Authoritarian Sadism in U.S. “Foreign Policy” (Part 2)

In the first part of this paper, “Authoritarian Sadism in U.S. “Foreign Policy” (Part 1),” Dissident Voice, July 25, 2023, I introduced some psychoanalytic concepts and explained their application in revealing the latent motivations of high-ranking policy-makers in recent U.S. presidential administrations.  This approach was long ago studied by the eminent political scientist Harold Lasswell, who concluded that a political leader’s manifest “policies” are often a rationalization of his unresolved psychological conflicts.[efn_note]Harold Lasswell, Psychopathology and Politics. Viking Press, 1930.[/efn_note]

I have already examined, in relation to sadistic motivations, the personality of President Barack Obama (see: “Obama: ‘I’m Really Good at Killing People’,” Dissident Voice, January 2, 2022.  Psychiatrist Justin Frank, M.D. also wrote a detailed psychoanalytic study entitled Obama on the Couch (2011), which is full of subtle and well-stated psychoanalytic insights, especially regarding Obama’s childhood.  Still, psychoanalyst Justin Frank unconvincingly concluded that Obama was “generally in excellent mental health.”[efn_note]Justin Frank, M.D. Obama on the Couch. Free Press, 2011; p. 3.[/efn_note]

To my mind, his earlier book Bush on the Couch (2004), which I will refer to here, was unflinchingly probing and perspicacious, a superb tour-de-force in the field of psycho-political studies of presidential personalities and their often horrifically destructive “policies.”  (Parenthetically, ex-President Bush has frequently made revealing Freudian slips during recent speaking engagements.)  So, having already examined the case of Madeleine Albright, let us now examine the authoritarian sadism exhibited by President George W. Bush, a war criminal now almost entirely rehabilitated by the craven, mainstream media.

Case-Study no. 2: George W. Bush

Former President George W. Bush’s dreadful legacy of destruction rivals that of other modern authoritarian rulers who recklessly trampled human rights and laid waste to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  But were his injurious policies–from willfully wrecking an entire nation (Iraq), to authorizing illegal torture (Guantanamo and the CIA’s notorious black-sites), to refusing to renew the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons–simply the result of his benighted, right-wing ideology?  Or, was this ideology in itself simply politicized cruelty: mass-murdering a purported “enemy” populace abroad while slashing social programs and criminalizing the poor domestically?  Describing the emotional tenor of Nazism, journalist Ron Rosenbaum brilliantly noted that “an irrational hatred that can assume the guise, the mantle, of an ideological antipathy but which is primitive in the sense of being prior to ideology–its source rather than its product.” [efn_note]Ron Rosenbaum.  Explaining Hitler. Random House, 1998; p. 188.[/efn_note]

In Dr. Frank’s Bush on the Couch, I found the chapter entitled “The Smirk” lucidly revealing as to Bush’s sadistic personality.  Frank offered abundant examples of Bush’s sadism and destructiveness, from his childhood pastime of blowing up frogs with firecrackers to his “branding” of fraternity pledges with a red-hot coat hanger–to his subsequent rubber-stamping of the execution, while governor of Texas, of a record number of death-row inmates (many never given adequate counsel for a fair trial).  Ultimately, Dr. Frank concluded, “The sadism that motivated the war [was] evident in Bush’s lack of a plan for postwar Iraq: the invasion was an end in itself.”[efn_note]Justin Frank, M.D. Bush on the Couch. Regan Books, 2004; pps. 118, 190-191.[/efn_note]

As to my usage of a concept of compensatory narcissism–often apparent in authoritarian “power-over” and grandiosity–Dr. Frank favored instead a blanket diagnosis of Bush as megalomaniacal.  Unlike Dr. Frank, who chose not to utilize the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, I have found the section in the “DSM” on Personality Disorders particularly useful (4th edition, 1994). Some fifty years ago, Freudian psychiatrists with substantial clinical experience of narcissistic and sociopathic personalities spent years seeking further clarification and consensus regarding the clinical (and actual) reality of such personality syndromes.  Finally, a typology (subject to revision) emerged, and such can be found in the aforementioned DSM 4th edition.  I might add that the very concept of “personality disorders” (especially, narcissistic, sociopathic, etc.) was originally derived from the early psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s classic Character Analysis (1933), wherein he discussed his clinical cases of pathological character-structures.[efn_note]John Gunderson, M.D. “Personality Disorders.” In: The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (3rd edition). Ed. A. Nicholi, M.D. Harvard University Press, 1999; pps. 317-318.[/efn_note]

Unfortunately, in subsequently expanded editions over the past thirty years, the APA–against the strong protest of the minority of psychoanalytic psychiatrists–has added innumerable dubious and stigmatizing “conduct disorders” (and such) to the Manual (probably for commercial motives and insurance claims). The few psychoanalysts who have remained members of today’s APA have been marginalized and largely ignored by the reigning Big Pharma bio-psychiatrists. (Interestingly, when psychoanalysts still exercised significant influence in the APA, the diagnostic “Sadistic Personality Disorder” was carefully considered and briefly included in the DSM, only to be dropped later.)

