Splitting America: How High-Conflict Politicians Turn Peace Into War

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Donald Saposnek, PhD

[The following is an excerpt from the book Splitting America: How Today’s Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce]

Excerpt from Chapter 4: How High-Conflict Politicians Turn Peace into War

High-conflict people tend to turn peace into war, regardless of the setting they are in. They naturally see the world in highly adversarial terms. They really trust no one except themselves and frequently turn against their own friends and family. However, they can also be extremely charming and persuasive, as we have explained is part of the splitting dynamic.

They repeatedly sound the alarm of great danger and then persuade many people that they are the only heroes who can rescue them (or the children in high-conflict divorce, or the voters in high-conflict elections) from this great danger. The only problem is that the great danger may be non-existent, or quite exaggerated. Moreover, rather than actually being great heroes, they tend to have serious problems of their own which they don’t recognize. Whether in divorce or in politics, beware of the charm and the “I’ll-fight-for-you” statements proclaimed by the HCPs. Always ask: Is it really a crisis? Is this really a hero?

Relationship Conflict Skills

In a relationship, the skills you use to resolve conflicts require the ability to protect both the relationship and yourself. You need to have a balance. If you blow a hole in the other person’s end of the boat, you’ll both sink. Think of it as relationships needing a “surge protector,” similar to the one you have for your computer. They function to protect you from getting fried by a sudden power surge. You can be angry at your partner, but you can’t be too angry for too long. You can say awful things in the heat of the argument, but you better make up soon or you risk destroying your future security with this friend or family member.

This issue has been studied by marriage researchers. Two of the most respected and well-known experts on this subject are John and Julia Gottman.. They have studied what makes marriages succeed or fail. After only a 15-minute video interview with married couples who are hooked up to monitors that measure heart rate and electrical conductivity of the skin, The Gottman’s can predict with over 90% accuracy whether the marriage is likely to end in divorce. They have discovered that one of the characteristics of a healthy marriage is that there is a five-to-one (5:1) ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions. This apparently holds true both for couples who bicker a lot, and for quiet couples who rarely seem to argue. Because the happily married bickerers have so many more positive interactions, they can tolerate their many petty arguments (5:1). The quiet couples don’t seem to argue much, but their ratio is apparently 5:1, as well. They don’t seem to need as many positive interactions as the bickerers, because they don’t have as many of the negative interactions to counteract (Gottman, 1994).

When high-conflict couples get divorced, however, the high-conflict person (HCP) often switches to putting out no positive and 100% negative interactions, comments and behaviors. This significantly escalates the conflict and prevents it from being resolved or resolvable. Much of the difficulty of high-conflict divorce is getting the HCP (or two HCPs) to see enough positive in the other person to be able to reach agreements and let go of the conflicts.

This reasonable awareness is not natural for HCPs, once they are in a highly defensive state (right brain defensiveness). Instead, they have the all-or-nothing thinking associated with this defensiveness. They often cannot calm themselves enough to reach their left-brain problem-solving abilities, so they, instead, remain stuck in their fight, flight or freeze defensiveness. HCPs are the ones who take the fight, rather than the flight or freeze, approach.

In politics, this turns into entirely negative statements about the other candidate or party, so that those who only listen to one side grow to hate the evil-other. If the politicians have nothing positive to say, then the other side must be extreme and self-protective. The message is consistently one of crisis, so that the listener’s fear and anger response will override and shut down their logical analysis and block any search for real information.

The Issue is Not the Issue

As we mentioned in Chapter Two, some high-conflict disputes have one high-conflict person (HCP), while others have two HCPs, and still others have two ordinarily “reasonable” people who become caught up in a high-conflict environment that pushes them into high-conflict behavior. This behavior may be foreign to them, but it feels necessary to them and to those around them. Politicians seem to fit into these same three categories.

With HCPs, the issue is not the issue – their personality is the issue. If you solve one problem in dealing with them, another will just take its place. The high-conflict person will just keep fighting, blaming, thinking only of him or herself, and contributing more to the problem than to the solution. HCPs don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. This appears to be true, regardless of the setting. When you’re dealing with an HCP, this is the predictable dynamic, once you know what to look for, whether it’s in divorce or in politics.

