Psychopathic Leadership, Part Two: Trumping the Sword of Damocles

Part Two of Our Ancient Ambivalence toward the Psychopathic Leader — and how we may overcome it.

Ἐλεύθερος γὰρ ὢν ἐκ πάντων πᾶσιν ἐμαυτὸν ἐδούλωσα, ἵνα τοὺς πλείονας κερδήσω: καὶ ἐγενόμην τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις ὡς Ἰουδαῖος, ἵνα Ἰουδαίους κερδήσω: τοῖς ὑπὸ νόμον ὡς ὑπὸ νόμον, μὴ ὢν αὐτὸς ὑπὸ νόμον, ἵνα τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον κερδήσω: τοῖς ἀνόμοις ὡς ἄνομος, μὴ ὢν ἄνομος θεοῦ ἀλλ’ ἔννομος Χριστοῦ, ἵνα κερδάνω τοὺς ἀνόμους: ἐγενόμην τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν ἀσθενής, ἵνα τοὺς ἀσθενεῖς κερδήσω: τοῖς πᾶσιν γέγονα πάντα, ἵνα πάντως τινὰς σώσω. πάντα δὲ ποιῶ διὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, ἵνα συγκοινωνὸς αὐτοῦ γένωμαι.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 NIV).


CAUTIOUS DIAGNOSIS. This article is a continuation of my previous article on “Our Ancient Ambivalence toward the Psychopathic Leader.” In later articles we will explore what is arguably the most salient aspect of psychopathy, namely, an emotional dysfunction in areas of empathy, fear, and anxiety. Here I want to take up the first trait of the 20-point Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R): glibness and superficial charm. Before we look at this trait (typically presented as two parts), a little about how the Hare Checklist works. I discuss it now to reiterate a point made in my previous article, that when we look for psychopathic traits in leaders, this is not the same thing as wondering whether a certain leader is a clinical psychopath (even though some might be). Many, if not all, of the psychopathic traits we might discuss seem to present themselves on a continuum, with differing intensities and in different domains (the home, the office, the baseball field) throughout life. What we are interested to discover is what degree of these psychopathic traits a leader should have. As we pursue this question, we can also think about the extent to which our attraction to these psychopathic traits may increase our favor for those who approximate the clinical psychopath.

Kent Kiehl is one of Hare’s students and one of the foremost scholars of criminal psychopathy and its neurological basis. As he explains, the process of diagnosing a criminal psychopath involves a lengthy interview by someone trained to use the PCL-R (usually lasting around two hours), supplemented by a lengthy case history and (ideally) data from people who have known the putative psychopath intimately throughout their lives. One of the most common misunderstandings that non-specialists have about psychopathy regards the deep analysis required over multiple domains of a person’s life. For the purposes of clinical diagnosis, it is not enough to diagnose, e.g., one’s boss or ex-boyfriend as a psychopath on the grounds that this person exhibited several psychopathic traits in the course of a relationship. Certain constraints about the role they were in, or the period in their life, may be the better proximal explanation of this behavior. By contrast, clinical psychopathy is thought to have genetic roots that begin to foster abnormal, antisocial behavior in childhood.

GLIBNESS/SUPERFICIAL CHARM. I quote here Kiehl’s description of the process of applying the Hare Checklist, as well as his description of Glibness/Superficial Charm:

“The Psychopathy Checklist, created by Professor Hare, is the instrument we use in the field to assess psychopathy. It contains twenty items that capture the essential traits of psychopathy — including lack of empathy, guilt and remorse, glibness, superficiality, parasitic orientation, flat affect, irresponsibility, and impulsivity. These traits are assessed based on the individual’s entire life and in all domains of his or her life. That is, to ‘lack empathy’ on the Psychopathy Checklist, you must have evidence of this trait in the majority of your life — at home, work, school, with family, friends, and in romantic relationships. Each of the twenty items is scored on a three-point scale: 0, the item does not apply to the individual; 1, item applies in some respects; and 2, item definitely applies in most respects to the individual. The scores range from 0 to 40, with the clinical diagnosis of a psychopath reserved for those with a score of 30 or above. The average inmate will score 22. The average North American nonincarcerated male will score 4 out of 40” (Kiehl 2014: 9–10).

