By Emanuel Pastreich
When Dr. Lance Dodes of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society told MSNBC that Donald Trump "is not in control of himself. This is what we mean when we say that somebody is becoming psychotic or is briefly psychotic," his words made sense.
After all, Trump threatens war against North Korea or China one day and then the next day expresses his fondness for their leaders. He has pushed for a complete end to research on climate change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is a threat to the survival of humanity. He and his associates have insisted that the United States pull out of all arms control treaties and have succeeded (without any debate) in launching a program for the militarization of space that has brought us closer to catastrophe than we have been since the 1950s, or perhaps in world history.
Trump's State of the Union Address (February 5) praising the "thriving economy" was a piece of work that went beyond anything any president has delivered. He congratulated himself over and over again for the false economic boom created through stock buybacks by corporations fueled by runaway investment banks. He treated as invisible the large numbers of Americans on the verge of bankruptcy, homeless or in jail. He proved again his tremendous skill at saying literally anything to anyone with a straight face. In other words, he proved that he had all the features of a textbook psychopath.
But he could not have gotten this far without partners. He needed the help of the psychopath-in-chief John Bolton. Bolton is a man who gets excited just thinking about plunging the world into nuclear war and who works overtime as the cheerleader for wars in Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, China, Russia, all at the same time. The grimmer the prospects, the greater enthusiasm he shows.
William Butler Yeats must have had Bolton in mind when he wrote "The Second Coming." Bolton has "loosed" the "blood-dimmed tide," leaving a huggermugger in which "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." That is to say Bolton has hogged up the vacuum left in the policy process when those who still had a conscience, or just a functional prefrontal cortex, abandoned the State Department and the Pentagon like rats from a sinking ship.
But what does the rest of Washington, D.C., look like?
Let us take a look at the "opposition" in Washington, D.C., these days. The Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) complained bitterly to the media when Trump revealed her planned trip to Afghanistan to "support the troops" and supposedly put her at risk. But that liberal Pelosi had nothing to say about the number of working-class Americans who have been killed in Afghanistan (forget about Afghans), or about why the U.S. military are no longer reported in the media, let alone about why the United States entered Afghanistan in the first place, or why it is still there.
Pelosi has fallen all over herself to promote stories about Chinese repression of millions of Muslim Uighurs without any effort to find concrete evidence. And she has nothing to say about the millions of Muslims who have been killed by the United States military over the past 20 years. In other words, she advocates for a just world while swallowing hook, line and sinker arguments for the plunge into militarism. She is, to be technical, a card-carrying psychopath.
And what about that Barack Obama, for whom some have grown misty eyed? Did his debonair manner allow you to overlook the grotesque manner in which he indulged his ego at the cost of ordinary people, or how he sold his soul to Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan to avoid the personal attacks on him that are the badge of honor for true reformers? It was far sweeter to suck up the admiration offered to him on silver platters.
His wife Michelle recently published the pre-determined best-seller "Becoming," a book that symbolizes the current political dystopia. She skillfully employed personal vignettes from a privileged life to completely paper over the collapse of governance in America and the decay of a civilization into barbarism. Perhaps Michelle feels that, like Hillary Clinton, she is rightfully entitled to power. It was no slip of the tongue when she remarked that George W. Bush, who sat on the throne for the first eight years of this nightmare, was her "partner in crime." Those words reveal an advanced psychosis in a collapsing liberal order.
Well, you might respond, the Obamas are not the true "anti-war" progressives. We have, after all, the "socialist" progressive Bernie Sanders, who delivered the response to Trump's State of the Union Address.
It was bad enough that Republicans and Democrats applauded every hollow gesture and false claim in Trump's diatribe. But Sander's myopic focus on income for workers and the general "unfairness," while leaving out the massive increases in military spending, the threat of war with Russia and China, and the profound concentration of wealth that took place during the watch of his friend Obama, was unbearable. Sanders did manage to mention that it was unfortunate that there was some voter suppression, but forgot "somehow" that such actions are felony crimes.
Let us remember, as we are being force-fed Sanders, what he did during the last election. He made moving speeches about the sufferings of working-class people that were attended by tens of thousands. He spoke of a "revolution" and asked that people who could barely afford to pay their rent to send him cash so that he could take on the "billionaires." They heard his call, they rallied to the cause and they put him on the road to victory.
But when the Clinton machine destroyed Sanders, whether with the manipulation of the vote in the primaries, or the circulation of fictions about him, Sanders was silent. He acted as if destruction of the votes cast for him by ordinary Americans who supported him was his personal issue, not their cause.
Sanders caved so fast at the Democratic convention that it made your head spin, backing Clinton without gaining anything for those who had sacrificed for his campaign. I don't know about you, but for me giving speeches about fair society, running a campaign using money from working people, and then betraying them to keep his foot in the door of power, all these actions reveal the telltale signs of a psychopath.
But don't we have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the "democratic socialist" who has captured the imaginations of deeply confused American youth? Well, although you can sense sincerity in her speeches, her embrace of NATO, sanctions on Russia and her fealty to the Democratic Party agenda does not promise well.
