How to Get Rid of the 'High-Conflict Personalities' That Ruin Politics
According to a new book, the people who love power are the exact people who absolutely should not have any power.
Photo of Donald Trump by Tom Brenner/Getty
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Under Donald Trump, the chasm between America’s political left and right—already a major problem in DC—has only widened, with extreme partisanship infecting social media, cable news, and Congress. It occasionally causing messes like the recent government shutdown, but it's always in the background. According to lawyer, mediator, and therapist Bill Eddy, this division is a feature, not bug, of the Donald’s reign. In his forthcoming book, Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths—and How We Can Stop, Eddy explores the people he’s deemed High-Conflict Personalities (HCPs), what draws some of them to the political sphere, and how their leadership impacts the world. He also offers suggestions on how best to deal with these cults of personality and their most ardent supporters.
With a textbook HCP currently in possession of America’s nuclear launch codes, VICE reached out to Eddy to hear some of the insights he’s gleaned from his 20-year career researching and working with this type of person.
VICE: Why don't you start by explaining the concept of a High-Conflict Personality?
Bill Eddy: I define a high-conflict people as those who are stuck in conflict and they have four key characteristics that keep them stuck. One is they're preoccupied with blaming other people. They don't look at themselves at all and they're very busy saying what is wrong with everybody else, so nothing changes internally. Second is a lot of all-or-nothing thinking and solutions. They see things in extremes, and that's not good for problem-solving. Third is they have unmanaged emotions. Some will jump up and scream or punch a hole in the wall. Others aren't that dramatic, but they're thrown off course by their emotions. Their emotions take over and they're busy fighting with someone when they were going to get a project done. The fourth is a pattern of extreme behaviors. They'll do things that 90 percent of people won't do, things that often get them into conflict in the first place.
Why do you think we're seeing a proliferation of this personality type today?
I think it's kind of an interaction with our culture. We're all dealing with so many strangers every day. We're watching all these faces we've never met before on our screens, whether it's TV, Facebook, whatever. There's definitely a competition amongst all the media for our attention and the value of conflict is that it grabs our attention. Crisis, chaos, and fear kind of draw us in, and these personalities are able to grab our brain in a different way than straight factual information. And when we reward the HCPs across all these media platforms with our attention, it validates their methods and, in turn, attracts more to HCPs to those platforms, creating a cycle.
What draws some of these types into politics?
I think it's power. Not all HCPs want power. They just want to have control of the people right around them in relationships. But for the HCPs who are attracted to politics, first of all, they love attention, so they get a lot of attention. But they also have fantasies of unlimited power and that's what draws them in.
And sometimes they win elections. Why are they bad at governing?
They're not good at working with other people. They also tend to not have patience. They don't necessarily read a lot of history, a lot of analysis. They don't like teamwork. HCPs don't get along with a lot of people so they don't have good information coming in, they don't get challenged when they have a bad idea, and they promote their fantasy life onto the real world. So, they generally aren't good problem solvers and narcissists in particular don't have good problem-solving skills.
Are there any HCP traits translate well to leadership or to the welfare of their constituents?
If they have a good idea they're working for, narcissists are good at getting attention and drawing people together and getting them excited about their vision. The trouble is, their vision is often an unrealistic fantasy. But let's suppose their vision is a good one, then they may succeed for that purpose. They may be good at that one thing. But then, when they need flexibility or things change where they need to adapt, they're not able to do that. So, I can see why [HCPs] are attractive to people, especially when they say, "I want the same thing you do, here's my plan, and I'm gonna fight for it."
In the book you mention Donald Trump as a classic example of a HCP. Could you go into some of these things in his history and personality that led you to that conclusion?
He shares those four main characteristics. He does a lot of blaming of others. I think it was the New York Times who said that, so far, he's blamed over 500 different individuals or organizations publicly. That's one of his skills. And that gets you attention, but it doesn't solve problems and it often creates problems. He loves arguing and not allowing other people to win or convince him he's wrong, and that's one of the cornerstones of this personality.
Who are some other characters around the global political landscape you consider HCPs?
Putin really displays that pattern and has often demonstrated this idea of blaming others, including Hillary Clinton and George Soros. They seem to be worldwide villains. In Hungary we have Viktor Orban. We also have HCPs in Poland and Turkey—I didn't include them in the book because of space. In Venezuela, Maduro. In the Philippines we've got Duterte. What's fascinating is all these characters kind of talk like each other. They say, Forces out there are taking us over, but I'll save you.
What Trump's doing, challenging the legislature, saying "I want money done my way, instead of through Congress," that's a theme with all these people. They want to overwhelm the judiciary, overwhelm the legislative branch, and essentially become the king.
How about other HCPs in American politics?
Right now, I don't know if anyone has enough power. Anthony Weiner, in New York, is an example of someone who just couldn't learn and a possible HCP. He may be a narcissistic personality and he saw himself as a hero, and yet here he is sabotaging himself. All these folks eventually sabotage themselves. That's part of the key to these types: They cannot learn.
In San Diego, we had a mayor, Bob Filner, who a lot of people said was a bully, wouldn't let committees do their work, and was telling everyone what to do. Within eight months, women were coming forward—this was before the #MeToo movement—saying he sexually harassed them or touched them inappropriately when meeting with them. We see this with mayors, congresspeople, governors. They think they're wonderful and, because of that, they don't learn. And if they don't learn, they're going to fail in the modern world. That’s just a given. It's only a question of time.
Why are HCPs so able to convince huge chunks of the population to buy into what they're selling and vote for them?
Part of it is they appeal to people's emotions. For example, Hitler would talk about Bolshevik Jews, and say they were communists. McCarthy would say the "red menace." They played into fears of the time. But the other thing is narcissists and sociopaths lack remorse, are highly aggressive, and deceitfulness is one of their key characteristics. They will lie blatantly. They'll tell stories. They'll sell a population on the snake oil and it takes a while for people to figure out they’ve been had. Liars can progress in today's world because people take them on faith when they first meet them.
What can both political opponents and the average voter due to spot, manage, and neutralize HCPs?
Spotting them is the first step, because political parties in established democracies do a weeding-out process. If the [parties] can say, "We're not supporting this candidate, even though they're very charming and exciting and has a great radio or TV following, they have a High-Conflict Personality, so we're not going to endorse them." The reality is, the parties do this more at the local level, for people running for mayor or governor. They're a bigger part of that screening process. But at the federal level, where fantasies can be created more easily, because nobody really knows the person, that's where the dangers come in the most. Pointing this pattern out and educating people so they can spot HCPs, that's my goal. Because I don't see it as for or against any candidate. This is a problem that conservatives and liberals are both going to have with the extreme people on the edges.
I also think that candidates for office need to be more actively talking to people and trying to build more relationships. We're seeing politics has become more about relationships than about governing. So, the politicians that are most popular are the ones that pay attention to people and talk to them respectfully, with empathy to their pain. Those are the skills modern politicians need to use. They can't just put down other people, they have to show that they care about people.
Then, people need to be assertive about providing real information. You have to be as assertive about explaining your position when putting information out there as the high-conflict people are aggressive. And by assertive, I mean you don't try to destroy the person. Deal with them respectfully. This is what I found successful in legal cases in court and negotiations. You're respectful about the other side while putting for information about why they're wrong.
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