What Makes Trump So Dangerous?

A lot of questions have been raised about Donald Trump’s mental health. I have said that we need to talk about it not only because he is dangerous, but because the topic has been shrouded in secrecy, which only reinforces the stigma.

On October 3rd, a book “The Dangerous Case for Donald Trump” will be published. In it, 27 psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts assess President Trump’s mental health. Bill Moyers recently interviewed Robert Jay Lifton, the psychohistorian who wrote the forward. Before getting to what he said about Trump, here is how Lifton describes the intent of the authors:

We have a duty to warn on an individual basis if we are treating someone who may be dangerous to herself or to others — a duty to warn people who are in danger from that person. We feel it’s our duty to warn the country about the danger of this president. If we think we have learned something about Donald Trump and his psychology that is dangerous to the country, yes, we have an obligation to say so.

Over the last couple of decades, the mental health profession has been somewhat reduced to identifying a diagnosis and prescribing medication. What is most interesting about Lifton’s insights is that he reminds us that the field is grounded in the notion of studying human behavior and finding the patterns that are either functional or dysfunctional. Lifton stayed away from providing a mental health diagnosis of the president, instead discussing the psychological and other traits that render him unfit and dangerous. Here are some excerpts of what he had to say:

Moyers: You write in the foreword of the book: “Because Trump is president and operates within the broad contours and interactions of the presidency, there is a tendency to view what he does as simply part of our democratic process, that is, as politically and even ethically normal.”

Lifton: Yes. And that’s what I call malignant normality. What we put forward as self-evident and normal may be deeply dangerous and destructive. I came to that idea in my work on the psychology of Nazi doctors — and I’m not equating anybody with Nazi doctors, but it’s the principle that prevails — and also with American psychologists who became architects of CIA torture during the Iraq War era. These are forms of malignant normality. For example, Donald Trump lies repeatedly. We may come to see a president as liar as normal…In other words, his behavior as president, with all those who defend his behavior in the administration, becomes a norm. We have to contest it, because it is malignant normality…

I’ve focused on what professionally I call solipsistic reality. Solipsistic reality means that the only reality he’s capable of embracing has to do with his own self and the perception by and protection of his own self. And for a president to be so bound in this isolated solipsistic reality could not be more dangerous for the country and for the world…

Trump has a mind that in many ways is always under duress, because he’s always seeking to be accepted, loved. He sees himself as constantly victimized by others and by the society, from which he sees himself as fighting back. So there’s always an intensity to his destructive behavior that could contribute to his false beliefs…

Well, while Trump doesn’t have any systematic ideology, he does have a narrative, and in that narrative, America was once a great country, it’s been weakened by poor leadership, and only he can make it great again by taking over. And that’s an image of himself as a strongman, a dictator. It isn’t the clear ideology of being a fascist or some other clear-cut ideological figure. Rather, it’s a narrative of himself as being unique and all-powerful…

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.

When it comes to the question of whether or not Trump can pivot away from these destructive behaviors, Lifton confirms what I’ve been saying all along. This won’t get better. In fact, the longer he is in office the worse it will get.

…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.

At the end of the interview, Moyers reminds Lifton of a previous interview in which they discussed the extremist Japanese religious cult aum shinrikyo that released sarin nerve gas in Tokyo subways. Their ideology was that they had to destroy a part of the world in order to save it—much like Osama bin Laden. Lifton said that, while not absent from the Trump presidency, that ideology was not central to it…with one exception.

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.

In other words, Donald Trump is dangerous because his psychological traits make him unfit for the office he holds. On the other hand, Steve Bannon actually has a dangerous ideology. That is something to consider, given his desire to implement a hostile takeover of the Republican Party with the backing of billionaire Robert Mercer.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.