Perhaps you were impressed when Ocasio-Cortez announced on Martin Luther King's day that "a system that allows billionaires to exist is immoral." But the word on the Hill is that her office is a popular stop for lobbyists ― who are essential, granted that the media is controlled by corporations. Perhaps that is why she has not proposed legislation to close down overseas tax havens, let alone to confiscate the assets amassed illegally by billionaires through their war mongering, manipulation of markets, or the pushing fossil fuels that will destroy our civilization.
And then there is the "progressive" Kamala Harris who promoted criminal penalties for parents, including jail time, if their children were truant from elementary school, who kept information about the credibility of witnesses from defendants and who has bent over backwards to defend police officers. Yes, she is a progressive in a padded cell.
The origins of the American psychopathocracy
The psychopaths did not suddenly descend from the sky in space ships. As alien as their behavior may seem, they are 100 percent made in USA, the twisted products of a nation gone mad. America may still have its Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood Boulevard, its Statue of Liberty and Grand Canyon, but beneath the surface, America has been changed, changed utterly.
The social bonds between family members, between community members and between countrymen have been worn away in commercialized consumer frenzy. Where once there were politics and civil society there is now only a desert.
We cannot lay all the blame for this nightmare on the shoulders of those at the highest levels. They could never have gotten there if their pathological self-centeredness had not been encouraged, even rewarded, along the way. And that reward came not only from the billionaires, but from among the vast majority of the upper middle class, people who are more interested in becoming the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates than they are in helping the homeless around them, homeless who once had similar jobs.
Psychopathic behavior has spread through a whole class: lawyers, doctors, professors, journalists, the CEOs at corporations, the heads of government agencies, and yes, even the "CEO class" of labor unions. It has become common sense for those who have a snout in the trough to avoid asking any serious questions about the original causes of the ruthless government and corporate policy we witness, or the relation between those policies and their own wealth.
The connection between owning stock in Exxon and climate change, between the rise of private prisons and the profits generated by investment banks, is such a taboo subject that it cannot be conceived of, even by the brilliant young minds at Harvard College.
That mentality makes it possible to live a "progressive" lifestyle in a wealthy neighborhood, be creative at the Starbucks, to be vegan at Whole Foods Market, while remaining oblivious of the threat of nuclear war and the collapse of the ecosystem. It is easy to buy cheap products at the mall without a thought about which products were made by prisoners (slaves) in the United States, or near-slaves at factories around the world. You could call it the classic "think left, live right" mindset.
Those who have received good educations, and who have access to the information necessary to understand what is wrong, feel little need to share their insights with others. They would rather play stupid about these secrets, confining their vapid conversations to family vacations or delicious meals enjoyed at ethnic restaurants.
Even more grotesque is the habit of the upper middle class of dismissing those who voted for Trump as "stupid." They appreciate impressionist painting and avant-garde dance, but they cannot imagine what it is like to live in a neighborhood where schools do not offer educations, where the only media available spouts endless fictions and where the desperate quest for meaning in life is only met by right-wing mass churches.
After the takeover of the federal government by the George W. Bush administration, many of such "good Americans" embraced this wretched culture of denial, the first step toward a psychopathocracy. And now, unrepentant, they assume that the tastelessness displayed by Trump will render him harmless. But, as Thomas Mann wrote about the reduction of German politics to a brutal carnival in the 1930s, "The insipid is not synonymous with the harmless."
The nature of the pathology
What exactly went wrong? We know that the self-crowned Democratic Party, whose leaders are most expert at excluding third parties from the policy discussion, at playing footsie with their supposed opponents, and at building a nest egg for their own retirements, is incapable of taking even the first steps to respond to Trump's criminality.
You would think that after two years of watching the blatantly criminal destruction of the economy for the benefit of a handful of billionaires educated Americans would be going door to door, organizing powerful citizens' movements capable of overturning this cabal of the super-rich, militarists and white nationalists.
But you would be wrong.
No degree of institutional decay can persuade those educated Americans to stop clinging to their fantasy of a "liberal" Democratic Party and a "conservative" Republican Party. Few want to see that the only parties in town are the whores and the pimps. Or, to put it more bluntly: "There is only one party, but hell, what a party!"
Silent spring, summer, fall and winter
We have gone far past the warning signals that inspired millions to protest in the streets and form a counter-culture in the 1960s. Things are much graver today. We face the prospect of nuclear war, of extinction-grade climate change and of a criminal concentration of wealth. Yet few are able to get off their asses and discuss these matters with their friends and neighbors, let alone to take action.
Perhaps we are going through a period of decadence, like that of the late Roman Empire. Could it be that Donald Trump is a reality TV version of Emperor Nero, or perhaps a knock-off of Emperor Caligula? Certainly, Trump's decision to float the name of his daughter Ivanka as a candidate for president of the World Bank would fit in well with the late Roman Empire.
The fashion house Viktor and Rolf (founded by Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren) goes out of its way to find challenging images that can blaze new trails in haute couture. A poster from one of their exhibitions was so striking that they chose it for the cover of a retrospective.
