Suicidal Sovereignty

Is Putin insane? Is Trump insane? Is Kim Jong-un insane? Is Bashar al-Assad insane? Was Muammar Gaddafi insane? Was Stalin insane? Was Hitler insane?

Even a cursory search will yield headlines of this sort, and the list can be extended indefinitely. To be an authoritarian leader, it seems, is to court madness. The position of dictator either selects for mental illness or causes it—or both. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, after all—and that includes corrupting the mental faculties of those endowed with it.

Or perhaps it’s a symptom of our collective incapacity to interpret authoritarian behavior. Maybe we’re projecting the madness of the world as we’ve constructed it onto figures who seem at once to embody that madness in condensed, intensified form that seems alien to us even—and precisely insofar—as it reflects us.

Perhaps. But this sort of explanation can’t quite explain the impetus for the question itself. Why do dictators seem insane to us? Often, if not most of the time, we begin to wonder about their mental health when their actions appear irrational and increasingly self-destructive.

This is the pivotal point, the moment at which calculating genius (“Trump is a master manipulator!” “Putin is a strategic savant!” Etc.) suddenly inverts into psychosis. What we tend to miss is the way the former produces the latter, so that in effect the self-destructive impulse animates the strategic genius.

Self-destruction is the Aristotelian “final cause,” the reason (if that is still the right word) driving all the calculations deployed to attain absolute power. If so, then what registers in the public eye as an inversion or mental decline that calls for explanation—and occasions projections of all sorts—is in fact only a revelation. The aim of sovereignty is self-annihilation.