Antagonists & the Psychopath

Often the best thrillers cast the best antagonists in hopes of perpetuating maximum conflict viewers and readers are seeking. It’s the “thrill” factor that makes us sit on the edge of our seats and wince. Screen writers and authors commonly deploy the venerable psychopath as chief antagonist to ratchet up tension and defy all that is moral to humanity–that nemesis against good and innocence; the self-serving despot, oblivious to the needs, feelings, and cares of anything living. The classic bad guy! Many of us are thankful these deranged misfits reside in fiction and do not affect our own lives. Or do they?

Despotic antagonists play a dominant role, often in a trusted relationship, sure to be wielding significant power over the unaware.

Biff Tannen (Back to the Future) is but one classic antagonist I often think of when contemplating psychopathy, bullying, and dominance. He could never accept anything less than ranking top dog. Tannen was born and bred an insecure bully who even took his tantrums out on women. He helped make the movie series a huge success.

It’s a known fact a percent of our human population displays the symptoms of “psychopathy”. The good news is that most psychopaths are fairly benign and never make it to powerful leadership positions in which whole communities of people dependent on guidance and just decision-making are affected. But what if a few of these creatures slip past our well-intended judgment for choosing ambitious leadership?

Might some adult aggressors in this world begin from playground bullies; the loud-mouths, the show-offs, the road-rage aggressors, the wife-beaters?

More often, those afflicted with the psychosis are somewhere on a spectrum of intensity. Such traits may occur in a very benign form of anti-social behavior or reclusive tendencies, and range from lacking the empathy to successfully navigate a friendship to clumsy social behavior. But it’s the power monger who gets the spotlight and self-elevates to the top.

While psychopathy serves creative writers with the “bad guy” character, history shows an alarming reality these people exist in the flesh and often in high places! Powerful positions in which others look for leadership and guidance. Without mentioning names here, as consumers of cinematic thrills and a great familiarity with antagonistic behavior, could some contemporary names jump out at us?

What are some clinical traits of psychopath, and how do they get to the top in real society?

To begin, the psychopath is adept at pursuing his or her goal to gain control and power over others. Such an end becomes a life-long quest that begins early in life and eventually manifests itself in seemingly legitimate roles requiring ambitions beyond the average citizen. One’s role might start off in management of others, and move on up the chain of command in organizations, public and private.

Psychopaths are strong self-advocates who learn the art of character defense and selling their selfish agenda while underpinning legitimacy. If his or her validity comes into question for any reason, an adroit response is crafted to discredit any threat of exposing the delicate flaws that lie beneath the surface. This is occurs most often to public figures seeking wide swathes of control and power.

Despite what we have long known about aggressors in society, many of whom end up in prison or drift in and out of relationships as a fraudster, why do we continue to install them into powerful office? Around the world we see strong men rule with an iron fist while offering little or nothing for the public good. Yet these leaders continue to operate from a corrupt and dysfunctional perspective, often gaining more only to never be satisfied.

What can we discern about the psychopath operating in high office?

A few common observations that lie in human nature and the public’s ideals. Implicit Bias: We tend to listen to what we want to hear, even if it is false information, stretched truths or flat out lies! Employers are skillfully groomed to see and hear a skill-set they are seeking from the candidate. The average honest person is likely to reveal some faults while the psychopath cleverly hides the negative traits he or she has learned to hide from the untrained eye. Much like the classic “con” (short for confidence), he or she builds confidence in those handing out the keys to power and control.

The less-informed voter may become taken by the same grooming process that we see in the corporate world. It may take years to methodically build confidence through legitimate images to work up to a level of power that permits the candidate to take finally take charge and operate by his or her own rules. Again, the psychopath has told us what we wanted to hear and we gradually buy in. We see the scenario around the world: Leaders of nations big and small, powerful and weak, ruling with impunity, a corrupt and self-serving office.

There is hope among people who care to rectify this historic dilemma! Asking questions indicates intelligence and prudence. Listening and looking for consistency helps us to seek integrity.

  1. Is there opposition to demanding the facts and truths that can be verified through science, critical thinking, and logical research?
  2. How is this person seeking to serve the company or the public good?
  3. Does this person rising to power harbor a personal agenda that is divisive or self-serving?
  4. Will the policies of this manager or president provide a better society for all, governed by the laws we know to be prudent and fair?
  5. Historically, where does this person actively stand on bullying and aggression?
  6. How does this person deal with constructive criticism?

Asking critical questions and seeking legitimate answers of our candidates is key. Does he or she pursue office with a selfish agendas and patterns of shouldering with other power seekers may help us prevent undesirable leaders from over-running the institutions against corruption, waste, damage, and societal turmoil.

Next time you take in a good thriller look for the parallels between the antagonist and certain characters in the nightly news. You might find it hard to sleep at night.