In divorce and other legal disputes, a high-conflict person (HCP) tends to have the following 10 characteristics that drive the conflict higher and higher, rather than that reduce or resolve it (Eddy, 2006):

  1. is rigid and uncompromising.

  2. repeats failed strategies.

  3. is unable to accept and heal loss.

  4. makes everything personal.

  5. has emotions that dominate his or her thinking.

  6. is unable to reflect on his or her own behavior.

  7. avoids responsibility for the problem or solution.

  8. is preoccupied with blaming others.

  9. draws others into the disputes (“negative advocates”).

  10. can look really good for a few months (intelligent, attractive, charming, persuasive).

Do any (or all) of these fit politicians? Let’s look at some recent examples:

In 2006, the District Attorney near Duke University, Michael Nifong, loudly accused three students of raping a young woman from the nearby neighborhood, in a high profile case (he was running for re-election at the time) and he blamed Duke for tolerating this behavior among its athletes. Soon, everyone was angry at Duke and its athletes. Rallies were held. This D.A. was extremely loud, blaming,—and wrong! He ignored the forensic evidence that showed it could not have been the students, and eventually he lost his license to practice law in North Carolina because of his extremely unethical and high-conflict behavior.

In New York, in 2008, Eliot Spitzer, a governor with a reputation for being extremely difficult to work with, stepped down after it was revealed that he was a client in a prostitution ring. He might have escaped having to resign his office, except that he had alienated far too many people with his high-conflict behavior in his first year as Governor and previously as the New York Attorney General.

More recently, in 2009, there was the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and thrown out of office by a unanimous vote of the state legislature. He was convicted of corruption charges and sent to prison. He demonstrated the arrogance of an office-holder who didn’t seem to believe that the rules applied to him. This reminds us of the narcissism research described in the last chapter.

Of course, we can’t leave out President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky while he was in the White House in 1998. It reached the point that he was impeached by the House of Representatives (charged with violating federal laws for lying to investigators) but was then acquitted. He was able to stay in office, but he, too, seemed to believe that the rules didn’t apply to him, so that he could self-justify having taken such chances.

Speaking of narcissism, there was the case against Presidential candidate, John Edwards, in 2012. He was prosecuted on charges of violating federal campaign laws by spending nearly $1 million of donors’ money on hiding his affair with his mistress (and their love-child). While eventually he was found not guilty, he admitted that he was guilty of narcissism:

“[My experiences] fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want.” He admitted that he had become “increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.” (ABC News, Aug. 12, 2008)

Too much narcissism means that you believe you are more important than your relationships. A narcissistic politician doesn’t care what anyone else thinks – he (or she) already knows all the “right” answers. Such a politician doesn’t need to listen to the other “side” and seek compromises for the greater good. He (or she) already knows what the greater good is, in his (or her) own mind. What will benefit him is what will be best for the U.S.A., their thinking goes. And, he honestly believes this. That’s one of the benefits of narcissism – self-delusion. It works for a while and actually helps the narcissist persuade others to agree that he (or she) is God’s gift to the world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Narcissists are actually worse at meeting their goals and interpreting reality. But, it takes a while to figure that out. It often is after an election, but it could be before.

High-conflict politicians seem preoccupied with telling you how wonderful they are and what they will do – all on their own – when they are in power. They speak in all-or-nothing terms: “I will eliminate this department. I will declare war on that waste. I will bring America back from the evil-others who want to harm us.” This could be HCPs on the right or on the left. You have to listen closely to the terms they use, not which side they are on. HCPs on either side are a problem, although at different times in history they seem to be more on one side or the other.

