El Paso – the United States’ descent into xenophobic barbarism (part 20)
By Europaeus *
Continued from Part 19
Moyers: I want to ask you about another side of him that is taken up in the book. It involves the much-discussed video that appeared during the campaign last year which had been made a decade or so ago when Trump was newly married. He sees this actress outside his bus and he says, “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her,” and then we hear sounds of Tic Tacs before Trump continues. “You know,” he says, “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet, just kiss, I don’t even wait.” And then you can hear him boasting off camera, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything, grab them by the… You can do anything.”
Lifton: In addition to being a strongman and a dictator, there’s a pervasive sense of entitlement. Whatever he wants, whatever he needs in his own mind, he can have. It’s a kind of American celebrity gone wild, but it’s also a vicious anti-female perspective and a caricature of male macho. That’s all present in Trump as well as the solipsism that I mentioned earlier, and that’s why when people speak of him as all-pervasive on many different levels of destructiveness, they’re absolutely right.
Moyers: And it seems to extend deeply into his relationship with his own family. There’s a chapter in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump with the heading, “Trump’s Daddy Issues.” There’s several of his quotes about his daughter, Ivanka. He said, “You know who’s one of the great beauties of the world, according to everybody, and I helped create her? Ivanka. My daughter, Ivanka. She’s 6 feet tall. She’s got the best body.”
Again: “I said that if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” Ivanka was 22 at the time. To a reporter he said: “Yeah, she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married – and, you know, her father…”
When Howard Stern, the radio host, started to say, “By the way, your daughter – ” Trump interrupted him with “She’s beautiful.” Stern continued, “Can I say this? A piece of ass.” To which Trump replied, “Yeah.” What’s going on here?
Lifton: In addition to everything else and the extreme narcissism that it represents, it’s a kind of unbridled sense of saying anything on one’s mind as well as an impulse to break down all norms because he is the untouchable celebrity. So just as he is the one man who can fix things for the country, he can have every woman or anything else that he wants, or abuse them in any way he seeks to.
Moyers: You mentioned extreme narcissism. I’m sure you knew Erich Fromm –
Lifton: Yes, I did.
Moyers: – one of the founders of humanistic psychology. He was a Holocaust survivor who had a lifelong obsession with the psychology of evil. And he said that he thought “malignant narcissism” was the most severe pathology – “the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity.” Do you think malignant narcissism goes a long way to explain Trump?
Lifton: I do think it goes a long way. In early psychoanalytic thought, narcissism was – and still, of course, is – self-love. The early psychoanalysts used to talk of libido directed at the self. That now feels a little quaint, that kind of language. But it does include the most fierce and self-displaying form of one’s individual self. And in this way, it can be dangerous. When you look at Trump, you can really see someone who’s destructive to any form of life enhancement in virtually every area. And if that’s what Fromm means by malignant narcissism, then it definitely applies.
Moyers: You said earlier that Trump and his administration have brought about a kind of malignant normalcy – that a dangerous president can become normalized. When the Democrats make a deal with him, as they did recently, are they edging him a little closer to being accepted despite this record of bizarre behavior?
Lifton: We are normalizing him when the Democrats make a deal with him. But there’s a profound ethical issue here and it’s not easily answered. If something is good for the country – perhaps the deal that the Democrats are making with Donald Trump is seen or could be understood by most as good for the country, dealing with the debt crisis – is that worth doing even though it normalizes him? If the Democrats do go ahead with this deal, they should take steps to make clear that they’re opposing other aspects of his presidency and of him.
Moyers: There’s a chapter in the book entitled, “He’s Got the World in His Hands and His Finger on the Trigger.” Do you ever imagine him sitting alone in his office, deciding on a potentially catastrophic course of action for the nation? Say, with five minutes to decide whether or not to unleash thermonuclear weapons?
Lifton: I do. And like many, I’m deeply frightened by that possibility. It’s said very often that, OK, there are people around him who can contain him and restrain him. I’m not so sure they always can or would. In any case, it’s not unlikely that he could seek to create some kind of crisis, if he found himself in a very bad light in relation to public opinion and close to removal from office. So yes, I share that fear and I think it’s a real danger. I think we have to constantly keep it in mind, be ready to anticipate it and take whatever action we can against it. The American president has particular power. This makes Trump the most dangerous man in the world. He’s equally dangerous because of his finger on the nuclear trigger and because of his mind ensconced in solipsistic reality. The two are a dreadful combination. [Emphasis added]
Moyers: One of your colleagues writes in the book, “Sociopathic traits may be amplified as the leader discovers that he can violate the norms of civil society and even commit crimes with impunity. And the leader who rules through fear, lies and betrayal may become increasingly isolated and paranoid as the loyalty of even his closest confidants must forever be suspect.” Does that sound like Trump?
