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Trump Dementia Syndrome

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


(Note: The author is a Ph.D. in Psychology with over two decades of clinical experience.)

Supporters of Trump are of two kinds: people who are rich, and people who are ill. The first kind barely needs an explanation. Greed is the oldest human motivator. It is hardly any surprise that rich people would embrace an administration that gives them a huge windfall tax cut while threatening the safety net to pay for it, that would deregulate businesses (including nursing homes!) to the point where safety is compromised, and that dismantles consumer protections. Selfishness needs no explanation, although it has spawned ideologies like that of Republican hero Ayn Rand turning selfishness into a virtue, while helping one’s fellow human being out of the goodness of one’s heart is considered utter stupidity.

The other type of Trump supporter, the true believer, is more interesting. While many, if not most, Trump supporters appear to lead normal lives, they have a shadow side suggesting a pattern of mental illness characterized by paranoia, sadomasochism, and poor reality testing.

Paranoia

True-believing Trump supporters typically feel victimized and persecuted. The “coastal elites” have conspired to make their lives miserable. They face dangers all around them: from anyone who is not white, and who is not Christian (and especially, God forbid, who is Muslim!) - in short, from anyone who is not a member of the dominant group. Evangelical Christians, the dominant religious group in the United States, believe they have no religious freedom. White Trump supporters think they are a persecuted minority. They are deathly afraid of immigrants, whether legal or illegal, as if the next one to cross the border will steal their job. White male Trump supporters are afraid that any woman who comes forward publicly about being sexually abused may give their girlfriends ideas. Yet at the same time, they blame those women when they don’t come forward. Each of these women, though she may be a perfect stranger, is perceived as a personal threat. The only way to neutralize this threat is to humiliate these women and refuse to take them seriously.

Trump supporters control the Presidency, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, but still feel themselves out of power and persecuted. When asked who could be doing this to them if all our governmental institutions are now in conservative hands, they will reply that it must be some mythical “Deep State.” Or they may have seen visions of George Soros peering through their bedroom window at night.

This exemplifies a very primitive mode of thinking, which predominates during the first three to four months of life. Object Relations theorist Melanie Klein has described this mode of thinking as the paranoid-schizoid position. It is characterized by a fear of annihilation, which we see in Trump supporters who feel profoundly threatened by the least powerful members of our society. The infant develops a defense mechanism against this fear known as splitting. Unable to see the parent who fulfills and the parent who denies as the same individual, it “splits” them into the good one, with whom it identifies, and the bad one, the external evil against which it must protect itself. During the normal course of development the split is resolved as the child learns to tolerate ambiguity and see others as whole human beings. However, in many individuals this resolution fails to occur, resulting in a black-and-white, “us vs. them” way of approaching the world, or, in the words of George W. Bush, second only to Donald Trump in the esteem of this type of dementia sufferer, “If you’re not for me, you’re against me.” When paranoid fears and splitting belonging to this very early stage of development persist into adulthood, they become a personality disorder.

In the political world, this splitting takes shape in the unwillingness and inability to compromise. When Democrats tried to reach across the aisle during the Obama years, many conservatives, seeing themselves as the pure good unable to compromise with the evil “other,” flatly refused. To them Democrats (or “Demon Rats” as the Trump Dementia Syndrome sufferer likes to call them) were not legislative partners; they were an evil that had to be stamped out. And so, the highest Republican priority at that time was not the good of the nation, but a determination to make Obama a “one-term President.”

Obama, in fact, plays a key role in the obsessive aspect of this disorder. He is its main defense mechanism. If anything is wrong in the world, it is because of Obama. If Russians meddled in the election, it’s Obama’s fault for ignoring it. If Trump is unpopular, Obama is trying to undercut him. If Trump is unhappy that he lost the popular vote, it’s because Obama was spying on his campaign. If white males in this country feel insecure, it’s because Obama hated white people. Obama is the convenient source of every ill, which serves the primitive style of thinking characteristic of this disorder. Trump Dementia Syndrome sufferers protect themselves against the insecurities of a changing world by focusing all of their fears on Obama, thus exonerating Trump of all error and wrongdoing so they can continue to have confidence in his ability to save them. It is therefore impossible for Trump to do anything bad: the reflex response to anything questionable Trump does is “What about Obama? What about Obama?” This response becomes automatic, a stereotyped compulsion that protects sufferers from having to face reality or analyze their hero with any semblance of objectivity.

