What Is He
Psychology at the End of Days
By John P Briggs, M.D. and JP Briggs II,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 10 January 2008
The true rule in determining to
embrace, or reject anything, is not whether it has any evil in it,
but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things
wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost every thing, especially of
governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that
our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually
Abraham Lincoln, June 20, 1848
In defiance of his circumstances as an
unpopular, lame duck president with a minority party in Congress,
George W. Bush pursues a
sharply autocratic tone.
He has intimidated
both parties in Congress and violated the Constitution. Through
dissimulation and delay, he has forced the nations of the world to
conclude they must wait until his term ends to negotiate any serious
treaty on the imminent perils of climate change.
A sort of thousand-mile stare has
descended on the country. Frank Rich writes, "we are a people in
clinical depression" as a result of
Perhaps, a more apt diagnosis would be "dissociation." Like a child
or spousal victim of a psychological abuser, Bush's "victims" try to
mentally compartmentalize him; they attempt to get on with their
lives - even as he keeps on being abusive. You can hear the
dissociation when Congressional leaders talk about their inability
to make Washington work as it should.
Some, including Daniel Ellsberg, who
challenged the autocratic aspirations of Richard Nixon by releasing
the Pentagon Papers, suggest Bush has already created a
Ellsberg has said, "If there's another 9/11 under this regime, it
means that they switch on full extent all the apparatus of a police
state that has been
We would like to answer several
questions here. Is the president psychologically capable of such
treasonous behavior? Why and how does his psychology make it so
difficult for Democrats and others to stand up against his
negativity and destructiveness (what he thinks of as his optimism)?
How might they neutralize his psychology, which seems geared to
Behind the Torture, All That Stuff
He Can't Admit
The president's reflex to justify his
right to use torture,
even as he insists
"we don't torture,"
illuminates how his psychology works and provides a glimpse into its
The man who campaigned in 1999 as a "uniter
not a divider" constructs and maintains a polarized world. In his
book, "A Tragic Legacy," Glen Greenwald, observes polarizing reality
"explains the president's personal approach to all matters - his
foreign policy decisions; his relations with other countries; his
domestic programs; the terms he adopts when discussing, debating,
and analyzing political matters; his attitude toward domestic
political opponents ... and his treatment of the national media. For
the president, there always exists a clear and identifiable enemy
who is to be defeated by any means, means justified not only by the
pureness of the enemy's Evil but also by the core Goodness that he
believes motivates him and his movement." (48)
Those who question the president's
policies are either part of the evil or dangerously unaware of its
threat. His dictum,"you're
either with us or against us," sums
up his closed psychological system. As Greenwald says, because Bush
believes he is on the side of Good and Right in a struggle with
Evil, he construes even his unpopularity as not "an impediment, but
a challenge, even a calling, to demonstrate his resolve and
commitment by persisting even more tenaciously in the face of almost
universal opposition." (37)
So, torture by his administration is
justified - in fact is not even torture - because it is used by Good
Americans in a war against Satanic forces.
Bush's torture rationale echoes that of
an extreme form of Christianity found among his personal "spiritual"
advisers and the prominent televangelists he regularly consults. The
religious justification for his worldview has prompted him to
bestow billions of dollars
on radical "faith-based" activities and to sanction an extremist
Christian transformation of the military
- actions that foster the idea of the US as a theocratic state
called on "to rid the world of evil," as the president
reported by Truthout last June,
many of the religious figures associated with Bush believe the final
battles of the apocalypse are near, with fires that will spread from
the Middle East. Where James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye and
John Hagee once pressed Bush hard for war with Iraq, they now clamor
for one with Iran. The president cloaks himself in the innocuous
"Christian," "evangelical" and "born again,"
and carefully avoids stating his beliefs specifically. But the type
of Christianity most influential on his thinking is clearly radical
or extremist rather than evangelical; it has an authoritarian,
punishing, us-versus-them flavor; it views Christ less as a figure
of tolerance and forgiveness than as a five-star general coming to
wreck vengeance on anyone who has failed to join His army.
Former President Jimmy Carter's faith,
like that of many evangelicals, involves a powerful commitment to
love and tolerance. We do not detect a similar commitment in Bush.