Lifton: It’s already happening. We see that it’s harder and harder to work for him. It’s hard enough even for his spokesperson to affirm his falsehoods. These efforts are not too convincing and they become less convincing from the radius outward, in which people removed from his immediate circle find it still more difficult to believe him and the American public finds it more difficult. He still can appeal to his base because in his base there is a narrative of grievance that centers on embracing Trump without caring too much about whether what he says is true or false. He somehow fits into their narrative. But that can’t go on forever, and he’s losing some of his formerly loyal supporters as well. So he is becoming more isolated. That has its own dangers, but it’s inevitable that it would happen with a man like this as his falsehoods are contested.
Moyers: You bring up his base. Those true believers aren’t the only ones who voted for him. As we are talking, I keep thinking: Here we have a man who kept asking what’s the point of having thermonuclear weapons if we cannot use them; who advocates using torture or worse against our prisoners of war; who urged that five innocent young people here in New York, black young people, be given the death penalty for a sexual assault, even after it was proven someone else had committed the crime; who boasted about his ability to get away with sexually assaulting women because of his celebrity and power; who urged his followers at political rallies to punch protesters in the face and beat them so badly that they have to be taken out on stretchers; who suggested that maybe some of his followers might want to assassinate his political rival, Hillary Clinton, if she were elected president, or at the very least, throw her in prison; who believes he would not lose voters if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone. And over 63 million people voted to elect that man president!
Lifton: Yes, that’s a deeply troubling truth. And I doubt the people who voted for him were thinking about any of these things. What they were really responding to was a call for change, a sense that he was connecting with them in ways that others never had, that he would express and represent their interests, and that he would indeed make this country one dominated again by white people, in some cases white supremacists. But as you say, these people who embraced that narrative unquestioningly are a lesser minority than the ones who voted for him. And of course, he still didn’t win the popular vote. But it’s true – something has gone wrong with our democratic system in electing a man with all these characteristics that make up Donald Trump. Now we have to struggle to sustain the functional institutions of our democracy against his assault on them. I don’t think he’ll succeed in breaking them down, but he’s doing a lot of harm and it’ll take a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people to sustain them and to keep the democracy going, even in its faltering way. [Emphasia added]
Moyers: He still has the support of 80 percent of Republican voters – 4 out of 5. And it seems the Republican Party will tolerate him as long as they’re afraid of the intensity of his followers.
Lifton: Yes, and that’s another very disturbing thought. Things there could change quickly too. What I sense is that the whole situation is chaotic and volatile, so that any time now there could be further pronouncements, further information about Russia and about obstruction of justice, or another attempt of Trump to start firing people, including Mueller, and that this would create a constitutional crisis which would create more pressure on Republicans and everybody else. So even though that is an awful truth about the Republicans’ hypocrisy in continuing to support him, that could change, I think, almost overnight if the new information were sufficiently damning to Trump and his administration.
Moyers: Let’s talk about the “Trump Effect” on the country. One aspect of it was the increase in bullying in schools caused by the rhetoric used by Trump during the campaign. But it goes beyond that.
Lifton: I think Trump has had a very strong and disturbing effect on the country already. He has given more legitimacy to white supremacy and even to neo-fascist groups, and he’s created a pervasive atmosphere that’s more vague but still significant. I don’t believe that he can in his own way destroy the country, just as he can’t eliminate climate awareness, but he can go a long way in bringing – well, in stimulating what has always been a potential.
You mentioned Erich Fromm. I met him through [the sociologist] David Riesman. David Riesman was a close friend, a great authority on American society. He emphasized how there’s always an underbelly in American society of extreme conservatism and reactionary response, and when there’s any kind of progressive movement, there’s likely to be a backlash of reaction to it. Trump is very much in that backlash to any kind of progressive achievement or even decent situation in society. He is stimulating feelings that are potential and latent in our society, but very real, and rendering them more active and more dangerous. And in that way, he’s having a very harmful effect that I think mounts every single day. [Emphasis added]
Moyers: Some people who have known Trump for years say he’s gotten dramatically worse since he was inaugurated. In the prologue to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, Dr. Judith Lewis Herman writes this: “Fostered by the flattery of underlings and the chants of crowds, a political leader’s grandiosity may morph into grotesque delusions of grandeur.” Does that …
Lifton: That’s absolutely true. It’s absolutely true. And for anyone with these traits – of feeling himself victimized, of seeking to be the strongman who resolves everything, yet sees truth only through his own self and negates all other truth outside of it – is bound to become much more malignant when he has power. That’s what Judith Herman is saying, and she’s absolutely right. Power then breeds an intensification of all this because the power can never be absolute power – to some extent it’s stymied – but the isolation while in power becomes even more dangerous. Think of it as a vicious circle. The power intensifies these tendencies and the tendencies become more dangerous because of the power.
Moyers: But suppose that if Donald Trump is crazy, as some have said, he’s crazy like a fox, which is to say all this bizarre behavior is really clever strategy to mislead, distract and deceive others into responding in precisely the manner that he wants them to.
