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The Rise of the Second-String Psychopaths

David Schwartz

The great writer Kurt Vonnegut titled his final book A Man without a Country. He was the man; the country was the United States of America. Vonnegut felt that his country had disappeared right under his – and the Constitution’s – feet, through what he called “the sleaziest, low-comedy Keystone Cops-style coup d’état imaginable.” He was talking about the Bush administration. Were Vonnegut still alive in the post-Bush era, he would not have felt that his country had returned.

How had our country disappeared? Vonnegut proposed that among the contributing factors was that it had been invaded – as if by the Martians – by people with a particularly frightening mental illness. People with this illness were termed psychopaths. (The term nowadays is anti-social personality disorder.) These are terms for people who are smart, personable, and engaging, but who have no consciences. They are not guided by a sense of right or wrong. They seem to be unaffected by the feelings of others, including feelings of distress caused by their actions. Straying from a decent way of treating people, or violating ethical codes causes no anxiety, the anxiety which is what causes the rest of us to moderate our more greedy impulses. If most children feel anxiety when they are pilfering the forbidden cookie jar, psychopaths feel just fine. They can devour the cookies, shatter the jar as evidence and stuff it in the trash can. When accused, they can argue with apparent sincerity that the cookie jar has been missing for at least a week. There suffer no remorse, no guilt, no shame. They are free to do anything, no matter how harmful.

Psychopaths can be very tricky to recognize. As psychiatrist Dr. Hervey Cleckly wrote in his classic The Mask of Sanity in 1941, psychopaths are not technically insane. They don’t have a psychosis, like schizophrenia. They are experts in appearing normal. They can act the role of a caring, concerned executive, even though they actually do not seem to experience such feelings. If they hurt somebody, they don’t modify their behavior.

The United States corporate and government spheres have become, Vonnegut suggested, a perfect habitat for psychopaths. What has allowed so many psychopaths to rise so high in corporations, and then government, he wrote,

“is that they are so decisive. They are going to do something every fuckin’ day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they don’t give a fuck what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich!"

In a country in which much of human culture has been rendered into machines for the manufacture of money, psychopaths are the ideal leaders. They are very focused. They are outcome oriented. They are frequently charming, and usually very bright and able. They can lay off thousands of people, or deny people health care, or have them waterboarded, and it does not disturb their sleep. They can be impressively confident. Psychopaths can be dynamic leaders of enterprises, but are handicapped by their lack of feelings for relationships. They may be accomplished captains of industry, or senators, or surgeons, but their families are frequently abused and miserable. Most psychotherapists have seen the wives or husband or children of such accomplished people.

Since psychopaths are usually very smart, they can be quite competent at impersonating regular human beings in positions of power. Since they don’t care how their actions affect people, they can rise to great height in enterprises dealing with power and money. They can manufacture bombs or run hospitals. Whatever the undertaking, it is all the same to them. It’s just business.

The economic system that remains after the destruction of American local cultures has created an excellent employment picture for psychopaths. But the opportunities open to them are now so vast that there is apparently now an actual labor shortage. At least that is the only explanation I can find for the rise of a cadre of psychopathic leaders who resemble the usual type in all ways but one: they’re simply not that smart. One has only to look at right-wing not-so-Christian fundamentalists to see the peculiar emergence of a second-string of psychopaths.

The US has been endowed with abundant resources, and there have always been a more than sufficient supply of psychopaths of the first intellectual grade to supply corporate suites and their subsidiary, the Congress. Why is there now a downgrade to the dumb ones, like the lowering of standards for military recruits to deal with a shortage of cannon fodder?

It is no secret that the Koch brothers and others of the super-rich seem to have undertaken a final push to consolidate control through the conversion of a marginally democratic to an essentially fascist state; extreme right-wing, authoritarian, and demagogic. This kind of government is ideal for control of a populace by the moneyed elite. To carry this out requires the employment of many ‘kept’ politicians to excite and misdirect scared and angry – and ignorant – voters. Lest the citizenry realize who stole their money and storm their castles with torches, the rapacious elite need politicians who will carry out the work of re-directing anger at teachers, or labor unions, or the poor. I can only conclude that the people who now own the country couldn’t find any first-rate psychopaths to carry out their work. Or maybe the smart ones were all occupied. So they had to go to second-stringers, people who could actually believe what they were told to say.

We are a country who has become second-best, even in the quality of our psychopaths.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

David Schwartz

David B. Schwartz, Ph.D practices psychotherapy in Ithaca, NY. His books include Who Cares? Rediscovering Community and the forthcoming The Sidewalk Psychotherapist.

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