Look back in history: bad guys like Caligula and Hitler, mixed-up guys like Alexander the Great, good guys like President Lincoln, brilliant but vindictive scientists like Isaac Newton. On the modern scene: President Clinton hardly slept as they stayed up late studying policy arcana, while Trump skipped all that and instead manipulated public opinion by mastering the twitterverse.
Is this behaviour mad – at least some of it?
Depends on who you ask.
What is madness? Who is mad and who is not? These are not simple questions. For one thing, some seemingly mad people can be effective in their own spheres of influence – at least for a while. Sometimes, madness seems to be a benefit. It can help people focus and push on when others would give up. Combined with charisma, it can add a sense of drama and excitement to any leadership role. Humans love a good story.
Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida, is also a passionate student of history. In his book, How Madness Shaped History: An Eccentric Array of Maniacal Rulers, Raving Narcissists, and Psychotic Visionaries, he brings his two passions together to illuminate the modern era, where assorted oddballs — politicians, technologists, entrepreneurs, etc — seem to make the rules the rest of us follow.
The book was released as the 2020 presidential election cycle got underway, when “nativism, authoritarianism, and nationalism seem to be on the rise in the world,” he wrote. “The Trump administration is a symptom rather than a cause of a creeping madness within our sociopolitical culture in which people with different views become the enemy and must be defeated and humiliated at all costs.”
Ferguson defines madness as “behaviour that persists despite its destructive nature either to oneself or others. It is a very small subset of mental illness, with insanity being smaller still. Not everyone with a mental illness is insane in the legal sense; in fact most are not.”
Many of those in his book have personality disorders, as opposed to mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which can be so debilitating that not much gets done. “Personality disorders are lifelong patterns of deviant or maladaptive behaviour that result from a person’s core personality rather than an illness per se,” he says. “The dangerous ones include antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy, marked by lack of conscience coupled with thrillseeking and difficulty learning from punishment.”
Borderline personality disorder blends impulsiveness, narcissism and anger control problems. In a word: chaos. Narcissistic personality disorder, marked by the grandiose sense of one’s own self-importance, is widespread among those who seek power and fame. Those with paranoid personality disorder, marked by extreme suspiciousness, tend to blame others for their misfortune.
Especially dangerous is the “dark triad”: psychopathy and narcissism blended with Machiavellian personality traits — cynical strategic decision-making with little regard for ethics.
Mixtures of psychopathy with paranoid personality traits can produce cruel tyrants. Hitler had a kind of “mad genius.” Appearing to fit the “dark triad” personality, “he believed himself to be uniquely bestowed with the ability to restore German power, showed little remorse for the devastation he unleashed and displayed remarkable cunning. He also had a fascination with death and destruction.”
I wonder how past religious leaders would be viewed if they were walking the sidewalks of today? Jesus — who inspired European cathedrals and American gospel churches wired for TV (and now internet) — spent most of his time outside, although he did go to a temple as a boy to knock over the tables of the money lenders.
Tyrants of the past were often popular among their subjects, although they had little choice. The same goes for modern times. It does seem odd that so many wacky characters can be so successful — at least in the short term. They become CEOs, generals, presidents, and prime ministers. Some are influential artists, musicians, entertainers, and scientists.
Ferguson notes that mental illness is a part of life and that some leaders can be effective in spite of it. For example, Abraham Lincoln suffered from major depressive disorder yet historians routinely consider him the best president in US history. One study concluded that about half of US presidents suffered from some sort of mental illness during their lifetime, with about half of those having serious issues while they were in office. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse were common.
Alexander the Great, one of the greatest generals in history, suffered from impulsive rages, alcohol abuse and delusional narcissism. He was probably not bipolar — that would be too much of a disadvantage. Combining his narcissism with tactical talent and leadership proved a potent combination, although it eventually cost him his life and his empire.
Ferguson’s dual perspective allows him to pop a few modern misconceptions. For example: “A wealth of evidence suggests that we are living during the most peaceful epic in human history,” he says. Violence was common in pre-modern societies. “While democratic reforms swept across the world, recent reports suggest human rights and democratic institutions may be eroding. Still, in much of the world the welfare of the average person has improved over the past decades.”
On the other hand, “much of the world labors under madness, either based on the personality of the leaders or from the viewpoint of a population that has lost its way,” he says.
Sometimes the problem is that people believe they can no longer trust the government. In some parts of the world, perception of the social contract never developed, he says. Other places “still struggle under egomaniacal dictators, paranoid religious leaders, or bloodthirsty military juntas. My own country and many others seem to stand on a precipice of threats small and large. Who do we want to lead us? Strong but mad authoritarians or bland bureaucrats?”