Spiritual issues and political motives appear secondary to Bush's
subconscious use of his faith as a psychological defense. That
defense "resolves" and protects him from the pain of a core inner
conflict. The drinking and alleged drug taking of his younger years
once resolved that same conflict. The supposed spiritual awakening
Bush underwent in the mid-1980s allowed him to trade one defense for
another. (Author Craig Unger has shown Bush's famous "mustard seed"
moment with the Rev. Billy Graham - widely celebrated by the
at the same time, Bush carefully avoids mentioning the faith
awakening moment he probably really did have with radical
preacher Arthur Blessitt.)
In one sense, a half-hidden Manichean Christianity was more
effective than alcohol in masking Bush's inner conflict. It made it
possible for him to be president.
The Core Conflict
The central, secret conflict that
consumes George W. Bush and motivates much of his action can be
summed up in a few words: the desperate need to avoid, contain and
disguise disabling fears about his competence and adequacy in a
context where he expects to feel superior. Out of this core conflict
have arisen his good and evil worldview, his lack of empathy, even
cruelty, his competitiveness, his bullying, his inability to make a
rational decision (despite styling himself "the decider"), his
tendency for deception and self-deception, his proclivity for
unconsciously sabotaging the success of his own projects.
Bush's biography is well known by now:
growing up in family circumstances with a mother who was a "bully,"
and a father who, though passive, seemed effortlessly successful and
talented as an athlete, war hero, businessman and politician. The
younger Bush, expecting to demonstrate these same gifts, discovered
quickly he couldn't measure up. The discovery probably began early,
for example, when he wanted to be the catcher on his little league
baseball team but couldn't do well because he reflexively blinked
every time a batter swung (Unger, "The Fall of the House of Bush"
81), or his slowness in school, perhaps due to undiagnosed
dyslexia or anxiety.
Biographer Bill Minutaglio described a
moment at Yale when young Bush apparently tried to take another
direction from his father, but couldn't pull away. (Minutaglio,
"First Son" 104) Instead, he imitated (to the point of parody) his
father's career, compiling failure everywhere his father found
success: a C-student at Yale, a desultory pilot, a money-losing
businessman. The fact his father or his father's friends needed
repeatedly to rescue him from his failures (with Defense Secretary
Robert Gates the latest rescuer) would have only increased the
conflict between his sense of entitlement and expectation on the one
hand, and his sense of insufficiency and incompetence on the other.
Bush's sensitivity to his father's approval and disapproval is well
established. Younger brother Marvin said the elder Bush could,
intentionally or not, make his older son feel he alone had
"committed the worst crime in history." (Minutaglio 148). And
younger brother Jeb once speculated the attempt by George junior to
live up to his disapproving father was the kind of thing that
"creates all sorts of pathologies." (Minutaglio 101)
So, Bush indulged in pure wishful
thinking when he recently told journalist Robert Draper, "I've never
had a fear of losing. I don't like to lose. But having parents who
give you unconditional love, I think it means I had the peace of
mind to know that even with failure there was love. So I never
feared failure." (Draper, "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W.
In fact, failure has been George W.
Bush's single greatest fear.
Substance abuse would have numbed the
feelings of inadequacy and given license to his hidden anger about
his circumstances. He probably understood in a family as
hermetically sealed from self-reflection as his, he could never
openly admit feelings that he was a child "left behind" emotionally.
Then, George W. Bush accepted Jesus as
his personal savior and the drinking - and presumably those painful
feelings the drinking needed to numb - disappeared. The
failure-shriveled Bush of the past was replaced by a new God-filled
Bush of the future, armed against his inadequacies with the defense
of "faith." But his sense of his inadequacy continued beneath the
For example, the president tries to
control his environment (speaking only to friendly audiences), and
consistently seeks to avoid or deflect definitive "tests" of his
competency (though he is eager to test the competency of school
children). His plain speaking style, rigidly on message, or laced
with platitudes and moralistic bromides, compensates to cover his
fear that he is unable to cogently think through an argument. He
often looks as if he is trying to remember what he's supposed to say
because he's fears he'll say the wrong thing.
