State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (Book Review)

Author:  Welch, Bryant
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Reviewed By: Harold B. Davis, Fall 2008 XXVIII, No. 4, pp. 34-37

Historically there have been two approaches to the application of psychological and psychoanalytic thinking to the political processes. One approach claims that, as a science, psychology and psychoanalysis study the political process from an impartial view. The second approach states that a psychologist’s values are inherently intertwined with both his clinical work and his observations of socio-political investigations. Welch belongs to the second group. This book serves two purposes. One is as an analysis of the psychological and psychoanalytic understanding of current socio-political issues. The second is as a wake- up-call to be more fully aware of the political manipulation to which we are subjected.

Using his experience as a lawyer, a psychoanalytically oriented clinical psychologist, and former head of the Practice Directorate of the APA, Bryant Welch has written an interesting and relevant book expressing his perspective on current social-political issues. Welch writes passionately about issues we all face. Welch’s main theme is that the mind has difficulty tolerating complexity and uncertainty, especially when confronted with circumstances which conflict with emotionally held convictions. A mature mind is better able to tolerate multiple causes, or complexity, and is prone to reason as expressed through scientific knowledge. Welch’s concept of the mind is consistent with liberal, analytic thinking, and the changes in thinking observed in clients during analytic psychotherapy. He develops his theme by discussing many aspects of current socio-political issues, some of which the reader will be aware. I, for one, was better able to understand the religious right and gain further insight into envy as it appears in the sociopolitical scene to name two instances.

Since the book is primarily a personal statement based upon the author’s varied experiences, one needs to suspend one’s own perspective to some degree in order to experience Welch’s perspective. If one is able to do so, then one can gain greater understanding from experiencing a new and different perspective. He shares many astute observations, and one can question some of his viewpoints while accepting his basic premises. Welch accepts that there are other perspectives than his own. Although I am in basic agreement with his positions, there are some differences in perspective that will be reflected in my review.

Welch’s main theme is that political leaders, specifically the right wing as represented by Karl Rove, play upon the psychological states of confusion which people have. Taken from the movie, Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer manipulates and confuses Ingrid Bergman’s mind, Welch notes how the right wing gaslights the voting public to sow confusion and prevent a more rational view. Gaslighting is not synonymous with the usual misrepresentation or PR of any candidate. A gaslighter intentionally aims at causing the person to be confused and, therefore, less able to use rational means to come to a decision. Since the mind does not readily tolerate complexity and uncertainty, a person needs to form a reality. The gaslighter wants to impose his “reality” on the person to prevent him from being aware of his perception of reality. He aptly uses a quote of Groucho Marx that puts it simply: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” (p. 213) He focuses on three psychological states, paranoia, sexual perplexity, and envy, that are subject to confusion and, hence, fertile ground for gaslighters.

Welch describes the interplay of gaslighters with these emotional states. He is very clear that paranoia, sexuality, and envy are normal psychological states and processes, and which can be used adaptively or played upon for ulterior motives. The gaslighter seek to confuse a person by playing upon these states, so that the person’s rational processes do not work, that is, the confusion destroys the person’s perception of reality. In so doing, the gaslighter manipulates the person for his own ends. The gaslighter also appeals to emotion in order to avoid dealing with factual issues. The “culture war” becomes the issue rather than policies and actions. The media, particularly television and the Internet, permit the widespread dissemination of false statements that become accepted as true as a result of their repetition. Welch cites Lakoff’s point that learning a word physically changes your brain through repetition, as the word becomes physically instantiated in your brain. Thus, for Welch, the repetition of an inaccurate statement can become accepted as true. This explains the process by which propaganda is accepted, but not the motivation to use the initial lie. I think the motivation to lie is power: power to control and power, both economic and social, obtained from winning an election. It is the Vince Lombardi standard of ethics: winning is everything.


