BROOKLYN — The more I watch politics, the more I’m convinced that America’s shrinks should update their catalog of official mental illnesses to include a new category of certifiable whack job: the “political sociopath.”
A political sociopath is the sort of public figure who, on a regular basis, requires the impartial observer to plant hands on hips, shake his head and mutter, “What the hell is wrong with that guy, or (in the case of Michelle Bachmann) that shrieking harpy?”
Among figures in U.S. history who almost surely suffered this affliction were Woodrow Wilson, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and, yes, George W. Bush (the guy who actually made me think of the term). But lately, the Dear Leader I’d really love to see on Bob Hartley’s couch is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Of course, even at a glance, the parallels between Walker and his Middle Eastern homies, Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Qaddafi, are, well, eerie. But, sticking with examples in American culture, I lean toward a more benign likeness. Gov. Walker reminds me of Clarence Day (played by William Powell) and Frank Gilbreth (played by the incomparable Clifton Webb), a pair of real-life family autocrats depicted in two wonderful mid-century movies, “Life with Father” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
American conservatives, who have long deplored the government “entitlements” bestowed on the unwashed and unworthy, are fond of the term: “nanny state.” But I think there’s a right-wing version of this concept, which deserves the term “daddy state.” The autocrat in charge, the “daddy,” is almost invariably a dogmatic, egocentric, socially awkward, strangely synthetic nerd. Like Clarence Day and Frank Gilbreth, he is singularly ill-equipped for daddyhood and — suspecting this flaw — builds the household, or the state, on the delusion that it can be run “like a business.”
The “daddy state” regards its citizens as a father perceives his kids: children are perilously ignorant of how to properly control their lives or guide their future. We, the people, tend toward appetite and self-indulgence. We cannot grasp the value of a dollar. If we are to be saved from ourselves, we need to be restrained, scolded, denied, disciplined and watched over, all the time. When necessary, we should be lied to.
We are weak, but he is strong.
Daddy’s strength is transcendent, ineffable. Father knows best not because he defeated his foes in some temporal political dispute. He is, more accurately, a product of destiny, anointed mysteriously with a karmic omniscience. He has always been Boss. He has always belonged up there, behind the Big Desk where he has finally, justly arrived. Father knows best because he is — and always was — the father who knows best.
There is no contradicting the father. In “Life with Father,” Clarence Day reaches his peak of frustration and outrage when his kids give him lip. And Frank Gilbreth, in “Cheaper by the Dozen,” cannot believe the defiance of a daughter who insists, against the father’s canons of good taste, on choosing her own clothes.
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As we see in the movies, however, Day and Gilbreth understand their children’s opposition — and they forgive. As does Scott Walker. It is, after all, the nature of children to complain and whine and want their own way. Their rebellion is the proof and definition of their childishness. The father doesn’t take guidance from a baby when it’s well-behaved, much less than when it’s throwing a tantrum. The louder the protesters in Madison, the stronger becomes Gov. Walker’s conviction that he knows best.
Popularity is no test. The political sociopath reviled in poll after poll, like Gov. Walker, is reinforced in his rectitude. He recognizes every flaming effigy and Hitler mustache as a childhood prank. He limns his own Profile in Courage. When George W. Bush’s approval dipped below 30 percent, he experienced a sort of secular sainthood seen only, in past centuries, by Thoreau in his rowboat or Marat in his madhouse.
Speaking of Marat, I first recognized Gov. Walker as a political sociopath from the way his eyes behave on TV. Watch closely. They never entirely settle in one place. They rarely look directly into the camera. Even when you catch a glimpse of him straight on, Walker’s gaze seems fixed either just beyond his nose or a million miles yonder. Nixon had this creepy look, as did George W., who seemed to regard the camera as a peeping Tom trying to catch him with his fly open. Walker’s contribution to this syndrome is a sort of deadpan emptiness that would have sent shivers up T.S. Eliot’s spine.
“We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men…”
Characteristic of “normal” sociopaths is an incapacity for compassion. Ted Bundy, for example, couldn’t empathize with other people. But in order to get close enough to murder them, he became a good actor. Oddly, the opposite appears true of the political sociopath. Humanoids like Dick Nixon never seem to care about anybody, and they’re awful at faking it. Like George W., smirking at executions and signing torture memos, their blood runs chill. The political sociopath betrays visible emotion only when his children act up. Then, punishment falls swift and disproportionate. He drafts three-strikes laws. He invades Iraq. He makes mediation a crime. Heartbroken afterwards, he says: “I’m doing this for your own good,” making him the foil of his victims’ ingratitude.
Unlike, say, Norman Bates, the political sociopath doesn’t want to be a recluse. He’s lonesome, for good reason. All that strident purity can get on people’s nerves. Unlike Day and Gilbreth in the movies, who succumb to their loved ones and relax their tyranny, he is — at bottom — socially autistic and incapable of change.
Which is where the rich — specifically the “corporate sociopaths” who prowl the corridors of power — come to the rescue. For the sake of a tax break or a government deal, they’ll get in bed with Hannibal Lecter. They can feign loyalty, fake friendship and perform superhuman feats of ass-kissing, and they have no concept of shame.
A specimen like the Governor, in turn, finds comfort among the greedy because the price for feathering their already overfeathered nests, is rock-bottom dirt-cheap.
All they have to do is pretend to like the shifty-eyed cheesehead son of a bitch.