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How can the American people protect themselves from dangerous leaders — like the one we've got?

Therapist and mediator Bill Eddy on the dangers of a leader who "repeatedly blames others" and becomes isolated


Chauncey DeVega
April 27, 2019 10:00AM (UTC)

Last week's release of Robert Mueller's report, even in redacted form, highlights a president and his regime typified by disdain for the rule of law, democratic norms, and any principles of public service or the common good. Mueller's prose is overflowing with repeated examples of Donald Trump engaging in obstruction of justice, which only add to the public mountain of evidence why he should be impeached, convicted and removed from office. The Mueller Report also shows a president who were open and eager to accept to accept help, both direct and indirect, from the agents of a hostile foreign government to distort and subvert the 2016 presidential election.

Beyond collusion and obstruction of justice, the Mueller report is damning in other ways as well. It shows how Donald Trump rules through fear and intimidation. But Trump's power is far from absolute: Members of his inner circle routinely ignore him and apparently think that he is an ignorant, dangerous manchild. Many of the people who work for Trump, in other words, neither like nor respect him.

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Is Donald Trump a dangerous "high conflict and high emotion" personality? Is he a malignant narcissist? Why do these kinds of leaders pose such a threat, even while they inspire such extreme loyalty from their followers? Why do Trump's supporters continue to adore him even though he has repeatedly lied to them? Do sick societies produce dangerous leaders like Donald Trump, or is another dynamic at work?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Bill Eddy, a therapist, lawyer and mediator who is the co-founder and training director of High Conflict Institute. Eddy is the author of numerous books, including his latest, "Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths ― and How We Can Stop," which will be published next month.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

As a mediator, counselor and attorney, what do you see when you look at America (and the world) in the age of Donald Trump? How did such a dangerous person who has obvious contempt for democracy and the rule of law become president?

The biggest factor in electing narcissists and sociopaths is the role of what I describe as "modern high-emotion media" such as radio, television, movies and other media. And in the last hundred years, we've had high-conflict personalities destroying parts of the world and killing millions of people in their own countries.

We developed limits on the power of monarchs and kings. We've developed constitutions and laws to live by. But we have not restricted modern high-emotion media and its power. So now anyone who is good at grabbing attention, manipulating emotion, and has extreme thinking can get elected to office. This is a problem not just in the United States but  around the world. This problem is going to get worse before it gets better. I am afraid that Donald Trump is just one example of a bigger problem.

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Hillary Clinton's competence and ability could not compete with Donald Trump, who resembles a professional wrestling villain and reality TV show persona in an America which is amusing itself to death.

The ability to entertain is central to Trump's power. The ability to impress the public with visual media means such leaders are good at playing the moment and manipulating emotions. Leaders like Donald Trump and others like him are not good at solving problems. In turn this means that these types of high-conflict leaders are not good at government or planning.

Why is there a current rise in authoritarian leaders and people willing to follow them? Have these people always been with us or are these new leaders encouraging more people to become authoritarian?

I think it's both. They have always been with us -- but in small numbers because their behavior does not work well on a one-to-one interpersonal basis. Such people are not liked. On a personal level most people do not get along with Donald Trump, for example. Vladimir Putin is another example of this. But emotions are contagious. High-conflict people like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are very emotional as well as emotionally persuasive. Such leaders use what I call the "fantasy crisis triad" to get and retain power.

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This is done when a leader says, "There is a terrible crisis and it's caused by a terrible evil villain and you need a wonderful hero, and thus here I am." In response the public says, "Wow, we didn't realize there was that crisis!. We didn't realize there was that villain. But, my goodness, we better just follow you!"

People are susceptible to following leaders like this when they get used to seeing the world in simplistic terms. But today's problems are not caused by a single villain. Today's problems are caused by factors such as technology and automation. People lose their jobs not because of evil people from another country, but because technology is making it possible to live without the jobs we used to have. All of these changes make people susceptible to dangerous leaders. And one thing which is true worldwide is that people in more isolated communities are more likely to follow high-conflict, high-emotion leaders.

Why? I believe that people in smaller, more isolated communities are generally more friendly and more trusting. By comparison people in New York City do not like Donald Trump. They didn't vote for him -- this is partly because they personally witnessed and knew about his bad behavior. People in big cities are also more cautious. People in larger communities have to be cautious about scam artists and other types of criminals who prey on their victim's trust. People in smaller and more isolated communities haven't had to think that way. I don't blame people in smaller communities who voted for Trump and are more easily won over by leaders like him. I just want to educate them.

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How is Donald Trump and his rise to power a lesson in the power of the con artist? Why would anyone ever follow such a person who lies, shows he is untrustworthy, and does so in such an obvious public way?