Welch notes that paranoid processes are normal in life, but can be used politically. The reader is probably aware of the way paranoia has been used by political gaslighters.
The “evil empire” and the “axis of evil” are examples of political paranoia in which bad parts of self are projected onto others and one remains “pure.” However, Welch does something novel and interesting in his discussion of paranoia. He notes that literally it means outside the mind, crossing a boundary from inner to outer worlds. Although he quotes Robert Frost’s “strong fences makes good neighbors,” a person has permeable boundaries. For example, the psychological impact of 9/11 is an intrusion on a boundary, a sense that the mainland is not free from external attack. Our psyche no longer is protected from external attack. Welch notes, because of its long history of protection from external attack by the seas, the U.S. was ill prepared to act rationally in response. This ill-preparedness played into the gaslighter’s ability to push their agenda to attack Iraq. A regressive pull and passivity made the public vulnerable to the justification of Bush’s Iraq policy. I wondered how this regressive pull was different from others, like after WWI where 39 people were killed and many were wounded in a bombing on Wall and Broad Streets? The difference is that these violent acts were committed by domestic terrorists, leaving us still able to feel protected from external threats. Welch addresses the specific psychological meaning of 9/11 by addressing the mental boundary that has been violated.

Sexual Perplexity

Sexual identity is basic to one’s sense of self, yet it is fraught with perplexity and confusion. It is not always firm, and doubts can exist about one’s sexual orientation. The gaslighters play upon this uncertainty in two ways. The first is the way sexual behavior is used to disparage the opposing party by making accusations concerning alleged sexual improprieties, when, in fact, the accusing party both has members guilty of the same or similar conduct and has condoned in its own members what would be considered inappropriate sexual behavior. Welch lists the many presidents of both parties who have had liaisons. Perhaps because of our country’s Puritan background, such behavior has not been accepted in today’s political scene. The use of sexual behavior, for political aims, distracts from the issues, and redirects rage from important issues. The claim for purity and moral superiority has been shown to be hypocritical. In his emphasis, Welch may overstate his position. He notes that the French public and media quietly accepted Mitterrand having a mistress and fathering an illegitimate child, which would not occur with the current American public or media. This comparison of the French to the Americans on sexual mores is a longstanding one. While there is merit in his claim in that the French public and the media both did not make an issue over it, Mitterrand only acknowledged the existence of his mistress and illegitimate child at the end of his life when he was dying from cancer. Politicians are always wary of their image.

Another example of gaslighter’s use of sexual perplexity is their attack on gay marriage. The image of masculinity has political overtones. A macho view of masculinity has historically been the image of the hero and the leader. Sensitivity and complexity has been viewed effeminate. I have noted elsewhere Samuels’ views on the heroic leader and his questioning of it.(Davis, 2008) Authoritarian governments of various stripes have always emphasized the “macho” image and denigrated the sensitive even when not associated with homosexuality. Homosexuality threatens the cultural stereotypes of sexuality. Differences in sexuality challenge not only the sexual identity of people who are conflicted about their sexuality, but also threaten those whose religious beliefs require its rejection. While the reality is that gay marriage does not upset the social order, as Massachusetts has discovered, the emotional threat is strongest, although not limited, to the religious right. Putting gay marriage on the ballot in order to bring out one’s base may be a cynical act but is within the bounds of politics. As I write, Proposition 8 in California to ban gay marriage looks likely to be defeated, despite various religious groups’ support of the ban. However there is concern by those opposed to the ban that, because Obama is on the ballot, a large turnout of Afro-Americans and Hispanics may defeat the proposition since these groups tend to oppose gay marriage. There is the old political saying: politics makes strange bedfellows.


Welch does an admirable job of describing envy as a normal and pathological emotional state. I think Welch’s claim that envy is the most underreported factor in politics may be true because it is one of the seven cardinal sins. Quoting Shakespeare, Welch relates how envy can breed division and confusion. He goes on to say, “Negative campaigning works because it harnesses the enormous blind energy of envy.” (p.82.) Negative ads allow for latent rage and hate associated with envy to be expressed. There is an inverse relationship of envy to self-esteem that is kept alive by market driven forces in a forced consumer society. Here Welch is in keeping with Klein, whom he cites in this context and Erich Fromm whom he cites elsewhere. He gives chilling although interesting observations of the destructive power of envy.