Note the difficulty that glibness and superficial charm present to a successful diagnosis of psychopathy:

“One aspect of psychopaths’ behavioral repertoire is that they often speak quickly, volubly, and interrupt the flow of the conversation frequently, in an energized speech that observers can find difficult to follow and process in real time. The listeners are bombarded with so much information that they often leave the conversation not having been able to digest it all. Then, as observers recall the conversation, their minds interpolate, usually in a very positive sense, the information that was presented. The psychopath often comes off as quick witted, even likable, but the listeners’ ‘gut’ feelings detect that there is something not quite right about the individual. It takes practice to sift through psychopathic speak.
“One of my favorite things to do with college psychology undergraduates is to send them to prison to interview psychopathic inmates without letting them read the collateral files first or letting them know the individuals they are interviewing are psychopaths. I’ll observe an interview and let the novice probe and question the subject. Upon completing the interview, I ask the undergraduate what he or she thought of the guy. More often than not I get a response such as ‘He was so nice, I can’t imagine why he is in prison’ or ‘If that guy was on the outside, I’d get a beer with him.’ Then I let them read the inmate’s file. ‘This can’t be the same guy,’ a novice commonly replies. I tell the student, ‘Go reinterview the inmate now that you have studied the collateral information.’ During the reinterview, the novice asks, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about all that stuff in your file, all the crimes you committed, the rape, the robbery?’ The psychopath more often than not replies with something like, ‘Oh, that’s the old me. I wanted to talk about the new me’” (Kiehl 2014: 52).
John Edwards on being acquitted of collecting illegal campaign contributions: “I don’t think God’s through with me.”

“Oh, that’s the old me. I wanted to talk about the new me.” Part of the charm of the psychopath is the ability to convince others that, despite astonishing criminal or antisocial behavior in the past, they are now reformed, redeemed, better for their trials and tribulations. This knack for apologies presents a particular problem for parole boards — or anyone else in a position to “forgive” the antisocial behavior of a psychopath.

“Parole boards are typically not very good at predicting whom to let out of prison. A recent study showed that psychopathic offenders are more likely to convince parole boards to let them out compared to nonpsychopathic offenders. This is an ongoing problem because we know that psychopathic offenders are more likely to reoffend than nonpsychopathic offenders. Professional judgment from a psychologist or psychiatrist has also been shown to be very unreliable in predicting who is going to reoffend” (Kiehl 2014: 24).

As a case in point, note the final interview that Ted Bundy gave to Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, on the eve of his execution in the electric chair in Florida. The killer of at least 30 women and girls comes across as sober, reflective, remorseful, and even frightened. He begins by seeming to take responsibility for his actions, only to gradually externalize the blame and place it on “violent pornography,” sometimes just “pornography.” More importantly for his interviewer, Dobson, Bundy plays to the script of the reformed sinner: he had a good Christian upbringing, he was so overcome by pornography (“like so many others”) that he committed horrible crimes, but now at the moment of death he has accepted Jesus Christ into his heart: the devil made me do it but Jesus saved me.

Two of Bundy’s biographers, Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, dispute the sincerity of Bundy’s conversion, pointing out that he had earlier explained to them that he did not see pornography as being a serious contributing factor to his crimes. But because pornography had been a been a hot button issue for Focus on the Family, Bundy was able to play upon their sympathies. Bundy’s motive to seek forgiveness here was not simply to flatter the worldview of one religious community. Though he had long denied any wrongdoing, once it became clear that his execution was imminent, Bundy began to express deep regret and an eagerness to help law enforcement locate the remains of other missing persons that he supposedly killed. By such a conversion he could hope to stay his execution indefinitely. No one fell for the strategy, though, and Bundy was executed according to schedule.


PREDATORY CHARM. There are many unintentional ways for someone to charm us: good looks, a shy demeanor, spontaneous gestures and awkward expressions. For the psychopath, the charm is calculated; more specifically, the charm is calculated to win over or “possess” others, literally or metaphorically.

He [Bundy] insisted that violence was never an end in itself, that the sex was almost perfunctory, and that to the extent it was possible the victims were spared pain. Not that the ‘entity’ [Bundy’s personification for his malice] was moved by any humanitarian impulses; it was just that gratification lay not in the assault, but in possession — the key to understanding Ted — Michaud and Aynesworth

The technical term for this type of charm is impression management. The metaphor most commonly used to describe the person good at impression management is the chameleon.

