By Stephen J. Ducat
The Problem of Diagnosis
Debates rage in the increasingly politicized world of mental health clinicians about how to name and understand Trump’s evident psychopathology. Is he a narcissistic psychopath, a psychopathic narcissist, or simply a ruthless con man who managed to grift his way into business and then into the White House?
There are those cautious souls that still abide by the “Goldwater Rule” a proscription against clinicians diagnosing politicians and others in public life who haven’t been interviewed directly. This was an attempt by the American Psychiatric Association to prevent the kind of reductive and politically motivated pathologizing that was directed against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign. As it turns out, the rule was an overreaching corrective for an overreaching use of diagnosis. We have a wealth of data on what those in public life do and say in the world, something we don’t have access to with our patients. Although patients behave in certain ways in the context of treatment, we can only speculate how that translates to other relational contexts.
Even though we cannot know Trump through a personal analytic transference, we have seen and heard him engaging in a multiplicity of transference-like enactments, and we have witnessed the many countertransference-like responses he has invoked in others (such as aggressive retaliation and submission, often in the same person). He has shown a particular talent for getting those under him to abandon any moral constraint when those morals interfere with serving his interests. In October of 2017, we witnessed the supposed “adult in the room,” presidential Chief of Staff General John Kelly devolve into a more persuasive and articulate but no less mendacious Trumpian mini-me. A Florida Congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson, had overheard on speakerphone Trump’s callous and thoughtless attempt to console the newly widowed wife of a slain soldier, and dared to criticize the President for his stunning lack of emotional intelligence. Leaping to his boss’s defense at a press conference, Kelly attacked Wilson’s character and fabricated a story about her supposed outrageous behavior at a public event, in spite of readily available news footage of that event that shows Kelly’s assertion to be an elaborate lie.
Furthermore, assessing Trump’s psychology requires little speculation as we have available to us a life-long history of personal, romantic, business, and political relationships. With the exception of some of his predatory and criminal behavior, he has led his entire life in public. We know what he says and how he says it. Through his own words Trump has even let us in on what provokes him to act – primarily vengeance, vainglory, lust, greed, and an obsession with domination. It has been on this public stage, not behind closed doors, where we have witnessed him reward anyone who flatters him and punish those who fail to do so. His daily Twitter tantrums have constituted a kind of ongoing characterological EEG reading, as if the vicissitudes of his personality disorder produced brain waves that could be converted into a text form readable by all.
To discuss and explore his obvious psychopathology – a malignant narcissism and psychopathy that threatens us all – is not to adopt the Soviet-style use of psychiatric diagnosis in the service of political repression. Rather, as I will argue, it is understanding that can be put to emancipatory purposes. This is because knowing his psychology is central to the project of resisting his policies, and to the task of understanding his appeal to a significant plurality of Americans. If the central thesis of this essay is correct, that Trump’s pathology is isomorphic with his brand, then what may look to some of us as signs and symptoms of profound impairment is precisely what makes him the object of near delirious veneration on the part of his base. As he well understands, to them he can do no wrong. Or, rather, every wrong he commits is righteous. This will be unpacked in the next section.
Allen Frances, a former editor of the DSM, argues against the tendency of some inside and outside the mental health field to apply diagnostic categories to an understanding of Trump. He insists that because Trump’s personality traits do not seem to bring him suffering and have made him quite successful, this militates against evaluating him in terms of psychopathology. However, in taking this position, Frances illustrates one of the many weaknesses of the DSM, a pseudo-empirical insurance coding guidebook of little clinical utility.
In this case, he ignores a central feature of personality disorders – their ego-syntonic nature. In other words, the behavior of such patients is untroublingly congruent with how they want to see themselves. This is especially the case with narcissism. Furthermore, it is not that “successful” narcissists, like Trump do not suffer distress. Rather, it is that their psychic pain is hidden behind the central preoccupations that mark their character: a ceaseless obsession with zero-sum status competition, a desperate Sisyphean pursuit of admiration that is never satisfied, and an unrelenting series of vendettas against those who have questioned his greatness. Like most narcissists, Trump would never seek treatment for his character – not because he doesn’t suffer, but because he locates that suffering in the failures of others to affirm his most grandiose self-image.