Naïveté of course. Con artists distract people by making them look in the wrong direction while they rob and hustle you. This is the way that pickpockets operate. High-conflict and high-emotion politicians like Donald Trump do this on a grander scale. Whether it's immigrants, minorities or another targeted group, these dangerous leaders look for scapegoats. If they can get enough of the public to look in the wrong direction they can get power. This is all a political con job. In today's world we just have to have our eyes open more. It is not that difficult. The behavior of these types of leaders and other high-conflict and manipulative people is pretty easy to identify.

How can people inoculate and protect themselves from high-conflict, dangerous personalities such as Donald Trump and others like him?

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This is not a diagnosis, but there is a pattern of conflict with their behavior. There is a  preoccupation with blaming others. When you're dealing with somebody like Trump who always says that it's somebody else's fault, you have got to be aware of the fact such a person will not take responsibility for their behavior.

High-conflict people spend a majority if not all of their energy finding ways to examine and critique other people. These personalities spend little if any energy being introspective or self-critical. The more a high-conflict person points the finger of blame at other people the less they are responsible for their own behavior.

In politics we should be very aware of someone who repeatedly blames others and who never learns from their behavior. Be wary of leaders who talk in all-or-nothing language and pursue those zero-sum solutions. When a leader says that a whole group of people is bad and another group is good, that is a huge warning sign. A leader who thinks in such a way will start a war or engage in other horrible violence because their followers will start to think that way too.

Unmanaged emotions are another trait to be on alert for. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders used more analytical words and framing of the issues while Donald Trump was high emotion. Do not trust people who are more emotional than logical.

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These types of dangerous leaders and personalities also promote extreme behavior and make extreme threats.

Such people also tend to have other personality disorders. In politics these disorders tend to manifest as narcissists and sociopaths. Narcissists want unlimited power. Most politicians do not want such power. They like being in the middle of things. Leaders who want unlimited power will destroy the people around them to get it. The sociopathic part of these personalities is the constant lying and deceit. A high-conflict personality with narcissistic and sociopathic traits is a leader and person that you want to avoid.

How do such high-conflict and dangerous leaders maintain control and influence? They are unlikable people with bad personality traits. Who would want to associate with them?

They seduce people. Narcissistic, sociopathic personalities are the most seductive, charming people on the planet. Such people distract others through charm, and they're constantly telling people how wonderful and smart they are. These leaders lie to their followers and have no remorse for doing so. They have no empathy, which makes it very comfortable and easy for them to lie. Perhaps 30 percent or so of the public can be seduced by these types of leaders because on some level many people are authoritarian.

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Donald Trump is a con man. However, his voters made a choice knowing who and what he is. As such, I have no pity or empathy for them. What is happening psychologically in terms of his supporters' enduring love for him?

It is a kind of cognitive dissonance. Most people cannot tolerate that they were conned. And so they tell themselves, "No, I was smart, I was right, I was good." We are not going to get people to say they made a mistake. To avoid electing dangerous high-conflict and emotional leaders is to get the people in the middle. They have only been partially seduced. These are the people we saw in the 2018 election who voted for Trump in 2016 but then against the Republicans in the midterms.

Many psychologists and other mental health professionals have concluded that Donald Trump is mentally unwell and that one of his most prominent personality disorders is that he is a malignant narcissist. What are the implications if this is true?

Malignant narcissism is like a cancer that's growing. Noted social psychologist Erich Fromm described malignant narcissism as having several dimensions. Narcissistic, which was unlimited drive for power. Sociopathic or antisocial, which is highly deceitful, lying and cunning, highly aggressive, and a lack of remorse. Paranoia, sadism and a willingness to hurt people for their own pleasure. What really makes these personality traits a problem is the paranoia.

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What happens is the paranoia keeps growing because the longer they have power -- or the more power that they get -- the more people want to get rid of these types of leaders. Consequently, these leaders start to become more and more isolated. They become more mistrusting of everybody around them.

A good example of this would be Jim Jones. As his paranoia grew and grew, he convinced his followers, 900 people in total, to commit revolutionary suicide.

If Donald Trump is in fact a malignant narcissist, then the world will see his behavior deteriorate over the next two years. The paranoia will be acute. Trump will become more isolated and then he is going to lash out, go on the attack.

To survive and triumph, people of conscience must realize that Donald Trump and his authoritarian movement are a symptom of a much deeper set of cultural pathologies in America. Do sick societies produce sick leaders?

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I disagree. You can actually take a relatively healthy country and make it sick by putting someone who is sick in charge of it. To me, that is very scary. If you put a high-conflict person into a position of cultural influence and political power, they can use the high-emotion media to divide a country and turn it against itself.

America is going to need a truth and reconciliation commission to heal from the harm done by Donald Trump and his movement. If you were mediating or convening a panel between Trump loyalists and people of conscience who opposed Trump and his movement, how would you bring the two groups together? Is that even possible?

My approach would start with an assumption that we want to learn from each other. We want to understand and respect each other, and we don't have to agree on everything. Let's just learn about each other because we'll find that we have a lot more in common than we do differences.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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