“Impeachment as a struggle to save democracy — from the pathological cult of Donald Trump”

Paul Rosenberg  recently wrote one of the most frightening articles about the political situation in the USA that I’ve read, “Impeachment as a struggle to save democracy — from the pathological cult of Donald Trump.” Its main theme is that “History shows how democracy can give way to “pathocracy” ruled by disordered individuals.”

According to Rosenberg, we can think about the Trump impeachment process “as a part of struggle to preserve American democracy from destruction at the hands of predatory individuals utterly lacking in conscience.” Rosenberg references the 2015 paper, “Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars,” which cites multiple examples of despots disguised as saviors who surround themselves with other psychopaths or followers who do their bidding. Elizabeth Mika M.D. and Ian Hughes Ph.D. are two scholars who have studied how this explains much of what is happening in America since 2016.

In “Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy,” Hughes emphasizes how people with “… psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder …  experience only a narrow range of emotions, are incapable of empathy and are utterly lacking in conscience.” These individuals play a crucial role in the destruction of democracy for, though they are only a small part of the population, they can slowly coerce “many more ostensibly normal people can come to resemble them.” As Hughes explained,

The Trump presidency is giving us an insight into the ongoing development of
pathocracy in America … a process whereby society comes to be dominated by pathological individuals and groups. During this process, society becomes segregated into a pathological minority that gradually gains control, and a psychologically healthy majority who find themselves subjugated to this violent minority. Initially the pathology is most visible at the level of a president and the party that brings him to power, but it eventually diffuses through every part of society …

In the U.S. this process is well underway. To my mind, one of the outcomes of the impeachment hearings has been to show just how far the Republican Party has come under the control of those who mirror Trump’s pathological mindset.

Mika’s contribution to the collection The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, explained the Trump phenomenon in terms of the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole. These 3 forces join in a “narcissistic collusion … driven by the latter’s need for revenge … for the tyrant is always chosen to perform this psychically restorative function: to avenge the humiliations (narcissistic wounds) of his followers and punish those who inflicted them.” Mika continued:

The tyrant’s own narcissism hints at the level of woundedness of his supporters. The greater their narcissistic injury, the more grandiose a leader they require to repair it. While his grandiosity appears grotesque to non-narcissistic people who do not share his agenda, to his followers he represents all their denied and thwarted greatness which now, under his rule, will finally flourish.

While the bonds between Trump and his cult-like followers appear unbreakable this isn’t necessarily the case for the supporters who help him run the pathocracy. Some cabinet members, for instance, turned against or stood up to Trump. But they have now been weened from the Republican party which, as Hughes states, is now dominated by those “who mirror Trump’s pathological mindset. This was not the case just three years ago when Trump was elected.”

During this time, individuals within the GOP who share Trump’s disordered mentality, as reflected in their beliefs in conspiracy theories, rejection of facts as the basis of their worldview, propensity to attack and demean opponents, and their sense of entitlement to power at any cost, have risen in stature within the party. Those who privately believe such views and actions to be destructive, immoral and deluded have either been silenced or have left the party. The Republicans’ behavior during the impeachment hearings illustrate to me that segregation in terms of pathology within the GOP is now virtually complete.

Mika argues that this developement follows naturally,

He surrounds himself with people who are similarly impaired, whose conscience is either nonexistent or so ‘flexible’ that it allows them to engage in immoral and criminal activities without an emotional penalty of guilt and shame.

The rise of full-blown p​athocracy shows us how easily so-called normal people can be co-opted for abnormal — psychopathic, immoral and criminal — ends. We can see that this applies to people from all walks of life, no matter their intelligence, education, social status.

Hughes argues that “the collapse of U.S. democracy was the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath,” was the main precondition that led to the rise of Trump, and other would be tyrants as well as to social dysfunctions like the Brexit vote. “Those at the top of the major financial institutions were seen to have recklessly built an unstable financial system, based on highly unethical practices, profited enormously, and walked away with their fortunes when it all came tumbling down …” This led to great suffering for ordinary people and a loss of “confidence in elites in general and in politicians in particular …”

Mika had a somewhat different take:

The preconditions that paved way to the Trumpist takeover of America are most of all, in my mind, the narcissism that pervades American culture, as well as the toxic materialism and greed, and the staggering and growing inequality and poverty they produced. 

As for returning to normal after Trump, Hughes is skeptical, “Donald Trump is a violent man,” who “incites violence and aggression against anyone who opposes him, identifies with and rewards those who are violent, and acts in ways that are gratuitously cruel.” This cruelty, Hughes believes, can be placed in a larger context:

Trump’s direct violence is enabled by another form of violence that is prevalent in America, namely structural violence. Structural violence refers to the conditions that society imposes on people that constrain them from meeting their essential needs and achieving basic levels of dignity and quality of life. The extreme level of inequality in the U.S. is a form of structural violence that is resulting in enormous levels of the so called diseases of despair — drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide.

