A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Returning the American financial system to its unregulated pre-New Deal state and expecting everything to work perfectly would certainly qualify as insane under this definition. So, too, would Ron Paul’s “solution” of abolishing the federal reserve and returning America to the gold standard, effectively returning us to the 19th century, with its repeated pattern of financial panics, prolonged recessions and enormous concentrations of wealth. Equally insane, by this folk definition, is the path of today’s Republican Party as a whole, trying to unseat President Obama by offering America, in essence, a third term of George W Bush.
It isn’t working.
And because it isn’t working, we’re seeing signs of increasingly bizarre behaviour on the right. Most recently, large swaths of the GOP faithful have swiftly embraced the delusional fantasy that national pollsters – even Fox News – are deliberately skewing polls to favour President Obama and the Democrats, when Romney is actually leading by more than seven points! To understand how the GOP got to this bizarre place, we need to consider a variety of different perspectives, including more technically precise ways of defining insanity and related cognitive deficits.
The psychopathic mask of sanity
In his classic book, The Mask of Sanity, first published in 1941, Dr Hervey Cleckley provided the first detailed clinical description and analysis of psychopathic behaviour. In his formulation, the psychopath does not suffer from any relatively common form of mental disorder, but lacks the normal core of human personality structure, which enables us to have deep and lasting emotions, relationships with others and an internalised sense of right and wrong. Hence they can give the outward appearance of sanity – even extreme sociability and charm – while entirely lacking the meaningful inner life that we all assume goes on inside one another.
The psychopath suffers from “a different kind of abnormality from all those now recognised as seriously impairing competency,” Cleckley wrote. In contrast to other abnormalities, one does not observe “a more or less obvious alteration of reasoning processes or of some other demonstrable personality feature”. Instead, “The observer is confronted with a convincing mask of sanity. All the outward features of this mask are intact; it cannot be displaced or penetrated by questions directed toward deeper personality levels. The examiner never hits upon the chaos sometimes found on searching beneath the outer surface of a paranoid schizophrenic. The thought processes retain their normal aspect under psychiatric investigations and in technical tests.”
Of course, the mask does slip in the real world, outside the confines of the psychiatric encounter, which is how Cleckley came to encounter them in the first place. Indeed, as Cleckley described them, psychopaths tend to be wantonly destructive, so lacking in long-term purpose that they are as destructive to themselves as anyone else – or even more so. Because they are incapable of feeling normal emotions, they are risk-takers who may well develop a taste for the extreme and bizarre. They are manipulative, if not predatory, but most are not violent. However, those who make up a disproportionate share of serial killers, the manifestation of psychopathy that has most captured the public imagination.
As I noted in an earlier column, Ayn Rand modelled her first prototypical hero, Danny Renahan, on an infamous psycho-killer of her day, William Hickman, as described by author Michael Prescott, who quotes an excerpt about Renahan, from Rand’s journal:
[Renahan] is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness – [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people… Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.
The organ that Renahan lacks is what we humans know as conscience. And this “heroic” lack of conscience is what large swaths of today’s Republican Party has – rather shockingly – come to revere. This represents a dramatic shift, since as recently as the late 1990s the internet was awash with more conventional libertarians heaping scorn on Ayn Rand’s brand, known as “Objectivism”, which they justifiably derided as a cult. Times have clearly changed.
This is not to say that Mitt Romney, or even Paul Ryan is himself a psychopath – even though Ryan repeatedly praised Ayn Rand over the years and gave his staffers her books to read. But it is to say that Romney and Ryan have risen to the top of a political culture that actively praises the psychopath’s lack of conscience and attacks those who have a conscience as being socialists and communists.
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This in turn creates an environment in which more overtly psychopathic behaviour thrives. Romney and Ryan may have long-term life-plans and stable family lives atypical of psychopathic individuals, but Newt Gingrich’s repeated fits of self-annihilation are disturbingly close to the typical psychopathic pattern, as is his use of money-making scams, well documented by Rachel Maddow. Indeed, almost all of Romney’s failed competitors in the GOP primary exhibited some form of self-destructive behaviour. This may be less a sign of their individual psychopathic tendencies than it is an indication that such behaviour is no longer commonly recognised in Republican circles as aberrant, troublesome, dangerous or destructive – at least not until it’s far too late.
This brings us to another aspect of the GOP’s recent unravelling. Romney’s not the only one in trouble, as the GOP’s senate prospects have soured significantly as well, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi is even talking about Democrats regaining the House. This is partly the result of changing voter attitudes, reflected in the fact that fewer people are identifying as Republicans, and more are identifying as independents and Democrats. But it’s also the result of individual Republican candidates inadvertently revealing their true colours – or else having them exposed against their will. Thus, we have Missouri Senate candidate Todd Aikin’s remarks about “legitimate rape”, Wisconsin Senate candidate Tommy Thompson’s bragging about his credibility in getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid (thus confirming PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year”), Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s attack on Elizabeth Warren for claiming her Native American heritage – and the racist taunting of his senate staffers that echoed his remarks.
It’s not that any of these are necessarily symptoms of psychopathy, though they do have some of its flavour. More importantly, they reflect a political environment in which such behaviour is generally tolerated, even celebrated, an environment in which traditional norms of civility, decency and personal responsibility have utterly eroded, and in which an ordinary concern for others is regarded with contempt. They signal the emergence of wild-eyed, high-risk attack mode as the new normal in Republican politics. And they are just a few of the more well-known examples.