His biography strongly suggests it was
difficult for him to engage in activities involving the ambiguity,
uncertainty and mistakes that normally lead to learning and growth.
Instead, he put his energies into defenses and avoidance. He
undermined his own ability to think about complex issues. He
currently likes to imagine he's living a presidential life similar
to Abraham Lincoln's, with a war and religious fervor he imagines is
like the Second Great Awakening of Lincoln's time. He thinks of
himself making decisions in a similar fashion to Lincoln. (Greenwald
64-65) The problem is Bush lacks precisely the characteristic that
made Lincoln a profound decision-maker: an ability to tolerate the
ambivalence of situations long enough to perceive the shades of
positive and negative, and emerge with what Lincoln called "our best
judgment of the preponderance between them" (see epigraph).
In place of a Lincolnesque decision
process, Bush's Christian defense supplies divine inspiration in the
form of what he calls "gut" feelings that tell him, without much
what's right and wrong, good or evil.
He feels this form of magical thinking absolves him of the fear that
his incompetence or confusion might lead to a wrong or "stupid"
choice. In his glaring reluctance to admit mistakes, he's like a
child confronted by his parents. But for him, admitting a mistake
may be even more threatening than the child's fear of losing his
parents' love. By admitting a mistake, he would acknowledge the deep
inadequacy he secretly believes defines him. So, he assures himself
his spiritual gut feelings can never be mistakes or failure because
they come from his attunement with God. But what Bush hears in his
gut is not the divine; it is the workings of his own psychology
organized to deny and transcend the family image of him as a failure
that circulates in his head and has become his image of the world.
As part of his Christian defense, the
president has developed strategies that substitute for rational
evaluation. To decide whether someone is competent, for example, the
president believes he needs only to approve (from his gut) that an
individual is a "good person"
- Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzales, Nouri
al-Maliki are some examples. Their
actual abilities and performance don't matter. If the president
gives his stamp of "good person" approval, then it is "unfair" to
quibble about performance or qualifications.
Bush's "Christian defense" also allows
him to cope with failures by reassuring him that his divinely
inspired decision will prove right in the long run. Seeing himself
as Good and those who oppose him as Evil or dangerously naive, Bush
can justify using any means at his command to defeat them. In this
way, he can also give reign to his underlying anger and his desire
to inflict harm on a world that had considered (and, he knows, still
considers) him inadequate. He can vent his rage at being shackled to
a father he has to endlessly compete with. Because he feels weak
himself, the weaker are often his targets: children needing medical
insurance, endangered species. Meanwhile, he gives uncritical
affirmation to authoritarian ("good father") figures who he thinks
approve of him: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Russian
President Vladimir Putin.
Despite his best efforts, his feelings
of anxiety about his own inadequacy constantly spill over. Spillage
through his body language is notorious among reporters. In a
Washington Post article following his failures to respond to
Katrina, Dana Milbank closely observed movements as Bush underwent
pointed questioning by NBC's Matt Lauer. "The president was a blur
of blinks, taps, jiggles, pivots and shifts ... He had the body
language of a man wishing urgently to be elsewhere,"
When Lauer asked Laura Bush about the strain on her husband, he
jumped in with a mocking third-person statement about himself: "He
can barely stand! He's about to drop on the spot." In this abrupt
defensive reflex, Bush denied his inner feelings by aggressively
ridiculing thoughts he was afraid the viewer might just have had.
Explaining his need to have Cheney with him at the 9/11 Commission
interview, he said he wanted commission members to
"see our body language ... how we work
together." Another unconscious
leak. What exactly did he think the commission would see except his
own exposed inadequacy? His attempt to hide it, revealed it.
From the beginning of his December 4,
2007, press conference, the president offered a display of goofy
facial grimaces, scowls, shifting stances, nervous and inappropriate
chuckles accompanying serious statements, winking while reporters
asked questions as if to indicate that the questions were foolish
and that he was in cahoots with other reporters who appreciated the
joke. The president had come to explain the fact he had recently
trumpeted Iran ready to start
"World War III,"
though the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) had recently
concluded that Iran had, in fact, abandoned its nuclear weapons
program in 2003.
