Anybody we know?

There is a certain personality that flourishes in politics. You know the type. This kind of politician has a great need to be praised; he (nearly always a he) seeks power over the lives of others and feels that gives him prestige. These politicians believe they are superior to everyone else and that their opinions and actions should rule all of us.

It’s a personality disorder well known to psychologists. People with this condition need constant reassurance because for all their tough-guy exterior, they are easily hurt by others who don’t side with them. When someone challenges them, they don’t try to have a reasonable discussion to resolve the differences. Instead, they lash out, often with anger or ridicule, sometimes with violence. The violence may be physical, like yelling at people, threatening them, even throwing things at them. Or it may be indirect, such as by assigning a minion to investigate or harass the challenger.

In government these people are rulers, not leaders. You can see why politics attracts them. They can draw adoring crowds and surround themselves with yes-men (and yes-women) who stroke them at every turn. The other occupation in which these people thrive is organized crime (think mob boss), but let’s focus on politics.

Mental health professionals call people like this “narcissistic sociopaths.” It’s a well known form of personality disorder, actually a combination of two disorders. And like most psychologcal conditions, it comes in varying degrees. Like many mental conditions, cases fall somewhere on a spectrum.

Let’s look at the conditions separately.

narcissusPeople with narcissism have a grandiose view of themselves and their status. They need to have that reinforced frequently by praise and admiration from others.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a standard reference work in the mental health professions. It lists the many recognized types of mental illnesses and personality disorders and lists the behavioral traits that psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers can use to make a diagnosis.

The DSM, as it is called, lists the following traits of persons with narcissism:

    • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments

    • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others

    • Envies others and believes others envy him/her

    • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence

    • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others

    • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior

    • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic

A person does not have to show all these behaviors to be a narcissist, just some of them.

Note the point about lacking empathy. This is an especially troubling trait in narcisstic politicians. It means they are unable to understand the feelings and wishes of their constituents. For example, no matter how many people may testify for or against something, a politician with this disorder is unable to grasp that those people and their wishes should figure in his or her thinking or decision making. In fact the narcisstic politician may have his mind made up before he goes through the ritual of holding a hearing.

For those of us with more normal personalities, that’s hard to understand. We tend to think that such politicians must be consciously rejecting our opinions and wishes. But psychologists say no—people with narcissism literally do not perceive that their constituents’ opinions should influence them. They can’t help being oblivious to our feelings.

Now what about the sociopath label? That’s an older term that overlaps with what the DSM calls “antisocial personality disorder” (APD). Here are some traits that mental health professionals consider characteristic of persons with APD.

    • Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

    • Deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

    • Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead

    • Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

    • Reckless disregard for safety of self or others

    • Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

    • Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

A person who exhibits three or more of these behaviors is suffering from APD, the DSM says. Combine the two categories, and you have someone who shows characteristics of both—a narcissistic sociopath.

For all their negative behaviors and attitudes, such people can also be charming when they want to, when it might persuade someone to do their bidding. That’s because they see others as tools to get what they want, and like a good craftsman they are good at using their tools. But if they don’t get what they want, these people typically retaliate, sometimes with physical violence and sometimes with verbal attacks such as ridicule or name calling. Their behavior often comes across as bullying.

Perhaps the politician best known for this on a national level is Chris Christy, governor of New Jersey. He is famous for making nasty comments to citizens who question him, even as the cameras are rolling. He steers government favors to developers who support him with money and praise. And, of course, in the “bridgegate” and Hurricane Sandy scandals his loyal staff, knowing they must please the boss, punished other politicians who disagreed with him.

In Frederick County politics we may have our own narcissistic sociopaths or antisocial personalities. I don’t need to name them. Just ask yourself which high county officials treat citizens with respect and which are prone to name calling and sarcastic outbursts. Do some listen carefully to citizens and take time to discuss possible solutions? Do others immediately reject the people’s voices, knowing that they already have made their decision? Are any prone to hurl profanity and vulgarity at citizens, even children? Do we have officials who love to grandstand, showing off to what they imagine to be an adoring public?

Which of our local politicians spend their time working with a broad range of stakeholders and experts to solve the county’s problems and which ones boast that they have all the answers and ridicule citizens who object?

If names came to your mind, then my descriptions — and the DSM — may be close to the mark. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, and I can’t presume to diagnose the state of anyone’s mental health. But I have talked with a clinical psychologist who is familiar with our local politicians and suspects that some of them fit somewhere among the DSM personality disorders.

And I have read several articles in which mental health professionals apply those diagnostic criteria to various politicians. Governor Christy comes up a lot in those articles. If a few of our Frederick County politicians had a national profile, no doubt they would too.