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photo: Emli Bendixen

Cardiff’s very own Jon Ronson talks to Jaydon Martin about psychopaths and Trump, and why they’re not necessarily one and the same…

Jon Ronson, author of such best-selling books as Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Men Who Stare at Goats and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is in a sunny mood as he picks up from New York, reporting a pleasant day in contrast to the grey skies of Wales. Considering the often-dark subject matter of the conversation – including discussion of his currently touring show, Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Nights, drawing on his book The Psychopath Test – he remains upbeat throughout. Perhaps a reasonable defense for a man given to exploring extreme personalities.

Has he always been drawn to such people, the denizens existing at the fringes of society? “Yes…and I wonder why…I’m naturally curious about people who live at the fringes of society. There’s just something about the kind of mystery of those corners of society that really interests me…Caitlin Moran once said it was because I had a bad time at Cardiff High School and I wanted just to push to the margins and meet other people.”

He’s quite envious, he says, of authors like Nick Hornby who can write “really amazing stories about very ordinary things…just people getting on with their lives. For some reason I can’t do that, so go to this mysterious faraway place and I spend time with people there.”

The next question, logically, would be how does he find such people? “It’s not really about the people. It starts with a question. ‘Here’s something about the world that I don’t understand.’ One example would be when I started hearing all these psychologists and psychiatrists saying that psychopaths rule the world, that you’re much likely to find a psychopath at the top of the tree than at the bottom and I thought, ‘that’s an extraordinary thought, if it’s true,’ so I had a question that I wanted to know the answer to. I started looking around to try and find interesting people and interesting questions that might help me solve the mystery. I followed the breadcrumbs. I read a lot of academic papers, message boards, until I found something that covered that question. So again with The Psychopath Test I had that question ‘is it true that psychopaths rule the world?’ because that’s such a huge thought; I wondered ‘if that’s what psychiatrists believe maybe I should be critical of psychiatry’. It’s about keeping your mind open and following the breadcrumbs of your thought process.”

Given the current political climate, it’s not surprising that a lot of people ask Jon Ronson if he thinks Donald Trump is a psychopath. “In all honesty I don’t necessarily think he is. I think he definitely has issues with narcissism. I don’t think his problem is that he doesn’t have enough emotion, I think his problem is he has too many emotions, and psychopaths tend not to have deep emotions, but I could be wrong” though he warns against becoming too enthusiastic in accusing people of psychopathic tendencies: “one of the best rules with the psychopath test is ‘don’t go crazy with the psychopath-spotting power.’ It’s kind of psychopathic to start labelling people in society as psychopathic. It’s about the dangers of getting too drunk with the psychopath-spotting powers.”

It is however, hard to argue with the fact that some of Ronson’s work has retained a contemporary relevance. “I do think, to blow my own trumpet for a second, that three of my books, Them, The Psychopath Test, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed are all kind of harking towards the Trump presidency. Them is about the rise of extremism, and a lot of the people in there are now in power, The Psychopath Test there’s the obvious person and then So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is about the way that social media turns the world into a black-and-white world of heroes and villains – extremes of each other – and that’s the milieu in which Donald Trump has emerged.”

Ronson’s interest in the way social media has given rise to a new era of public shaming leads him to wonder about the recent downfall of Harvey Weinstein; “The people I looked at in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed are people who were disproportionally punished for having done very little wrong, quite often people who were completely misinterpreted…what happened to Harvey Weinstein isn’t a miscarriage of justice.” The liberating power of social media can cut in all directions, good or bad.

Considering the sleaze with which the Trump Presidency lurches from one crisis to another, it seems natural conversation should turn to Ronson’s recent audio series The Butterfly Effect, which looks at the porn industry and how its responded to the internet age: “it has been killed by tech like so much of the world, tech has killed music, journalism, all sorts of things. One of the things that’s so sad about [this shift towards technology] is that porn people are generally considered to be disreputable whereas tech people are generally considered to be admirable, and when you look at the tech takeover of the porn industry, the porn people are being victimised and nobody cares. For me it’s a story about who we consider reputable and who we consider disreputable.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. “One good thing that’s come out the Trump presidency is people have started subscribing more to The New York Times, so journalism is having a bit of a renaissance and tech is still trying to kill it, yet tech is still important.”

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