War and Narcissism

Those who study war and terrorism see these same dynamics. A book by a former FBI Special Agent, Joe Navarro, describes the relevance of splitting and narcissism to terrorist leaders. He explains that “psychological splitting” is a common characteristic. “No matter how good things have been, the minute something goes wrong, or there is a shift of allegiance, the person psychologically “splits” and totally devalues the other person….The ability to switch so suddenly and irrevocably had been noted in many terrorists….When it comes to terrorism, narcissism is perhaps one of the most often observed traits.” (Navarro, 2005)

Mr. Navarro mentions that Saddam Hussein likely fit this category and described how contemptuous Saddam was after he was caught during the Iraq war. He also demonstrated another important and self-defeating characteristic about narcissists, which is that they tend to misjudge other people at the same time as they are misjudging themselves. They think they know how the other person (or political leader) thinks, feels and will act. A good description of this mistake of judgment by Saddam, which led to the war in Iraq, is described in George W. Bush’s autobiography (2010) regarding events after Saddam was captured:

If Saddam didn’t have WMD [weapons of mass destruction], why wouldn’t he just prove it to the inspectors? Every psychological profile I had read told me Saddam was a survivor. If he cared so much about staying in power, why would he gamble his regime by pretending to have?

Part of the explanation came after Saddam’s capture, when he was de-briefed by the FBI. He told agents that he was more worried about looking weak to Iran than being removed by the coalition. He never thought the United States would follow through on our promises to disarm him by force. I’m not sure what more I could have done to show Saddam I meant what I said (p. 260).

In other words, Saddam assumed that President Bush was thinking like he was—bluffing. He was hinting that he had weapons of mass destruction to look big and strong, and he apparently thought that Bush was just trying to look big and strong, too.

But President Bush responded like someone mirroring an HCP. He, too, appears to have misjudged Saddam, by thinking that Saddam was thinking like he was – that the U. S. had substantial weapons and intended to use them. The subsequent invasion of Iraq turned out to be based on many misjudgments on both sides such as these, and turned into one of the longest wars in U.S. history.

Perhaps a tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking played a part in some of these decisions. In his autobiography, President Bush (2010) mentions the decision by his Ambassador to Iraq (Jerry Bremer) to exclude members of Saddam’s political party after the invasion in 2003, and the response to it.

Forming the Governing Council was an important way to demonstrate that Saddam’s tyranny was gone forever. With that in mind, Jerry issued two orders shortly after his arrival in Baghdad. One declared that certain members of Saddam’s Baath Party would not be eligible to serve in the new government of Iraq. The other formally disbanded the Iraqi army, which had largely disappeared on its own.

In some ways, the orders achieved their objectives. Iraq’s Shia and Kurds—the majority of the population—welcomed the clean break from Saddam. But the orders had a psychological impact I did not foresee. Many Sunnis took them as a signal they would have no place in Iraq’s future. This was especially dangerous in the case of the army. Thousands of armed men had just been told they were not wanted. Instead of signing up for the new military, many joined the insurgency.

In retrospect, I should have insisted on more debate on Jerry’s orders, especially on what message disbanding the army would send and how many Sunnis the de-Baathification would affect (p. 259).

We have empathy for President Bush, as we can’t imagine what it must have been like to be president on September 11, 2001. Who could have imagined that any group of people would kill themselves by flying jets into tall buildings? No one had ever dealt with that reality before. We don’t know if he is an HCP or not. However, his responses may have been a good example of mirroring HCPs. This includes the all-or-nothing language that entered into the world’s vocabulary soon after that event. In his State of the Union address in January, 2002, he spoke of threats posed by Iraq, Iran and North Korea, “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world,” I said. The media seized on the phrase “axis of evil” (p. 233).

Whether it was his repeated use of this phrase or the media’s extreme repetition, this term itself represented an escalation of conflict worldwide. It also coincided with a significant increase in bullying at home, with more people seeing each other as evil in many of their relationships over the past decade. Perhaps this is a good example of the spreading of splitting.

In his autobiography, even President Bush said that he may have made some statements that were unwisely provocative. “I learned from the experience and paid close attention to how I communicated with each audience in the years ahead” (Bush, 2010, p. 261). We believe this is an important lesson for everyone for the years ahead, for politicians and everyone else, so that we don’t inadvertently mirror HCPs.

The Problem with WarSpeak at Home

You might say or think that it’s just harmless politicking when politicians use war language for addressing ordinary political problems. You might figure that everyone knows it’s not to inspire actual violence. However, with the splitting dynamic, we are seeing more interpersonal violence.