Bundy is often described as a chameleon; the forms he could take were fascinating. As Michaud and Ayenesworth chronicle, it was a skill he developed in adolescence (60). To seduce and attack women he would regularly play the part of a wounded man in a cast (29). Another time he was a police officer. When witnesses tried to identify him at a crime scene, they regularly contradicted each other about specifics (40). He would gain weight, trim his hair, or grow a mustache to remain anonymous (66–67).

[H]is expression would so change his whole appearance that there were some moments that you weren’t even sure that you were looking at the same person as you had been half an hour before. Or the day before. Or the morning before — Judge Stewart Hanson.

Once for a line-up in Salt Lake City in 1975, Bundy wore two sets of clothes, so as to shed the ones he arrived in just before appearing in front of witnesses, with the hopes of looking as different as possible from the other suspects (145). Still, many in Bundy’s life failed to see anything but an authentically charming person:

“His political friends detected not a trace of the ‘entity’ in the bright young man with good ideas. Ted was perfectly credible as the handsome and hard-working Republican campaign staffer. The girls adored him, and his superiors, the starchy GOP elders, could compare Ted with their own sons and only wished they’d raised boys like that” (Michaud and Aynesworth 1999: 303).

The metaphor of the chameleon is much older than Ted Bundy and comes not from the realm of crime but elite politics. In our own time we have Bob Dylan deriding the politician who partakes of a variety of foods, to win over his diverse constituency.

SPIVEY: “No one says no to Pappy O’Daniel.” EKARD: “Oh, gracious no. Not with his blandishments.” From the Coen Brothers’ Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Now, the man on the stand he wants my vote,
He’s a runnin’ for office on the ballot note,
He’s out there preachin’ in front of the steeple,
Tellin’ me he loves all kinds a people,
He’s eatin’ bagels, he’s eatin’ pizza, he’s eatin’ chitlins (“I Shall Be Free,” 1963).

But the original image of the chameleon appears in the person of the fifth-century Athenian statesman Alcibiades. Note that his biographer Plutarch highlights the predatory nature of his skill at adopting the habits of others:

“At Sparta, he was held in high repute publicly, and privately was no less admired. The multitude was brought under his influence, and was actually bewitched, by his assumption of the Spartan mode of life. When they saw him with his hair untrimmed, taking cold baths, on terms of intimacy with their coarse bread, and supping on black porridge, they could scarcely trust their eyes, and doubted whether such a man as he now was had ever had a cook in his own house, had even so much as looked upon a perfumer, or endured the touch of Milesian wool. He had, as they say, one power which transcended all others, and proved an implement of his chase for men: that of assimilating and adapting himself to the pursuits and lives of others, thereby assuming more violent changes than the chameleon. That animal, however, as it is said, is utterly unable to assume one colour, namely, white; but Alcibiades could associate with good and bad alike, and found naught that he could not imitate and practice. In Sparta, he was all for bodily training, simplicity of life, and severity of countenance; in Ionia, for luxurious ease and pleasure; in Thrace, for drinking deep; in Thessaly, for riding hard; and when he was thrown with Tissaphernes the satrap, he outdid even Persian magnificence in his pomp and lavishness. It was not that he could so easily pass entirely from one manner of man to another, nor that he actually underwent in every case a change in his real character; but when he saw that his natural manners were likely to be annoying to his associates, he was quick to assume any counterfeit exterior which might in each case be suitable for them” (Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades 23.3, translation Marchant).

Elsewhere in his Life, Plutarch describes a leader who was marvelously resourceful in his rhetoric, often contrite when he strayed from the philosophical teachings of Socrates, and, finally, beloved and adored by his city-state — so long as he was winning. We will have occasion to note Alcibiades’ other psychopathic traits as we go along. For now we will consider our conflicting feelings for the chameleon.


OUR THREEFOLD AMBIVALENCE TOWARD THE CHAMELEON. Clearly, Plutarch disapproves of Alcibiades’ mode of impression management, but our response is generally more ambivalent. In fact we seem to have three different attitudes toward the leader as chameleon. We tolerate it when we think we understand it. We admire it when we think it furthers our interests, even if we can’t fathom it. Or we may be deeply suspicious of it.

