In their ominously titled Truthout essay What is He Capable Of? The Presidential Psychology at the End of Days, Briggs and Briggs describe President George W. Bush as having a personality that operates in a defensive binary mode. That’s fancy shrink talk for someone who sees things in black and white and thus avoids the anxiety that comes with ambiguous shades of gray. It translates to “you either love me or you hate me.”
If binary thinking is psychopathology, it is an illness shared by numerous ordinary people. In fact, it isn’t a psychiatric malady at all. It is a defense mechanism, usually called splitting:
People who are diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defence mechanism. They do this to preserve their self-esteem. They do this by seeing the self as purely good and the others as purely bad. The use of splitting also implies the use of other defence mechanisms, namely devaluation, idealization and denial. (Wikipedia)
Indeed, psychoanalyst Justin Frank, author of “Bush on the Couch” considers Bush as suffering from pathological narcissism among other psychiatric disorders.
There are about a dozen psychological defense mechanisms which students of human behavior have identified. Some, like humor and sublimation, are far more healthy than others. Splitting, or what the Briggs’ call binary thinking, is considered a primitive defense which in psychological healthy people is given up in childhood. At an early age children should learn that it doesn’t mean mom or dad hates them when they are denied what they want. ( Read more about psychological defense mechanisms and see which ones you think apply to Bush, to yourself, and people you know.)
To put it simply, psychological defense mechanisms help people deal with the unpleasant feelings, particularly anxiety, that would arise if they confronted certain truths about themselves, their relationships, their mortality, or the world.
Consider George W. Bush as described by the father and son psychotherapists John P Briggs, M.D. and JP Briggs II, Ph.D.:
A person polarizing the world as Bush does is like a small, weak animal that puffs itself up in order to scare off attackers. In Bush’s case, the presidency has frequently led him into the illusion that he actually is his puffed up size. It might help to remember that he’s not.
Polarizing tactics work because they provoke and rely on fear in those at the receiving end – fear of being wrong, fear of what the other guy will do, fear of uncertainty, fear of mistakes. Fear these things less and the tactics will work less. Such fears make us feel like children again. But we’re adults. Binary, absolutist categories are always an inadequate description of the real world, which is, as Lincoln said, an “inseparable compound” of various polarities. As adults, we can think and speak about subtleties and complexities. If we do, fear will go down, not up. Most adults implicitly understand that the real world is, more often than not, nuanced, and an appeal to the truth of shades has its own strong power. ( LINK )
The authors say that Bush’s refusal to admit his failures in so many areas has kept him “truculently binary” which is a dressed up way of saying that he’s stubborn and pig-headed.
George W. Bush protects his self-image using this “binary” defense mechanism and it results in believing that people either admire and agree with him almost to the point of loving or worshiping him, to hating him.
He also views other countries in a similar way, and expresses this in public statements, making it difficult for diplomacy to work to resolve international conflicts.
Considering the “you love me or you hate me” aspect of Bush’s personality, one that is central to his relationships, is it any wonder that many of his critics buy into this out of pure frustration and find themselves feeling and expressing the later emotion?