The Frantic Psychopath
"We need to prepare ourselves for even more outrageous assaults," says clinical psychologist Vince Greenwood, Ph.D.
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As regular readers of this newsletter know: Donald Trump is a psychopath.
That’s the clinical diagnosis delivered by Vince Greenwood, Ph.D., on Medium earlier this year. Greenwood’s article convinced Trump’s “The Art of The Deal” ghostwriter Tony Schwartz that psychopathy is, indeed, the diagnosis that trumps all others:
Like many other Trump critics, I believed that he was driven by an insatiable narcissistic hunger to be loved, accepted, admired, and praised. That remains prima facie true, but it deflects attention from what drives Trump more deeply: the need to dominate. His primary goal is to win at any cost and the end always justifies the means. Ultimately, he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks or feels. For Trump, the choice between dominating and being loved—saving himself or saving others—is no contest.
Schwartz credits Greenwood’s article as being “the catalyst” for his shift from viewing Trump’s condition as more than just a narcissism and squarely in the category of psychopath as defined by the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
Greenwood discussed his diagnosis of Trump with me here on Substack on August 28. That interview quickly became one of the most-read and most-shared issues of this newsletter. It struck a chord because, even before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was announced on Friday, it was clear that Trump would be doing everything legally or illegally possible to cheat his way to victory at all costs. As Tony Schwartz tweeted on Thursday, September 17:
Watching Trump and his flailing campaign—along with the hypocritical Republicans in the Senate—immediately begin making moves to turn Ginsburg’s death to their political advantage, I reached out to Dr. Greenwood with a few more questions in the hope to gain an even better understanding of what might unfold over the next few weeks.
Q&A with Vince Greenwood, Ph.D.
Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump is racing to notch another “win” with a conservative Supreme Court appointment. It’s a divisive and unpopular move. But he’s mobilizing the political effort to make this happen far more eagerly and aggressively than he ever mobilized the public health effort against COVID-19. What does that tell us about him?
Trump’s aggressive response to the Supreme Court vacancy, as compared to his dereliction regarding COVID, reveals three fundamental qualities: his callousness and lack of care for others; his strong drive to dominate others; and his inability to deal with complex problems that require a sustained focus. These traits are hallmarks of Psychopathic Personality Disorder, a severe and dangerous condition for which the president meets the diagnostic criteria.
A humane and comprehensive response to COVID would have required empathy and a capacity to work diligently on complex issues. The absence of these qualities is deeply ingrained in his personality structure.
His more fulsome response to the Supreme Court vacancy can be understood by his drive to dominate. Getting his way with the Court is all about “winning,” not caring. Winning is the arena that animates the psychopath. Also, this mission—compared to dealing with COVID—does not require hard work. Picking a candidate (as l understand it, the Federalist Society does all the vetting and research here) and playing the confirmation process’s politics is in line with his temperament and limited skill set. His is a mission about winning and dominating, which play to his natural strengths, the natural predispositions of a clinical psychopath.
He’s clearly a “Red State” President. The only first term “wins” he has to run on in 2020—judges, tax cuts, deregulation—deliver on conservative priorities and, it could be argued, actively harm the country’s liberals and diminish our collective future. Trump would take “Blue State” deaths out of the COVID-19 totals if we let him. He has delayed, opposed and/or withheld aid to Blue States at every opportunity. Now, in this Supreme Court fight, I’m also reminded of his 2016 comment that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions. What can you say about his desire to punish those who are not on his team?
To punish others is an instinct for someone with his personality type. It is a manifestation of a harsh side of the psychopath’s exclusive focus on winning and dominating.
For such people, life is reduced to nothing but a contest. But their way of “winning” has this dark side of not only “I must win” but also “you must lose”; not only “I must prevail” but also “you must submit." The psychopath competes not only to win but also to control and punish others. That is their predatory nature.
Michael Jordan appears to have had an insatiable drive to win, but he didn’t need to humiliate or punish his foes. He was more than happy to win when the other team impressively acquitted itself. Trump is a different animal.