The Sword of Damocles by Richard Westall (1812), from the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, NC

To see the first attitude in action note that we like humanizing stories that give us a peek into the emotional stresses in a leader’s life, something that informs and reassures us that, even when the leader is “faking” a role, we can be confident that we know what’s going on inside the leader’s head.

It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends screaming, “let me out” — David Bowie

UNDER PRESSURE. There are a lot of strange things going on in Richard Westall’s Sword of Damocles. The guy in the middle who looks like Sleeping Beauty about to touch the spindle is actually Dionysius II, tyrant to Syracuse. The man in the golden chair is Damocles, the tyrant’s experimental guest. Damocles has been treated to the gamut of earthly delights: fetching women, a plate of apples, a glass of wine, the plucked strings of the lyre. But this is just an intoxicating bubble of invulnerabilty. Dionysius gestures to the sword suspended by a single horsehair just above Damocles’ head. The young man is startled from his languor, while the viewer is left to unravel the denouement: behind the wall an invidious courtier surveys the scene, buttressed by a cocky soldier. Is there poison in that wine? Are the musicians part of the conspiracy?

The story of Damocles, whose name means “glory of the demos (or people),” appears in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 5.61 (finished around the autumn of 45 BCE). Soon to be betrayed and beheaded himself, Cicero tells us that Damocles was one of Dionysius’ “yes men” (adsentatores), who once remarked how happy the tyrant must be in his army, wealth, power, etc. Dionysius, for his part, demonstrates just how unhappy the tyrant is by treating Damocles to a lavish feast, with the sword dangling precariously above his head. His experiment worked, and Damocles refused to eat. Cicero’s particular point seems to be directed at Julius Caesar, the recent conqueror of Pompey in the Battle of Pharsalus and increasingly (from Cicero’s perspective) a more detached, tyrannical figure, now vulnerable to plots from all sides and unhappy he has no true friends he can open up to. Cicero’s story is of course perfectly prophetic. Caesar would be assassinated in less than a year by many of his former friends.

“The desire for food and drink, the relish of taking them, all the pleasures of the table are naught in the presences of anger or great anxiety” — Walter Cannon, coiner of the term “fight or flight” (The Wisdom of the Body).

If the “Sword of Damocles” story happened at all (unlikely), it happened in the middle of the fourth century BCE. (Our Dionysius was the same tyrant that Plato tried to turn into a Philosopher King.) It’s part of an ancient tradition of imagining what would happen if a philosopher — or a poet or private citizen — ever had the guts to ask a great leader if he was happy. Such stories always end with an explication of how unhappy such a leader is, despite appearances to the contrary. In a dialogue of Xenophon called the Hieron (c. 474 BCE), the poet Simonides asks Hieron, another tyrant of Syracuse, to compare the happiness of the private citizen to that of an absolute ruler. Here, too, the tyrant complains that he cannot enjoy food and festivity: they are always more costly for a tyrant (think of Elvis having to rent an entire theater to go to the movies) and they require increasingly more sophisticated sauces to make them delectable. Hieron, too, must always worry about his many enemies, even his closest friends.

Encounters such as these between Damocles and Dionysus or Hieron and Simonides serve to confirm our sense of familiarity with a leader’s emotional life. The chameleon is o.k., so long as we can see what’s there at the core, a human being just as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us, maybe more so.

By contrast, sometimes it’s very hard to imagine how the leader actually pulls off chameleon-like behavior. But we’re still o.k. with this, as long as we think that such behavior is necessary and if it serves our interests (i.e., is not predatory).


TRUMPING THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES. Americans also like experiments that supposedly allow us to gaze into a leader’s soul; so, we make them go on talk shows and tell jokes. But when we look into their souls, we don’t necessarily want to see a leader anxious, paranoid, and friendless in Washington but for a dog. We want to see someone who is composed, witty, and self-effacing — the reassuring sedative to the doomsday scenarios of nuclear holocaust and global warming that plague us.

