Why you should care
Because power intoxicates, and for inebriated politicians, it gets only worse from there.
Part of “The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics,” a special series in which OZY’s Sean Braswell examines the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of American government. Get caught up with an exploration of gluttony, lust, pride, envy, wrath, greed and sloth.
Donald Trump may boast to the world, as he did in his Republican National Convention speech, that “I alone can fix it,” but deep down, countless other politicians believe the very same thing about themselves. In some ways, a megalomaniacal billionaire like Trump merely represents a more advanced case of someone with excessive self-confidence, one that lays bare the architecture of the ego-addled brain in 140-character bursts of narcissistic bombast.
When it comes to pride, the writer and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once labeled it “the great sin” because it “leads to every other vice.” In politics, where the intoxication of power can magnify even the most modest character flaw, pride is often the original sin — that sense of personal importance that both fuels a politician’s ambitions and prefigures his or her demise.
Repeated exposure to power, including “unaccustomed thoughts,” may fundamentally alter a leader’s brain chemistry.
Rise by the Sword, Fall by the Sword
Public service is not for the timid or the humble, particularly in this modern age when running for office — and the endless phone calls, handshakes and fundraising it entails — requires an almost pathological level of drive and determination. And among U.S. presidential contenders seeking the highest office in the land, such ambition is particularly pronounced. “If you’re asking for the power to blow up the world,” says Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr., “then you have a very big ego to begin with.”
Take Theodore Roosevelt: A hyper-energetic, freakishly industrious man of action and adventurer who wrote roughly 40 books and penned letters as if they were tweets (more than 150,000 in total). Roosevelt — not unlike Trump — turned his robust egotism into a personal brand that became larger than life.
This kind of extreme self-esteem can morph into an irrational confidence in one’s own abilities when exposed to the pull of power. A prideful leader starts to believe he really can change the world, that he knows what is best for others and that normal laws and mores no longer apply to his self-ordained quest. “Give this power to the best man on earth,” the Persian nobleman Otanes observes of absolute rule in Herodotus’ fifth century B.C. Histories, “and it would stir him to unaccustomed thoughts.”
Political Hubris as a Syndrome
True political hubris, though, is more than an outgrowth of ambition or an occupational hazard that can exacerbate existing narcissism in a politician. Repeated exposure to power, including “unaccustomed thoughts,” may fundamentally alter a leader’s brain chemistry. So-called hubris syndrome is “an acquired change in personality associated with the exercise of power,” Lord David Owen, author of In Sickness and in Power, tells OZY.
As a member of the House of Lords and a former British foreign secretary who is trained in neurology and psychiatry, Owen is well-placed to argue — as he and Duke University psychiatrist Jonathan Davidson do in the medical journal Brain — that “extreme hubristic behavior is a medical syndrome, constituting a cluster of features (‘symptoms’) evoked by a specific trigger (power), and usually remitting when power fades.” The product of power, isolation, pressure, lack of sleep and more, hubris syndrome, says Owen, is better categorized as a personality trait, and should not be confused with other psychiatric disorders featuring grandiosity that have afflicted leaders such as Roosevelt, who was likely bipolar.
A better, more recent example might be former President George W. Bush or ex-British prime minister Tony Blair, two psychologically “normal” leaders driven by exceptional circumstances to engage in everything from showy “Mission Accomplished” stunts to ill-advised invasions and strategic planning. As one U.S. official observed of Blair at the time: “He’s sprinkled too much adrenaline on his cornflakes.” Or, as comedian Will Ferrell puts it, playing the exuberant president in full flight suit in “You’re Welcome, America” (below), perhaps Bush had “‘Highway to the Danger Zone’ playing in [his] helmet.”
The Pride Capital of the World
Of course, if you spend time within the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., you will find any number of people willing to sprinkle adrenaline, and much more, on your cornflakes. “Washington is to ego as Iowa is to corn,” Pitney once wrote in Reason magazine, “a place where abundant fertilizer promotes amazing growth.” Every would-be hubristic politician, member of Congress or prominent official has their own coterie of enablers. Fortunately, notes Pitney, most presidents also have someone in their inner circle — as President John F. Kennedy had in his brother Robert — who helps keep the worst excesses of their egos in check.
Still, sometimes political hubris can infect an entire administration and cause lasting and dire consequences. As Peter Beinart, editor at The Atlantic, argues in his book The Icarus Syndrome, most of America’s foreign policy woes over the past century, from Bush’s Iraq misadventure to Lyndon B. Johnson’s misstep in Vietnam, have stemmed from overreach and an unreasonably optimistic belief in American capabilities. This conviction that America can accomplish anything is a lie, but one that can be “politically essential” for our leaders, writes Beinart, making such cycles of folly difficult to avoid. “It’s hard to be illuminated by failure in a country where success is a national religion.”
In the end, according to Owen, democracy is the best prescription for the hubristic leader: the relinquishment of power via an election, impeachment or political pressure. But can we Americans — in a nation that is, as Beinart suggests, so patriotic, proud and addicted to success — succeed in holding our politicians accountable? Or when it comes to our collective political ambitions, are we merely a fawning staff of 300 million boosters, more than happy to rally behind “Mission Accomplished” banners, secure in our belief that our leaders alone can fix it?