Of course, punishing “Blue States” means turning his back on millions and millions of Republicans in those states who voted for him—4.5 million in California, 2.8 million in New York, 2.1 million in Illinois. Those 3 states alone have more GOP voters than 15 of the states he won. Why doesn’t Trump care about those voters?
Because he is incapable of doing so. This is so hard for us to grasp. That about 1% of us have this affliction of ‘living totally outside the human contract.’ This condition appears to be mostly heritable and tied to specific brain abnormalities.
Concerning human relations, all the psychopath cares about is what others can do for him in a concrete and transactional way. Voters in deep Blue states offer him no such tangible rewards. Thus, why (from his perspective) should he care about them?
What can you say about the kind of people are still willing to work for—and lie for—Trump. Michael Cohen likens to Trump’s inner circle to a cult. We know he likes loyalty oaths. Authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat told me he now has “the perfect roster of collaborators”—men like Barr, Pompeo and DeJoy—to help him achieve his goals by any means necessary. Why do these people do what they do for a man so criminal and toxic?
There are indeed certain types of people that are more likely to fall under the psychopath's sway. The psychopath is very attuned to these types just as a predator can effectively identify vulnerable prey. Such people include those who are kind and sympathetic to others appeals for help; those that are self-sacrificing and put others' needs ahead of their own; those that are easily controlled and subjugated; and those that lack confidence.
But the men you noted—Barr, Pompeo, DeJoy—seem to be in marked contrast to that personality type. They are arrogant and domineering. It may just be the case that their interests—whether it be closeness to a power center or a genuine attraction to authoritarian rule—align with what Trump offers them.
America leads the world in death from COVID-19. Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been a disaster. Does he literally not care how many people die as long as he can brainwash his supporters into believing the ridiculous lie he told Bob Woodward in August, that “nothing more could have been done.”
Yes, he literally does not care how many people die. That is my clinical judgment based on his diagnosis. He simply does not possess the emotional infrastructure to care. Psychopaths do not experience guilt or shame and do not feel responsible for their neglectful or destructive behavior. Lacking that essential humanizing function of conscience, psychopaths can behave callously toward others without a sliver of guilt or shame.
“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said in March when asked about testing snafus and the Administration’s sluggish response to COVID. Since then, he has refused to wear a mask, derided the importance of testing, pressured states to reopen prematurely, and held super-spreader campaign events. Trump’s choice to politicize the pandemic has added grievously to the death toll. Failure to care or take responsibility for this calamity is the hard-wired response of this damaged soul.
You recently wrote an article on Medium titled “Don’t Underestimate the Cheater in Chief.” How much will Trump be willing to do to steal this election. Will he accept the results? Will he start a war? How badly could a defeated Trump act between Election Day and Inauguration Day?
How much will Trump be willing to do to steal this election? I’m afraid the answer is: anything at all. He will do anything to win, whatever the risk, whatever the collateral damage. He has no capacity for restraint or conscience. Deceitfulness and divisiveness are his natural calling cards. We have seen he has no problem in promoting voter suppression and stoking grievance in his supporters.
Psychopaths are frantic over the threat of losing status and would be remorseless in their attempts to prevent that from happening. I don’t think he will accept the results, even in the case of a clear-cut Biden victory.
Trump has already delegitimized the election for a large swath of the country. He has successfully mounted an assault on the concept of truth. He has loyalists in crucial government positions who are abetting the weaponization of federal power. He has shattered the norm that it is unacceptable to operate outside the rule of law.
We need to prepare ourselves for even more outrageous assaults.
If Trump were to accept a Biden victory, l would be less worried about his behavior between Election Day and Inauguration Day. During that period, l suspect he will be looking only after his own skin. Trump is not some world-historical authoritarian figure. He is a common psychopath.
What are your biggest worries if he does win a second term?
Gosh. Where to begin.
I would worry most about my children. From a policy standpoint, l think a second term would be grievously harmful to them, especially when considering the climate change implications.
And short term l fear the damage could be significant. I can’t picture the fine details, but it seems likely the country will descend into a bitter and dystopian state.
I dread that and worry for all those younger and less privileged than me.
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Any chance you and Mr Greenwood could get back together and interview about what is currently happening? The situation we're in right now wasn't covered in this interview.