One of our best experiments is a reenactment of the Sword of Damocles feast, a.k.a., the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. For those unfamiliar with the event, every year at the end of April, barring a major crisis, the president invites his biggest critics to dine with him. Maybe there are no treacherous soldiers or assassins, but there are other presidential hopefuls, hoping in part to be mentioned by the president but also dreading the prospect of being mocked. The media, too, are conflicted: should they laugh generously or refrain, knowing that they might appear too harsh of or too complicit in the president’s agenda? For his part, a president can score a few points with the 18–35 demographic if his sound-bytes go viral. In a worst-case scenario a president may be roasted to buttery embarrassment as George W. Bush was by Stephen Colbert in 2006. This moment made Colbert’s career but so confounded the Bush administration that in the following year they tapped Rich Little to perform dated impersonations of Johnny Carson and Jimmy Carter, to some of the most forced and awkward laughter you will ever encounter. Little insists that what he does does not count as “satire” or making “political points,” a desperate effort to distance himself from Colbert.

On April 30, 2011 the “steaks” at this Dinner were considerably higher. President Obama had just released the long-form of his birth certificate, what was his trump card, so to speak, in the ongoing “birther conspiracy.” Donald Trump, one of the most enterprising peddlers of this theory, was sitting just a few tables away — as was the cunning of FOXNews. Obama, with his characteristic “coolness,” gave a 19-minute presentation prefaced by the tune of “I am a real American.” At his highpoint, he eviscerated Trump and mocked his credentials for the presidency, including his silly role on the reality show The Apprentice and his Vegas-esque taste in architecture (see 9:35ff. on the video). Obama also made fun of himself, his low approval ratings, and the disillusionment that even members of his own party felt toward him. In all it was a careful balancing act: the president needed to know how to be funny and how to be serious but, more importantly, when to be funny and when to be serious. And he was truly the master of this ceremony.

But this is not actually what I meant when I punned that “steaks were high in 2011”: fewer than 24 hours after this Dinner, President Obama was below the White House in the Situation Room, overseeing the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, the culmination of a nearly ten-year campaign to bring down the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By the end of the day, Obama would announce that bin Laden had been killed.

This campaign was no side-project for the president. He had been working carefully on it all week and from the moment he took office in 2008. According to Mark Bowden’s account in The Finish, Obama’s own vice president, Joe Biden, had opposed the mission. Obama himself would later say that the chances of success were 50/50 — thereby making a good case for his willingness to gamble in the big game. Clearly, this was no easy or casual decision.

The night before, while he sat at the high table listening to comedian Seth Myers, one of the jokes might have struck a chord. As Time Magazine reported, Myers quipped, “People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush, but did you know that every day from 4 to 5 he hosts a show on C-SPAN?” Obama smiled generously; the joke was a little funny for a lot of reasons. But nothing betrayed his knowledge of bin Laden’s true haunts. Gone from the scene were Damocles’ shock and awe. Only smiles.

Time playfully characterized Obama as having a “poker face”. But this is imprecise: a poker face is what you show when a few thousand dollars are at stake and maybe your reputation as a poker player. The attack on bin Laden’s compound was incomparable: the fate of the war on terror, the lives of Seal Team Six, the United States’ already strained relationship with Pakistan (the raid on their sovereign soil was done without prior approval), and of course Obama’s own legacy as a president.

Through it all, Obama betrayed no signs of anxiety or unease. It took much more than a “poker face” to trump the Sword of Damocles.

But such is the nature of the role. Obama and his staff entertained cancelling the dinner when it looked like the raid might take place on the same night as the Dinner. When it was rescheduled for the following day, it was clear that the Dinner could not be cancelled because this might arouse suspicion among the very guests the Dinner was designed to placate.

So what’s going on here? How did Obama pull off such a seamless transition from Dinner to Situation Room, knowing so well when to be funny and when to be serious — when I can’t even enjoy my lunch on the same afternoon that I have to give a public lecture?

I don’t mean to single out President Obama here. Probably every president from here on out and plenty of other leaders will have to be both affable and approachable at one time and dead serious at another. Isocrates, the fourth-century philosopher and contemporary of Plato, thinks this is the hardest thing for a king to do.

