Psychopaths and American Politics
February 16, 2014
In reading the book, Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner [who also wrote a history of the CIA entitled Legacy of Ashes], it occurred to me that most of our politicians are psychopaths [“a person who is mentally ill, who does not care about other people, and who is usually dangerous or violent.”]. There are too many examples or illustrations of this in Weiner’s history so let me just cite one or two.
J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI for a long, long time, was most definitely a psychopath. I don’t know exactly what being “mentally ill” means but I do know what not caring for other people means as well as knowing what being dangerous or violent means. Hoover was quite content to take on anyone who threatened his power and he did not care what his actions did to those he took on. He kept secret files on other politicians and used them as needed to control them. But the most revealing aspect of Hoover’s mental state is that he was convinced, sincerely and genuinely convinced that those who were opposing the war in Vietnam were under the control of the Communist Party in, now guess where……Yes, that’s correct: In the Soviet Union. American college students, among others, Hoover thought were taking orders from Communists in the Soviet Union!
Surprisingly, LBJ believed the same thing! Why is this surprising? It is surprising to me because LBJ was a consummate politician and was not an unintelligent man. Neither of course was Hoover unintelligent. Hence, I would have expected more of these men, even if that more were merely that they used the “Communist threat” as a guise by which to advance their own agendas. But that does not appear to have been the case. Apparently, they could not conceive, literally could not conceive people taking issue with their policies on political, moral, or merely self-interested grounds.
They had, it would seem, a disease. And this disease was diagnosed by George Orwell as the love of power, their own and that of others. They loved power as some humans love sex and they had to exercise it over and over and over again. Moreover, they feared anyone else with power, thinking that anyone who posed a threat, possessed some power would, if left along, prevail. The power of others must be checked and it must be checked with power, “vigorously” – that is, pathologically - exercised. Anything less, any other strategy is just “pie in the sky” wishful thinking.
The “vigorous” exercise of power, embraced by some of those men who were instrumental in the writing of the Constitution, rests on this pathology. Hence, the Constitution, insofar as it sought to create an “energetic” government, one composed of powerful offices, creates offices that appeal to the pathological. In other words, the government created by the Constitution is one that draws and was intended to draw into it pathological human beings. [Benjamin Franklin saw this and said so at the constitutional convention in his speech recommending that the president not be paid. To make that office a place of “profit” as well as a place that would appeal to “the ambitious,” Franklin argued, would guarantee that men “of peace” would neither seek nor occupy it.] One might even say that this aspect of the Constitution illustrates one of the main differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists: The Federalists wanted to draw “the ambitious” into the government, whereas the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep them out!
Tim Weiner’s book provides the evidence needed to begin to make the argument that the Anti-Federalists were correct. In reading it, I could not help wondering how all these psychopaths came to power and what our lives might be like were they not invested with the great powers granted by the Constitution.