At first, the president claimed (an
obvious lie) that he hadn't known about the NIE conclusions when he
issued his dire warnings about Iran. (Later the White House had to
he had indeed known.)
Then, he said the NIE didn't make any difference to his opinion.
Bush is famously adverse to attempts to probe his psychology, and
so, after about 40 minutes, when a reporter questioned him about his
body language and thought it indicated he was depressed, the
president lashed back, "And so, kind of Psychology 101 ain't
working. It's just not working. I understand the issues, I clearly
see the problems ..." - and in a gesture of angry denial,
ended the news conference.
A year prior, however, in a more
relaxed and expansive context with friendly journalist, Robert
Draper, Bush did indicate curiosity about his own inner workings. "I
really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself,"
Bush told Draper, but then he emphasized. "I'll try." He didn't get
far, though. Immediately after saying that he would "try," he
launched into how the primaries are a test of will, then insisted
("eyes clenched, like little blue fists," Draper writes) that he
felt constantly watched: "I fully understand that the enemy watches
me, the Iraqis are watching me, the troops watch me, and the people
watch me. The other thing is that you can't fake it. You have to
believe it. And I believe it," he told Draper, leaving ambiguous
whether the "it" referred to Iraq or something more deeply personal.
"I believe we'll succeed." ("Dead Certain" x)
Of course, his feeling watched and
"faking it" (faking certainty, faking competence) is exactly what
George Bush is doing.
When the Defenses Become the Reality
We have noted in previous articles
other prominent defenses Bush employs to cover his feelings of
inadequacy: He is a classic emotional bully. Bullies disguise
sensations of their own weakness by splitting the weakness off and
casting it out of their own conscious awareness - projecting it -
onto the consciousness of others. They generate a stream of signals
and behaviors that keep others on guard and seek to enfeeble them.
Bush's signing statements where he reserves the right not to abide
by the law he's just adopted, his foreign policy asserting his right
to preemptive strikes, his denial of Habeas Corpus, his fixation on
retaining the torture option, his rejection of subpoenas from
Congress, his diminishment of people by giving them nicknames - at
different scales, these are emotional bullying tactics. Friends from
his younger days remember that in basketball and tennis games Bush
would force opponents who had beaten him to continue playing until
he had worn down their will so
he could beat them.
Bush emotionally bullies his White House staff, making them afraid
to tell him any news that doesn't fit his "optimistic" expectations.
Draper reports senior staffer Josh Bolton greeting Bush each morning
with the line, "Thank you for the privilege of serving." (397)
In January 2000 - and more decisively
after September 11, 2001 - Bush came into possession of what we have
called his "presidential defense." He became "the decider," the
"commander guy," leader of the most powerful nation on earth
overseeing a war he imagines is without end. Bush feels that his
powerful office means - magically - that reality is his to define.
Many have noted that the president is convinced that just because he
says a thing will be so,
it will be so.
As "the decider," Bush regularly
asserts that he alone is the one who has to make the "tough"
decisions, his primary job as president. At the same time, he has
often declared that he loses no sleep and suffers no anxiety over
his decisions. What does he mean by "tough," then? The statements
are actually the paradox of how he avoids his inadequacy: he can be
supremely competent on the grounds that he's the decider who decides
what is competent; but since his competent decisions come magically,
he doesn't lose sleep over them. In talking about why he never gets
advice from his former president father, he says they both
understand that as president he knows what his father doesn't know.
That statement also doesn't make much logical sense; but it makes
great psychological sense: a form of "I'm the daddy now, and daddy's
not; daddies don't need advice."
Bush clings to a bad decision and can't
change it because he had no rational basis for making it, or any
decision, in the first place. Sticking with his decisions stubbornly
- what he calls "leadership" - is all he really feels he has to
offer as the nation's chief executive.
Absorbed in keeping up his psychic
deflector shields, Bush seems shockingly unempathetic, even
sadistically cruel about the pain of others. He is callous about
torture; he takes pride in executions. His empathy for Katrina
He's a man who can put on a jacket of compassion or outrage when he
needs to, but then takes it off and can't remember where he left it
when a new need for empathy arrives. He's too busy expending that
energy on his own situation.
