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What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

How bad is the American political system? Outsider talk

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fantasies notwithstanding…

Jacinta: As we await hopefully the downfall of Trump, we keep experiencing shocks as we listen to all the commentary and events…

Canto: I wouldn’t call it shocks, because I for one have followed US politics, albeit vaguely, for decades, but as some of the implications of their system have been brought into clearer focus, and their complacent and often jingoistic attitude to it, yes, it tends to make the jaw drop a little.

Jacinta: Presidential pardons and vetoes, actually serious discussions as to whether or not their head of state is above the law or indictable, and then much rabbiting on about how they’re the greatest democracy on earth, and how they have checks and balances like nowhere else, which is such arrant bullshit….

Canto: Well I agree that if your head of state is granted the right to pardon criminals, that’s a large stride towards dictatorship right there. And here’s an example of complacency: one commentator talked proudly of his country’s political system being largely a response to tyranny. He was explicitly referring to the monarchy of George III. Yet the power of Presidential pardon is taken directly from the British monarchy! And of course British monarchs virtually never use it – there would be a massive uproar if they did in that very politically literate nation.

Jacinta: Alan Turing was the last person to receive a royal pardon, in 2013, some fifty years after the poor bloke committed suicide. That would’ve been a very popular decision, and the Queen would surely not have been the one to make it, she just signed off on it. I’m sure it’s been a long long time since any British monarch made a personal decision to pardon a convicted individual.

Canto: So compare the latest US Presidential pardon, only days ago. Scooter Libby (such an American name) was convicted of lying to the FBI during the Bush administration, and I don’t know the details of all that, but no matter, more than one US pundit has argued, credibly enough, that for Trump, Scooter Libby is no more than a silly name. Now here’s what Wikipedia has to say about US Presidential pardons:

Almost all federal pardon petitions are addressed to the President, who grants or denies the request. In rare cases, the President will, of his own accord, issue a Pardon. Typically, applications for pardons are referred for review and non-binding recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an official of the United States Department of Justice.[27] The percentage of pardons and reprieves granted varies from administration to administration; however, fewer pardons have been granted since World War II.

The pardon power has been controversial from the enactment of the United States Constitution.

Controversial indeed. And I’m willing to bet that this recent pardon was one of those ‘rare cases’, no doubt suggested to Trump by one of his Mar-a-lago mates. Under Trump, such pardon cases will become a lot less rare, if he can get away with it. It seems reasonably clear, as many pundits avow, that Trump is signalling to such mates as Flynn and Cohen that he can and will pardon them when the time comes.

Jacinta: And this is surely corruption writ large. But what astonishes me is the Americans never seem to be capable of considering changes to their beloved but obviously flawed constitution. Their second amendment pertaining to bearing arms is a piece of shite of course, and I’m not sure about their fifth, which seems to obstruct justice in a lot of cases, and this pardon power is expressed in the body of their constitution, in Article 2. To me it’s screamingly obvious that this pardon power should be thrown out. When will they ever effing learn?

we shall see

Canto: It seems they need outsiders to point out to them the massive flaws in their system. It’s way too ‘presidential’. You could also possibly argue that it’s too democratic. The fact is, although all westerners tend to extol democracy, there’s no purely democratic system, and that’s a good thing. If our understanding of the world, the universe – our science in other words – was decided by democracy, we’d still believe the earth was flat and we would never have invented a single tool.

Jacinta: Yes, and imagine if our judges and our laws were voted on by pure democracy – given current and past levels of education. It hardly bears thinking about.

Canto: And in the USA the President is directly voted on by the people in a two-horse race, unlike in the Westminster system where we vote on parties, or on local reps, and the winning party chooses its captain based on her proven abilities, be they populist or strategic or otherwise, and that party gets to dump its leader if she proves ineffective.

Jacinta: So such a system never places anyone above the law, and where there are pardon powers, they’re hedged about very heavily, though certainly the leader does have powers above others in choosing her cabinet and such.

Canto: A cabinet of members previously elected by constituents, not plucked possibly from obscurity by the whim of the Prez. But can you think of any advantages of this Presidential system over the Westminster system?

Jacinta: Well the Presidential system might be more streamlined, which can be positive or negative depending on the competence of the leader. Quick decision-making can be life-saving or totally disastrous. Personally, I wouldn’t take the risk. But certainly a system can have too many checks and balances.

Canto: But as you’ve said, the Americans seem incapable of considering reforms to their system, even in the light of the Trump disaster. And there are barriers to effecting constitutional change.

Jacinta: You need a two-third majority in both houses of congress to propose a constitutional amendment, and that might be possible after November, but unlikely. And it seems, from the current case involving Michael Cohen and his ties to Trump, that the laws regulating the President’s powers in all sorts of areas are a bit thin.

Canto: I suppose that would be Trump’s greatest legacy, exposing the dangers of an insufficiently regulated head of state.

Jacinta: Yeah but they’re unlikely to face up to those dangers, I suspect they’ll have to be hit on the head by more than one Trump-like figure before they do anything about it.

Canto: They’re very good at feverishly talking about all their woes…

Jacinta: We’re all good at that. But you’ll notice that they often mention a ‘constitutional crisis’. That’s a situation arising where’s little clear guidance from their constitution as to resolution. For example, the indictment of a sitting President. As you know, I’m not keen on the impeachment process, which doesn’t exist in Australia or within the Westminster system. I would want Trump to be dealt with by the law, for which he has such contempt. That would be poetic of course, but it would also be the right course, IMHO.

Canto: But there’s a problem with indictment of a sitting President. Of course in Australia we rarely use the term ‘indict’, we just use the term ‘charge’, as verb and noun. The problem with charging the Prez is that he will then have to go through a court process, which will significantly  affect his ability to discharge the duties of office. Of course, this isn’t such a problem under Westminster, the PM will simply step down, either permanently or temporarily until the case is completed. Under Westminster, change of leadership isn’t such a big deal, and it often happens within electoral cycles. Under the Presidential system, it may happen that a Prez is indicted but hearings are delayed until he leaves office…

Jacinta: But if the charges relate to his becoming President, or to his current handling of the role – e.g. collusion with a foreign power, or obstruction of justice, what then?

Canto: From what I’ve read, you can indict a sitting President, and publish the charges. If the charges relate to the President’s fitness for office – but who decides this? – then action should be taken to remove him – but what action? Other than impeachment, it’s not clear.

Jacinta: And impeachment isn’t in itself removal from office. And Trump won’t go quietly. It’s all a bit fuzzy. And as we get closer to the pointy end, it gets fuzzier, paradoxically speaking….

Canto: How to sack a President, that is the question. It appears he’s virtually unsackable, and that’s an offence.

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2018 at 7:34 am