Often individuals who fall for psychopaths ask, “How could I? How could I have allowed this person to have gripped me like that? Charmed me like that? Mesmerized me like that? Fooled me like that?”
Yet nations, like individuals, can fall for psychopaths, too—and elect them to the highest offices, as enough Americans did to put Donald Trump in the White House.
As with individuals, nations don’t necessarily fall “in love” with psychopaths as much as “in thrall” of them. Thus, the same question applies: what can make psychopaths, especially charismatic psychopaths, captivating to nations, not just individuals? To begin with, the confidence charismatic psychopaths exude can have intoxicating effects. Most of us feel variably insecure, anxious and vulnerable in an existentially dreadfully uncertain world. There is so little we can feel truly certain about, truly “in control” of. Contrast this with the brash confidence of the charismatic psychopath, who projects certainty, invulnerability, who implicitly, if not explicitly, conveys the attitude, “Stick with me, follow me, and you’re safe, because I’ve got it covered. I’ve got EVERYTHING covered.”
Intellectually, this message may invoke our skepticism; viscerally, however, the insecure “us” craves association with, the protection of, finds ourselves drawn to, and, yes, susceptible to intoxication by those who transmit the power we painfully feel we lack. Intellectually, we may see “red flags,” but primitively we often want to believe that a promise so reassuring, so alluring can be more than the fantasy that, dimly, we may suspect it is. Great masses of people can fall under the sway of this psychological dynamic. I believe this was a contributing factor to Donald Trump’s mortifying rise to the presidency.
Bearing in mind the interrelationship of many factors, most of us, deep down, also sense helplessly our limits—the limits of our confidence, capacities, opportunities, power, influence. Continually, we are confronting and grappling with the experience of our limits. Hence, the grandiosity of charismatic psychopaths, who challenge the very notion of limits, who exhibit outrage to have their claims of omnipotence even challenged—this, too, plays deeply, seductively into our fantasies. Specifically, it exploits our fantasy to see the limits with which we struggle daily, the limits that constrain, oppress and define us, dissolved.
Charismatic psychopaths are deft at contacting this deep need and fantasy, and exploiting it manipulatively. Again, we may sense the presence of grandiosity, but our deep-seated yearning for rescue, for a rescuing “super-hero,” a “savior,” can persuade us to tune-down, or tune-out, our skepticism. Trump also possesses the psychopathic audacity to contrive, and sell, whatever magical powers he perceives his target audience to want him to have. It is hard to begrudge him his mastery at making the convincing sale of his grandiose blustering.
What else explains the grip that charismatic psychopaths can exercise not just on individuals, but great masses, persuading them to “suspend their disbelief” and, as it were, “take a flyer” and go “all in” with them? Consider the power of the charismatic psychopath’s “id” mentality. Where we feel constrained, if not oppressed, by our superegos and the tangle of internal rules, ethics, morals, and respect for boundaries they impose on us, charismatic psychopaths are rule breakers, limit testers, and envelope pushers with a contemptuous indifference to accountability. This frees them to express, claim and/or pursue whatever seizes their fancy or agenda, whether in the moment (more impulsively), or more premeditatively.
It can be powerfully seductive, even mesmerizing, to watch an unconstrained individual abide no conventional rules, but rather make his or her own, while fearlessly identifying and targeting his or her gratifications, heedless of boundaries and consequences. Primitively, many of us are spellbound by this disregard of accountability, as we capitulate to civilized norms. It is tempting to marvel at, if not envy, the charismatic psychopath’s freedom from superego constraints.
I believe this was the case with Trump: Much of the nation devolved into a kind of transfixed, rubbernecking amazement at how, in an arena of such high stakes—the presidency—he conducted himself daily (and still does) as in a perpetual state of rebellious, impulsive “id.” Trump’s psychopathic contempt along the campaign trail became conflated with “political incorrectness” which, with extraordinary glibness and effectiveness, he sold as a refreshing, urgently needed tonic for the “same old, same old.”
I hope I’ve shed some initial light on how charismatic psychopaths can seduce not just individuals, but massive constituencies, as going forward we probe this phenomenon with ever deeper, better elaborated, more accurate insights.