Former Reagan speech writer Peggy
Noonan has puzzled in her Wall Street Journal column at "the
effortless high spirits"
these days, at his "jarring peppiness" in circumstances that call
Bush's inappropriate affect connects with his inability to feel
empathy and shows that he is disowning his depression about his
failures and projecting it elsewhere. At the same time, he wants
desperately to be liked. That explains the often inappropriate
clowning and joking.
Bush's "presidential defense" traps him
in a difficult paradox: It dramatically escalates the potency of his
protection against being decisively (in his shifting terms) "found
out" as inadequate. But it also dramatically escalates the
psychically devastating consequences to him if he were to be found
out (or find himself out).
As president, Bush is surrounded by
what critics have taken to calling "enablers," a term that alludes
to Bush's years of drinking and implies that the alcoholic's dynamic
remains in force.
Cheney is perhaps the chief enabler. As we've
the vice president fulfills his need for personhood and power
through taking on the wishes of his "patron" and serving as what
Sidney Blumenthal calls
"the pluperfect staff man."
To do this, Cheney operates behind the scenes, where he is
comfortable. His strategy translates into an obsessive secrecy for
the administration as he carries out Bush's agenda of disguising
weakness through bullying and authoritarianism. Doing the boss's
dirty work has turned Cheney into a man who is amoral, paranoid and
resentful at having framed himself as always second man. He likes
the idea of being considered "the evil genius" who
operates from the shadows.
A deeply passive character with little sense of his own agency apart
from a patron, Cheney makes himself, as he has said,
He has worked his whole career to establish the presidency as an
almost totalitarian "unitary executive," the ruler above all. His
effort strikes us as a metaphor of his own internal struggle to be
"the man": the paradoxical attempt to exercise his own will by
exercising the will of his patron.
Other enablers include the women who
surround Bush, principally Laura Bush, Karen Hughes and Condoleezza
Rice. These women probably function for him as "good mothers" in
contrast to his own mother. They seem to sense his distress, his
inner fragility, and his extensive anxiety on a subconscious level,
and try to sooth it. In his observations of Bush during the
interview with Matt Lauer, reporter Milbank noted that "the first
lady had a calming influence on the presidential wiggles. When Laura
Bush spoke about her husband's 'broad shoulders,' the president put
his arm around her - and the swaying and shifting subsided. The
president, now on more comfortable terrain, delivered a brief homily
about the decency of others. Through the entire passage, he blinked
only 12 times" (down from 37 blinks the reporter counted during
The women may help him control his anxiety, but he would not be able
to talk to them about it. They have their own issues with him. Rice
revealed much about her psychology as enabler and victim of the
administration's Stockholm syndrome when she told a friend, "People
don't understand. It's not my exercising influence over him. I'm
internalizing his world." (Draper 286) Like the alcoholic he once
was, Bush has nobody to genuinely confide his anxieties to, not even
Laura, who threatened to leave him if he didn't stop drinking. So,
even in his most intimate friendships and relationships he is on
stage, on message, exerting self-control (not always successfully),
riding his bike to distract himself, keeping up his facade.
Bush's psyche throws out a fog of
opposites as he attempts to control his ambivalence by disowning and
splitting off parts. He can see himself only as Good, Successful,
Loyal, Strong. The opposites of those must be cast outside him. He
has negligible capacity to explore and draw nourishment from the
fertile ground that exists in all of us between the poles of our
conceptions and emotions. Insight grows from that ground. There he
might discover, for example, that success and failure have many
shades. In place of shades, Bush's character decompensates into
stark contradictions. Claiming he is not a divider means the
opposite, a "compassionate conservative" means the opposite. When
his administration holds conferences to help resolve climate change
or the Palestinian issue, his internal fragmentation dictates that
he really doesn't want these things resolved - he wants the
opposite. When he urges the success of an enterprise, it is likely
that he has implanted somewhere the seeds of its failure. In the
"surge" plan of last January there were several, for example: one
flaw - vigorously warned against by the surge plan's supporters -
would have created independent
command structures for American and Iraqi
forces. The command structures idea
has been quietly scuttled by the military, which explains that
"there are limitations preventing the Iraqi Security Forces from
operating fully independently
from Coalition forces."