But the image of wealth is set against a disturbing background. The mother and child are standing in front of the debris from a demolished home, perhaps from the aftermath of a Hurricane Katrina or of a Hurricane Michael.
Her wealth and her privilege are made more appealing, more intriguing, by their contrast with the sufferings of ordinary people that result from collapsing infrastructure, climate change and austerity policies. The fascination in image is that it allows the super-rich (and those who envy them) to experience the sufferings of ordinary people vicariously, much as Marie Antoinette enjoyed the experience of being an ordinary peasant by building a little farm on the grounds of Versailles.
Taking aesthetic pleasure from this image is quite simply a psychopathic act. After all, those rich are dependent on extractive industries and on fossil fuels to provide their big quarterly returns. Their search for profit has led to the climate change that makes such catastrophes and made it impossible for the citizen to generate his or her own energy.
They delude themselves into believing they will survive climate change by buying bunkers and vast land reserves, a movement vividly described by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker article "Doomsday Prep for the Superrich."
This sick culture radiates out throughout our society. Youth are forced to watch advertisements (whether they want to or not) in which bored rich kids lounge around, lost in a world of bored narcissism. Such images are presented to them as role models by marketers, suggesting that the only escape from of social inequality is through the worship of those who have the most.
How Google and Facebook shut down the American mind
But is this psychopathocracy simply a result of periodic decadence, or is there something else at play? The extremes of cognitive dissonance that allow highly educated people to blithely ignore climate change and the risk of nuclear war suggest that there must be another factor.
Perhaps the rapid advancement of technology has profoundly undermined our capacity to comprehend the shifts taking place around us and reduced us to passive consumers of games, social media, pornography and other distractions incapable of responding to crisis.
Could it be that our brains have been reprogrammed by the smartphones we use so that we will go to our graves with only a vague awareness that something is wrong? The cartoonist Steve Cutts describes this nightmare world in which discourse is impossible in his animation "Are you lost in the world like me". The acquired passivity affects all classes, all of the time.
Nicholas Carr's book, "What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows," provides extensive scientific evidence of how the internet is remapping our brains to respond to instantaneous stimulation and thereby rendering complex contemplation nearly impossible. That negative trend is proceeding at precisely the moment that we are being connected together globally in a confusing and contradictory manner by that same technology.
We are left dying of thirst in an ocean where there is information everywhere, but not a drop to contemplate.
Carr suggests that the brain's neuroplasticity allows it to change, often in a negative sense, promoting rigid behavior. Our neurons want us to keep exercising the circuits we formed through our internet surfing because they offer a seductive stimulation. Quick responses from a Google search, or from a Facebook posting, stimulate neurons and release pleasing stimulants.
The unused neural circuits that were once employed for the complex three-dimensional consideration of long-term personal experience and of shifts in culture and society are ruthlessly pruned away in an invisible neural Darwinism.
The neurologist Norman Doidge writes: "If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead." Carr puts it succinctly: "When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains"
That means that hours on smartphones, exploring social media and chatting with friends, has created people incapable of comprehending the scale of the risk involved in climate change or in the arms race that has followed the February 2 decision of the Trump administration to leave the?Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Few are even aware of these catastrophes. Even fewer rally with friends or family to discuss these developments that will end life as we know it.
Carr explains the reason: "Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It's possible to think deeply while surfing the net, just as it is possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that's not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards."
If we have an entire population who are mired in the "shallows," in the rapid processing of information in return for quick stimulation of the neurons, might it be possible that there will be few, or none, who can comprehend the crisis we face, let alone formulate and advocate for a solution?
The psychopath behind the psychopath
But there is one more piece to this puzzle. It does not sound right that a handful of greedy billionaires who care nothing for humanity are responsible for our current condition.
Could it be that if we rip off all the masks and peer behind the curtains, we will discover that technology has taken over the entire system of things?
Yes, the ultimate psychopath that plays the flute for those billionaires as they lead us to our doom is not some horrific monster, but rather the networks connecting tens of thousands of supercomputers around the world. They purr softly as they calculate to the tenth decimal point how to maximize profit every day, every minute and every second.
Those supercomputers make the ultimate decisions for JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Barclays and Bank of America, because they are capable of something that no human can do: They can assess the monetary value of the entire Earth and extract profit in perfect accord with the algorithms they are assigned without any ethical qualms.
The banks of supercomputers that are stacked behind the investment banks perceive Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos as but bothersome appendages in their quest for ultimate and immediate profit.
We do not have to wait for supercomputers to achieve consciousness to lose control of our civilization. All we need is for computers to set the priorities for our society on the basis of profit without any consideration for the needs for the ecosystem, or for humanity itself. And if social networks, videos and games remap the neural networks of in our brains, encouraging dopamine-driven short-term thinking, the computers will take over, and will have no choice but to take over, long before they have developed any consciousness.
We humans have not lost our minds completely, but we have delegated the dirty work to supercomputers without even noticing it. In this land, the one-eyed are being led to the precipice by a massively parallel blind man.