Returning to our evaluation of Bush, compensatory narcissistic power-displays, more popularly known as “protest masculinity,” were almost constantly on exhibit in his crude threats and belligerent rhetoric as well as in his flamboyant swaggering in a flight-suit costume on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 (“Mission Accomplished”?).  Again, fifty years ago many publicly respected psychoanalysts such as Erich Fromm might have pointed to childhood origins: a dominant and violently punitive mother (slapping and/or neglect), and a remote, often-absent father.  But such observations are now routinely derided, with the alternative (and potentially racist) claim that psychopathic behavior in adulthood is primarily genetic in origin.

In the 1994 DSM, one finds that youthful cruelty to animals as well as substance abuse–both unquestionably exhibited by Bush–are predisposing factors to a possible diagnosis of “sociopathy” (then also known as “antisocial personality disorder”). As president, Bush, of course, often displayed the roguish charm of the con-artist, as he gratuitously lied or invented “facts,” blithely broke dozens of laws and shredded treaties, and ordered the illegal torture of hundreds of victims, conveniently occurring in locales where U.S. laws prohibiting torture had no jurisdiction.

According to the DSM (and again, I emphasize, the 1994 4th edition), in order to be diagnosed as “sociopathic,” an individual must exhibit at least three of the following: “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors… deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying… impulsivity or failure to plan ahead… irritability and aggressiveness… reckless disregard for the safety of self or others… consistent irresponsibility…[and] lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”  This diagnostic, which has high co-morbidity with a history of alcoholism (admitted by Bush), is ultimately confirmed in cases where some evidence exists of childhood delinquency (such as bullying and cruelty toward animals).

Moving on to the DSM’s 1994 criteria for narcissistic disorder, at least five of the following must apply to justify the diagnosis: “a grandiose sense of self-importance… fantasies of unlimited success, power… believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique…has a sense of entitlement… is interpersonally exploitative… lacks empathy… is often envious of others… [and] shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”   Many highly successful individuals,” the DSM entry concluded (with unintended irony?), “display personality traits that might be considered narcissistic.”[efn_note]DSM (4th edition, 1999); “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” pps. 98-99,705-706, 716-717.  Additional note: during the horrors of the Iraq War, elite-narcissist Barbara Bush memorably declared: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”[/efn_note]

An eminent psychoanalyst, known for his careful study of personality disorders, concluded twenty years ago that the narcissistic syndrome “overlaps considerably with the interpersonal style of anti-social personality–so much so that narcissistic individuals are sometimes considered ‘white-collar’ psychopaths… The distinction [between the two personality diagnostics] is then unclear.”[efn_note]Gunderson, pps. 317-318.[/efn_note] It is thus plausible to consider “narcissism” and “sociopathy” as points on a continuum, with fusion of traits a not unlikely outcome (especially in powerful political figures). I postulated as much over ten years ago in my Dissident Voice article “Sociopathic Narcissism: a Political Syndrome”, October 26, 2012.  Thus, in the year or so following Trump’s “election” as president, I was not surprised to see numerous panic-stricken psychiatrists and political analysts suddenly warn the public of the “sociopathic narcissist” in the White House.

But can sociopathic narcissism ultimately be equated with authoritarian sadism? According to Dr. Frank, President Bush became a sadistic role-model, thus “normalizing” the unleashing of bullying, aggressive behavior in everyday socio-political contexts.  Bush’s desire to attack Iraq and its people, under the flimsiest of pretexts, exhibited his impatiently awaited delight in cruelty: the anticipated satisfactions of not only crushing Saddam Hussein (dominating him into submission or, preferably, torturing and killing him). To this sociopathic narcissist, one may even speculate that exercising the power to kill hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, powerless Iraqi people–without impunity– offered the ultimate, grandiose opportunity for sadistic satisfaction.

Similarly, the power-hungry, highly narcissistic Madeleine Albright (discussed in the preceding Part 1) aggressively campaigned for, and attained, the position of Secretary of State. Ruthless and domineering, the “entitled” Albright was impatient to crush and dominate into submission defiant opponents such as Saddam and Milosevic. But what of the helpless, ordinary citizens of these nations (and not forgetting Rwanda); i.e., hundreds of thousands including small children, who are by nature weak and defenseless)?  They were all victims for the power-driven, authoritarian sadist.[efn_note]Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom. Holt, 1941; pps. 190-191.[/efn_note]


Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.