Welch mentions that those who accept creationism are envious of those who know more than they do. Perhaps so, but an anti-intellectual bias, as well as an anti-European bias, has been a core of American culture for a long time. Pragmatism, empiricism, and problem solving, rather than conceptualization, reflect the American mindset. American ethos honors the “common man,” the self-made man, and the entrepreneur. This anti- intellectual, anti-northeastern attitude is not limited to its use as a charge against recent Democratic candidates. In 1948, Truman defeated Dewey, an Eastern Republican and Governor of New York, by winning a tight vote in Ohio. One factor contributing to Truman’s victory was his ability both to resonate with and to be seen as similar to the Ohio voters.

Envy, and its correlates of resentment and hatred, has always been a subtext in political campaigns. The positions of a party favor one group over another, and attitudes about specific policies may be an opportunity for the expression of envy. For example, welfare reform may have been an opportunity to express rage at those who were presumably gaming the system while ignoring those at the top who were arguably doing the same thing in other areas. In contrast, a soak the rich tax policy may be a way to express envy of those who are benefiting from tax policies.

In describing the manipulation of these three emotional states in the political process, Welch hopes to help the reader withstand these pressures. He also hopes that those who oppose the right wing can learn to fight in the context of these three emotional states to counteract the effectiveness of the gaslighter’s efforts. He claims that those who win the battle for these three states will win elections.

Other Issues

In addition to his contribution on understanding paranoia, sexual perversity, and envy, Welch comments on many relevant contemporary issues, such as the assault on professionalism, corporate domination, distrust of government, the mass media, and the religious right, to name a few. The breadth of his scope is truly outstanding. Because space does not permit me to address all the areas he raises, I will comment on three, two of which are related to each other. They are his discussion on the Religious Right and of health care. Health care includes the role of corporations and government.

In his discussion of the religious right, Welch makes several interesting observations. He notes that for the first time in our history, a group of voters is not ethnic or class, but is defined religiously. While he focuses on the Religious Right as the most politically active religious group, he actually opposes fundamentalism wherever it occurs. He opines that the problem is not with religion per se, but with the mind that cannot tolerate uncertainty. Religion, he writes, is based upon a leap of faith and not upon evidence, as the scientific realm is. In addition, religion is used to eliminate doubt and provide certainty. It also provides assistance to people coping with the three states that are open to confusion: paranoia, sexual perplexity, and envy. Welch provides a number of examples of how religion copes with these three states. He discusses the Pentecostal faith where ecstasy, and rapture to a lesser degree, is an essential part of the religious experience. Feelings count, not reason, and Welch relates this emphasis on feeling states (italics his) to the Christian belief of the Holy Spirit. He quotes chapter and verse, “…he who blasphemies against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.” (p. 171) He says that to experience the Holy Spirit is to have an experience of absolute thralldom. Interestingly he connects thralldom, which is antagonistic to complexity of mind and independent thought, to the first four of the Ten Commandments, (thou shalt not have other gods before me, no graven images, not take the Lord’s name in vain, and keep the Sabbath). His concern is that these four encourage thralldom and take precedence over the ethical ones prohibiting killing, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting thy neighbor’s house. In order to maintain the thralldom, any opposite view has to be discredited and opposed. Religious thralldom accounts for people voting against their economic interest either because they are being led by their leaders or because their most important concern is with inner experience obtained through ecstasy.

In my view, this emphasis on inner experience is also related to the capitalist system. As cited by Adam B. Seligman in his introduction, Tawney (1998) has noted “ the Calvinist belief that “…inner life alone that could partake of sanctification…” (p.XXIX) led to a business ethic wherein economic behavior is separated from ethical behavior. The Religious Right and the capitalistic ideology may share a common assumption that what is important is the inner life and not one’s deeds. For the Religious Right, the inner satisfaction of the extension of religious beliefs into the public domain may be more important than personal economic gains.