Another flaw involved Bush's remarkable failure to press the Iraqi
leadership for the political reconciliation he said last year was
the whole point of the surge's improvement of security in Baghdad.
Thus, the surge has failed to
accomplish its central purpose.
Because he unconsciously expects to be
seen by the world as a failure, Bush feels a strange comfort and
familiarity in failing and then in denying that he is failing. He
can never learn from mistakes. Worse, his psychodynamics ensure that
his efforts to avoid his failures inevitably produce more failures.
Bush's administration has become famous
for the hubris of believing it would create its own reality; that
fantasy inflated an expanding bubble of self-deception that left the
White House increasingly out of touch with reality in every
political dimension, except for intimidation. The cause of this is
clear: To an unprecedented scale, a president's entire
administration has been focused on the service of his psychological
Then, What Is He Capable of?
After previous articles about Bush's
psychology, we received a number of emails from clinicians agreeing
with our description of Bush's basic psychodynamic, and offering
their diagnoses. These varied from one another, sometimes
substantially, as might be expected, since no one we know of has had
access to a first-hand psychiatric evaluation of Mr. Bush. What can
we say about his psychopathology? We find no evidence in the public
record that the president hears voices or is mentally ill in a way
that would require hospitalization or medication, though some
psychiatrists or psychopharmacologists might prescribe medication if
he came in for treatment of his own accord. We think Bush's
psychological dysfunctions are profound, but they are of the sort
that would probably not arouse notice if he were, say, the owner of
the Texas Rangers, a job he apparently enjoyed. (Draper 42) (Of
course, being a baseball team owner replayed his central theme: his
father had the baseball talent and he lacked it.) That said, we
believe the effect of the presidency on Bush's psychodynamics and
the effect of Bush's psychodynamics on the presidency have created a
situation where his personality is as genuinely dangerous to the
nation as if he were delusional.
Psychologically, Bush's one
non-negotiable position is that he must never have to face his
failures because once he found Jesus as his personal savior, he put
all his failures (and failings) behind him. But now, after seven
years as president, his failure is everywhere. Unlike presidents
Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and even Richard Nixon, Bush seems
incapable of coping with his defeats by taking some redeeming
direction. In the next year, we believe his behavior will continue
to be guided by his need for massive avoidance of his feelings of
inadequacy, particularly with regard to Iraq. Success in other areas
means little to him and he gives them scant concern for his
has identified himself as "a war president." The war is linked to
his vague sense of divine mission, his internal aggression, his
never-ending competition with his father.
We believe the great foreseeable peril
of Bush's remaining year in office is the intersection of his
Christian defense with Iran. In recent months, when Bush warned that
Iran sought to launch World War III, he seems to have unconsciously
told us it is he who wants war. The neo-conservative agenda to
capture the Middle East for its oil, only reinforces Bush's own
psychological reasons for attacking Iran: 1) to certify his biblical
mission, and 2) to avoid facing the colossal incompetence of the
Iraq war by bequeathing a widened and inextricable conflict to his
successor. We believe Bush is aware that the long-term chaos that
might result from an attack on Iran could confound the historical
image of his administration enough to make his own failures harder
to see. In 50 or 100 years - after he is dead, anyway - historians
might even see his worldview in a favorable light. After all,
debating George Washington.
That's what he thinks. The presidency has become for Bush like the
popular "global domination" board game he played with fellow
undergrads at Yale. There, he was known as the player willing to
take the most risks.
Despite the mainstream press's
inclination to construe the president's position euphemistically as
a "hard line" on Iran, anyone who followed other reports, including
Seymour Hersh's in The New Yorker, could reasonably conclude that
the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate was a serious blow to Bush
and Cheney's long-standing effort to
provoke, create or discover a pretext
to attack Iran and expand the Middle East wars.
that in 2006 the president and vice president had pressed for use of
nuclear weapons against Iranian facilities but were
rebuffed by the military.
We believe the president is probably already committed internally to
pursue this belligerent course for his legacy. Vague fantasies of an
"end-of-days" mission may be in his mind, as well.