Hughes also points to “similar examples of pathocracy from other countries” such as Stalinism in Eastern Europe:

One of the clearest examples from history of the deliberate dismantling of democracy occurred once Stalin gained control of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. I think there are clear parallels between Stalin’s systematic destruction of the central pillars of democracy there and what is happening under Trump today.

Stalin’s first step was to install puppet leaders across Eastern Europe who would do his bidding — think [William] Barr and [Mike] Pompeo in the U.S. domestic context …

Stalin’s second step was the elimination of free and fair elections. Trump has been working on that since before his election in 2016.

Ending freedom of religion and replacing religion with the cult of Stalin was Stalin’s third objective. Again, Trump’s sycophants are working hard to realize this objective in the U.S. Rick Perry, Mike Pompeo and Sarah Sanders have all said that God chose Trump to be president. According to a 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, close to half (45%) of Republicans agree.

The damage to European culture during this time was catastrophic, as the philosopher Roger Scruton noted:

If enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational and religious institutions, sometimes for good. And if civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic and as culturally rich as those of Eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere. If nothing else, the history of post-war Stalinisation proves just how fragile ‘civilization’ can turn out to be.

And Mika note how “… many so-called normal people revert to primitive, quasi-psychopathic functioning when given the opportunity.” Furthermore, “The rule of a pathological leader and his similarly disordered coterie that defines pathocracy normalizes and champions the worst human impulses,” said Mika. “We saw this under communism in Eastern Europe, under fascism in Germany, in the former Yugoslavia where neighbors turned against each other. We see it everywhere when the pathological political leaders give people permission to act on their primitive instincts. We learn quickly how fragile our civilized norms and mores are.” Moreover, she writes, the seeds of pathocracy have long existed in the USA:

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote about “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” describing the pervasive conspiratorial mindset of a large enough, dispossessed portion of American citizenry. This mindset is activated by ethnic, religious and class conflicts, and by times of upheaval and frustrations. It does not take much to foment it, especially when conditions are right, i.e., people become increasingly unable to cope with the difficulties of their daily life and look for scapegoats for their misery and pain. Trump’s untruths, big and small, have thus found a naturally receptive audience in America today.

Rosenberg also highlights examples of the autocrats appeal to thugs as enforcers “from Trump’s persistent defense of police abuse against black and brown people to the pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and the more recent pardons of accused or convicted war criminals, which led to the resignation of the Navy secretary.​​” Here’s Hughes take:

During my research for “Disordered Minds,” one of the common features that emerged from studying the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao was how violent thugs played a critical role at a local level in securing and maintaining each of these regime’s hold on power.

Historian Frank Dikotter, for example, quotes one village resident recalling how during Mao’s violent collectivization of agriculture in China: “All the scamps and the village bullies, who had not done a stroke of honest work in their life, suddenly blossomed forth as the accredited members of the Communist Party.” Historian Orlando Figes similarly recounts how the Communist youth organization in the Russian village of Obukhovo comprised a dozen teenage thugs with guns, led by 18-year-old Kolia Kuzmin, who had spent his childhood on the village streets begging on behalf of his alcoholic father …

And Mika notes how those without conscience gravitate toward each other and excuse their crimes, as Trump’s pardons of war criminals and others reveals.

Trump, like all leaders with his character defect, is enamored with brute force and violence. He identifies with and admires thugs, and given more power, he would fully demonstrate this aspect of his character …

Using open and officially sanctioned violence as a means of social control, as well as settling personal vendettas, is a natural progression in the development of tyrants and tyrannies. Tyrants are driven by an insatiable desire to gain and exercise deadly power in order to achieve personal glory … 

Rosenberg also worries about the media’s failure “to report on Trump accurately … reflecting both the pursuit of false balance, among other things, and a general failure to grasp the broader significance and true nature of the spreading pathocracy.” To this concern Hughes argues that to really cover the Trump phenomenon adequately requires accepting four unpleasant truths:

First, it is highly likely that Donald Trump has a dangerous narcissistic character disorder that makes him psychologically incapable of functioning within a rules-based democratic system. In fact, as we are seeing, his character disorder compels him to dismantle that system.

Second, the Republican Party is no longer a democratic party. It too has rejected the rules and values of democracy and is pursuing a power-at-all-costs authoritarian agenda.

Third, and most unpleasantly perhaps, a sizable fraction of the U.S. population would be happy to live within such an authoritarian system if those they despise are “put in their place.”

And finally, violence and aggression are increasingly an indispensable means for the alliance between Trump, the GOP and core Trump supporters to achieve their goals.

The problem here is that traditional media aren’t suited to reporting on this:

You can understand that this is a difficult framing for any mainstream media organization to adopt, but it is a scenario that has been repeated ad nauseam in so many countries, that the media really should recognize it by now.