Sadomasochism

Trump’s sadistic streak, while repugnant to anyone with a normal sense of decency, commands the fascination and even admiration of syndrome sufferers. Children of asylum seekers, yanked from their parents’ arms and shipped to tent cities in Texas, evoke no sympathy. On the contrary, syndrome sufferers experience a kind of vindictive satisfaction. “It’s about time people realized this is a country of laws” they say, not really caring that seeking asylum is not illegal. If an ICE raid succeeds in depriving a family of its breadwinner, removing a productive member of society, so much the better - that’s just one more job for us, thinks the syndrome sufferer. The tears and anguish of the separated children even elicited laughter from some border patrol agents. DACA children, here through no fault of their own, receive particularly little sympathy even though many of them have been contributing to this country’s future. “They’re not real Native Americans,” think the syndrome sufferers, who can’t wait to send them off to countries they have never known.

Immigrants are not the only targets of Trumpian cruelty. Supporters laughed when Trump grotesquely imitated a disabled reporter. They applaud when Trump takes healthcare away from poor people to finance tax cuts for the rich. They tolerate or even enjoy Trump’s humiliation of women and his bragging about sexual abuse as if it were a virtue. The same for his public humiliation of Christine Blasey Ford, right after she testified that the most traumatic thing for her was being the object of her abusers' derisive laughter. It is hard to imagine why she would willingly expose herself to national ridicule, death threats, and the predictable attacks on her character if she were not telling the truth. And people still wonder why so many women like her don’t come forward!

Trump’s role models are the cruelest dictators on the planet - Russian’s Putin, Duterte of the Philippines, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Trump looks up to them in a shamefully sycophantic way that in more normal times would be considered a national disgrace. When China removed term limits, making Xi Jinping President for Life, Trump suggested (jokingly?) that perhaps we ought to try that in the United States.

These men embody the values that Trump holds dear. Syndrome sufferers, unable to attain to Trump’s heights of power, enjoy his exploits vicariously and content themselves with Trump’s ongoing efforts to make the lives of people who don’t look like them as miserable as he can. Their gratification is so deep that they welcome Trump’s embrace of the Communist dictator whereas, if Obama had done the same, they would have called for his crucifixion let alone his impeachment.

Syndrome sufferers love Trump not in spite of his cruelty but because of it. He gives them license to feel the way they do towards people they fear or dislike - and to enjoy the adolescent pleasure of preying on weaker creatures. Many of them exhibit a strange dissociation between their baser desires and their purported religious values. If they are Christian, they repress the knowledge that Jesus protected the poor and the stranger and castigated the wealthy and the comfortable. If they are Jewish, they block from their minds the prophetic call for social justice. In fact, “social justice” has become an anathema in conservative religious circles - something not far removed from devil worship.

And a word to the wise: do not attempt to remind religious syndrome sufferers that they are violating their religious values. They will become deeply offended and angry - a clear sign that inwardly they know you are right.

Cruelty is perhaps the quality in Trump that most attracts syndrome sufferers. They are like the kid who’s too cowardly to bully others himself but who experiences vicarious pleasure when others do it. They like Trump’s style of “winning”: where it’s not enough just to come out on top; for the victory to be complete one must punch it down the other’s throat. So tax “reform” is not a victory unless it’s engineered to raise the taxes of blue-state voters. It’s not enough to turn immigrants away at the border; the children must be kidnapped from their parents and permanently traumatized. And instead of doing the obviously smart thing and replacing the clearly flawed Judge Kavanaugh with another conservative judge who actually demonstrates some integrity, Kavanaugh must be forced through at breakneck speed precisely because his confirmation will be taken by many to vindicate male sexual aggression and the humiliation of women. And if it contributes to the acrimonious division in this country, well that is precisely the point. What anti-Trumpers fail to realize, because their minds don’t work that way, is that Trump supporters don’t simply tolerate these moves; they applaud them, because they derive pleasure from them. A different nominee, even if just as conservative, would not provide the same sadistic gratification.

The Kavanaugh episode is significant for another reason: it reveals an odd sense of entitlement that syndrome sufferers have. Thus a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court treats the position with an indignant sense of “It’s mine!” like a child refusing to let go of a favorite toy. “Innocent until proven guilty!” he and his fellow syndrome sufferers proclaim, seemingly unaware that a confirmation hearing is not a criminal trial; it is a job interview. What would a Republican in good standing say to an applicant for a position in a Fortune 500 company with a bad recommendation letter but who insisted: “You must give me this job! I have a right to it! I’m innocent until proven guilty!”? The answer is obvious. At least Kavanaugh got his interview. Merrick Garland was denied one for almost a year, but he did not whine about being innocent until proven guilty. This sense of entitlement is special: it applies only to Republicans, and its grandiosity is virtually boundless. And so Kavanaugh, and most of all his loudest Senatorial supporters, can rant and scream and intimidate and that is considered acceptable and even admirable, whereas in a corporate office rather than a Senate committee room such behavior might trigger a call to security. At the very least, it certainly would not get the applicant hired.

