenous people, who waded out to his boats bearing flowers and fruit. He wrote in his journals that their kindness would “make them good slaves.” America became an “individualistic,” colonialist, settler nation that expanded across a frontier, killing and dislocating indigenous peoples, breaking treaties with native nations and tribes, kidnapping and enslaving African Americans, and excluding, subordinating, incarcerating, and killing Asian and Latinx peoples.

Megalomania, the grandiose belief in one’s superiority and the drive to dominate and control others to achieve one’s own outcomes has been a subtle and overt force in our history. Alexander Hamilton advocated for a lifetime Presidential term, in effect an American King. David Brooks wrote in a review of Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton,

“At Valley Forge, Hamilton saw how fundamentally weak the nation was, how lacking in the sort of productive capacity one needs to wage a war or survive as an independent nation. This was the formative insight that shaped his career…He favored more centralized power than most of the delegates and was more suspicious of the masses.”

From insecurity, fear, and ambition came a drive to power. Hamilton’s efforts led to a centralized Federal bank and hence the nation’s capacity to wage war. You could draw a line from that amplification of executive, financial and military power to America’s victory in World War II, but also the wars and broken treaties with Native Nations, Executive Order 9066 (leading to the unjust and racist imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII), and the subsequent wars driven primarily by the Executive branch and not declared or authorized by Congress, from Korea and Vietnam to the Persian Gulf war, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nixon famously advocated for a Chief Executive above the law by agreeing with counsel that “if the president does it, that means that it is not illegal, by definition.” Ed Meese, counselor to President Reagan, and Dick Cheney, ranking Republican on the House Select Committee investigating the Iran Contra fiasco, advocated for essentially unlimited Executive power. More recently, then Attorney General William Barr opined that the president cannot be charged with obstruction of justice, because that threat of prosecution would throttle presidential power. Presidential authority regarding law enforcement, in Barr’s view, is “illimitable.” This view clearly supported megalomania and argued against any check on executive power. And this view was an extension of the individualist ethos that has driven the building of the nation.

Walter Weyl, who later co-founded The New Republic magazine, wrote in 1912:

“The open continent intoxicated the American, it gave him an enlarged view of self. It dwarfed the common spirit. It made the American mind a little sovereignty of its own, acknowledging no allegiances and but few obligations. It created an individualism - self-confident, short-sighted, lawless, doomed in the end to defeat itself as the boundless opportunism that gave it birth at last became circumscribed.”

Egalitarianism and conscience have struggled to create a “more perfect union” and a more resilient democracy against the pressures of hatred, hierarchy, caste, and abusive power. Diverse populations and those comfortable with diversity are still fighting to be understood in our identities – which are currently being dismissed as a “woke agenda” and “identity politics.” We are still fighting in our quest for greater belonging, our quest to create Dr. King’s beloved community.

As Americans, we have inherited abusive power and trauma. As poet Terrance Hayes wrote in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,

“Like no
Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants
Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.”

My previous post, third in this four-part series on trauma and healing, suggested that healing trauma so it doesn’t pass on to future generations requires creating transitional spaces to receive and understand it. This requires receiving difficult emotions and painful truths with mindfulness, compassion, relationship, creativity, and insight (what I call "These Five Things"). It requires we construct a way from abusive and megalomanic power to what social psychologist Dacher Keltner called “enduring power,” in his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. (See my previous post detailing six forms of power, in references.) We have to recognize the abusive influences we have inherited as Americans and humans, and vow to do better.

Keltner suggests that enduring power required a focus on others, empathy, sharing, gratitude, and telling stories that unite. I would add that enduring power requires humility and the willingness to apologize and make reparations, because we are all capable of doing harm.

We are at a time in our political and social life in which we must make determined choices about whether we will perpetuate trauma, abusive power, and megalomania, or advance the cherished and hard-won American ideals of democracy, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and shared humanity.

As Chief Se'alth said,

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

I hope we can finally hear and heed his wise words.

"Treating America's #1 Addiction: Abusive Power" - a presentation by Dr. Ravi Chandra:

(c) Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A. 2023


A podcast version of this talk (with added music and intros and outros by me) on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts

GoFundme for 6-year old Asian American boy beaten by a white man in Georgetown, Texas, and KVUE story about the incident on YouTube

Four-part series on trauma and healing:

Part 1: Dr. Satsuki Ina on Japanese American Trauma and Healing (September 26, 2023) with associated YouTube presentation

Part 2: Cultivating Sense of Self to Cope With Trauma and Life (October 3, 2023)

Part 3: Creating Transitional Spaces to Heal Intergenerational Trauma (October 5, 2023), with associated podcast and YouTube conversation

Part 4: Abusive Power and Megalomania Perpetuate American Trauma (this post, October 15, 2023) with associated YouTube presentation

For further reading:

Sidanius J. and Pratto F. Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Dunbar-Ortiz R. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (ReVisioning History Book 3). Beacon Press, 2014.

Ben-Ghiat, R. Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. W.W. Norton and Co., 2020

Hassan S. The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. Free Press, 2019

Keltner D. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. Penguin Books, 2016

Chandra R. Which of Six Power Types Will You Embody and Support? Pacific Heart blog on Psychology Today, September 15, 2022

Chandra R. Eight Types of Humility Needed for Cognitive Clarity. Pacific Heart blog on Psychology Today, September 8, 2022

Chandra R. MOSF 17.11: Do Trump Supporters or Their Opponents Have “Good Hearts”? East Wind eZine, October 6, 2022

Chandra R. No, Self-Centeredness Is Killing America. Pacific Heart blog Psychology Today, June 20, 2015

Brooks D. Creating Capitalism. The New York Times, April 25, 2004.

Megalomania as a psychosocial disease with psychoanalyst Nancy Caro Hollander, Ph.D. YouTube, published October 7, 2023, talk created in May 2023 - a response to a version of Dr. Ravi Chandra's talk above

Playlist: Extremism: Leaders push an ecosystem for violence (short video clips)

Including the latest:

Garland: Survival of democracy depends on restraint from violence & threats (60 Minutes 10/1/23)

Marcus and Brooks - Trump escalating violent, authoritarian, manipulative rhetoric. Newshour 10/6/23

and my prior videos on the subject -

Late night thoughts - on violent rhetoric - while listening to Beethoven

More thoughts on listening to Beethoven - the power myths of the culture

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