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Monday, July 25, 2016


All right now, let us take some deep breaths and relax.  This presidential campaign is driving all of us a little bit crazy, and it has not even, technically, begun!  If I am going to survive until November, and if you are as well, then we must agree to certain ground rules.

Let me begin with something that Freud taught us.  It is not possible to make well-grounded psychiatric judgments about someone who is not one’s patient [an important truth that Freud himself then forgot when he undertook to make such judgments about famous historical figures whom he neither had nor could ever have encountered!]  There are several reasons for this caveat.  First of all, one can only have available the invaluable products of free association in the setting of a psychoanalytic therapy.  And since, as Freud humorously reminded us, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar [rather than a phallic symbol], only through the techniques of the analytic couch do we have access to the symbolic meaning of the manifestations of the unconscious.  Second, judgments of psychiatric disorder rely on extremely subtle signs of body language, tone of voice, pacing of speech, facial expressions, and the always complex phenomena of transference and countertransference.

Now, I have never so much as seen in person or been in the same room as the people I have been evaluating and judging, let alone engaged in a therapeutic relationship with any of them [a relationship for which I am not trained.]  So quite clearly I am not professionally competent to conclude that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton [or Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein or Barack Obama or Cedric the Entertainer] is a sociopath or a psychopath or even, if I am using the terms properly, a narcissistic personality.

Therefore, I am going to stop using the powerful [and, in a non-therapeutic context, extremely judgmental] language of psychotherapy, and I suggest that all of you do so as well, unless you are professionally trained and have had access to the person you are discussing.

This does not mean that we must stop making judgments about Trump and Clinton.  What else is a political campaign for?  We are perfectly at liberty to form considered judgments of their character on which we base predictions about their probable future behavior.  To do that is simply to be human.  Some of us are good at sizing up people, some of us are not.  Every day, we make such judgments and find them either confirmed or disconfirmed by subsequent events.  I have been observing Hillary Clinton from afar [and seeing her on television is observing from afar, remember] for many years, and I have been observing Donald Trump for more than a year now [although it seems vastly longer!]  I think I have become pretty good at making judgments about public figures and predicting their behavior, but of course my judgments may be wrong and have been in the past.

On the basis of past experience with American politicians [but not, note, with French or Chinese or Russian or Argentinian politicians], I have concluded – to take one example among many – that Hillary Clinton’s embrace of several of Bernie Sanders’ signature policies is a temporary shift to the left to win the nomination and secure her left flank in the general election, rather than a change of her firmly held opinions about policies.  I therefore anticipate that if she is elected, neither the fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage nor free public college will be a proposal on which she is willing to expend much political capital.  On the basis of my observation of Donald Trump, I have concluded that he has very little ability to control, even for his own benefit, his impulse to lash out at those who have attacked him.  I predict, therefore, that in the next three months, he will repeatedly engage in politically unproductive verbal battles with Republicans whose support he could use to win the election.  And so forth.

I shall continue to make such judgments, but I shall try to avoid expressing them in the language of psychoanalysis – “narcissistic,” “sociopath,” “psychopath,” and the rest.  I think it would be well if we all adopt this course.

Finally, a word of political advice from someone old enough to have seen and engaged in six decades and more of political struggles on the left.  Social change is not like brain surgery – a delicate, precise activity in which a single wrong move, however slight, can lead to disaster.  Social change is much more like a landslide, with rocks, boulders, bushes, twigs, trees, and great gobbets of dirt rolling down a mountainside.  Most of us are pebbles, a few are bushes, and a tiny handful – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, for example – are great trees and huge boulders.  What matters most is that you are rolling down the right side of the hill.  Social change in a nation of three hundred million and more requires coalitions of vast numbers of people who find a way to make common cause with one another, even if on very important matters they disagree.  I think most of the people who visit this blog would be said to be on the left rather than on the right in American politics, although that is certainly not universally true.  It would be politically wise for everyone who comments here to treat other commentators with courtesy.  Believe me, in the context of contemporary American politics, we are all the good guys!


hopelessmisanthrope said...