Fortunately for Trump, he is wealthy and privileged enough to get others to accommodate his pathology rather than challenge it. In fact, a December 2017 New York Times profile of Trump, drawn from 60 sources, advisors, aides, and political allies, fills in the details of a picture many can see from a distance: a petulant, brittle, and impulsive baby-man, a mad king who must be managed by a large team of courtiers and sycophants whose main task is to protect him from his own actions. Functioning as a kind of fun house mirror in reverse, they render his deficits and dysfunctions as admirable virtues. For example, to counter the accusation that Trump is a perpetrator of fake news and a relentless fount of confabulation and conspiracy mongering, those who serve him affirm the notion that he is instead the long-suffering victim of and noble crusader against the “fake media” and lies of liberals. His loyal coterie of buffers and fluffers, seem to operate as a kind of auxiliary component of his personality disorder, ensuring that his impulses and actions remain ego-syntonic and his sense of self-importance remains sufficiently inflated.
From Personality Disorder to Brand to Political Order
One of the remarkable features of Trump’s personality is the way it has come to saturate, in fact, define his brand as a businessman and now as a politician. As Naomi Klein has pointed out in her new book, the essence of the Trump brand is not simply wealth and power but impunity, which is what that wealth and power have bought him. Such impunity becomes an even more useful currency when congealed in his brand, which becomes the semiotic carrier of the fantasy of being able to “do anything,” as he bragged in the infamous Access Hollywood tape. During the campaign Trump expressed a more murderous vision of his moral if not legal indemnity when he said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “not lose voters.”
For him, of course, it has not been just a fantasy. While impunity is deeply felt by Trump, it is also realized in the external world. Ms. Klein has detailed how his administration has been able to function as an unapologetic kleptocracy and a heretofore unconstrained one. As I see it, he has transformed a personality disorder into a brand and from there into a form of rule, an entire regime of psychopathy.
The fact that Trump and his family have enriched themselves by outsourcing the production of their products and real estate development projects to manufacturers and builders that use sweatshop and slave labor has not stopped him from being able to depict himself as an America Firster and a working-class hero. And frank treason has not impeded his efforts to portray himself as an uber-patriot.
His life of salacious debauchery, greed, and marital infidelity has not diminished the gushing enthusiasm with which he is greeted by the Christian Right. In the case of Trump, these good Christians do not merely defer to Caesar; they worship him. Some evangelical leaders compared him to Churchill, arguing that Trump “may be profane but ordained.” The mantle of God’s imperfect vessel was passed to former Alabama judge Roy Moore during his 2017 Senatorial race. He, like Trump, faced numerous sexual assault allegations. (In Moore’s case, some involved underage girls.) And like Trump, Moore denied everything and attacked his accusers. As with many Trump clones on the Right, the Moore scandal illustrates the extent to which impunity, at least among pious Republicans, is conferred upon those who disclaim any accountability for their actions. While Moore lost the Senatorial race against Doug Jones, it was by a narrow margin. And, he enjoyed the enthusiastic support from the President who made robocalls on Moore’s behalf. In addition, the Republican National Committee, the executive arm of the “family values” party, resolved their earlier ambivalence about backing an accused pedophile, and gave him a full-throated endorsement prior to the election.
In the case of Trump, his Teflon exoskeleton is even slipperier than the one attributed to Ronald Reagan. One could argue that the Trump “T” emblazoned across the top of his phallic buildings fundamentally stands for Teflon. He is the spokesmodel for impunity – impunity for sexual assault, for stiffing contractors, for wage theft, for providing investment safe havens to laundered Russian mob money, for proudly embracing murderous autocrats around the world, and for alternately denying and celebrating Putin’s corruption of our elections. In addition, at least among his supporters, Trump evinces impunity for praising the virtues of Nazis and white supremacists, for blaming Puerto Rican hurricane victims for their suffering and mocking their plight with Marie Antoinette-like “gifts” of paper towels tossed into desperate crowds, for exalting sadism and belligerence into noble virtues, and for compulsively and ceaselessly lying about both trivial and profound matters. In some ways, the latter, the normalization and acceptance of his lying, may be the most impactful and defining aspect of impunity in the present era.
“How Many Fingers, Winston?”
In the reign of Trump, we have witnessed the emergence of a paradoxical species of disinformation, the open cover-up. It is a lie about something we can all see. It is an attack on our capacity to know what is true, to apprehend reality outside the assertions of the autocracy. It can be about trivial matters, such as inaugural crowd sizes. Or, it can involve more substantive concerns, such as the popular vote or Don Jr.’s well-published glee over getting the dirt on Hillary Clinton from Putin surrogates.
