Think about it: The psychoanalysis of politicians

A reaction to statements by professionals and non-professionals to the effect that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a sociopath or narcissist, and is unfit to serve as president.

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to supporters as he arrives to a campaign event in Radford, Virginia (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to supporters as he arrives to a campaign event in Radford, Virginia
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week the president of the American Psychiatric Association, Maria Oquendo, published a post saying “the unique atmosphere of this year’s election cycle may lead some to want to psychoanalyze the candidates, but to do so would not only be unethical, it would be irresponsible.”
This post came in reaction to various statements by professionals and non-professionals alike to the effect that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a sociopath, and/or narcissist, and is unfit to serve as president.
The concern of the APA with the issue of analyzing public personalities without actually meeting them began after the 1964 US presidential election when Barry Goldwater ran for president on the Republican ticket, eliciting reactions similar to those Trump’s candidacy elicit today.
As a result the so called “Goldwater Rule” was issued by the APA to the effect that “on occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
All this sounds decent and reasonable. However, the problem is that the conduct of certain leaders, or prospective leaders, is such that every Tom, Dick and Harry offers a psychological analysis, and there seems to be need of some professional opinion, expressed with due seriousness and responsibility, to either lower the flames, or verify that there is a problem, which any democratic system would be well advised to seek to nip in the bud, before it is too late. To many Trump seems just such a problem.
However, opposite the position advocated by the APA there is another position, which has developed within the framework of an academic discipline known as “Political Psychology.” Inter alia this discipline deals with the categorization of politicians in general, and leaders in particular into psychological types, some clinical (such as narcissistic) and others political (such as Machiavellian), and some serious studies have been published about specific leaders – “has beens” or still in office – based on psychological analyses “at a distance.”
Professor David Winter of the Department of Psychology at Michigan University is one of the main defenders of the legitimacy of measuring personality at a distance, primarily by means of content analysis of speeches, interviews and other texts. Winter argues that there is really no alternative, since those conducting such research do not have access to the leaders. Winter also believes that political psychology can be useful in helping us understand what we are likely to get, in terms of leadership, as a result of our voting choices – for better or worse.
On occasion I wish someone professional and ideologically neutral would offer us a serious analysis of our own prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose conduct and policy choices frequently raise major question marks regarding what makes the man tick, and what it is about him that raises so much antagonism on the one hand, and admiration on the other.
I know how easily one falls into the trap of dime-store psychology, and admit that I too am frequently guilty of doing so – especially when I claim that Netanyahu’s main driving force is his personal political survival instinct, though I am yet to be convinced that I am wrong.
Others accuse Netanyahu of paranoia, which election- time slogans such as “anyone but Bibi” certainly do not help to alleviate. But paranoia is just one possible reaction by a leader to being confronted by people who seek his downfall, and/or to replace him. Democratic politics are all about power contests, and paranoia is not a normal way to contend with this reality in a democracy.
When I read about what Netanyahu said to around 20 reporters and news editors from TV Channel 1 and Kol Yisrael last week, about the possibility that the new broadcasting corporation, which his own government set up to replace the old broadcasting authority, might be filled with members of NGO Breaking the Silence because the government allegedly has no control over who is being signed on, my first reaction was: is he serious? I know for fact, and so must Netanyahu, that of the 200 or so personnel already signed on not a single one is a member of BTS, and quite a number are right-wingers.
Paranoia was the first thought that crossed my mind, but on second thought I realized that perhaps BTS is simply a code used by Netanyahu to describe anyone who opposes him, from whatever direction, or that he was knowingly portraying a fictional “reality” for manipulative reasons, as he did in his infamous TV appearance just before the last elections in which he warned that “the Arab voters are flocking the polling stations, and are being bused by the left-wing NGOs.”
In short, a serious professional opinion would be welcome, simply to help those of us who want to understand (in Trump’s words, early in his campaign) “what the hell is going on.”
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.