In high-conflict divorces, we are seeing more and more murder-suicides in the news, increasingly including the death of the children. Whether these cases are truly increasing, or it’s just the news media more dramatically high-lighting these tragedies, it’s hard to know. However, the disturbed thinking in many of these cases seems to be influenced by the increasingly public commentary about all-or-nothing thinking and blaming attached to high-conflict divorce. Some of these murderous parents even make statements suggesting that they had to kill the children to protect them from an even worse life in the other parent’s care, or even directly protect them from the evil other parent!

When public figures, such as Dr. Phil on a TV program in April, 2011, say things like “family court is broken” and that he will do something about it, this seems to suggest that vigilante justice is a valid response, because our institutions are “failing”. When parents kidnap their children, they usually say they are the “protective” parent; protecting their children from the evil system. They are encouraged by such public extreme statements about institutions failing.

But is this really a crisis? Is this really a hero? Or, are these sorts of “protective” parents really HCPs who truly believe that they know better than everyone else what is best for their children, despite what professionals and judges might say, who have a larger picture of the issues involved in a particular case? Certainly, our institutions, including family courts, always need re-assessment and reform of their procedures and knowledge-base, but all-or-nothing statements about them don’t help—they just feed public disrespect and dangerous self-help approaches.

When Gabby Giffords was shot and several others were killed in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, there had been a recent series of well-publicized political statements and images promoting a war-like environment. One high-profile politician publicized politicians “in the cross-hairs” of a gun, as a way of saying which candidates needed to be defeated. To what extent that encouraged the mentally disturbed person who shot Gabby Giffords, we will never know for sure. But it seems that such high-conflict rhetoric (emotional, all-or-nothing solutions, highly blaming) is a contributing factor when it is repeated often enough – and it appears to be repeated more dramatically during recent elections.

In the 1960s, the war-like rhetoric about ending the Vietnam War also seemed to drive violence at home. The Weather Underground organization justified bombing buildings in an effort to stop the war. People were injured and some killed, justified by some of the extreme rhetoric from the left, at that time.

When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, he saw himself as a hero fighting an over-reaching federal government. Even though he killed many daycare children in the building, as well as government workers, he justified it with a cause that he himself defined. But it was encouraged by the warspeak of anti-government militias at the time, who saw themselves as somehow under attack from the federal government.

We also have those who have killed doctors that perform abortions, who justify their actions by the wide-spread rhetoric against abortion, which more recently includes bloody messages and high-intensity emotions. Yes, abortion is a concern, but, if people don’t agree with one another, is this the solution? Taking matters into one’s own hands seems to be the response of some individuals (usually disturbed) to high-conflict political statements. In other words, words are not harmless when promoted by highly emotional arguments, all-or-nothing solutions and personalization – especially when they are repeated over and over again by HCPs. Is this really a crisis? Is this really a hero?

Remember, we are not concluding that this is a problem of the left or of the right. This is a problem of high-conflict individuals and their negative advocates, who go too far in their splitting rhetoric – which poses dangerous risks to our country as a whole. We have to remember that we are the most heavily armed country in the world, with the latest estimates that there are at least as many handguns as there are people in our country. Our language has matched the increase in weapons with our increase in expressions of war. Since 9/11, we have simply added more wars to our language of problem-solving: We have the War on Terror…the War on Drugs…the War on Poverty…the War on Illiteracy…the War on Obesity…the War on …(you fill in the blank). Our TV political debate programs have such names as “Cross-fire”, “Hardball”, “Rapid Fire”, all apparently aimed to stimulate viewers’ aggressive tendencies for entertainment.

Perhaps through the contagion effect, such high-conflict language has even filtered down to our daily conversations about sports. When a team wins, you now hear, “We killed them!” or “We slayed them!” Even in entertainment, this type of martial language is used. For example, on the TV show, American Idol, when a performer does well on a song, the judges say things like, “You killed it!” or “That was a killer performance,” or “That was so great, I want to punch you!” And, even in facilitating positive relationships, we say “I killed him with kindness.” This violent mind-set seems to be a very disturbing trend.

Making it Personal

Have you noticed how very personal election rhetoric has become? “Obamacare” does not appear to be an accidental term chosen by opponents of the Affordable Healthcare Act. It has now been repeated thousands – perhaps millions – of times, thanks to today’s endless news cycle. If you ask people who already hate Obamacare why they hate it, they often don’t know – just like alienated children in a high-conflict divorce who don’t know why hate their mother or father. They just do! The more likely reason is that they have been exposed to the splitting dynamic, which is emotionally absorbed rather than logically analyzed, because:

  • It is personal – by attaching the President’s name, it is a short-cut to showing disdain for the president that you can deny is disdain for the president.