“Orwellian” is an appellation easily thrown around these days. But in the current moment, the descriptor seems especially apt. In the famous scene in 1984, O’Brien, the interrogator, confronts the prisoner, Winston, “Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.” What follows is the nightmare exchange burned into all of our memories in which O’Brien holds up four fingers and insists under the threat of escalating torture that Winston must not only say that he sees five fingers but believe he does. We are now in a world where our masters not only demand obedience but also hysterical blindness. Fortunately for Trump, he has had and continues to have an eager team of well-paid liars, such as Sean Spicer, Kelley Anne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the entire rogue’s gallery of Fox News fantasists to share the labor of rewriting reality.
Astonishingly, in an episode that could have been scripted by Orwell, Trump even tried to assert, once elected, that the aforementioned Access Hollywood tape, in which he gloated over his special ability to get away with sexual assault, was fake. This was in spite of his prior video-taped campaign admission and perfunctory apology.
There is an important prehistory to the current administration’s attack on the possibility of a consensual reality. For many decades, right-wing pundits and politicians have not only lied whenever it suited their purposes but elevated lying itself to a kind of political sacrament and an admirable sign of Machiavellian mastery. Many may recall author Ron Suskind’s interview with a senior presidential advisor employed by the GW Bush administration that derided journalists as anachronistic members of the “reality-based community.” He had insisted that the only necessary function of reporters was to be stenographers of those in power – the movers and shakers whose stories were the only ones worth telling. This was the soil from which a thousand “alternative facts” would later bloom. There is no greater impunity than the ability to repudiate reality, and to suffer no consequences for that repudiation.
The Meaning of the Trump Brand
Every brand makes a promise: that the qualities projected onto it, as with totem animals, can be bestowed upon those who purchase the associated products. In fact, the brand functions as a kind of meta-product. Just as a product used to be and still is marketed as a currency that can confer qualities and experiences you might never be able to get on your own – power, sexiness, glamour, admiration and envy of others, freedom from moral or legal sanction – the brand can perform this magical transfer without the need for an actual object. The label or logo now embodies the same spiritual essence as the material thing once did – a fetish that has been liberated from the fetish object itself. The impunity that animates Trump’s character and life can, in the wishful imagination, be licensed like his brand and inhabit his customers and fans. He is the permissive super-ego who says, “Since I can do it, so can you.” His brand thus offers a kind of preemptive pardon (anticipating the legal one he has openly considered for those loyal to him), not just for his cabinet members, his consiglieri and official explainers, but also for his base. The grace of normalization is not just conferred on those white supremacist groups filled with “good people,” but also ordinary Americans who no longer have to sublimate their ethnic hatred and misogyny.
Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign, incidents of racist verbal and physical assaults and vandalism have not only dramatically escalated but have involved the use of his name in the text of those attacks. As one businessman said to a Kennedy Airport worker in a hijab, “Trump is here now. He will get rid of all of you.” In Connecticut, fans of an all-white high school basketball team hurled racist taunts at the opposing team comprised largely of black and Latino players, and yelled “Trump! Trump! Trump!” This incident is one of many similar examples in which the President’s name has joined the swastika and the Confederate flag as brands signifying unapologetic exterminationist white supremacy.
At this point, some of my strenuously tolerant liberal readers might assert that not all Trump supporters are racist or contemptuous of various Others. And yet, they voted for someone who was, and cheered rapturously at his rallies. What does it mean to say you are not a bigot but are happy to support someone who is?
Forgive me for moving to the rhetorical third rail but occasionally Hitler analogies can be clarifying. How might we have regarded “good Germans” in the post-Weimar era who looked upon the brash Austrian rabble rouser and his party as simply the sort of nationalist disruptors the country needed? “Well,” they might say, “I don’t really think Jews are vermin, the principal vectors for all our economic and social maladies, but that Treaty of Versailles was a really bad deal. The Nazis promise to make Germany great again, create jobs, and build that beautiful autobahn. So, I want them in the Reichstag. And, you’ve got to love that idea of Lebensraum. Who doesn’t want to stretch out?”
Whether you are a bigot or can overlook bigotry in your leaders, the distinction doesn’t seem to constitute a meaningful difference, especially when it comes to policies those elected leaders get to enact. (For a fuller account of racism, in particular its role in eclipsing class as a driver of political identity, see my essay, “Tribe vs. Class in the Age of Post-Reality Politics,” which appeared in the anthology River of Fire: Commons, Crisis, and the Imagination.)
Absolute Power, Absolute Impunity
Impunity preempts any need to even imitate, let alone feel, empathy and other emotions common to the rest of the species. For Trump, regret and remorse are affective kryptonite to his singular superpower, untrammeled entitlement. He seems to live by his version of the medieval dictum of le droit du seigneur, the right of the lord. Originally, this referred to the master’s prerogative to rape any woman living on the land over which he ruled. For Trump, it is a more inclusive privilege and applies to anything and anybody he covets. So, unlike other politicians and CEOs, he cannot allow himself to even insincerely apologize, regardless of whatever short-term political or economic utility it might offer. The long-term damage to his brand would be too great.