Underneath the sadism of Trump Dementia Syndrome lies a pernicious strain of masochism. Syndrome sufferers - Trump supporters who are not rich - are notorious for voting against their own self-interest. Many of them supported the dismantling of their own healthcare, just because Obama’s name was attached to it. They feel pacified by a “tax cut” that offers substantial benefits only to people far above their income level - and with a sunset date for those provisions that do give people of their own class very modest aid. Even while considering themselves “fiscal conservatives,” they fail to realize that the ballooning deficit created to finance this tax break for the wealthy will have a price tag - and since the tax cuts will not be easily restored, the most likely targets for paying this price will be Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security - programs that benefit the poor and middle class.

The masochistic trend in syndrome sufferers reaches also to the environment. Companies producing excessive amounts of toxic waste tend to concentrate in red states, whose voters buy the Republican line of business over people and all regulations are bad, even those that save lives. The State of Louisiana alone loses a football field of wetland every hour, due to the trashing of the environment. And Louisiana voters couldn’t be happier with their Republican representatives looking out for their best interests.

Poor Reality Testing

Views on both the tax cut and climate change reveal another aspect of halted development in the syndrome sufferer. The few dollars that this tax cut may save middle class people (unless they live in blue states, where they will save nothing) will, as we have seen, create a big problem for future generations. If the economy falters again - and eventually it will, with a deficit this large and economic cycles being what they are - there will be no slack left to stimulate the economy with tax rates already low. The same with climate change: the current generation may slide by with continuing its wasteful habits and denying the problem, but future generations will suffer. The arrested development common to all personality disorders does not care about future generations. It’s grab what you can while you can, and those left behind have only themselves to blame. To use a favorite mantra of syndrome sufferers, the victims of predatory policies suffer because they don’t take “personal responsibility” - which of course is code for not being as clever as I am in carving out for myself a bigger piece of the pie at your expense.

To this one may add Trump’s methodical dismantling of the international order that has kept the peace since the end of World War II. Trump admires the enemies of democracy, while he treats democracies like enemies. Any Democratic President who behaved this way would be hanged for treason. But syndrome sufferers love it, because Trump’s love for dictators mirrors their own admiration of the bully who is not afraid to inflict pain on weaker people. They do not contemplate the consequences likely to follow if America stays on this course. Trump disdains diplomacy and tries to bully other countries to do what he wants. His supporters love him for this also, for the very same reason. But it isn’t working. Already China is filling the vacuum of economic leadership we are leaving them. Things may get worse as powerful autocratic leaders feel freer to flex their muscles to the adoring audience of the “Leader” of the Free World.




Found on the internet

The inability to plan for the long term is only one facet of syndrome supporters’ impaired reality testing. Another is an apparent imperviousness to facts. The frequency of Trump’s lies - and he lies almost as often as he breathes - has no effect on his supporters’ loyalty. If a lie is too obvious - like the birther hoax - Trump’s supporters may admit it but immediately discard the realization. But give them scientific evidence of climate change not only being real but partially human-made, and they will deny it and argue with you as if they were experts. Or they will tell you that it’s just a matter of opinion. Facts and data have no effect on them. They are guided by a higher authority - how they feel. After all, if facts don’t matter to their hero, then they shouldn’t matter to anyone. Unless, of course, they are “alternative facts.”

Syndrome sufferers also hide from reality through finely honed defense mechanisms, specifically projection and rationalization. They hide from their own primitive greed by projecting it onto an image created in their minds of a burgeoning underclass gnawing like rats at the foundations of their houses, wanting them to pay for everything. Why do those people need food stamps? Why do they need food? Why do they need birth control? Why do they need healthcare? Especially if it comes out of our pockets. Well, healthcare might have been a good idea, until Obama’s name got attached to it. It then became the seed of wickedness, even if Republicans thought of it first.

So what about people at the losing end of policies that cut services to the poor while making rich people richer? That’s easy: they should take “personal responsibility.”

Another external projection point for the fears of syndrome sufferers is “Antifa.” The fact that right-wing white supremacists committed 59% of extremist murders in 2017 (as an Anti-Defamation League report documents) does not register with them. Instead they must build up an image of some left-wing chimera to compete with this unpleasant reality. Since comparable offenses cannot be found on the left, the right wing must make them up. So, for example, when Devin Kelley murdered 26 people at a Sutherland Springs, Texas church in 2017, right-wingers spread false rumors linking him to “Antifa,” and some of them even harassed victims’ families. These desperate measures indicate that Trump Dementia Syndrome sufferers need a mythical “Antifa” blown far out of proportion to reality in order to externalize their fears and give themselves an illusory sense of justification and control. If you try to point out to them that no Antifa violence has ever occurred that is remotely comparable to what was done by the right, they will fearfully respond, “Well, it might happen.” This delusion may become so severe that syndrome sufferers may imagine Antifa goblins peeping out from under their beds at night or even popping out of their toilets.