Lifton: I don’t think that’s quite true. I think that it’s partly true. As I said before, Trump both disbelieves and believes in falsehoods, so that when he did thrive on his longstanding and perhaps most egregious falsehood – the claim that Obama was not born in the United States – he’s crazy like a fox in manipulating it because it gave him his political entrée onto the national stage – and also, incidentally, was not rejected by many leading Republicans. So he was crazy like a fox in that case. But it’s more extreme even than that. In order to make your falsehoods powerful, you have to believe in them in some extent. And that’s why we simplify things if we say that Trump either believes nothing in his falsehoods and is just manipulating us like a fox or he completely believes them. Neither is true. The combination of both and his talent as a manipulator and falsifier are very much at issue.
Moyers: You may not remember it, but you and I talked 16 years ago this very week – a few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. ll – and PBS had asked me to go on the air to talk to a variety of people about their response to those atrocities.
Lifton: I haven’t forgotten it, Bill.
Moyers: And in our discussion, we talked about your book, Destroying the World to Save It, about that extremist Japanese religious cult aum shinrikyo that released sarin nerve gas in Tokyo subways, you compared their ideology to Osama bin Laden: “He wanted to destroy a major part of the world to purify the world. There was in this idea, or his ideology, a sense of renewal.” We saw it in that Japanese cult. So the issue I am getting at is that such an aspiration can take hold of any true believer – the desire to purify the world no matter the cost.
Lifton: It is a very dangerous aspiration, and it’s not absent from the Trump presidency, although I don’t think it’s his central theme. I think it’s a central theme in Steve Bannon, for instance, who is an apocalyptic character and really wants to bring down most of advanced society as we know it, most of civilization as we know it, in order to recreate it in his image. I think Trump has some attraction to that, just as he had attraction to Bannon as a person and as a thinker, and that influence is by no means over. He’s still in touch with Bannon. So there is this apocalyptic influence in the Trumpean presidency: The world is destroyed in order to be purified and renewed in the ideal way that is projected by a Steve Bannon. And there is a sense of that when Trump says we’ll make America great again, because he says it’s been destroyed, he will remake it. So there is an apocalyptic suggestion, but I don’t think it’s at the very heart of his presidency.
Moyers: So our challenge is?
Lifton: I always feel we have to work both outside and inside of our existing institutions, so we have to really be careful about who we vote for and examine carefully our institutions and what they’re meant to do and how they’re being violated. I also think we need movements from below that oppose what this administration and administrations like it are doing to ordinary people. And for those of us who contributed to this book – well, as I said earlier, we have to be “witnessing professionals” and fulfill our duty to warn.” (The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: Robert Jay Lifton and Bill Moyers on ‘A duty to warn’, billmoyers.com, 14 September 2017).
So, if one accept that no-one as mentally unstable as President Trump should be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency, could one be entitled to say that America has lost its grip on reality?
Or should that view be confined to Donald J. Trump?
Watching any part of the impeachment hearings, one would realise that there are at least two different versions of reality – not simply disagreements about facts and interpretation, but about reality itself.
Professor Lifton argues that one way to understand the America of Donald J. Trump is to consider the phenomenon of what he calls “ideological totalism.” He explains the similarities between the current ideological polarisation and efforts like Chinese communist thought reform in the early 1950s. The one element which makes today different – he says – is Trump’s lack of ideology. Instead, the President lives in a self-created “solipsistic reality” – the self is all which can be known to exist.
In Lipton’s view, Trump’s appeal, in part, to something he calls “psychological apocalypticism,” a pull toward “a new collective mindset which is pure, perfect, and eternal.” This combines a desire to be part of something bigger than oneself with a call to share in the effort of destroying reality in order to save the world.
Professor Lipton details the parallels between cult leaders and demagogic politicians, and makes reference to some of President Trump’s statements, going back to the inaugural address, when he spoke of “American carnage” and asserted that “I alone can fix it.”
Still, the public has been left to wonder whether Donald J. Trump is mad, bad, or both. The prestigious mental health experts who have contributed to the expanded and updated version of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (same publisher, 26 March 2019) argue that their moral and civic “duty to warn” supersedes professional neutrality. Whatever affects him, affects the nation: from the trauma people have experienced under the Trump Administration to the cult-like characteristics of his followers, he has created unprecedented mental health consequences across America and beyond. With eight new essays and about one hundred pages of new material, the updated edition covers the dangerous ramifications of Trump’s unnatural state during the first two years of his administration. Readers are assured that “it is not all in their heads.” It is in his.
Continued Thursday … (Part 21)
* Europaeus landed in Australia over fifty years ago. Except for the blue skies and starry nights between 02.12.1972 and 10.11.1975 the place has been constantly overwhelmed by what Hannah Arendt called the ‘sand storm’ – a metaphor for totalitarianism.
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