Impunity is linked to another central feature of the Trumplandian universe – its authoritarianism and admiration of dictatorship. This may be why the Right is not just unperturbed by the Russian electoral espionage scandal, but even sees it as a good thing. To them, Putin is no villain but an icon of “manly” dominance whose central virtue is his ruthless proficiency at crushing those who impede his pursuit of empire. From this perspective, it makes sense why Trump and his base would want him to follow in Putin’s goose steps. And should the Mueller investigation present evidence of collusion with the Russians, Trump World will likely reframe it as one more affirmation that the President is a virtuoso at the “art of the deal.” If treason leads to a win, it is an unalloyed good. And, should there be a charge of obstruction of justice, there is no reason to worry because, according to Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, the president has impunity when it comes to that crime as well.
For his supporters in particular, the fantasy of domination without limits, consequences, or regret can be an effective if short-lived antidote to feelings of impotence. So, while those outside the Trumpian universe may be filled with bilious revulsion, his base cheers every act of destruction: every attack on an Obama era achievement, every display of arrogant swagger on the global stage, every assault on public health, every puerile insult directed at the enemy of the day, every thinly veiled racist incantation, and every ludicrous denial of science. All his actions say, “I’m here to fuck things up and burn it down. And I can get away with it.” And for those who feel powerless and enjoy little impunity in their own lives, his brand is burnished further.
Truth and Consequences
What can challenge this impunity? It will not be the invertebrate “mainstream” Republicans whose individual and collective Faustian bargains feel to them like offers they can’t refuse. Trump promises to give them what they want, a world safe for unregulated corporate predation, if they give him their loyalty. If they keep the praise coming and block any effort to impeach him for his crimes or to invoke the 25th amendment for his manifest incompetence to govern, he won’t invite Bannonite deplorables with pitchforks to primary them. The few exceptions to GOP moral cowardice have been those whose belated courage has been born of impending retirement.
When it comes to enabling Trump and his team to evade any consequences for their potential crimes, there is now a plurality of Republican members of Congress that are going well beyond looking the other way or uttering low-risk overdue protests as they exit public life. There is now a well-organized and resolute effort underway among GOP politicians, the editorial board of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and FOX News (what is now essentially Trump State TV) to subvert and delegitimate the Mueller investigation, discredit the Justice Department, and slander the FBI. Perhaps this anticipates their slogan for the 2018 mid-term elections – Impunity: It Takes a Village.
While some Democratic politicians may have finally developed a modicum of spinal integrity since the devastating losses of 2016, it has come too late to do anything beyond handwringing or cheering on the resistance from the sidelines. They are largely without sufficient political power to stop the nihilistic Trump juggernaut.
For a solution, among the many that can be employed, we must return to Naomi Klein’s book and its compelling call to arms. She makes the case that, in addition to local grass roots efforts at organized resistance, one of the most effective forms of opposition to the destructive ambitions of the current regime would be to undermine the Trump brand itself. This should be a two-pronged strategy: 1) reframing his brand and 2) boycotting its associated products.
First, there needs to be an unrelenting campaign of semiotic guerilla warfare against his brand in which it becomes infused with meanings that displace its current salutary symbolic freight. The Trump T must bring to mind treasonous loser instead of tough guy winner. Every effort must be made to recast his putative strengths as the weaknesses they are. As many have already done, we need to redefine his impulsivity. Instead of allowing his spokespeople and brand managers to present his thoughtless acting out as bold frankness, it must be portrayed as the infantile psychological incontinence that it is. Then there are the “luxury” attributions carried by his brand. We must bring to the surface the unconscious lexicography of the Trump name itself. In other words, few may know that the actual meaning of trumpery is something that is “showy but worthless” (according to the America Heritage Dictionary) – an accurate description of everything Trump. Poetic justice will be done.
As polls indicate, our numbers are growing. If the resistance can unite across its many differences, and if we are creative, focused, and steadfast in our efforts, even his Success deodorant (a real Trump product) will not be able to cover up the stink.
Once the patina of the brand is tarnished and the products licensed to bear the ignominious T come to signify all that is vile and cheesy, a global effort must be undertaken to subvert its monetary power – its ability to generate a profit for those who license it. Once a world-wide boycott turns a marker of pride and impunity into a symbol of shame and liability, the stigmatization of Trump’s brand could be one bankruptcy from which Russian mob money will not be able to rescue him.