As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’ve recently connected with the Intellectual Father of much of what I base my own work around — Mel Conway, of Conway’s Law fame. I found him on Twitter, interestingly enough. We’ve a had a lot of fun bouncing ideas off each other in the meantime. For me, it’s kind of a Bladerunner moment, where the android gets to meet his maker and ask him questions. Considering Mel’s advanced age, I hope he’s getting one of those “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” moments.
Mel recently floated the idea of Donald Trump as a Manchurian Candidate type of persona, subject to hypnotic suggestion by a larger Russian psy-ops program. Well, maybe. But probably not. For those that don’t remember the cultural allusion, a Manchurian Candidate is a person brainwashed to do a foreign government’s bidding. The title comes from the eponymous novel about a Medal of Honor winner who almost gives the Presidency to the Communists.
Far more likely is that Donald Trump is just a garden-variety, super-rich narcissistic psychopath. And largely why we can’t seem to wrap our heads around Trump as an individual with a deep empathy disorder is because we, as a society, have such a poor understanding of how empathy disorders, as well as empathy in general works. The reason, as I’ve said in the past, we have such a poor understanding, is the structures we’ve set up to explore new knowledge– academic institutions– are empathy deprived in their fundamental social structure. They just don’t get empathy as a connecting force, because they don’t connect, and can’t conceive of it as an important dynamic. Check the link above to understand how egocentric academic understanding can be.
And when it comes to understanding disorders of empathy, what that means is the people that study what psychopathy is are very good at listing endless, fragmented characteristics of a given individual. But those same people in charge of our shared understanding are uniformly awful for understanding how these individuals work inside systems.
This matters greatly for the present moment, because the President of the United States is a narcissistic psychopath. I’m not the only person that’s said this (though I did call it early! 🙂 ) But what’s lacking, again, is how someone like a narcissistic psychopath operates inside a social system.
Two very important characteristics matter in understanding how narcissistic psychopaths operate. First is the primary emphasis on mirroring empathy, with the extremely short-term time- and spatial scales that dominate that mode. No one would deny that Donald Trump is fundamentally impulsive — all you have to do is look at his Twitter feed to understand exactly how impulsive he is. Just like The Joker in the movie The Dark Knight, Donald Trump is a dog chasing cars. He wouldn’t know what to do with one if he caught it. Look no further to the story of his transition team into the Presidency.
The second is delving deep cultural knowledge on how narcissistic psychopaths have been viewed in the past — the iconic image of The Vampire. Vampires are characterized by the following:
- Concerned to the exclusion of almost everything else regarding their personal appearance.
- Possessing no reflection in a mirror (indicating no profound internal definition of self.)
- Fear of daylight.
I’ve called the condition “collapsed egocentricism” — there is nothing else in the world of Donald Trump but Donald Trump and his desires. This lack of boundaries also directly links to a profound inability to make or maintain personal attachment. The end result of this is endless relational disruption of the social network in his reach, which, unfortunately extends out past his Cabinet, and to the rest of our nation.
The problem with all this is that Trump also tends not to respond well to anyone below him in titular authority. That means basically everyone in the United States. He IS President, after all. All here are beneath him.
That means he has to look outside of the country to find someone who he might consider a peer. That means other heads of state. And he’s naturally going to gravitate to people whose brains are wired like his. Kim Jong Oon, the head of North Korea, is probably the best (and most recent) example. The problem with all this is Trump is really only receptive to suggestion from other authoritarian heads of state, like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
The problem with having these folks as your operative Old Boys Club is that these folks aren’t stupid. Donald Trump got to his current status as President through an instinctive reading of media markets. Anyone denying his insight on how new media works needs to start adopting a performance-based ethos toward realizing that Trump was no accident, even if the currents of history favored his ascendancy. He had the one characteristic that mattered in the face of an ossified political system — the ability to use new media channels to turn the rage over neglect of a majority of the country economically into political support. That talent propelled him into the White House.
But Putin, and Xi are different animals. While both are most definitely authoritarians, both rose through myriad political Authority-driven hierarchies to become top dogs without either a.) landing in jail, or b.) getting killed. Donald’s been flying around on an airplane, making screwy business deals and whoring. These other two guys mean business. They may both be Authoritarians, and potentially narcissistic, but the circumstances they evolved in demanded far more sophistication for basic survival. Sophistication demanded they learned to control their darker impulses.
So when it comes to getting Trump to do what they want, they know how to manipulate someone with empathy mirroring distortion. Until, of course, something inside Trump’s brain starts squawking that they’re moving up in status above him. And then he threatens trade sanctions.
Or war. That’s the deep problem with all of this. One of the pathologies of the condition is called splitting. While the phenomenon is well described in infants, it is disordered thinking in a 70+ year old man. Referred to sometimes as ‘black and white thinking’ it is the sudden shift in thinking someone is your friend is now your enemy. This is hardly OK on the playground between six-year-olds. But one can see the peril in this among world leaders. Lots of people have made fun of Trump watching Fox News all day, and carrying on with the hosts. I’m different — that kind of news makes me happy. The last thing we need is for that guy to be more active.
Which then brings me full circle to Conway’s Manchurian Candidate hypothesis. It’s not that it might not be true. Those Russkies are an interesting bunch. But I’ve seen so much incompetence at elite levels in the last ten years, in all sorts of institutions, I’ve become convinced that there are few world-class players who could pull something like that off. Most folks are there through a combination of sophistication, suppression of ego, at least temporarily, and a good bit of luck. The last enlightened authoritarian I witnessed was Deng Xiaoping, and it was clear that empathetic evolution was taking place in his brain throughout his life. The fact that he got sent to prison by Mao and emerged alive is amazing.
But I’ve never favored any organized conspiracy when that same behavior could be explained with emergent dynamics. Donald Trump, as a relational disruptor/collapsed egocentric is prime for above-board manipulation. Being locked in with low-order empathetic functioning — dysfunctional mirroring is all that other world leaders need. Manchurian Candidate? More likely Vampire of New York.
P.S. For a little more lighthearted world-leader influence, this message from (ex) President Vicente Fox is awesome.
Unfortunately, using the logic from above, Trump isn’t likely to listen. Fox is out of office.