The precise origin and attribution of “. . . absolute power corrupts absolutely” is unclear. The quote may have originated with Lord Acton. However, the idea that power corrupts is a robust concept with long and old roots, including a fascinating poem from Muzahidul Reza of Bangladesh about a saint and a rat.
Knowledge is ever-evolving. The concept that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” needs updating. Instead of absolute power corrupting absolutely, I’m proposing: Fantasies of absolute power corrupt absolutely.
No one has absolute power—except perhaps for fleeting moments when megalomaniacs are actively squishing the perceived bugs beneath their shoes. But people can easily imagine absolute power—or at least increased power. When it comes to corruption, the biggest problem involves power fantasies, not reality.
The thought, image, fantasy, belief, or cognition of absolute power is what moves people toward corruption and solipsistic self-interest. For example, the power-based belief, “I’m the f-ing President” might even inspire someone to reach for the neck of a secret service agent. It’s possible.
With the January 6 hearings happening, we’re learning a lot about power, corruption, and fantasies of absolute power. Trump is our prototype. He didn’t have absolute power, but he imagined himself with absolute power. . . and we know what he would have let happen to Mike Pence had he owned such power.
Checks, balances, and honor in governance are beautiful things for countering corruption. As I write this, I think of Liz Cheney, her January 6 testimony, and her words, “there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” Although I detest most of Ms. Cheney’s political positions, I am in awe of her steadfast conviction to calling out deeply corrupt power.
What surprises me most is that so many media outlets are acting surprised at Trump’s pathological efforts to remain president. His behaviors were very predictable . . . and until enough republicans or judges or people on the street hold him accountable, he will continue to coerce—directly or indirectly—people into dancing to his absolute power fantasies.
The driving force behind Trump’s behavior is relatively straightforward. I wrote about it in Slate Magazine back on August 30, 2018. Trump is a particularly talented man who also happens to have a particularly disturbing personality. My article, titled, “Trump Will Never Give Up” describes behaviors linked to his personality. Below, I’ve included several excerpts from that 2018 article, because these statements still fit better than anything else I’ve seen.
Also, I apologize for this redundancy. But sometimes to understand what’s happening, we need to hear it again and again and again.
Trump’s personality is what the renowned psychologist, Theodore Millon, called “The Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality.” This personality is commonly referred to as “Antisocial Personality” but when it occurs in a person with Trump’s talents and wealth, just calling it antisocial personality doesn’t suffice. So, let’s use the whole phrase: The Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality.
Excerpts from the August 2018 article follow:
Millon summarized these personalities as “driven by a need to . . . achieve superiority.” They act “to counter expectation of derogation and disloyalty at the hands of others,” and do this by “actively engaging in clever, duplicitous, or illegal behaviors in which they seek to exploit others for self-gain.” Sound familiar?
Blaming Others for Shirked Obligations. Antisocial personalities “frequently fail to meet or intentionally negate obligations of a marital, parental, employment, or financial nature.” When negative outcomes arise, Trump will be inclined to blame external forces or subordinates. This is the equivalent of a personal philosophy in direct opposition to President Harry Truman’s, “The buck stops here.” Holding Trump responsible for his behaviors has been, is, and will be extremely challenging.
Pathological Lying. Millon wrote, “Untroubled by guilt and loyalty, they develop a talent for pathological lying. Unconstrained by honesty and truth, they weave impressive talks of competency and reliability. Many . . . become skillful swindlers and imposters.”
Declarations of Innocence. During times of trouble, antisocial personality types employ an innocence strategy. “When . . . caught in obvious and repeated lies and dishonesties, many will affect an air of total innocence, claiming without a trace of shame that they have been unfairly accused.”
Empathy Deficits. Antisocial personalities are devoid of empathy and compassion. Millon called this “A wide-ranging deficit in social charitability, in human compassion, and in personal remorse and sensitivity.” He added that “many have a seeming disdain for human compassion.” Going forward, Trump’s efforts to display empathy or sustain charitable behaviors will sound and feel much less genuine than his glowing statements about himself or his aggressive attacks on his detractors.
Counterattacks. Millon noted that antisocial personalities are hyper-alert to criticism. He “sees himself as the victim, an indignant bystander subjected to unjust persecution and hostility” feeling “free to counterattack and gain restitution and vindication.” For Trump, the urge to counterattack appears irresistible. He often uses a favorite attack or counterattack strategy among antisocials—projecting their own malicious ideas and behaviors onto others through name-calling and accusations of illegal (or crooked) behavior. Trump’s pattern of lashing out at others will only continue to escalate.
Moral Emptiness. Antisocial personalities have no ethical or moral compass. As Millon described, they “are contemptuous of conventional ethics and values” and “right and wrong are irrelevant abstractions.” Antisocials may feign religiosity—when it suits their purpose. But the moral litmus test will always involve whether they stand to gain from a particular behavior, policy, or government action.
Clinicians have observed that some individuals with antisocial personalities burn out. Over time, negative family and legal consequences take a toll, prompting antisocials to conform to social and legal expectations. However, as in Trump’s case, when antisocial personalities wield power, burning out is unlikely. Power provides leverage to evade personal responsibility for financial maleficence and sexual indiscretions. Antisocial personalities who have the upper hand will increase their reckless, impulsive, and self-aggrandizing behaviors in an effort to extend their ever-expanding need for power and control.
Because antisocial personalities don’t change on their own and don’t respond well to interventions, containment is the default management strategy. Without firm, unwavering limits, deception, law-breaking, greed, manipulation, and malevolent behaviors will increase. An antisocial person in a position to self-pardon or self-regulate is a recipe for disaster. Containment must be forceful and uncompromising, because if an antisocial personality locates a crack or loophole, he will exploit it. Staff interventions, comprehensive law enforcement, and judicial systems that mandate accountability must be in place.
The January 6 hearings are only one piece in the puzzle of pressure needed to keep Trump and his Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality at bay. Now is the time when many of his followers are scrambling to gain power or safety. We need wide-ranging consequences for Trump, as well as his power scrambling minions and wannabes. Trump’s existence and success have emboldened many, arousing power fantasies around the world—especially among others who resonate with his vengeful victim identity.
Remember, it’s not just that real power corrupts, it’s also the power fantasies, because they fester up from underlying insecurity and push otherwise relatively powerless people to engage in power grabs and horrific acts.
This is why the rule of law and consequences for breaking the rule of law are essential. We need to push back megalomania fantasies with reality. Trump, others with antisocial personality tendencies, and his followers need firm consequences for their illegal behaviors. Let’s hope the January 6th committee hearings inspire the Department of Justice toward action, consequences, and justice. If not, insurrection behaviors in Trump and others will only escalate.