Try to combine courtesy with dignity; for dignity is in keeping with the position of a king and courtesy is becoming in his social intercourse. Yet no admonition is so difficult to carry out as this; for you will find that for the most part those who affect dignity are cold, while those who desire to be courteous appear to lower themselves; yet you should cultivate both these qualities and try to avoid the danger that attaches to each — Isocrates

It’s worth bearing down on a few of Isocrates’ words here. The word that means “courteous” here is asteios (ἀστεῖος), which literally means “from the city.” We might translate it as “urbane,” from the Latin word for city (urbs). It has connotations of being “with it,” witty, cultured, graceful, or charming. By contrast, the word for “dignified” is semnos (σεμνός), which, when applied to the gods or to leaders in very high standing, has connotations of being august, revered, and stately. Someone with mere pretenses to seriousness or moral perfection can be described as semnos, but here it means haughty or proud. It will not surprise anyone to note that president Obama has consistently been critiqued for failing to maintain Isocrates’ balance, either appearing too “cool” and aloof, unwilling to clap the backs of bigwigs at parties, or too undignified, embarrassing the office of the presidency by bowing at the wrong time or deigning to do talk shows at all.

How does anyone pull this off, especially in presidential politics? Some partial answers come to mind. We like to say that leaders are good at “compartmentalizing.” Maybe president Obama just “compartmentalized” an operation that had been in the works since the beginning of his presidency in 2008, even though it required careful deliberation during the very week of the attack. Maybe he was just “playing a role,” treating what he said and did at the Correspondent’s Dinner as a “performance.” We all know that actors can play characters and evince emotions at variance with their true identity. But this metaphor, on the face of it, is pretty insufficient. A performance scripted by whom? Cast by whom? Directed by whom other than the president himself? Presumably, all of the deliberation it takes to get the script and performance just right would create the kind of anxiety that prevents us from “relishing food and drink.”

But maybe we are just projecting our own anxieties onto a leadership role that’s actually not that hard. Surely we do the same thing with professional athletes when we stress over them competing in the big game; but in fact they have been competing so often for many years that they feel right at home. Still, this analogy seems imperfect. Politics is not a sport, regardless of how many metaphors we choose to apply to it: fortunes and lives rise and fall in political “games.”

But maybe president Obama and all the leaders who have come before him are just really good at not caring how things turn out. It’s only life after all…

None of these explanations is fully satisfying. The most I could say is that President Obama is great at playing the chameleon, a skill which people have admired and lamented. Just Google “Obama” and “chameleon.” In the case of the Dinner and the attack on bin Laden, most Americans seem to be in agreement that Obama did what was good for the country, easing relations with rivals and critics and then ridding the country of one of its most formidable enemies. The question remains how much we actually want to know about the intricacies of the chameleon’s craft— or do we want to believe in magic?


THE TRICKSTER. Regardless of our attitude toward the “beneficent” chameleon, we are very wary — to the point of paranoia — of the seemingly selfish or revolutionary chameleon. On the surface, the image of Obama as the Joker (2009) is just a clever manipulation of a cover of Time Magazine that associates him with one of the villains of the contemporary Dark Knight series, played by Heath Ledger. The creator of the image, Firas Alkhateeb, claims to have done it out of boredom, with no special antipathy toward the president (he was not the first to associate Obama with the Joker). It is not clear who added the “socialism” caption before the image went viral, but it was a stroke of genius, in the sense that it channeled deeply held cultural fears about psychopathic leadership in the form of a figure that is as old as story-telling: the trickster.

“Hermes, god of mediation between all the opposites of the universe. As mediator between light and dark, life and death, wakefulness and sleep, heaven and earth, and so on, Hermes is πολύτροπος (polútropos) ‘of many turns’” (Gregory Nagy in Mythology and Poetics 1990: 34).

Batman’s Joker is just one modern example, but the trickster figure is found in all major world mythology and folklore, familiar to many in the form of Hermes (the Roman Mercury), Odysseus, and Prometheus in ancient Greece. As the name would suggest, tricksters are known for their trickery, but also their versatility, and their boldness, which often results in upsetting social norms. Prometheus’ act of stealing fire from Zeus seriously upset the nature of humankind’s dependence on the gods. Tricksters, like psychopaths, are seen as charming in their ability to figure their way out of anything, often by clever speech and disguises. We may think most famously of Odysseus’ ability to escape the cave of the Cyclops in the Odyssey by claiming that his name is “Nobody.” He is the mythological forebear of leaders like “Tricky” Dick Nixon and Bill “Slick Willie” Clinton.

