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A Presidential Syndrome?

The Politics of Sociopathic Narcissism


In psychoanalytic thought, the radical analyst Wilhelm Reich is recognized as having laid the foundations for the clinical study of (pathological) character structures—or, in the more recent terminology, “personality disorders.”  Since the publication of Reich’s pioneering Character Analysis (1933), psychodynamic (Freudian) psychologists have sought increasing clarification and consensus regarding the clinical reality of such personality syndromes—such as borderline, antisocial (sociopathic), and narcissistic.  This evolving typology, which is periodically revised, has been based on extensive clinical case-histories.  In this brief article, I am merely extrapolating from the standard psychiatric handbook, the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association (known as the DSM; using the 4th edition, 1994).

In order to be diagnosed as sociopathic, the individual must exhibit at least three of the following: “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors… deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying… impulsivity or failure to plan ahead… irritability and aggressiveness… reckless disregard for the safety of self or others… consistent irresponsibility… [and] lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”  This diagnostic category, which has a high co-morbidity with alcoholism, was only applied to cases where some evidence existed of childhood conduct disorder (such as bullying, torturing animals, etc.).1

Moving on to the DSM’s criteria for narcissistic disorder, at least five of the following must apply to justify the diagnosis:  “a grandiose sense of self-importance… fantasies of unlimited success, power… believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique… has a sense of entitlement… is interpersonally exploitative… lacks empathy… is often envious of others… [and] shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”  “Many highly successful individuals,” the DSM concludes (with unintended irony), “display personality traits that might be considered narcissistic.”2

Writing on “Personality Disorders” for The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry, eminent psychoanalyst John G. Gunderson noted that the narcissistic syndrome “overlaps considerably with the interpersonal style of anti-social personality—so much so that narcissistic individuals are sometimes considered ‘white-collar’ psychopaths.”  As to this sociopathic personality, he further states that the more “flagrant” behaviors may diminish after age 45, but that “the related issues of callousness and exploitativeness may persist.  The distinction from narcissistic personality disorder is then unclear.”3

It is thus plausible to consider “narcissism” and “sociopathy” as really two poles on a continuum of overlapping traits (and indeed, the newly-revised DSM V, which considered subsuming narcissistic traits into sociopathy, has moved in this direction).  Extrapolating from Gunderson’s observation, I am therefore suggesting that “sociopathic narcissism” is a characteristically political syndrome, disproportionately manifested in successful U.S. politicians—and most egregiously, in recent presidents.4

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).


1. As a child, George W. Bush was said to enjoy blowing up frogs with firecrackers, and his later pastimes included “branding” fraternity pledges with a red-hot coathanger.  In adulthood he admittedly has had a problem with alcohol.  Cf. Justin Frank, M.D., Bush on the Couch, Regan Books, 2005.

2. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (4th edition, 1994); pps. 98-99, 705-706, 716-717.

3.  John G. Gunderson, M.D. “Personality Disorders.” In: The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (3rd edition, 1999), Ed. A. Nicholi, M.D.  Harvard University Press; pps. Cited 317-318.

4.  I have written—only briefly and tentatively–about specific presidents:

“Authoritarian Sadism: the Sociopathy of Bush,” Dissident Voice, February 16, 2011; and “Psychoanalyzing Obama,” CounterPunch, December 24, 2012.  For speculations about Madeleine Albright, see my short article: “’Power-Over’ as a Compensation,” Dissident Voice, November 26, 2012.