Asia Times Online declined to publish my scheduled column today. Here it is, unedited.
Obama in Nightmare Alley
Full disclosure: I pray for President Obama weekly, in keeping with the Jewish practice to “seek the peace of the city.” But I do not believe he will stand up to the waves of opprobrium that will beat down relentlessly upon him for the next three years. “It is conceivable,” I wrote in February 2008 [http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/JB26Aa02.html], “that Barack Obama, if elected, will destroy himself before he destroys the country.” Some of his strongest supporters in the press now fret that they have a sick puppy on their hands.
The epithet “narcissistic” now sticks to Obama the way “swift-footed” did to Achilles in the Iliad. Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman wrote Sept. 26, “Enough TV, Mr. President” – and that was before the Norwegian Academy offered Obama yet another primetime spot.
Even an former enthusiast like Marty Peretz, the publisher of the New Republic, has taken up the “narcissist” label, and with a vengeance. A committed Zionist, Peretz put his reputation on the block for Obama during the summer of 2008 when conservative critics alleged anti-Israel bias in the Obama camp, and the revision of his views must have been painful. He blasted the president in an Oct. 4 blog post [http://www.tnr.com/blog/the-spine/rio-1-chicago-0-the-politics-narcissism-and-general-mcchrystal]:
What I suspect is that the president is probably a clinical narcissist. This is not necessarily a bad condition if one maintains for oneself what the psychiatrists call an “optimal margin of illusion,” that is, the margin of hope that allows you to work. But what if his narcissism blinds him to the issues and problems in the world and the inveterate foes of the nation that are not susceptible to his charms?
Peretz is on the right track, but he has not gotten to the heart of the matter yet. Narcissism is the occupational disability of politicians, as paranoia is of spies; Churchill is supposed to have admitted his immodesty by averring that if he were modest, he would have been perfect. If Obama has a personality disorder—and I believe he does—it doesn’t quite fit the clinical description of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcissists do not empathize easily, but all the evidence suggests that Obama exudes empathy. That is why so many clever people—Peretz for example—convinced themselves he was on their side.
A narcissist would have written his own autobiography; Obama turned tapes and documents over to the former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, now a professor of education in Chicago, and let Ayers write Dreams of My Father for him. Long rumored, this is confirmed by celebrity journalist Christopher Anderson in his new book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage. Jack Cashill at the American Thinker has been on this trail for a year, comparing Ayers’ attributed writing to Dreams, and in my view made a strong case even before Anderson’s book appeared.
This raises two questions about the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (DSM-IV category F60.8). True narcissists write their own material, for they are convinced of the magical power of their words. A narcissist, moreover, would not have risked his unique opportunity to save the world by entrusting his memoirs to an individual who might become a millstone-sized liability, a former member of the Weatherman terrorist gang who never repudiated the bombs he planted in public buildings during the 1960s.
Obama’s high-risk flirtation with Ayers indicates a disturbing taste for risky deception. The thrill, it seems, is not only in the attention and adulation, but in the secret knowledge of having deceived everyone else.
The problem, may not be NPD, but something related. The standard psychiatric reference manual, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) “divides personality disorders into three clusters based on symptom similarities,” in the Wikipedia summary. “This clustering categorizes the narcissistic personality disorder as a cluster B personality disorder, those personality disorders having in common an excessive sense of self importance. Also in that cluster are the borderline personality disorder, the histrionic personality disorder and the antisocial personality disorder.”
Antisocial personality disorder, to quote DSM-IV, was “previously known as both psychopathic and Sociopathic personality disorder. Like most personality disorders, there are many factors that may contribute to the development of symptoms. Because the symptoms are long lasting, the idea that symptoms begin to emerge in childhood or at least adolescence is well accepted. The negative consequences of such symptoms, however, may not show themselves until adulthood.”
Sociopaths and narcissists, in short, belong to the same cluster of personality disorders arising from “an excessive sense of self importance,” but there is a key difference: narcissists are so preoccupied with themselves that they cannot empathize; sociopaths willfully “disregard the rights of others,” according to DSM-IV. Typical is “a history of deceitfulness where the individual attempts to con people or use trickery for personal profit.” For the sociopath, the thrill lies in the deception and the sense of power it brings.
Politicians tell people what they want to hear, but no politician in living memory has told more people more incompatibly different things than has Obama. In the corridors of the Democratic convention in Denver last year, I met military officers who were convinced that Obama wanted to resolve the conflict by a massive infusion of civilian aid and others who believed that he would crush the Taliban with an iron hand. I met academic economists who were sure that Obama was a free trader, and quasi-socialists who believed that he would protect American workers from globalization. Obama made more contradictory promises than the usual kind of expediency demanded; it was hard not to conclude that he did so largely because he could.