By its very nature as a clinical diagnosis, the psychopathic model is ill-suited to definitively describing political phenomena. It is much better suited to raising questions – such as what sort of social ideal the GOP has in mind – rather than answering them. But there are other ways of understanding how the GOP has gone off the rails.
One such approach is to study the unshakable belief in disproven “facts”, which in the GOP’s case justify continuing disastrous behaviour which can be deeply destructive of human well-being. This was illuminated by a 2009 paper, “‘There Must Be a Reason’: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification”, (reported on by Science Daily here), which found that Bush voters who believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks did not change their minds when presented with correcting information –even when it came in the form of a quote from Bush himself denying that any connection had ever been made. One powerful factor influencing their reasoning was “inferred justification”, as the researchers explained, “the fact of the war led to a search for a justification for it, which led them to infer the existence of ties between Iraq and 9/11”. Of course, it wasn’t just the fact of the war, but also the belief that it was just, and thus had some just cause behind it. Otherwise, why try to justify it?
The GOP’s new delusion: The pollster’s conspiracy
However mistaken the Saddam/9-11 belief might be and however tragic the consequences, it had a relatively limited scope in terms of American political beliefs. But a similar sort of logic could help explain a much more far-reaching pattern of contemporary conservative thought, fixated on justifying the belief in American democracy as a white male Christian creation – a pattern that stretches from the historical revisionism of turning the largely Deist Founding Fathers into a flock of evangelical Christians, to the hyper-current effort to suppress minority voters and to deny that America’s first black President is actually eligible to hold the office.
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The most recent manifestation of this pattern – fuelled by conservative media – is the previously mentioned wildfire growth in the belief that all the polls showing Romney losing to President Obama are “skewed” by liberal pollsters oversampling Democrats, in an effort to discourage conservatives and thus suppress their votes. Leading the way is the website unskewedpolls.com, which re-weights polls to match the highly atypical partisan weighting of Rasmussen Reports – the only major pollster that shows more Republicans than Democrats in its voter model. Using this neat trick – which even Rasmussen owner Scott rasmussen has criticised (“You cannot compare partisan weighting from one polling firm to another” he told BuzzFeed.) – Unskewedpolls turns out poll after poll showing Romney winning by anywhere from 3 points up into double digits.
Back in the real world, there’s a much simpler explanation: partisan identification is relatively fluid and the number of self-identified Republicans has plummeted since peaking around the time of the 2010 midterms. Pollsters reflecting this are simply reflecting reality, hard as that may be for conservative Republicans to take.
Of course, Republicans themselves remain remarkably oblivious to all this – those who haven’t already left the party, that is. This is only the latest in a whole series of such delusional conservative beliefs -from birtherism to “death panels”, to “climategate”, to “Sharia law” – and its rapid spread indicates that the Republican political world is now hard-wired to adopt implausible persecutory delusions virtually at the drop of a hat.
As I explained in an earlier column, these are examples of the ego defence mechanism of delusional projection. These are “grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature”, which eminent philosopher and psycho-analyst Karl Jaspers, first characterised in terms of \three basic criteria: “ certainty (held with absolute conviction)  incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counter-argument or proof to the contrary) [and 3] impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue).”
In that column, I identified as an example the birther delusion, as well as a less well-known belief – held by a majority of Republicans in a November 2009 poll, that Obama had not actually been elected President, but that the election had been stolen… by ACORN. This belief clearly depends on another delusional belief – the belief in widespread voter fraud, since Obama actually won the election by almost 10 million votes. Yet, somehow, the Bush Justice Department saw nothing amiss! The newest delusion fits well within the framework established by these earlier delusions, which no doubt helps explain its rapid and rabid acceptance on the right.
But there are a few other twists worth noting as well. First off, the belief that the polls are all skewed sets the stage for another round of false “voter fraud” allegations, when the election results fail to show a 7 or 8 point Romney victory. The vaster the conspiracy, the more convincing, for true believers. But for the rest of us, is it surprising that it comes off as a bit nuts?
Secondly, the issue of projection – the pot calling the kettle black – has intruded once again into the GOP’s voter fraud narrative with the news that a top GOP consulting firm working in multiple battleground states has been engaged in serious voter registration violations.
State and national Republicans who had hired the firm swiftly sought to cut all ties and pretend to be shocked, shocked! “We have zero tolerance for any threat to the integrity of elections,” said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer in a typical statement. But they were at least eight years too late. As blogger and voting irregularity specialist Brad Freidman reported, “The firm appears to be another shell company of Nathan Sproul, a longtime, notorious Republican operative, hired year after year by GOP Presidential campaigns, despite being accused of shredding Democratic voter registration forms in a number of states over several past elections.” I first encountered Sproul’s handiwork while writing a series of stories about potential voter suppression leading up to the 2004 election. His firm was making local headlines in both Oregon and Nevada – and not in a good way. Democratic voter registrations were systematically disappearing under his watch. But the national media failed to take notice and Sproul escaped unscathed. Nothing has changed since then, except his firm’s name.
When you hear Republicans spin wild fantasies about ACORN, voter fraud and stolen elections, the script they’re reading from is effectively Nathan Sproul’s perennial sales pitch to GOP campaigns. That’s projection, baby. Remember it, the next time a conservative calls you scum. You’re not the one who’s crazy. They are. And they’re only going to get crazier after election day.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.