What’s wrong with you?’ That was the question an American broadcaster asked Anthony Weiner when his New York City mayoral campaign went up in flames in 2013. Weiner, the subject of a feature-length documentary released earlier this year, had just become embroiled in a second sex scandal, the first having derailed his political career in 2011. The extraordinary thing about the second scandal is that his efforts to rehabilitate himself as a public figure, helped by his wife’s decision to stand by him, seemed to be working. He was topping the polls when the scandal broke, which demands the question: ‘Why risk it all again?’ You’d think his experience would have taught him a lesson, but apparently not. And since the documentary was made his aberrant behaviour has continued. Last month he was caught out for a third time and his wife, a prominent aide to Hillary Clinton, finally ditched him.
So what is wrong with Weiner? And could it be the same thing that’s wrong with Keith Vaz, the Labour MP for Leicester East who resigned as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday after some scandalous revelations in the Sunday Mirror?
Weiner’s misdemeanour was fairly minor by British standards. He wasn’t caught paying for sex or having an extramarital affair. All he’s guilty of is sending pictures of his penis, and engaging in various forms of -telephone sex, with a series of attractive young women. In a sense, his faithfulness to his wife has been his downfall. Had he slept with a prostitute or had an affair, the evidence trail would have been less extensive and his chances of getting caught smaller. It’s because he wanted the thrill of sexual contact without technically being unfaithful that his life now lies in ruins.
In the American media, the consensus is that Weiner suffers from some form of narcissistic personality disorder, the most popular diagnosis being ‘high functioning’ or ‘exhibitionist’. This subtype is interesting in that those suffering from it are often very successful. They combine an array of dysfunctional characteristics — being grandiose, attention-seeking, overly competitive and overly highly sexed — with some strengths — such as being articulate, energetic, socially agile, and goal-oriented. Exhibitionist narcissists tend to be arrogant and reckless with a compulsive need to show off.
That’s a plausible diagnosis and seems to capture Keith Vaz’s personality type as well as Anthony Weiner’s. But I prefer an alternative, more radical theory: that they’re both psycho-paths. I use that term rather than ‘sociopaths’ because I believe their antisocial behaviour arises from some defect in their nature rather than childhood neglect or trauma. One school of thought says that psychopaths, like sociopaths, suffer from a lack of conscience and an inability to empathise with others, but unlike sociopaths they are often brought up by decent, loving parents who’ve done their best to teach them right from wrong.
The late behavioural geneticist David Lykken had a theory about the defect at the root of this disorder. He believed psychopaths suffer from a ‘low fear quotient’. That is, their experience of fear and -anxiety from an early age is duller than other people’s and, for that -reason, they’re hard to socialise. ‘The basic idea,’ he wrote in his 1996 paper ‘Psycho-pathy, Sociopathy and Crime’, ‘is that because much of the normal socialisation process depends upon punishment of antisocial behaviour and because punishment works, when it works, by the fearful inhibition of those impulses… someone who is relatively fearless will be relatively harder to socialise.’
Fearlessness certainly seems to be a hallmark of Weiner and Vaz’s personalities; something they -exhibited in their political careers as well as their private lives. They also appear to possess what Lykken calls the -‘talent for psychopathy’, which is the ability to avoid fearful apprehension or a sense of shame or guilt associated with wrongdoing, whether in anticipation or after the fact, because they’re -unusually good at repressing unpleasant feelings. It’s often said by policemen that you can tell if a suspect is guilty by keeping him in the cells overnight. The innocent tend to be so consumed with anxiety they stay awake, while the guilty fall asleep. If Weiner has this ‘talent’, it would explain why he repeatedly committed the same sin in spite of the destruction it caused.
Just a theory, but it seems to fit the facts. And I daresay it’s true of many other politicians, too.