It remains to be seen whether Secretary
of Defense Robert Gates - Bush's father's designated new "minder"
inside the administration - or senior military commanders can
prevent Cheney from finding a way to operationalize the decision. So
far they've succeeded. Meanwhile, the Democrats appear to be in
denial about the risk of Bush's intentions. They know that almost
everyone in authority who is rational actor believes taking on Iran
at this time would be a colossal blunder, and they assume - though
they must know better - that Bush will be persuaded by that
rationality. We think this "misunderestimates" his psychology. The
Democrats should overcome their denial and take their own preemptive
action to block him from such an attack.
Some have imagined a worse scenario. In
2007, a statement to a small group of constituents by Democratic
representative John Olver of Amherst, Mass., made the rounds on the
Internet. Olver worried that Bush would attack Iran, declare a
national emergency and suspend the 2008 elections. A clarifying
email from Olver's press secretary to us said the congressman had no
evidence that any of this would happen but that he had worried about
a "thought crime" on the part of the president.
Is Bush psychologically capable of
acting out such a "thought crime," maneuvering to remain in power?
Would Bush ever actually move to suspend the Constitution?
Unfortunately, he's done just that already, in significant ways. How
committed is he really to the idea of democracy he talks about
incessantly? Psychologically these are interesting questions. Given
his tendency to polarize and split his ambivalence, we'd have to say
that his constant pieties about democracy suggest the opposite is
significantly at work
in his consciousness.
He's even joked about it:
"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck
of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."
Of course, he would vehemently deny that he is dictator even if he
When Draper asked Bush about what plans
he had after leaving the White House, they appeared vague,
shiftless: making more money than his father on speaking
engagements, setting up some foundation or something for encouraging
democracy. "I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored,
going down to the ranch." (406) His fantasies suggest his polarized
ambivalence. He may yearn to escape into his old drinking days
shiftlessness to get out from under the constant anxiety he feels
about being competent as president; yet, he also seems keenly aware
of the narcotic feeling of being a "consequential" person with a
biblical mission, surrounded by the most powerful psychological
defenses in the world. (Once out of office, how will he return to
the family that knows his secret?) Is Bush capable of wanting to
take the nation down an authoritarian road (a different question
from whether he could get away with it)? If there were a terrorist
attack on US soil or the assassination of a candidate, he could
claim he is defending America by postponing the election. Cheney's
office could provide the Constitutional rationale. With Bush's
psychohistory, it's easy to become paranoid. Purely speculating: We
think that Olver's "thought crime" is not the first thing on the
president's mind and that he is not so out of touch with reality
that he wouldn't have serious pause at such an action. (Martial law
hasn't worked well for Pakistani strong man Pervez Musharraf.) That
said, we believe Bush's psychodynamics could propel him in that
direction if certain conditions arose.
As Greenwald observes: "The most
dangerous George Bush is the one who feels weak, impotent, and under
attack. Those perceptions are intolerable for him and it is doubtful
if there are many limits, if any, on what he would be willing to do
in order to restore a feeling of potency and to rid himself of the
sensations of his own weakness and defeat." (95)
Responding to the Bush Psychology
It's likely that members of Congress in
particular have experienced the subliminal shockwaves of what
Greenwald describes. When the president feels weak, you don't know
what he'll do. You sense that somewhere beneath your feet lie
tripwires, which are his psychological defenses. Step on one, and
you feel he'll react in a way that will be time consuming,
unpleasant, distracting and possibly personally humiliating. He will
pretend that his assault on you will be about important matters of
national concern, but it will be really about himself. It will be
hard to explain all that to the public, however. The president gives
off subtle, angry irrationality that takes the air out of
individuals of either party who might want to challenge him. They'd
rather not deal with him if he can be avoided. They try to evade his
polarizations. In that way they, too, become his enablers.
Unfortunately, there's no magic formula
countering the psychology of the kind discussed here in the unique
circumstance where the owner of that psychology is the president.