Thank you for this well reasoned and measured post. A little humility on what we know and don't know is a very good virtue especially at this time. Confucius said that Wisdom is maintaining that you know when you know and maintaining that you don't when you don't (Analects 2:17)

I agree with you that if we find a candidate that is even a little bit less likely to engage in nuclear war, that would make a huge difference. I don't agree that Trump is clearly that person. I do think that Jill Stein is clearly that person. More than a little less likely with her in fact. This has to do with her consistent history of words as well as actions in protesting war and nuclear disarmament. I have been saying that in realizing we need to acknowledge what we don't know is that by overstating and using technical jargon without the technical background to give a semblance of knowledge is that we may blind ourselves to the possibilities of a Jill Stein (or even Gary Johnson). If we are certain that HRC is less likely to initiate in a nuclear exchange it may NOT be rational to choose Jill Stein. However, if we are not certain she is less likely to than Trump, Jill Stein may be our best option for survival. Promoting HRC does a serious disservice to reducing that chance.

Brian Leiter said...

"Sociopath" and "narcissistic personality disorder" are not Freudian concepts; they come straight from the DSM, and they do not require probing into a person's unconscious to ascertain, they are manifest in behavior which, if observed long enough, can provide more than sufficient evidence. That is what you did in your post on Trump, Clinton and nuclear war. Alas, you've now been wrongly influenced by the ignorant misanthrope!

howard b said...

yes but there is a more direct link between behavior and pathology for certain types of psychiatrists
Plus we have the a record on Trump going back decades
past behavior predicts future behavior
You can easily treat Trump as a clinical type and I suspect with him what you see is what you get, aside from tactical matters

howie b said...

It is jarring that to really figure out a candidate for President of the United States the most qualified person would actually turn out to be a forensic psychologist for the FBI.
It's in fact much worse than the man needing a psychiatrist or analyst. Who doesn't?
Professor Leiter put the matter exactly as I would've liked
It's just unnerving

s. wallerstein said...

I don't live in the U.S., so my main contact with U.S. politics is reading blogs, mostly leftwing blogs, I admit. I also have a few friends and family members in the U.S. with whom I correspond by email, all of them left of center.

Since the beginning of this campaign, I have not run into anyone (in the aforementioned blogs and among my friends) who likes Hillary Clinton. There are many who support her because it's the only way to stop Trump, and that seems like a sensible position to me.

However, it is incredible that no one so far in my personal universe has had anything good to say about Hillary Clinton, either as a person or as a political figure. I just read that Sanders' supporters booed Sanders when he urged them to vote for Clinton and even chanted "lock her up".

If things continue this way, I'm going to end up liking Hillary because being very perverse, I have a strange tendency to like whatever and whoever everyone else rejects.

David Auerbach said...

Jill Stein is not our best option for survival because she is not an option.
There's too much sloppy thinking around this 'like' word. *Like* her? I haven't met her; how would I know and why would I care.
*Like* her as in prefer her to Sanders in the primary. No. That's a political judgement into which rough and ready judgements of character are pretty much irrelevant.

s. wallerstein said...

David Auerbach,

If you're referring to my comment above about people not liking Clinton, first of all, I stated clearly (if I can use that much maligned word) that it seems sensible to vote for Clinton to stop Trump.

In theory I agree with you that political judgments should guide our voting behavior and our political behavior in general, but I'm sure that you are aware that many many people vote for and support politicians who they would like to have a beer or a latté with. I've worked on political campaigns myself, and politicians put a great deal of effort into getting voters to like them, much more effort than they put into explaining their political positions because they know that most people vote their heart, their guts and their genitals (although they may not be aware that they are voting their genitals), not their head. That's why Hillary smiles that stupid phony smile all the time because she desperately wants people to like her (and vote for her) and she knows that if they see as "simpática" like Bill is, she'll be in the White House.

Now it would be great if people voted their head, because in capitalism the mass of people voting their head would vote for a social democratic or socialism alternative. That's why Professor Wolff has spoken about supporting a long-term movement for social change hopefully sponsored by Sanders and I agree with him about that, but that's a long-term project.

s. wallerstein said...