  • It is said with crisis emotions – often with disdain.

  • It is described with all-or-nothing solutions – it is “all-bad” and the only solution is to eliminate it.

  • It is preoccupied with blaming others – it is ALL his fault; it represents the take-over of America; it is the end of life as we know it; it is socialism; next, he will force you to eat broccoli.

  • It is repeated endlessly in the media – the term “Obamacare” has been repeated 24/7 for over 3 years, as of this writing.

While this may be more characteristic of the Right today, those on the Left were similarly extreme in the 1960s and 1970s in their hateful rhetoric about Presidents Johnson and Nixon. During the Vietnam War, one of the popular slogans directed toward President Johnson was “Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” And, Richard Nixon was described as “Tricky Dick. Actually, over 50,000 young American soldiers were killed in that war, but does this justify building hatred for the person, rather than making policy changes? Such language has blocked, rather than promoted dialogue.

Some would say that none of today’s “crises” compare to the crises in those times – yet the extreme statements repeatedly heard today in the 24-hour news cycle make today’s situation seem worse than what was seen once a day on the 6:00 p.m. news with Walter Cronkite. Ironically, despite 24/7 news, the remaining wars of the present in Iraq and Afghanistan barely receive any news coverage anymore, yet young soldiers are still dying.

One would believe that Obamacare was worse than the Vietnam War, based on exposure to the emotional intensity, the all-or-nothing thinking, and the extreme blaming in today’s 24-hour reporting. Our guess is that there are people today who hate Obama as much as, or even more, than people hated Johnson and Nixon. Yet they don’t know what Obamacare even contains. This is how right-brain defensiveness is stoked through repeated fear and anger. It’s not logical, because intense fear and anger shut down logical analysis.

Perhaps the personal nature of the attacks from the left against him led Johnson (previously the hero of the civil rights movement of liberals) to choose not to run for re-election in 1968. By 1970, the intensity of war rhetoric and hatred from both sides about the Vietnam War may have been a significant factor in the tension that led to the shooting of 4 students at a demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio. The splitting dynamic of fear and hatred can fuel emotional responses that override logic and reason and lead to violence. Do we want to return to this type of split in America?

Of course, the best example of personalization and the splitting dynamic by an HCP was the generation of hatred so well-trained by Adolf Hitler. He taught Germans to blame Jews, via radio speeches that had intense negative emotions, all-or-nothing solutions (the holocaust), the personalization of a group (actually several groups: Jews, gays, gypsies and others), and the endless repetition of his speeches on the radio. This wasn’t just something he liked to do – it was essential in unifying the German people around his hate-based policies, which probably could not have gone far without him constantly pumping them up.

He cleverly got the German people, from the youngest children on up, to actively participate, in rallies, songs, and movies – all repeating his emotion-based message of blame and hatred. They learned to hate weak minorities, with no basis in fact for their beliefs. Yet, it had the power to drive a whole continent – and the United States – into World War II. Was there a crisis in Germany after World War I? Yes, there was an economic crisis. Was Hitler the hero he claimed to be? Absolutely not. Yet, he fooled a nation for nearly 15 years. In Germany, there is a parade center exhibit about the Nazis that displays photos representing the emotional hysteria Hitler was able to generate, from the early 1930’s until the end of World War II in 1945. It graphically shows how he went from a common criminal in the early 1930s to a master manipulator of a nation, by generating hate rhetoric and displays in the news – using the radio, movies and newsreels.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D. is a clinical-child psychologist, child custody mediator, and family therapist in private practice for over 40 years, and is a national and international trainer of mediation and child development. For the past 35 years, he has been teaching on the psychology faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and is Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. He is the author of the classic book, Mediating Child Custody Disputes, and has published extensively in the professional literature on child custody and child psychology. He serves on the editorial boards of the Family Court Review and Conflict Resolution Quarterly journals and is the editor of the International Academy of Professional Family Mediators’ The Professional Family Mediator.

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