It’s not only men who have been violent. Ferguson introduces “the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian noblewoman during the 16th century who had an awful temper and a lust for sadistic sex.” Believing that human blood was a natural moisturizer, she was able to torture, mutilate, and kill her peasant victims for years. “Today she would be diagnosed with a variant of antisocial personality disorder known as sadistic personality disorder.” Not to mention put out of commission one way or another.
Sometimes entire societies appear to go mad, he points out. This can occur from the rise of a tyrannical government whose leaders prove, at least for a while, that raw ambition trumps morality.
Circumstances can provide openings for madness to take power. When power was transferred from the Weimar Republic to the Nazis, the madness in society found themselves empowered at all levels. The rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 40s showed that ordinary people can collaborate or at least keep their heads down. Systematic institutional cruelty takes a certain degree of competence.
Q & A
HOW DID YOUR BOOK PROJECT BEGIN?
CHRISTOPHER FERGUSON: I’ve always been interested in these individuals from hell who had such an influence on history. These themes are so relevant for today, both for individuals and crowds. Recent events fit as well. We are so polarized now. I know people who if you read their comments on social media it seems as if they’ve lost their minds, including academics on the left.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE YOU STARTED WORK ON THE BOOK?
CF: I worked on the book for eight months in 2019. Those were the “good Trump years,” before 2020, before the pandemic. Then we had the clown show of the Trump Administration. There was chaos and irrationality on all sides. The extreme voices got the airtime. There were weird patterns of the left versus the right. We were gripped by a polarized culture war fed by social media algorithms. How do we retain our sanity in an era when the mad can scream the loudest? As news consumers we are drawn to the spectacle of the disaster.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE UNITED STATES, CANADA AND OTHER WESTERN DEMOCRACIES TODAY?
CF: Democracy is fragile. Citizens and leaders have to buy into the social contract. With elections, leaders have to give up control. They have to allow others to enjoy free speech and due process.
My former optimism may have been misplaced. Too often, free speech now means “for me” but not “for them.” We have to find a balance and a way to protect political minorities. While the US is becoming an oligarchy on the right, the US Constitution gets in the way of the left. The two-party system has become a threat to democracy, as the Founders feared.
CAN WE LEARN ANY LESSONS FROM GERMANY’S
SLIDE INTO FASCISM?
CF: Germany was an extreme case. The US now is not like Germany after the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. It was chaotic in the 1920s and 30s. Worldviews were horribly wacky. It was a violent struggle between the power blocs. In the Weimar Republic people wanted some stability after the shocking loss of World War I. People blamed so-called traitors and they blamed the Jews. Along came Hitler, who may have had a delusional disorder. Right time, right place.
COULD IT HAPPEN NOW?
CF: A better analogy for us is the decline of the Roman Republic. Caesar was a war hero who became a dictator, an autocrat. There was an erosion of democratic values. All dictators are dangerous, whether on the right or on the left.
Trump is a modern phenomenon, a populist who wants power. He appeals to the gripes of the masses. Society is becoming more oligarchical, with governments and elites looking after themselves. I’m pessimistic they can balance their interests with those of the plebes. Average people are getting screwed. Populists feign interest in their resentment and seize power. They promise to address the issues but don’t fix anything.
WHAT’S THE ROLE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES IN ALL THIS?
CF: Conspiracy theories are based on skepticism about experts. People hold opinions that signal their identity to a group — the in-group versus the out-group. It’s been a rough year with COVID and the initial stumbles by public health. The vaccine debate has been going on for more than 20 years. People are susceptible to conspiracy theories, as we know. The simple version is that the vaccine risks are far less than the diseases they prevent.
WHAT ROLE DOES THE NEWS MEDIA PLAY?
CF: When I was a teenager we got three TV channels and they all said the same thing. Now we get caught in culture wars and live in parallel universes. Media voices cater to what we think is true. The news media have become sensationalist – a bad source of information. Make sure you don’t get sucked into this stuff. Media and social media want you to spend your time scrolling.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE TRYING TO STAY SANE THESE DAYS?
CF: Try to lead a balanced life, enjoying your family and your hobbies. Limit time on social media so you don’t go spiraling down. Be generous with other folks. They might have good reasons for their beliefs. Be civil. Don’t get into a mud fight with a pig. Preserve your mental health with a civil exchange of views. If you can’t, learn when to withdraw. Try to meet people with different backgrounds and interests. Join a bowling league. It’s easier to demonize if you don’t interact with people.
How Madness Shaped History: An Eccentric Array of Maniacal Rulers, Raving Narcissists, and Psychotic Visionaries. Prometheus Books (2020).
By Christopher J. Ferguson, psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida.
Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Stetson University. He is interested in media violence; in particular, video games. His research indicates that exposure to media violence has little effect on societal violence. He is a consumate geek who is interested in everything from science fiction to Dungeons and Dragons and Lego video games.