11 January, 2008

Psychohistory and Bush

Here's an interesting (if totally unverifiable) perspective on the president's psychology and how it might lead to disaster. A sample:

Former President Jimmy Carter's faith, like that of many evangelicals, involves a powerful commitment to love and tolerance. We do not detect a similar commitment in Bush. Spiritual issues and political motives appear secondary to Bush's subconscious use of his faith as a psychological defense. That defense "resolves" and protects him from the pain of a core inner conflict. The drinking and alleged drug taking of his younger years once resolved that same conflict. The supposed spiritual awakening Bush underwent in the mid-1980s allowed him to trade one defense for another. (Author Craig Unger has shown Bush's famous "mustard seed" moment with the Rev. Billy Graham - widely celebrated by the president - never happened; at the same time, Bush carefully avoids mentioning the faith awakening moment he probably really did have with radical evangelical preacher Arthur Blessitt.) In one sense, a half-hidden Manichean Christianity was more effective than alcohol in masking Bush's inner conflict. It made it possible for him to be president.

The Core Conflict

The central, secret conflict that consumes George W. Bush and motivates much of his action can be summed up in a few words: the desperate need to avoid, contain and disguise disabling fears about his competence and adequacy in a context where he expects to feel superior. Out of this core conflict have arisen his good and evil worldview, his lack of empathy, even cruelty, his competitiveness, his bullying, his inability to make a rational decision (despite styling himself "the decider"), his tendency for deception and self-deception, his proclivity for unconsciously sabotaging the success of his own projects.


In fact, failure has been George W. Bush's single greatest fear.

Substance abuse would have numbed the feelings of inadequacy and given license to his hidden anger about his circumstances. He probably understood in a family as hermetically sealed from self-reflection as his, he could never openly admit feelings that he was a child "left behind" emotionally.

Then, George W. Bush accepted Jesus as his personal savior and the drinking - and presumably those painful feelings the drinking needed to numb - disappeared. The failure-shriveled Bush of the past was replaced by a new God-filled Bush of the future, armed against his inadequacies with the defense of "faith." But his sense of his inadequacy continued beneath the surface.


We have noted in previous articles other prominent defenses Bush employs to cover his feelings of inadequacy: He is a classic emotional bully. Bullies disguise sensations of their own weakness by splitting the weakness off and casting it out of their own conscious awareness - projecting it - onto the consciousness of others. They generate a stream of signals and behaviors that keep others on guard and seek to enfeeble them. Bush's signing statements where he reserves the right not to abide by the law he's just adopted, his foreign policy asserting his right to preemptive strikes, his denial of Habeas Corpus, his fixation on retaining the torture option, his rejection of subpoenas from Congress, his diminishment of people by giving them nicknames - at different scales, these are emotional bullying tactics. Friends from his younger days remember that in basketball and tennis games Bush would force opponents who had beaten him to continue playing until he had worn down their will so he could beat them. Bush emotionally bullies his White House staff, making them afraid to tell him any news that doesn't fit his "optimistic" expectations. Draper reports senior staffer Josh Bolton greeting Bush each morning with the line, "Thank you for the privilege of serving." (397)

In January 2000 - and more decisively after September 11, 2001 - Bush came into possession of what we have called his "presidential defense." He became "the decider," the "commander guy," leader of the most powerful nation on earth overseeing a war he imagines is without end. Bush feels that his powerful office means - magically - that reality is his to define. Many have noted that the president is convinced that just because he says a thing will be so, it will be so.


Bush clings to a bad decision and can't change it because he had no rational basis for making it, or any decision, in the first place. Sticking with his decisions stubbornly - what he calls "leadership" - is all he really feels he has to offer as the nation's chief executive.


Because he unconsciously expects to be seen by the world as a failure, Bush feels a strange comfort and familiarity in failing and then in denying that he is failing. He can never learn from mistakes. Worse, his psychodynamics ensure that his efforts to avoid his failures inevitably produce more failures.

Bush's administration has become famous for the hubris of believing it would create its own reality; that fantasy inflated an expanding bubble of self-deception that left the White House increasingly out of touch with reality in every political dimension, except for intimidation. The cause of this is clear: To an unprecedented scale, a president's entire administration has been focused on the service of his psychological defense system.


Psychologically, Bush's one non-negotiable position is that he must never have to face his failures because once he found Jesus as his personal savior, he put all his failures (and failings) behind him. But now, after seven years as president, his failure is everywhere. Unlike presidents Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and even Richard Nixon, Bush seems incapable of coping with his defeats by taking some redeeming direction. In the next year, we believe his behavior will continue to be guided by his need for massive avoidance of his feelings of inadequacy, particularly with regard to Iraq. Success in other areas means little to him and he gives them scant concern for his "legacy." He has identified himself as "a war president." The war is linked to his vague sense of divine mission, his internal aggression, his never-ending competition with his father.

We believe the great foreseeable peril of Bush's remaining year in office is the intersection of his Christian defense with Iran. In recent months, when Bush warned that Iran sought to launch World War III, he seems to have unconsciously told us it is he who wants war. The neo-conservative agenda to capture the Middle East for its oil, only reinforces Bush's own psychological reasons for attacking Iran: 1) to certify his biblical mission, and 2) to avoid facing the colossal incompetence of the Iraq war by bequeathing a widened and inextricable conflict to his successor. We believe Bush is aware that the long-term chaos that might result from an attack on Iran could confound the historical image of his administration enough to make his own failures harder to see. In 50 or 100 years - after he is dead, anyway - historians might even see his worldview in a favorable light. After all, they're still debating George Washington. That's what he thinks. The presidency has become for Bush like the popular "global domination" board game he played with fellow undergrads at Yale. There, he was known as the player willing to take the most risks.

Despite the mainstream press's inclination to construe the president's position euphemistically as a "hard line" on Iran, anyone who followed other reports, including Seymour Hersh's in The New Yorker, could reasonably conclude that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate was a serious blow to Bush and Cheney's long-standing effort to provoke, create or discover a pretext to attack Iran and expand the Middle East wars. Hersh reported that in 2006 the president and vice president had pressed for use of nuclear weapons against Iranian facilities but were rebuffed by the military. We believe the president is probably already committed internally to pursue this belligerent course for his legacy. Vague fantasies of an "end-of-days" mission may be in his mind, as well.

It's hard enough to get to know someone when you are in the room. I doubt about what you can do through the media lens. That said, watching the president squirm, I sometimes worry that they could be on to something.

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