But here are some things to consider:
Bush-type personality operates in a
defensive, binary mode. Greenwald observes that the president's
neocon advisers have found they can manipulate him by casting the
policy they're advancing in a binary, good-evil terms. Then Bush
manipulates others using such polarizations. When he says some
variation of, "You're either with us or against us," he makes you
feel angry and weak. You want to strike back, but you can't if you
wish to remain rational. So you want to say logically, "No, I'm not
against you, but I'm not with you, either." But that requires
explaining, which is immensely difficult in our media environment.
Reporters have become addicted to conflict-based storytelling as a
way of getting audience attention. They prefer a polarized fight and
will even try to start one
if it doesn't exist.
They tell stories by juxtaposing antagonistic sound bites. A
politician trying to articulate a position that is non-polarized,
nuanced and non-conflictual is at a disadvantage. Perhaps, serious
politicians need to develop some tactics that can directly confront
polarizing. "There you go again, Mr. President, creating a false
division. There are third and forth options here." Whenever
possible, the mainstream press should be chastised and educated
about its addiction to this kind of conflict-based reporting, which
creates a free fire zone, an information free environment that
destroys public discourse.
A person polarizing the world as Bush
does is like a small, weak animal that puffs itself up in order to
scare off attackers. In Bush's case, the presidency has frequently
led him into the illusion that he actually is his puffed up size. It
might help to remember that he's not.
Polarizing tactics work because they
provoke and rely on fear in those at the receiving end - fear of
being wrong, fear of what the other guy will do, fear of
uncertainty, fear of mistakes. Fear these things less and the
tactics will work less. Such fears make us feel like children again.
But we're adults. Binary, absolutist categories are always an
inadequate description of the real world, which is, as Lincoln said,
an "inseparable compound" of various polarities. As adults, we can
think and speak about subtleties and complexities. If we do, fear
will go down, not up. Most adults implicitly understand that the
real world is, more often than not, nuanced, and an appeal to the
truth of shades has its own strong power.
The Democrats have recently tried to
operate in the grand American tradition that opposition and
diversity must be accompanied by a willingness to negotiate. That is
the message of the Constitution, a document that embodies a
psychologically very deep understanding of the give-and-take of
creative process. The Democrats attempted to work with the president
and their Republican colleagues in this spirit after they won the
Congress in 2006. Psychologically, it was the right thing to do.
They tried to heal the wounds the president had inflicted and draw
him into a creative collaboration. But the president's massive
defensiveness over his failures has kept him truculently binary. He
has obviously intimidated his fellow Republicans so that they, too,
have continued in a merely oppositional mode and are supporting his
vetoes. The president is dismissing Congress as incidental to his
At this point, it appears that the
Democrats and moderate Republicans are succumbing to their fear of
direct confrontation with his psychology. They seem afraid the
president might be vindicated by another terrorist attack on US soil
(as though the attack would prove that polarizing the world is the
true path). They want to avoid a constitutional crisis in the months
until Bush leaves office. They haven't wanted their legislative time
consumed with investigations of administrative corruption and
usurpation of power. They haven't wanted to alienate the electorate
during an election season. Their own ambivalence has been set off by
his, but with a different result. They waffle: one minute resisting
him, the next backing down. All this is understandable, but it
misses the point that corruption and usurpation of the sort that has
been unleashed by the president's psychology may have already
seriously damaged our national institutions. What is the message to
the future if we allow this president's psychological defenses
against his failures to inflict such damage and then evade our
responsibility to hold him accountable for it?
Members of Congress can stop being
victims of the president's abusive psychology. You can confront a
polarizer about his behavior without yourself becoming a polarizer.
Instead of splitting ambivalence as Bush does, ambivalence can be
used it to think through a clear course of action . The Constitution
helps, in this case. The Democrats might, for example, articulate
their balancing duties under the Constitution and carefully and
firmly distinguish them from acts of partisan opposition. They might
publicly acknowledge that this president, with the past complicity
of Congress, has damaged our institutions. They could insist on the
investigative and deliberative process called for by our system of
government. Methodically holding Bush and his administration to
account for his abuses (such a thing has never before happened to
him) may be the most effective way to neutralize the further acting
out of his dangerous psychology. It would empower others in his
administration to resist him. It would refocus Congress on its own
responsibilities in the constitutional process. Of course, to
accomplish this would require some adults and "profiles in courage."