Of course, the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria have more to do with insurance reimbursements than science, but one might as well follow the logic and see where it leads. My early premise was that Obama was a sociopath, not a narcissist as such. “Barack Obama is a clever fellow who imbibed hatred of America with his mother’s milk, but worked his way up the elite ladder of education and career,” I wrote in Feb. 2008. He shares the resentment of Muslims against the encroachment of American culture, although not their religion. He has the empathetic skill set of an anthropologist who lives with his subjects, learns their language, and elicits their hopes and fears while remaining at emotional distance. That is, he is the political equivalent of a sociopath. The difference is that he is practicing not on a primitive tribe but on the population of the United States.”
The model for Barack Obama in American popular fiction, I suggested, wasn’t Sinclair Lewis’ fallen preacher Elmer Gantry, but rather the carnival mentalist played by Tyrone Power Jr. in the 1947 noire film “Nightmare Alley.” Power’s midway mind-reader evinced the classic profile of a sociopath: the abandoned child who learns too well how to manipulate adults. He lies, cheats, and betrays his way to the top, until he inevitably cracks.
Obama, as we know, was abandoned by three parents—his biological father Barack Obama Sr., his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetero, and his mother Ann Dunham, who left him with her parents to pursue doctoral research in anthropology in Indonesia. Dunham’s Communist sympathies from adolescence onward are widely reported; the African-American poet Frank Marshall Davis, a Communist Party member, was a friend of his maternal grandfather Stanley Dunham and, according to Dreams, something of a mentor to young Obama. Ann Dunham was the kind of movement girl one met in the 1960s, who “put her body on the line,” that is, requited the evils of imperialism by sleeping with Third World men, two of whom she married.
“Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds,” was the title of Dunham’s doctoral dissertation. Dunham’s sympathy for the traditional life of Indonesians fighting against the encroachment of the global economy evidently left a huge impression on young Obama, for he thought their lives better than those of poor people in the United States. As he (or Bill Ayers) wrote in Dreams of My Father;
And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.
That paragraph is a précis of his mother’s doctoral dissertation, and may be the most the most important point of self-revelation in Obama’s collective utterances. The words may have come from Bill Ayers, but the sentiment is doubtless Obama’s. Given the central place that Indonesia plays in his view of the world, Obama must have opened his heat to Ayers.
Emulating his mother, he thinks that the culture of traditional society must be defended against the depredations of the United States. “America is not the embodiment of hope,” I wrote in the cited Feb. 2008 essay, “but the abandonment of one kind of hope in return for another. America is the spirit of creative destruction, selecting immigrants willing to turn their back on the tragedy of their own failing culture in return for a new start. Its creative success is so enormous that its global influence hastens the decline of other cultures. For those on the destruction side of the trade, America is a monster.”
Whether Obama thinks the United States is a good country or a bad one is the nub of the matter. As Marty Peretz wrote in the cited Oct. 4 blog post, “I know that the president believes himself a good man. My nervy query to him is: ‘Does he believe America to be a good country?’” On the strength of the evidence, the answer is “No.” The president spent a lifetime trying to please a the mother who abandoned him to go off to Indonesia to help the victims of globalization.
Obama is not a “Manchurian candidate,” to be sure. For one thing, there no longer is a Manchuria for which to be a candidate. Overwrought voices on the political fringe speak of treason, which is nonsense, for there is no country in particular to whom the United States might be betrayed. Instead, Obama will reduce American influence in the world in keeping with his conviction that America has played a malignant role in the world.
The President, in this view, consciously sees himself as an outsider who has become the leader of an alien tribe, rather like Eugene O’Neill’s Brutus Jones or Kipling’s Peachy Carnahan—except that Obama leads the world’s only superpower rather than a primitive tribe. He demands personal control over the reins of power, for as an outsider he can trust no-one—surely not David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel. That is why he has no real cabinet, but rather a set of “policy czars” who reported to him directly. That is also why he runs foreign policy out of his vest pocket through his own special ambassadors (George Mitchell, Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke), rather than through the usual mechanism of State Department and National Security Council.
Narcissism is one possible explanation for Obama’s insistence on the spotlight. Another explanation (and in my view a better one) is that he must do everything himself, because there is no-one to whom he can entrust his project, namely to build down American influence wherever he can. He does not believe that America should act like a superpower. As he told the United Nations Sept. 23, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.”
He also needs to appear without respite before the television cameras to prove to himself that the enchantment of his voice remains potent. At some point—and this point already may have been reached—he will cease to convince. Un- and underemployment affect a fifth of the American workforce. Unprecedented peacetime monetization of debt has weakened the US dollar to the point of real danger. A federal deficit at an astonishing 12% of GDP rules out further economic stimulus and probably will kill his health care proposal, whatever it turns out to be. His foreign policy is in ruins, and Afghanistan promises to be a running sore for his administration.
At some point, if my analysis holds water, we should see behavior from Obama consistent with the other side of antisocial personality disorder. Again, from DSM-IV: “Impulsiveness is often present, including angry outbursts, failure to consider consequences of behaviors, irritability, and/or physical assaults.”
As things go badly wrong and adulation turns into antagonism, we may see a very different side of Obama than he has succeeded in presenting to the public during the past two years.
Spengler is channeled by David P. Goldman, Associate Editor of First Things (www.firstthings.com)