Harvard psychiatrist explains how Trump hijacked his base supporters’ brains
Attorney General William Barr refused to appear before the House Thursday, prompting Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) to threaten to hold him in contempt.
Barr’s refusal to testify followed a day of blistering rebukes by Democrats, who got him to admit, among other things, that he had not read the underlying evidence in the Mueller report.
Even as Barr tried to explains reports that President Donald Trump had pressured White House Special Counsel Don McGahn to take Mueller off the Russia probe, Trump shot out a tweet blaming President Obama.
“Why didn’t President Obama do something about Russia in September (before November Election) when told by the FBI? He did NOTHING, and had no intention of doing anything!” Trump tweeted.
Yet despite the never-ending controversies, Trump has not lost his base of support. That Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans remain relatively high, hovering between 89 and 90 percent, seems to prove the President’s claim that he could shoot a person on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters.
Raw Story spoke with Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston, and lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about Trump’s response to the ongoing controversies over the Mueller report — and why nothing that’s revealed about him seems to dent his base of support.
Ghaemi is the author of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness¸ a New York Times bestseller, about a half dozen other books, and over 200 scientific articles or book chapters.
He’s also studied the concept of how the standard psyche is so easy to hijack by figures like President Trump.
The views expressed here are solely his own, and do not reflect those of his employers.
Raw Story: How would you explain Trump’s reaction to the Mueller probe, the Barr memo, and Congressional oversight — such as blaming Obama — given your speciality in psychiatry?
Nassir Ghaemi: Human behavior exists at two levels, conscious and unconscious. It could be that Trump is consciously trying to defect blame from himself to his predecessor. This would be an effort to confuse his critics, and to score a debating point to defend himself.
If it has deeper emotional roots, it would be an unconsciously driven behavior. Unconscious emotions reflect that we aren’t aware consciously of many of our feelings. One way we manage unconscious feelings is to “defend” ourselves, again unconsciously, against them. These are called “defense mechanisms.”
People may have heard of “denial”, which is pretending that I don’t have certain feelings that I have, in fact. That’s a classic defense mechanism. “Projection” is another, when I ascribe feelings to you that I have myself. Another is “displacement”: if you accuse me of being a certain way, I defend myself by ascribing that behavior to a third person.
This tweet reads like displacement: Trump has been accused of not stopping the Russians; he displaces the accusation to Obama instead, and says it wasn’t me; he didn’t do anything. Defense mechanisms are normal, but there are more and less mature ones.
Displacement is a way to avoid accepting one’s own feelings or behavior, taking responsibility for them, and managing them consciously in a productive way, rather than being driven by them unconsciously in a harmful way.
Raw Story: In his tweet storm, he also quoted Lou Dobbs, who remains one of the President’s biggest fans: “No President in history has endured such vicious personal attacks by political opponents. Still, the President’s record is unparalleled.” @LouDobbs”
In light of all the evidence that points to wrongdoing on a massive scale by the Trump administration, why do you think prominent conservatives like Dobbs continue to support the President?
Nassir Ghaemi: Trump has advanced many radical conservative policies, such as the massive tax cut, the huge military increase, budget cuts to other domestic programs, and appointment of conservative judges. Even conservative Trump critics like Mitt Romney support those actions. It seems that many conservatives are willing to accept whatever he does as long as he promotes their policies. And Trump appears to understand this bargain, which is why he tacks to the right ever more strongly.
Raw Story: What about your everyday Trump supporter?
Nassir Ghaemi: I see the everyday Trump supporter as the average, normal, mentally healthy human being – which isn’t meant to flatter.
Richard Nixon, who is the closest analogy to Trump, spoke of the “silent majority”: Trump uses the exact same words to make the same populist appeal to the masses against the elites. Like Nixon, Trump feels like an outsider, compared to the coastal elites. The average Trump supporter also identifies with this resentment toward the Establishment.
Besides the cultural and social roots to this populism (which need not lead to right-wing politics, but can be leftist, as with Bernie Sanders), there is a psychological aspect to Trump/Nixon’s conservative silent majority politics. In recently revealed private tapes, Nixon said: “…the grey, middle America – they’re suckers.” This attitude resembles Trump’s comment: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” These views speak to the political implications of normal mental health.
Normality is not uncontroversial. There is more work on psychopathology than normality. One approach to normality would be to see it as the absence of abnormality. This approach is not complete, but it is at least part of what it means to be normal or healthy.
From this perspective, we should appreciate what psychologists call “normal illusion.” Most people are a little unrealistic; they overestimate their control over their environment, and misinterpret various things, usually in a somewhat optimistic direction.
In contrast, mildly depressed people are realistic. Also, depressed persons are more empathic towards others than normal non-depressed persons. And people with manic symptoms (high energy and activity) tend to be more creative than normal persons. In other words, it’s not part of normal mental health to be especially realistic, or empathic, or creative. Put conversely, most normal mentally healthy people are a little unrealistic, unempathic, and uncreative.
Being unrealistic would make them prone to believe the claims of leaders who they might respect or support. They could make mistakes in what they believe is the reality of the world around them. Being unempathic would make them prone to be aggressive or unsympathetic to outsiders, like immigrants or ethnic minorities. Being uncreative would make them want to return to the past, to an older age when America was great because current problems didn’t exist. We can make America great again, they believe, if we go backwards in time.
Roy Grinker, a classic psychiatrist from the 1950s/60s, did research in the Midwest on normal mental health, and coined the term “homoclites” for what we might call “very normal” people. He observed that these normal mentally healthy people were moderate in their politics and religion and lifestyle, focused on domestic happiness, and not very ambitious or motivated toward achievement.
There’s nothing wrong with being a normal homoclite, and as individuals, the silent majority follow the laws, go to church, and are moral in their daily lives. But, for the reasons given, there are some political and social risks that go along with normal human psychology. (I’ve written about this in some detail in A First-Rate Madness). Repeatedly, the majority of a population – normal and healthy and civilized – has acquiesced in tyranny, racial or ethnic discrimination, and even genocide, as with Nazi Germany, Serbia in the 1990s, and even the United States itself during the eras of slavery and racial segregation.
In short, it is an unfortunate fact that supporters of leaders like Trump are rather normal average persons, and this sad reality is not unique to the US or to Trump. It applies to other countries who have leaders who are right-wing, reactionary, and populistic in a demagogic way, like Berlusconi in Italy, Netanyahu in Israel, the Brexit leaders of England, Le Pen in France, Duterte in the Philippines, and Bolsonaro in Brazil.