Not long after Trump appeared on the campaign trail and certainly after he took office, I pushed the idea that Trump has a severe personality disorder. A few years in, psychiatrists began losing their shyness and chimed in. Now his niece, a clinical psychologist, says the same thing. With her, of course, the psychiatrists’ and psychologists’ reticence to diagnosis a patient they have not personally examined is moot since she’s known him her whole life.
What was crucial in my statement early on was the two outstanding characteristics of a personality disorder of any kind (Trump’s is narcissism): they cannot learn and when their one defense mechanism fails them, they decompensate.
We see the latter now in Trump more and more every day. It is not encroaching senility or a biological disorder; it is the failure of his only defense. Bullying and lying no longer work for him. As citizens, the question for us is why so many bolstered him for so long and why did so few stand up to him.
The failure to learn should have been obvious from comments from his campaign aides, WH chiefs of staff, and so many more: he appears to listen, if even that, and then goes out and says his own shit.
His supporters are not personality disorders…. necessarily. Psychiatry has a hard time, IMHO, explaining the difference between individual behavior and the social behavior of individuals. I noticed this particularly in reading about spirit possession, a feature of many religions, including shamanism, sects of Islam, Christian sects like the Holiness churches. The anthropologists and sociologists put the phenomenon in a socio-cultural context, sort of like “everybody does it.” While it is true that within a given community, some individuals seem more prone to go into a trance dance (my own experience in a Pentecostal church made that obvious), nevertheless, everyone had experienced possession (called being filled with the Holy Ghost by church members) at one time or another, it often being a moment of blinding effect, often called a Come-To-Jesus moment.
But the psychiatric community preferred to find motivation in the individual such as an unbalanced personality or high stress situation. My personal experience begs to differ. And that leads me to the Trump supporter.
Just today, Republican Voters Against Trump released the video interviews with dozens of Trump voters who refuse to vote for Trump again. Many more Trumpers remain true. Is it that they are the low-information voters we hear about, the low-education voters we know about, or is it that they came to Jesus when they heard Trump “tell it like it is.” Due to the virus, I have not been able to have a conversation with my Trumper neighbor so he can tell me what “it” is. But it must be something pretty deep.
As in so many socio-cultural phenomena, like End-of-the-Worlders, a number of streams come together and these people happen to be standing in the stream bed when the water comes. Some swallowed the Kool-Aid with Goldwater; others were converted when the government seized some property for taxes; and then there is Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. But many people have had bad experiences with bureaucrats and do not become anti-government. We need to look at how Fox-Limbaugh created a narrative that preachers and teachers could use to bring people into a state of mistrust. Once their mooring bollards are eaten through by termites, they feel cast loose in an ever more complexifying world and look for simple answers to relieve their anxiety. It is that old sense of displacement called alienation; psychiatrists were once called alienists.
As I read about the origins of Christian morality, I look for who these early Christians were. Who was attracted to this sect or cult, as we might say today? There was enough flotsam and jetsam in the Roman Empire to form a cadre of early Christians, but the religion also attracted numbers of well-placed people. Early in the Trump phenomenon, it was said he attracted the desperate, the poor, the uneducated, but serious scholarship uncovered evidence to the contrary. Income was around 70,000 a year; education was about average.
So were there trends? One was certainly Whiteness. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly White. Another was Republican Party identification. A lesser trend was age, with older Whites favoring Trump. And a history of voting, i.e. political activity. The theme of the disenchanted blue-collar voter or the fed-up non-voter or the surly segregationist did not quite capture the wave of people who voted for an obvious con-man, a person embodying all the sin an Evangelical was capable of imagining, a grifter who built tall buildings in a single bound, starred in a TV show, and hawked steaks, wine, and worthless degrees in a phony university……. the features incompatible with the Presidency are endless. But they voted with enthusiasm.
One thread I left out mentioned by many: they despised Hillary Clinton. Just teasing out all the threads in that tissue of lies would take another blog entry, but there were many liberals who felt the same way about her. I never understood that.
So all in all, here is the trend I see: people who are dissatisfied with what they see in the country even as their own lives aren’t so bad and who are open to explanations for their unease, specifically a target. Such targets are called scape goats, someone or something to pile their grievances on and their own complicity in the country going to hell in a hand basket.
And yet, this dissatisfaction has always been with us. Whether it was girls wearing short skirts or schools not teaching cursive, there were just problems everywhere. And here is where psychology does come into play. Part of the trend I see is people who do not know how to deal with their self-induced disharmony and dissatisfaction. Reading scholars like Robert Putnam and thinking back to critics of the consumer culture, the Madison Avenue invasion of our desires, the television wasteland, and so on, I realize I am out of my depth in analyzing the ills of our society. I can only comment. But I do ask people who complain to lay it out for me, to go into detail, to list their grievances, but they deteriorate into incoherence and frustration.
Two institutions have failed these people up close, excluding for now wage stagnation, impossibly high costs of education, a bleak future for many children, and the invidious comparison of highly successful immigrants. The first institution is religion; both the mainline churches and the wide-spread evangelicals preaching the Prosperity Gospel (prosperity for the preachers) have not been able to provide whatever that early Eastern sect in the Roman Empire and the Greek cultural world provided.
The second institution is national leadership. Although many thoughtful, dedicated, courageous politicians have tried to hold the line against corruption, the William Barrs of our country with their intent to create an autocratic state to serve their own ideological ends have proved to be powerful foes of what the Founding Fathers laid the foundation for. The founding documents provide a blue print for a well-balanced society and blood in abundance has been spilled achieving that balance, whether at Valley Forge, Omaha Beach, or the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
It remains to be seen what will be built of the nation the GOP in conjunction with the Corona Virus has transmogrified into a no holds barred free-for-all of greed and corruption. Trump did not do this, he was just the apex, the culmination of a long road. How much can we learn by examining what occurred on that road? As someone who uses history to explain a lot of things, I would like to examine that road to see if and how we can find a number of roads which finally converged at this apex, this Trumpocalypse, David Frum’s invented word for our era.
Reviewing Frum’s books (Trumpocracy and Trumpocalypse), Brian Stewart writes, quoting Frum: “A more equitable system of representation would demand that Republicans become the kind of party Frum aspires to see: “an ethnically diverse, culturally modern post-Boomer generation party of markets and enterprise for the twenty-first century.” In these times of diminishing opportunity and hardening isolation, such a party cannot form too quickly.
So what are the chances?