I don't know what you mean by "superficial reasons" to like or dislike someone. Liking someone or disliking someone seems not to be a process that is governed by reasons. Do you need reasons to like someone or to fall in love with someone? I don't. There is a process which can be described which leads people to like or dislike someone or to fall in love, but it generally has little to do with reasons.

As to Trump, no, he rubs me the wrong way and did at first sight. I don't like bullies and in general, I dislike entrepreneurs and people into making money as their chief goal in life.

Tom Cathcart said...

Nice try, Bob, but as you can see, we're all too crazed to be reined in. 😜

David Auerbach said...

Idiocy is thinking that Stein can win. Which would be the only reason to vote for her on the nuclear war issue. Idiocy is not figuring out what my brief remark meant.

Anonymous said...

I harbor no delusions that she will win. I'm wise enough to know when I don't know. In fact she's likely to lose by a big margin this election. But she's imho the best chance we've got to avoid nuclear and environmental catastrophe. A small chance is all we've got. I'll take it over no chance.

mesnenor said...

With regard to no-one liking Hilary Clinton - why should likability be a criterion when we vote? We should vote for the best qualified candidate, whatever the position may be. Back in the 90s a common criticism of Hilary was that she was "Bill without the charisma". I actually think it speaks well of American democracy that such an un-charismatic candidate is likely to be the next president.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I must confess, Prof. Wolff, that your interest in and invocations of Freud somewhat mystify me, given how little scientific evidence has been adduced for his "theories".

Additionally, I find the Wittgensteinian critique of Freudian symbolism and dream interpretation to be cogent.

(On the other hand, I would also expect Prof. Leiter to be more skeptical of the DSM than he apparently is in this moment.)

T Verga said...

Anonymous, there is NO chance that she will win. So if you want to reduce the chance of a nuclear war it's probably better to vote Clinton (as Professor Wolff was saying, stable and predictable is just safer!). If you want to reduce climate change, it is CERTAINLY and MUCH better to vote Clinton. If you go with big questions like this, it's even clearer you must vote for Hillary, not to mention all the other ways in which a Trump presidency will hurt the poor, women, ethnic and sexual minorities, and democracy in general. The best possible course of action is voting Clinton and supporting a strong left-wing movement to push her to the left as much as possible (it won't be much, but it's better than a TRUMP presidency!) and pave the way for a left-wing nominee next time.

wallyverr said...

I am personally more concerned (and distressed) about the mechanics of Brexit than I am about the US presidential contest, so at least I won't become monomaniacal about the latter, though I suppose I might become bi-maniacal.

I am writing this from the 18th century Radcliffe Camera building of the Bodleian Library. Kant is not the only way to distract oneself from present-day troubles -- I can recommend the calming influence of a visit to a university library, the older the better.

s. wallerstein said...


Since you hold others to very high standards of evidence and criticize Professor Wolff for claiming that something is clear when he should have said that it was highly likely, why not follow those same standards yourself? It certainly weakens your position when you claim that there is "no chance" that Clinton will try to stop environmental destruction. Obviously, there is a chance, although it may not be likely.

Up until now your interventions in this blog are best described by Matthew 7.3: "And why beholdst thou the mote that in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

If you are trying to convince people in this blog to vote for Stein, not Clinton, I doubt that you have convinced anyone.

s. wallerstein said...


We untermenschen thank you for deigning to shed a bit of your light into our cave.

Tom Cathcart said...

On a lighter note: younger readers may have missed your apt literary allusion, Bob, to the great horse, Silver.

T Verga said...

I really didn't want to respond to a snarky commenter like the misanthropist that has infiltrated this lovely blog lately, but I have to point out that I repeated Prof Wolff's claim simply because I think it makes a lot of sense and I agree with it. Trump is more irrational than Clinton, and therefore more likely to DO something irrational.
As for climate change, SOME action is better than none. Like I said, people need to push for someone better on both counts next time, but since Bernie lost, they need to support Hillary right now.