COLUMN: The Axis of Ego

Local columnist considers the mentality of leaders lacking in empathy

Al Lehmann

Years ago (another decade, another war), one of President G.W. Bush’s speechwriters, David Frum, coined the term “axis of evil.” Wow. Sounded serious.

Then the phrase was meant to apply to a purported cabal of nations opposed to democracy in general and the USA (beacon of all light and goodness) in particular. These nations included an absurd theocracy in Iran, the dystopic fantasyland of North Korea, and the Middle East neighborhood bully Iraq, America’s target of the moment in its costly fit of indignant rage after 9-11.

Though substantially different in culture, these countries were all on America’s hit list to one degree or another. Another common feature? The leaders of these countries were not nice guys, all of them variations on the theme of lunatic.

Saddam Hussein modeled his leadership methods on those of Joseph Stalin (applying, for example, the dictum that if a man gives you trouble, kill him; problem solved).

Iranian Ayatollahs have tried to return civil society to the stone-age misogynistic values of Shia Islam, enforced by secret police, and to spread Iran’s influence through the export of terrorism and the development of nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s Kim has reportedly allowed widespread famine in his country, choosing to spend instead on the development of nuclear weapons and their ICBM delivery systems (every so often his military test fires another, new and improved version of one of these).

Such leaders share another feature that seems to be expanding in influence globally: gigantic egos. Powerful, authoritarian leaders (or wannabes) especially have them. Some of these people are literally psychopaths, individuals utterly lacking in empathy or compassion.

Apply questions from the psychopath test to any such leader. Is the subject prone to boredom? Trump’s advisors had to condense his daily briefings to less than a page of bullet points because he wouldn’t read them. Though the briefings are intended provide necessary background and details to inform critical decisions, he couldn’t be bothered. He said he was bored. He alleviated boredom, though by golfing a lot during the initial year of the COVID pandemic.

Is he a pathological liar? Putin claimed his armed forces were just doing military exercises. Oops! Guess not. Invasion instead. Trump lied so much during his presidency, that observers concluded he was “trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.”

Does he lack remorse? Trump took out a full-page ad to advocate for the execution of five young black men accused of murdering a white woman. They were later found not guilty. Trump never apologized. Nor was he seemingly troubled by his border officials’ penning illegal immigrants’ children into cages like animals.

Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s leader in the 1990’s, was charged by the World Court with overseeing genocide and “ethnic cleansing,” part of a total of 66 counts of crimes against humanity. He died in prison, denying any responsibility up to the end.

Does he imagine his own grandiosity? Born again Dubya thought he actually might have been chosen by God to avenge 9-11. The Kim dynasty of North Korea consider themselves “semi-divine,” and therefore cannot be wrong. The Iranian Ayatollah claims his right to rule from Allah. Assuming for a moment the existence of God, why would He choose such idiots to represent His will?

This “axis of ego” is simply madness. No wonder we’re in trouble.