Yesterday Turkey Reelected Erdoğan, Trump Is, Indisputably, GOP Frontrunner
Franklin Foer penned an interesting piece for The Atlantic, yesterday, Should We Psychoanalyze Our Presidents? I’ve read all the posts about Trump’s sanity with great interest and what I’m waiting for is a good solid look at one about Meatball Ron. Foer didn’t have Meatball in mind— nor did he even mention Trump’s name! He was more interested in Sigmund Freud having once applied Oedipal theory to Woodrow Wilson, someone detested, despite Freud’s own rule about not analyzing anyone from afar. For Wilson he made an exception. He co-wrote a book with one of his patients, a somewhat sociopathic William Bullitt, a former— and very embittered— Wilson aide.
Over the years, Bullitt degenerated from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to a Nixonian and as time went on, to a crackpot homophobe. Foer noted that “Wilson’s inexplicable choices, his extreme stubbornness, demanded a psychological explanation, perhaps one that scrutinized childhood traumas. This was Freud’s business, and he couldn’t resist. Eleven years after the Senate rejected Wilson’s treaty, the world’s most famous psychoanalyst began writing a long study of Wilson’s mind [with Bullitt and at Bullitt’s urging]… What emerged was a scathing indictment of Wilson, whom they depicted as neurotic and self-sabotaging, in what was a polemic masquerading as dispassionate biography… The manuscript sat unpublished for nearly 35 years.” It came out— accompanied by much controversy in 1966.
After Freud’s death, wrote Foer, “Bullitt kept on editing. As he prepared the text for publication, he cut some of its most incendiary claims. He culled passages about Wilson’s teenage masturbatory habits and excised sections implying that Wilson was a latent homosexual. (One of Wilson’s aides would share his bed on the president’s speaking tours, but he also testified that there was never any hint of sex.) In effect, Bullitt was trying to save the book from the embarrassing excesses of Freudianism.” This is ironic since years later, Bullitt bribed— according to FDR— two Black porters to claim a rival, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, had propositioned them for sex and then systematically spread the story around Washington until Welles was forced out of his job.
“Still,” wrote Foer, “the work remained an unabashed expression of Freudian theory, placing Wilson at the center of an Oedipal drama. The president appears in its pages as a hopeless neurotic trying to best the father he revered and resented. The book argues that Wilson cast his father as God— and himself as Christ, a long-suffering servant. This accounts for Wilson’s tendency to accuse his closest confidants of betrayal, and for his sanctimony.”
We all experienced Trump’s mental illness in real time— and we still are. Most of us are, at least superficially, aware of the work of Dr. Bandy Lee, a medical doctor, a forensic psychiatrist, and a world expert on violence who taught at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Law School for 17 years before transferring recently to Columbia and Harvard. She became known to the public by leading a group of mental health professional colleagues in breaking the silence about Trump’s dangerous psychology and publishing the bestseller, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President” in 2017 with an update in 2019. She came under extreme criticism from leaders of the American Psychiatric Association for “violating the 1973 Goldwater Rule, an APA guideline stating that ‘it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion’ of anyone without conducting a personal examination and getting proper approval.”
About a year ago, Joshua Kendall wrote a vindication of her Trump-related work. “As part of her clinical work in prison settings,” wrote Kendall, “she had evaluated and treated hundreds of violent offenders, including leaders of prison gangs. A native New Yorker, she had assumed that Trump ‘was just a shady businessman,’ Lee told me, but ‘I suddenly realized that he had a lot in common’ with those patients. ‘Trump was engaging in the predatory manipulation of his vulnerable followers.’ In some cases, gang leaders might ‘ask their members to engage in violence and then issue bogus promises of protection. Like Trump, these leaders also often project extreme self-confidence, and that appeals to their followers, who tend to feel a deep emotional need for protection, connection, and identity.’ Lee’s Cassandra-like warnings turned out to be remarkably prescient. On the morning of the insurrection, as former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson revealed in sworn testimony to the January 6 committee, Trump had no compunction about unleashing armed loyalists on the Capitol, and was furious when told he could not accompany them. Two days later, as Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported in their book, Peril, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to channel Lee when she told General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ‘This unhinged president could not be more dangerous. And we must do everything we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country.’ We also know from January 6 testimony that key Republicans— including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Cabinet secretaries such as Steven Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos— discussed the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, which provides for removal of a president who is no longer fit to discharge his duties due to a mental or physical disability.”
Trump, whose false (and contagious) claim that the 2020 election was stolen remains the centerpiece of his putative 2024 campaign, could still end up being the Republican frontrunner, despite his mounting legal troubles. In this context, Lee’s assessment begs a second look. The threat of violence, after all, was a staple of Republican campaign rhetoric even before the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago unleashed a fresh torrent of inciteful anti-government messaging from Republican lawmakers and right-wing extremists alike. Back in June, to offer just one example, Missouri Senate candidate and former governor Eric Greitens released an ad depicting a fully armed “MAGA crew” going RINO hunting. (Greitens, who had resigned his governership amid a sex scandal and other allegations, lost his August to Republican Eric Schmitt.)
…According to Lee, Trump’s extreme dangerousness puts him in a completely different category from previous Republican presidents, who merely endorsed a set of harsh economic policies that are associated with increased violence. In contrast to past presidents with likely personality disorders, she believes, Trump has a psychological profile that is common among violent offenders. “There is typically a developmental arrest caused by early trauma or abandonment,” Lee says. “As adults, they still act like children in the playground; convinced that might makes right, they often can’t stop bullying others. “Trump’s mother, Lee points out, became chronically ill when he turned two, and his father was cruel and emotionally unavailable, repeatedly urging his son to be “a killer.”
