In the Greek pantheon, Zeus is the supreme leader of the gods, human beings, and the universe. Among his many daughters are the Hours, the Graces, Justice, and the Fates. With them, or perhaps through them, Zeus keeps the seasons changing and oversees justice. Yet, in many Greek myths, Zeus is also destructive, controlling, and indifferent. He is a “master manipulator” who does what he wants to get what he wants–which is usually either more power or sex.
In Aeschylus’ tragedy, Prometheus Bound, Zeus is angry with Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind and for not telling Zeus who is trying to overthrow him. Zeus does not care about the welfare of mortals; he only considers his own feelings, including the desire to punish Prometheus and stay in power. When Io, a young beautiful maiden of Argos, wanders on stage, she tells Prometheus the story of how Zeus desired her and forced her to leave her home. Indeed, Zeus is a serial, we might say manic, adulterer, who doesn’t care a whit about his wife Hera. When Hera becomes suspicious, Zeus turns Io into a cow in order to hide her. Jealous Hera then sends a stinging gadfly to torture her. Io suffers hideous consequences because of Zeus’s lack of restraint, while he remains indifferent to her suffering–just as he is indifferent to whether human beings had fire for survival.
Curiously, Zeus, the most powerful god on Mount Olympus, seems to be like the candidates of the 2016 American presidential election–Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both candidates have followers who believe they are capable of leading the United States of America. Yet, others comment on their pathological lying, manic behavior, and seeming lack of empathy.
Do all strong leaders lie, manipulate, and violate social norms?
Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, looks at psychopathic behavior in what he calls the “madness industry,” the world of powerful business executives and politicians. Ronson’s research includes an interesting discovery: nearly four percent of CEOs in the United States fit the clinical definition of psychopaths, which is about four times the rate of the general population. Luckily, not all psychopaths are violent. In fact, Ronson argues that superficial charm coupled with a lack of empathy or remorse and a willingness to manipulate others–the typical traits of a psychopath–can have positive outcomes in the workplace. Similarly, in The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, Kevin Dutton and Andy McNab discuss the ways in which psychopaths can dial up and down certain qualities to get the best out of both themselves and others. They argue that some characteristics of psychopathy are not inherently bad, but may become destructive in certain contexts. Dutton and McNab use Winston Churchill as an example of a man who had psychopathic traits, yet is considered a great leader of World War II. Churchill was very high on the psychopathic spectrum because he was “daring, adventurous… and play[ed] by [his] own rules”. Yet, Churchill was not considered dangerous or criminal. Instead, these qualities helped him to be one of the greatest leaders of the time.
In an article “The Mind of Donald Trump,” Dan P. McAdams outlines Trump’s narcissism, disagreeableness, and grandiosity (Atlantic, Junes 2016). He determined that Trump uses the tactic of fear-mongering, which a form of deceit and manipulation. McAdams writes, “…On the campaign trail in Raleigh, North Carolina, Trump stoked fears in his audience by repeatedly saying that ‘something bad is happening’ and ‘something really dangerous is going on.’” Since fear is such a powerful emotion, Trump’s fear-mongering deliberately changes how people think or act, in part by increasing feelings of anger and aggression. Trump also plays the “Big, Strong, Messiah figure” who is going to fix everything. He does this by making claims about who he is and what he will do. McAdams writes, “When individuals with authoritarian proclivities fear that their way of life is being threatened, they may turn to strong leaders who promise to keep them safe–leaders like Donald Trump.” To a young girl who asked Trump how he will protect America, he answered “You know what, darling? You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”
In “Hey Hillary, Here’s Why People Don’t Trust You,” Cody Cain lays out multiple instances of Hillary Clinton’s deceit and manipulation (Huffington Post, February 2016). This seems to be a repeated pattern throughout her campaign. Cain writes, “In this political climate, she wants to be viewed as the progressive regardless of the truth.” This has become evident in many of her debates, mainly with Bernie Sanders, where she has denied she is part of a political establishment (when she clearly is), plays the gender card, but then denies playing the gender card… the list goes on and on. Cain writes, “She is all too willing to manipulate, distort, and deceive to try to score political points for herself.”
What does the study of Zeus and psychopathy suggest about the upcoming presidential election? Prometheus and Io decide to help each other survive Zeus’ cruelty because they can’t vote Zeus out of office. Greek worshippers also couldn’t choose the leader of the universe–Zeus was a god after all–but WE CAN. If Clinton and Trump, like Zeus, have traits associated with psychopathy, then it follows that they can moderate these traits and use them for any goal. How will Americans decide whether Trump or Clinton will use their traits to serve the country or themselves? During this election season, it seems that the study of psychology and myth may be more helpful in answering this question than policy debates.
Anna Kingston is a senior at Bates College with a major in Psychology and is interested in music, writing, and nursing.