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The Dark Side of the Political Personality Redux: Weiner, Schwarzenegger, and Edwards

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Well, here we go again. About 15 months ago (January 29, 2010) I wrote a column on the dark side of the political personality. At the time, I focused on John Edwards but it could have been any of a number of self-destructive politicians. I wrote that politicians were particularly prone to this kind of behavior and I explained why. I also wrote that this was likely to be repeated again and again. And it has.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock with a woman who worked in his home. He kept it a secret for ten years. He had what seemed to be a storybook marriage to an accomplished, beautiful woman who he has been married to for about a quarter century and with whom he had children.

After vociferous denials, Anthony Weiner has admitted to sending a photo of a certain part of his anatomy to a young college student. He also admitted that this is not his first offense in this regard. He is a newlywed who has not yet celebrated his first wedding anniversary, to an accomplished, beautiful woman. John Edwards has also returned to the news by being indicted for illegally using campaign funds to cover up the affair he was carrying on while his wife was suffering from terminal breast cancer. Oh, and she too was an accomplished and beautiful woman.

What is wrong with these people!?

Let me briefly review the psychological and emotional reasons that can lead to this kind of behavior and why politicians are more likely to have these characteristics. The interested reader is also referred to my previous column for a bit more detail. Space prevented then and prevents now a comprehensive review but here it is in a nutshell: There are four psychological factors that make this behavior likely; politicians are likely to have all four. These are: Narcissism, Power Motivation, High Risk Taking, and a False Self.

Narcissists are self-centered, grandiose, have a powerful need for attention and admiration, and are not empathic to others. That Schwarzenegger displays these characteristics is so evident that he himself has never attempted to hide it. He was a world champion body builder, which involves a powerful self-focus and is certainly exhibitionistic. He has always been grandiose, which enabled him to do grand things like come from Austria as an unknown, parlay body building into world fame and movie stardom, marry a Kennedy (as it is often put), and believe that he could run the most populous state in the country without any previous political or administrative experience. He even entertained talk of a constitutional amendment to allow a foreign born individual to run for President. Representative Weiner's narcissism is a bit less glaring but just as real. He does not exactly match Schwarzenegger's physique yet he sent pictures of himself bare-chested and showing off his "'package" to women, expecting to be admired. If you need more proof, there is the photo of him holding a card in front of himself that says "me" and has an arrow pointing to himself. It's almost a textbook definition of narcissism.

Power motivation is a psychological trait characterized by a desire to have an impact on the world and/or others. No need to prove this one for either. Let me just add that sexual admiration is a big deal to those high in power motivation.

High risk taking is a trait that one must have in order to be a politician (or a movie star). But it is not simply that one is willing to take risks, one feels compelled to take risks in order to get a needed rush. Both Schwarzenegger and Weiner are attracted to risk or they would not have chosen the professions they did. Nor would they have engaged in the behaviors that are the subject of this column.

Finally there is the false self. A politician simply cannot be himself. He builds up a façade that he presents to the public to avoid controversy, to appeal to his base, and to win elections. But there is a cost and it is a high one. Maintaining a false self is hard. It is especially hard for a narcissist and risk taker since these central traits must remain hidden. I repeat a quote, made decades ago, by the eminent psychiatrist Donald Winnicott:

The world may observe success of a high degree, and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels 'phoney' the more he or she is successful. When such individuals destroy themselves in one way or another, instead of fulfilling promise, this invariably produces a sense of shock in those who have developed high hopes of the individual.

Winnicott could have been talking about Schwarzenegger, Weiner, Edwards or a host of other politicians who seem to have inexplicably destroyed themselves.

When we put all of this together, we have a self-centered, insensitive, person, who thinks he is special (Narcissist). This person needs to be in charge and have a major impact on the world and on others (Power Motivation). Sexual power and attractiveness is especially appealing. He is attracted to risk, the bigger the better (High Risk Taking). This person takes up politics to meet these needs. It's a perfect fit, except that he must renounce some needs he feels entitled to. He knows intellectually that this is necessary but he does not really feel it and it is a constant struggle. In the service of these needs, he presents a false front of modesty, caring, and empathy. Every word is weighed in terms of how it will affect his goals. After a while, he doesn't know who he is anymore. He is under tremendous stress. He endorses attitudes and behaviors that he may or may not actually believe in (False Self). He may not know himself what he believes in other than power, prestige, and admiration. He is entitled to these things. At the same time, he has personal needs he also feels entitled to. To satisfy them entails great risk but he is attracted to risk. There is also self-destruction built into the false self. So he takes chances and risks destroying all he has so painstakingly built. He can be and often is a ticking time bomb.

Now comes the maladaptive response when it all comes apart. I wrote this for Edwards over a year ago. I don't have to change a word, except for the names of the guilty parties: When caught, this kind of politician does not feel guilt and remorse, he feels threatened. He does not understand the sense of betrayal others experience; it is about him, not them. He'll first try to ride roughshod over it through denial, anger, and cover-up. Should that fail, he'll try carefully crafted redemption in line with his public persona or False Self. The possible transparency of such tactics would be lost on him. Sound familiar? The result is exactly the kind of behavior and lack of insight that some of our politicians have evidenced and that both Schwarzenegger and Weiner have so prominently displayed. Schwarzenegger first tried to describe the ending of his marriage as a friendly, mutually agreed upon, breakup. This rapidly deteriorated into what we now know to be the truth. Once this came out, he accepted responsibility and said it was all him. But then we found out he wouldn't leave his home when his wife found out. Hardly the actions of a guilty party seeking redemption. Weiner is almost a textbook case. Look at the footage. He first became angry and denied it all. This was followed by patently ridiculous explanations that he expected would go over with experienced reporters and with his constituents. And now, we have the weepy confessions and acceptance of responsibility coupled with some further vague denials and a refusal to consider giving up his political ambitions. He still doesn't get it. And neither does Schwarzenegger.

As I wrote over a year ago, this is the dark side of the political personality and we're going to be shocked again and again unless and until we understand it.

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