I feel very strongly that we won’t be able to counter the threat we face unless and until we understand it. But the mainstream media doesn’t, or chooses not to, and so there is a complacency or a “behind the curve” quality to most of the coverage. As a result, the gravity of the situation is not accepted and communicated, and the lies and disinformation are allowed to continue without being contextualized.

Mika offers this juxtaposition: “We are now a country where war criminals are pardoned and celebrated while innocent children are kept in cages, and this is considered normal …” This situation is so immoral and absurd as to be hard to place in context. But, as CBS CEO Les Moonves said in February 2016, Trump’s candidacy might not be good for America, but it was “damn good for CBS.” This is partly why media fails to report on the spread of pathocracy, Mika argues. “The corporate ownership of the media, the purpose of which is to sell ads and generate profits, makes it a natural ally of the political powers that be, with a compromised regard for truth and morality.”

Neither Mika nor Hughes have much to offer as to how we fight back other than to recommend mass protests. The situation is extraordinarily grim. But what is Trump really after? Hughes says that “History shows that the dismantling of democracy by an autocrat is not an end in itself … Rather, it is the precondition that allows the tyrant to violently impose his narcissistic vision upon society.”

For Hitler that vision was German domination of, and ethnic cleansing of, Europe. For Stalin, it was to make the Soviet Union a world power, on the backs of the slave labor camps of the Gulag and the subjugation of the population through terror. For Mao, it was to enable the endless use of revolution and violence in pursuit of his vision for China, in which, as he said, “half of China may well have to die.”

Hughes issued a final warning: “If we allow him to continue his attacks on U.S. democracy and the rules based international order, we may find out, to our cost, what the narcissistic fantasy of Donald J Trump, really is.”

*Note. I will post my brief thoughts on this post in a few days.

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4 thoughts on ““Impeachment as a struggle to save democracy — from the pathological cult of Donald Trump”

  1. The threat of Trump exists because enough of us want it to. “In a democracy,” de Maistre observed, “people get the government they deserve” because they elect who govern them. This is what really mystifies me. Why do Trumpers support people who espouse the very policies that are against their interests—women particularly? Shouldn’t the focus of criticism be on such people rather than Trump himself?

  2. Charisma, wrote Franz Neumann, has been a neglected factor. Many right-wing women and men are attracted to Trump. Also, he claims he’ll protect them from immigrants; whereas he is stirring up animosity negating his policies.

    Something rightists tacitly admit: Trump is the first president voted in because he wasn’t someone else. Rightists let their dislike of Hillary, who was a worthy candidate, cloud their already clouded judgment. They voted against Hillary and not for Trump.

    Plus, rightists (they are not conservative because they no longer conserve) try to blame Trump’s predecessor, when Obama’s administration unintended consequence was raising the bar up too high. A letdown resulted. We went from the chicken salad of Obama to the chicken poop of Trump.

    I feel very guilty, as I voted for Jill Stein; ultimately my error oversight derived from the overconfidence felt during Obama’s administration. Overconfidence can harm more than under-confidence. We saw that after the go-go ’90s ended, and post 9-11 started in earnest. Along came 2008.

    In 2016, along came a Spider…

  3. Until recently I thought that Mr. Trump would be reined in by the institutions of American democracy. But the continued adamant support for him, despite the overwhelming evidence of criminal activity on his part, has shaken my confidence. Surely, I have told myself, even Republicans will turn on this maniac once the depth of his iniquity becomes patent. Yet they shout their support all the louder, and they level ever more contemptible accusations against those who try to uphold the rule of law.

    Several factors give me reason for hope. First is the continuing decline of Mr. Trump’s mental health. Already ill in 2016, the continuing frustration of being merely President rather than King has eaten away at his self-confidence. More important is his obsession with the walls that are closing in on him. Mr. Trump doesn’t do any presidential work these days. He watches news incessantly, tweets, telephones Fox & Friends, and rages against the enemies he sees all around him. His only salves are the rallies where his supporters adore him, which he arranges with ever-greater frequency.

    He reminds me of Hitler in his bunker in Berlin, desperately moving around figures on a map, commanding armies that no longer existed, fighting battles that were already lost. His grip on reality is weakening by the day, and his lieutenants are desperately trying to shield him from his own insanity. I believe that at some point he will crack and attempt something so outrageous, so wildly antagonistic to the spirit of America, that even the Republicans will decide that he is a liability.

    This is only one of many possible scenarios, but I think it highly unlikely that Mr. Trump will win re-election next November. He may even try to cheat (he already has!), but he’ll get caught.

  4. Mr. Brooks:
    You should only feel regret for voting for Stein if you lived in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania. Otherwise, your vote was a blameless statement of your principles.
    I’m a Californian, and knowing that I wouldn’t affect the result, I wrote in Elizabeth Warren as a protest of Clinton’s softness on multinational corporations.

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