Guest Commentary

Adventures in governance: Is George W. Bush a psychopath--literally?

I know a psychologist who thinks our president is a psychopath. Obviously, them's fightin' words, and whether George W. Bush possesses all or some of the traditional indicators of psychopathy--egocentricity, deceit, shallow affect, manipulativeness, selfishness and lack of empathy, guilt or remorse--is a tough call.

But really, come on, it's just in plain old bad taste to go around lumping the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth into the same category as Jeff Dahmer or Ted Bundy. And aren't those the guys we think of when we talk about psychopaths? It's not like the president eats body parts or entices young women into Volkswagen Beetles and bludgeons them to death--although I'm sure you wouldn't have to look very far to find a soldier back from Iraq who feels like he's been eaten alive or nearly bludgeoned to death. Of course, the president didn't actually do that. He just heedlessly and under false pretences put those soldiers into situations in which it happened. That's not psychopathy, is it? Oh, it's all so confusing.

The real problem with the idea of the president being a psychopath is that it generates the vexing question: What kind of nation re-elects a psychopath to the highest office in the land? The answer could be one or all of three things: a dumb one, a mean one or a thoroughly conned one.

The question has to be recast. The traditional thinking about political campaigns is that they're an orderly process that in some ways make sense, that result in a reasonable outcome. This is clearly not the case. The political campaign in this country is two parts snake oil and one part psychological manipulation. It's been demonstrated again and again that Iraq had nothing to do with the events of Sept. 11, yet three weeks before the presidential election, the polls indicated that 51 percent of those queried believed it did. Jon Stewart, most of his savvy viewers and I laughed when, in early October, Donald Rumsfeld--supposedly addressing the challenges involved in stopping al Qaeda--repeatedly confused Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein, long since in custody. We got real smug savoring yet another example of how smart we are compared to them. Well, Donald Rumsfeld is clearly not dumb. He knew exactly what he was doing conflating the two men, and it worked beautifully. Rumsfeld simply reinforced the ignorance fueling the fear that's been incubating within millions of Americans for the last three-plus years. The television keeps saying this election was about "moral values," but I don't believe it.

The result of the 2004 presidential election was about fear. As a nation, we're still scared shitless by the events of Sept. 11, because virtually nothing has been done to prevent similar events from happening again. As any schoolteacher will tell you, fear renders intelligence null and void. Oh, the exit pollers may have heard the words "moral" and "family values" until they were blue in the face. But isn't that really just a case of attacking someone you can--gays, artists, liberals and various nefarious persons--because you can't get anywhere near the fear actually dominating your life? We see it in microcosm all the time: the white-trash cracker who hates blacks, the abused wife who beats her kids. Is it really so unreasonable to think it happens in macrocosm as well? Not only has this fear caused the deaths and maiming of more than 10,000 American soldiers and countless Iraqi non-combatants, but it's caused the United States of America to start feeding on itself as well. We don't trust each other. We don't like each other. Some of us are beginning to question our core beliefs about what this country is.

Maybe my friend's right. Anyone who could manipulate a tragedy like Sept. 11 into a mess like this must be a serious lunatic.

Could be, could be. I've read up on the subject further and--according to the literature--egocentricity, deceit, shallow affect, manipulativeness, selfishness and lack of empathy, guilt or remorse are quite common in the realms of corporate America, the military establishment ... hell, even academia. The ability and willingness to ruthlessly exploit the fears and weaknesses of others so you can get what you want is not ultimately nor exclusively the domain of people who wind up in metal cages. Not even close.

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