Welch provides insights from his experience as head of the Practice Directorate. In discussing health care and the emergence of managed care, he notes that insurance companies have maintained their influence and power by the “medical necessity” clause in policies that, in effect, give the insurance company the power to decide whether it will reimburse a claim. So the idea that there would be meaningful coverage is a fraud. In addition, it is to the CEO’s advantage to deny benefits since doing so will increase his income. While his statements are accurate, I think the latter one does not go far enough. The high pay of a CEO is the symptom and not the cause of the problem. The problem is relying upon a corporation to implement health care. The sole purpose of a corporation is to earn a profit for its shareholders. It also has both the status of a “legal person” and limited liability. The former means that a corporation has some protection against governmental actions. The latter means that corporate leaders are not personally responsible for their actions, except in the few instances where a law is broken. As noted above, Tawney’s view that economic and ethical behaviors have been separated from one another justifies in corporations economic activity that is unrestrained by ethical standards. This split is so pronounced in our cultural attitudes that today all businesses, regardless of religious views, are affected by this attitude, including universities and hospitals.
I share Welch’s view that there are tasks that only government can do, and health care is one of them. He notes that our cultural heritage distrusts government, so it is not solely the power of the insurance companies that prevents a national health care program. I think if a universal health plan is obtained, it is likely to follow the Massachusetts model requiring and subsidizing insurance policies, rather than administrating governmental services either through an extension of Medicare or the Veterans Administration.

An important psychological issue for a person is the way the “corporate business model” has permeated every aspect of American life as if it is the model to solve all problems. Ironically, one of the things that only government can do is to bail out corporations that, in the pursuit of profits, pursued an economic goal that was divorced from ethical considerations.

Welch’s book raises the question of the applicability of applying psychological knowledge to the political process. I am not referring primarily to the extrapolation from clinical experience to the politics of a nation that is always a question mark. His discussion of paranoia, sexual perplexity, and envy is interesting and provides an insight into an aspect of the problem. Since Welch is providing his perspective, based upon his unique experience, he is free to express his understanding about the relationship of his three states to the political process. He exhibits courage in expressing his views. He also relates many interesting experiences. Seeing how a mind can deal with complex issues rewards the reader.

My own perspective is somewhat different stemming from my experience of being a graduate student in political science prior to obtaining a degree in clinical psychology and a certificate in postdoctoral work in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. While psychological factors are relevant to the political process especially in an election, my concern is with the vested interests that are behind each candidate. I remember one of my professors saying, The Republicans prime the economy through defense, and the Democrats through social programs. This is as true today as it was in the 1950’s. Vested interests are not only economic ones but also include emotional ones as expressed by religious groups. Welch’s statement that the problem is not simply Bush is true and suggests he is aware of the deeper problems.

Do we as psychologists and psychoanalysts have common political values? Even if we do, and I personally doubt it, can we implement these values in the socio-political arena as psychologists and psychoanalysts or do we do so as citizens. This is a thorny issue beyond the scope of this review. Welch’s approach is in keeping with psychoanalytic principles that hold a person’s mind functions best when it is capable of independent thinking. Welch recognizes that “…the struggle between wise government and unwise government is Sisyphean in nature.” (p. 252) His quote: The battleground states paranoia, sexual perplexity, and envy need to be fought in all critical institution, “…that support the independent functioning of the mind”. (p. 254.)

This book, suitable for the lay public and the professional, is most worthwhile reading. Welch challenges the reader to maintain the independent functioning of his or her mind in all activities in life. This is a task we all need to do to maintain our sanity in the face of constant manipulation.


Davis, Harold B. Comment: Drew Westen’s The Political Brain. Psychologist-Psychoanalyst. Spring 2008. Vol. XXVIII. No.2. pp. 45-47.
Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Edison, New Jersey. Transaction Publishers. 1998. p. xxix.

Reviewer Note

Harold B. Davis


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