Conclusion: The Global Effects of Trump Dementia Syndrome

The pathology underlying Trump Dementia Syndrome is both individual and societal. The country as a whole, so sharply divided that it evokes memories of the Civil War, and at the time of this writing with every branch of government in the hands of ideological extremists, is Trump Dementia Syndrome writ large. We can understand this better by looking at Trump himself.

Anyone who has followed Trump’s television career knows that Trump is an expert in two things (and making great deals is not one of them): staging a spectacle, and turning people against each other.

Trump’s television show The Apprentice was a master class in spectacle arranging. His campaign, which did not end after the election but still continues, is his greatest spectacle of all. He is charismatic and knows how to inflame passions in order to promote himself. This hardly requires elaboration: just watch one of his rallies or listen to one of his demagogic speeches.

But Trump’s skill in inspiring enmity between people is particularly awesome. In boardroom scenes on The Apprentice, whenever one contestant treated another with respect, Trump would say things like “You’re being too nice. Don’t let her get away with that,” with a not-so veiled threat that the contestant would be fired if she didn’t change course and turn on her colleague. This pattern was constant throughout the series, and revealed more about Trump than many of us were ready to know. Trump thrives on conflict, division, and intergroup hatred. He encourages it. He believes (and he may be right) that it keeps him in power. He must also find it deeply gratifying.

He has now taken this strategy to a national level. He has many ways of inspiring hate: the “birther” lie, painting black communities as violent and blacks as uneducated, planting suggestions that every Latino immigrant is MS13, and showing a special contempt for women, boasting about how they like to be sexually abused by him.

It is hard not to suspect that all of this is calculated. Trump has succeeded in making acceptable prejudices and hatreds about which we used to be ashamed. Now even neo-Nazis have no hesitations about displaying themselves publicly, thanking Trump for his support. And this explains the apparent paradox of why Trump Dementia Syndrome sufferers vote against their own self-interest. If you can convince them that the real “elites” are the Democrats and not the people who are actually exploiting them and taking them for fools, if you can make them feel that hating blacks and Latinos and Muslims and gay people is OK, and if you can help justify their insecurities about and contempt for women, you can get their votes regardless of what else you do to them. You can poison their water, destroy their farms, take their healthcare away, and they will still love you.

Hatred is not a byproduct of the Trump Administration; it is its fuel. This administration runs on it, thrives on it, and depends on it. At every rally Trump’s skill as a master of inciting hatred between different groups of Americans is apparent; that hatred is the motivation Trump counts on to keep him and his party in power. The sharp and acrimonious division in this country is therefore a deliberate strategy. Usually the victorious party in a national election extends an olive branch to the other side, to try to unite the country and heal its wounds. But Trump not only abhors conciliation, he stomps the other side until it bleeds. It is not enough for him just to win; he must humiliate his opponent, even if she is a woman clearly traumatized from a past experience of sexual assault. And his audience loves it. That is a big reason why he does it. Trump loves his supporters’ love of his cruelty.

In normal times a winner would reach out to the loser in an effort to unite the country. But Trump Dementia Syndrome allows no capacity for that kind of magnanimous gesture. Instead the object is to add insult to injury, to inflict more pain and ridicule on those who have already lost. So Trump supporters devise diagnostic phrases like Trump Derangement Syndrome (it even has a Wikipedia entry!) to describe anyone who has enough conscience to be outraged by the systematic use of cruelty for political purposes. Just the one fact that this administration has been methodically terrorizing the children of asylum seekers, wrenching them from their parents and locking them in cages with no plans to reunite them ever, should cause a massive cry of outrage and an avalanche of protest at the polls. Yet those who do protest are called “deranged” and “hysterical” and “snowflakes,” as many more of our citizens than we would like to admit take secret pleasure in the cries of children who do not resemble their own.

The most frightening thing about Trump Dementia Syndrome is that it may be revealing an underside of our national character that we were too naïve to admit and too willing to ignore. When Obama was elected, one could hear fantastical proclamations that America finally solved its racism problem. But like the return of the repressed, it has come back to haunt us with ferocious intensity. Nonsensical references to the “Party of Lincoln” are further evidence of trying to cover this up. If he were alive today, Lincoln would be the last man on earth who could hope to be nominated by the “Party of Lincoln.” He would sooner be burned in effigy. And the danger does not end there. No party holds power forever. When the baton eventually does change hands, Democrats will be sorely tempted to treat Republicans the same way Republicans treated them. Trump may have changed the psychosocial makeup of this country for generations to come, reviving old hatreds that once tore this country apart and unleashing a repeating cycle of vindictive rage that may last for decades.

But Trump cannot do this by himself. He needs the allegiance, compliance, and zealous cheerleading of the Trump Dementia Syndrome sufferers who, while not a majority in this country, act as if they were. He knows well how to play them. But the question still remains: Who really decides what values define this country?

October 2018