Her clinical insights into the criminal mind draw on the stage theory of morality devised by Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In Kohlberg’s model, which is backed up by empirical research on children, perpetrators of violence tend to be frozen in an early developmental stage: Like young children, they rarely take into account the concerns of others and tend to obey only those whom they fear. “Such adults are incapable of any sophisticated moral calculus,” Lee says. “For Trump, the only reason not to do something— even something that is likely to harm others— is to avoid punishment. And since he has rarely been held accountable for any misdeeds, he has come to believe that he has a carte blanche to do whatever serves his immediate needs.”
…In June, as Lee watched the first round of public hearings of the January 6 committee— which have exposed Trump as “a clear and present danger to democracy,” to quote testimony by the retired federal judge and Republican icon J. Michael Luttig— she was comforted by a slew of emails thanking her for her lonely crusade to warn the nation about Trump. “I’ve alerted my congressman to read your work,” noted one writer.
When Lee thinks about Trump’s inciteful speech on the afternoon of January 6, her mind goes back to the violent offenders she has spent time with. “To gain acceptance, some members of gangs are required to perform an initiation rite— say, rob a store. By telling his supporters that they wouldn’t ‘have a country anymore’ unless they were willing to ‘fight like hell,’ Trump was challenging them to prove both their patriotism and their loyalty to him by engaging in violence.”
She is not surprised that Trump Trump hasn’t expressed remorse for fomenting the insurrection. “Freud once remarked that no one feels as guilty as saints, and I have found that no one feels as innocent as criminals,” she says. Perpetrators of violence— even convicted murderers— often feel victimized: “They tend to think that their behavior, no matter how egregious, was warranted and reasonable.”
A year before that, writing for Psychology Today, Matt Huston, looked at Trump’s mental health as a way of exploring the issue of diagnosing public figures. “[W]hen psychiatrist Jerrold Post diagnosed Saddam Hussein (whom he had never met) as a ‘malignant narcissist,’ was this a professional opinion based on unbiased evidence? If so, then one would imagine that these days health experts have access to a lot more information if they choose to evaluate the temperament, personality, and mental health of Donald Trump. And countless experts have already done so: They have commented on Trump’s alleged paranoid, sadistic, and psychopathic tendencies; diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder; and suggested he might suffer from neurological conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Naturally, many have questioned his fitness to serve as the President of the United States. Over 70,000 health professionals even signed a petition, saying ‘Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.’… [I]n December 2019, several hundred mental health professionals sent a statement to the House Judiciary Committee members to express their concerns that due to his ‘brittle sense of self-worth,’ Trump may act more dangerously as his impeachment approaches.”
Earlier in 2021, Scientific American published an essay by Tanya Lewis, The ‘Shared Psychosis’ of Donald Trump and His Loyalists. “Narcissistic symbiosis,” she wrote from an interview with Bandy Lee, “refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship magnetically attractive. The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence— while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure. When such wounded individuals are given positions of power, they arouse similar pathology in the population that creates a “lock and key” relationship. ‘Shared psychosis’— which is also called ‘folie à millions’ [‘madness for millions’] when occurring at the national level or ‘induced delusions’— refers to the infectiousness of severe symptoms that goes beyond ordinary group psychology. When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence— even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure.”
Why does Trump himself seem to gravitate toward violence and destruction?
Destructiveness is a core characteristic of mental pathology, whether directed toward the self or others. First, I wish to clarify that those with mental illness are, as a group, no more dangerous than those without mental illness. When mental pathology is accompanied by criminal-mindedness, however, the combination can make individuals far more dangerous than either alone.
In my textbook on violence, I emphasize the symbolic nature of violence and how it is a life impulse gone awry. Briefly, if one cannot have love, one resorts to respect. And when respect is unavailable, one resorts to fear. Trump is now living through an intolerable loss of respect: rejection by a nation in his election defeat. Violence helps compensate for feelings of powerlessness, inadequacy and lack of real productivity.
Do you think Trump is truly exhibiting delusional or psychotic behavior? Or is he simply behaving like an autocrat making a bald-faced attempt to hold onto his power?
I believe it is both. He is certainly of an autocratic disposition because his extreme narcissism does not allow for equality with other human beings, as democracy requires. Psychiatrists generally assess delusions through personal examination, but there is other evidence of their likelihood. First, delusions are more infectious than strategic lies, and so we see, from their sheer spread, that Trump likely truly believes them. Second, his emotional fragility, manifested in extreme intolerance of realities that do not fit his wishful view of the world, predispose him to psychotic spirals. Third, his public record includes numerous hours of interviews and interactions with other people—such as the hour-long one with the Georgia secretary of state— that very nearly confirm delusion, as my colleague and I discovered in a systematic analysis.
…How can we avert future insurrection attempts or acts of violence?
Violence is the end product of a long process, so prevention is key. Structural violence, or inequality, is the most potent stimulant of behavioral violence. And reducing inequality in all forms— economic, racial and gender— will help toward preventing violence. For prevention to be effective, knowledge and in-depth understanding cannot be overlooked— so we can anticipate what is coming, much like the pandemic. The silencing of mental health professionals during the Trump era, mainly through a politically driven distortion of an ethical guideline, was catastrophic, in my view, in the nation’s failure to understand, predict and prevent the dangers of this presidency.