The trickster figure’s presence in story-telling has been used as proof of the universal nature of the psychopathic personality. Long before there was the professional discipline of psychology (the argument goes), societies articulated their wariness and wonder for “psychopathic” tricksters in song and story.

While conceding that all that one might say about psychopaths could also be said of tricksters, Lewis Hyde argues that the inverse is not true. Tricksters are figures of ritual, both dignified and urbane, even profane. And just as tricksters are harbingers of chaos and anarchy, they are also are creators as well as destroyers: they invent, they give, they revolutionize, they take civilization to a new, supposedly more honest, understanding of itself. For Hyde it is this deeper, sometimes darker, understanding of reality that tricksters point us toward and that we rationalize by labeling the messenger a psychopath.

“I have often wondered, then, whether the associative leap that links these two characters isn’t really a defense against the anxiety that trickster’s methods can produce. There is, of course, good reason to be cautious when glib and cunning human beings appear on the scene. But it must also be the case that a society, to preserve the status quo, will slide an image of the psychopath over the face of the trickster to prevent real contact. Like one of those Styrofoam owls they put on buildings to scare off timid pigeons, the image of the psychopath is a minatory illusion, a threatening mask to keep the conventional from approaching the trickster’s sacred/not-sacred functions. Trickster is among other things the gate-keeper who opens the door into the next world; those who mistake him for a psychopath never even know such a door exists” (Hyde 1998: 159).

With Hyde’s distinction between a trickster and a psychopath in mind, we can characterize the two different responses to president Obama above. For those who welcomed his ability to play the chameleon with a characteristic coolness that makes him “all things to all people” and takes the nation to a new and safer place, Obama as trickster will be an authentically charming if at times puzzling figure. Those who see him this way will believe that peddlers of the Joker Obama mistake the good trickster for the psychopath because they are anxious about the status quo, the set of the revolutionary things that they believe president Obama is the harbinger of: equal access to power for all, tolerance for traditionally marginalized people, social justice, a more open and cooperative relationship with former enemies.

CONCLUSION. Whatever one may think of an individual leader, our ambivalence toward the chameleon is likely to persist. There are probably many reasons for this but at least one is the fact that we have very little ongoing or immediate access to our leaders, leaving open the opportunity for paranoid fantasy or genuine ignorance and concern. It wasn’t always this way. Paul Lawrence points out that earlier human societies were much smaller and thus speculates that it would have been easier to keep track of charming psychopaths by ongoing face-to-face interaction (the shame factor would have been much more at play than today).

The glib leader is also likely to persist. Part of the reason for this is we may be expecting too much from our leaders. Most of the problems that any serious political leader is likely to encounter require Ph.D.-level knowledge and training in tons of different fields: economics, mathematics, law, medicine, political science, biology, atmospheric science, engineering, world and American history, and so on. Of course we expect leaders to consult advisers, but we also expect them to adjudicate the advice of one expert against another. Even a high school understanding of these topics can be very hard to prepare for, especially in an open-ended forum. As a consequence, politicians try to script their public appearances as carefully as possible, in front of a friendly audience, with talking points so malleable they will conform to any ear, so empty they can be filled with new meaning as needed. The glibbest among them will be able to play to as many different audiences a possible. If they are really good, their charm will seem not superficial or insincere but authentic, something that can be traced back to their core, their DNA.

In the next part we will take a look at one psychopathic trait that may underpin some of a leader’s ability to charm and speak glibly: grandiosity.


Bibliography

Babiak and Hare. 2006. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York.

Blair, James. 2005. The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain. New York.

Bowden, Mark. 2012. The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. New York.

Dutton, Kevin. 2012. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. New York.

Fallon, James. 2013. The Psychopath Inside. New York.

Hyde, Lewis. 1998. Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York.

Kiehl, Kent. 2014. The Psychopath Whisperer. New York.

Lawrence, Paul. 2010. Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership. San Francisco.

Nagy, Gregory. 1992. Greek Mythology and Poetics. New York.

Sullivan, Elizabeth and D. Kosson. 2006. “Ethnic and Cultural Variations in Psychopathy.” 437–458. in Patrick, C. ed. Handbook of Psychopathy. New York.

Verbaal, Wim. 2006. “Cicero and Dionysios the Elder, or the End of Liberty.” Classical World 99.2: 145–156.

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