The Trump depression: Experts see a serious psychological depression taking hold in America. Here's how to fight it
Reviewing “Trump’s Wacky, Angry, and Extreme August” on Twitter, the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser said the experience “was exhausting, a dark journey to a nasty and contentious place.” But that’s hardly news: it’s a place we live in every day. We try to turn the volume down and ignore it, and that may work for a while. But it won’t last. It can’t. It’s getting worse, and we can all see where we’re headed.
We know who Donald Trump admires, who he wants to be like — “president for life” as he keeps on telling us — and the countries they rule. Even as Trump insulted Americans and allies with abandon, Glasser noted, he found time to praise North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
America is nowhere near as bad as Brazil or China, much less North Korea. But our democracy is eroding significantly. Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) tracks hundreds of attributes of democracy for 202 countries, spanning more than two centuries. Its 2019 report found that "24 countries are now severely affected by what is established as a 'third wave of autocratization,'" an erosion of democratic rights "that has slowly gained momentum since the mid 1990s. ... Among them are populous countries such as Brazil, India and the United States."
If Trump has his way — demolishing all restraints on his power — things will only get much worse, with the journey Glasser took as a tour book guide of what’s to come. And people are feeling it in their bones.
“In America under Trump there is a population-based depression taking hold. It is a very subtle, smoldering, pervasive and serious condition that people in autocratic countries chronically live with,” physician and scholar Frederick "Skip" Burkle told me in a recent interview. Burkle has any number of academic credentials: He was founding director of the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance at the University of Hawaii, and currently serves in advisory or research capacities at the Harvard School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University Medical Institutes, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and elsewhere.
It was Burkle who first described Trump as a schoolyard bully to me, as I described in July. His own first childhood encounter with a bully taught him that such people were driven by “not just the violence and intimidation, but the narcissist’s hallmark sense of impunity, backed up by effortless deceit, blame-shifting, and manipulation,” as I expressed it.
“When I did see young adults with sociopathy and narcissism, the depression among their caretaker parents was pervasive,” Burkle told me in our recent conversation. “They control the agenda and suck all the oxygen out of the room every day. They also sap all the energy out of their caretaker parents and staff later in life, and are quick to blame others for the consequences.” It’s not accidental, he observed, that Trump underlings like Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn are the ones convicted of crimes.
Meanwhile, the wider public, overwhelmed by the Trumpian chaos, becomes depressed, disoriented and exhausted, as Burkle puts it.
Biologically-driven mental illnesses internalize their depression, mania, etc. But those with personality disorders externalize and never internalize. As such, like the collective narcissism that gathered strength and remains stable among his followers, the next step in this very predictable process is to slowly eat away at normal people who see no lessening of the way they feel from Trump’s daily antics that others in power do nothing about.
Burkle isn’t suggesting that we’re no different from countries like Russia or Syria. That, of course, is what Vladimir Putin wants everyone to believe — that the very idea of liberal democracy is a joke. Rather, “It is the silent, subtle moving in that direction that we as a nation should be most worried about,” Burkle explained.
Where tyrannies come from
For more insight, I turned to Elizabeth Mika, whose chapter in “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” (Salon review here) explained that "Tyrannies are three-legged beasts": There are the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole — also known as the “toxic triangle.” That chapter stood out for its comprehensive perspective on the entire situation America finds itself in. Mika wrote:
The tyrant shows up in a society that is already weakened by disorder, blind to it, and unable and/or unwilling to take corrective measures that would prevent a tyrannical takeover. Once he and his sycophantic cabal assume power, they deepen and widen the disorder, dismantling and changing the society’s norms, institutions, and laws to fully reflect their own pathology.
When I reached out to Mika this time, she cited two concepts as particularly important for “understanding our sociopolitical situation” — both what’s driving the depression Burkle speaks of, and what points toward the way out.
“The first one is pathocracy,” Mika said. “which is the rule of pathological characters — specifically, people with entirely absent or severely compromised conscience — who, because of their character defect, are devoted pretty much exclusively to the pursuit of power by any means possible.”
Pathocracies spread into general populace like cancer, taking over and destroying organs of social and political life, along with individual human beings. People living under pathocracies become demoralized and despondent. Depression and despair, along with various social pathologies, are predictable consequences of being forced to adjust to immoral and inhumane socio-political systems based on lies and exploitation.
Yet “just as pathocracy spreads in a populace, so does a healthy resistance to it,” she explained.
Awakening to the reality of pathocracy, mobilizing against it and dismantling it, is a process of positive disintegration — the second concept I mentioned at the start — during which individuals come to realize the importance of higher values, and start implementing them, little by little, in their daily lives.
The way out is not a return to normalcy, since as Mika noted above, “The tyrant shows up in a society that is already weakened by disorder.” America is nowhere near as bad as communist Poland, where she grew up. But, she said, “The American pathocracy in place is in some ways more pernicious than the communist one, as Americans have retained their illusions of freedom, while there were none left under communism.”
Mika also referred me to the second expert, Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personality Disorders Are Destroying Democracy," who recently wrote about the toxic triangle here, where he describes individuals like Trump as “trapped within a narrow range of extreme thoughts, feelings and behaviors that focus on rage, arrogance, self-importance, denigration of others, scapegoating, disregard for the rights of others and a propensity towards cruelty and revenge.”
Hughes, like Mika, is indebted to Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski, who coined the term ‘pathocracy.’ He wrote, “Lobaczewski formed this hypothesis based on his painful experience of living under the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin, as each took turns at occupying and destroying his native Poland.” But his concept didn’t become mainstream, Hughes noted:
One major reason for this is that there was no clear mechanism through which a toxic individual could come to influence an entire society. In the absence of such a mechanism, the idea of pathocracy remained fanciful to many. Now, thanks largely to Donald Trump, that is no longer true. In the last few years, the mechanism through which an extreme narcissist can influence an entire society has become clear.
That mechanism is the toxic triangle. But the three components involve further significant distinctions, as well.
“The majority of a pathological leader's followers will be normal individuals who can think and feel across the spectrum from selfishness to altruism, from hatred to compassion, depending on circumstances,” Hughes told Salon. “When the environment changes to one of scarcity or perceived injustice, then many of us can come to identify with the psychology of the pathological narcissist — seeking scapegoats for our anger and shutting down our compassion for others out of anger and hatred.”
These normal individual followers are like the Nazi Party members profiled in Milton Mayer's 1955 book "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45." They are surely dangerous, but redeemable. They may have lost their way, but are capable of remorse. This isn't true for everyone, unfortunately:
A minority of the toxic leader's followers, however, will share their leader's pathology. For this smaller group, their psychology is fixed on the dark end of the spectrum with a mix of superiority, contempt for others, and volatile insecurity, regardless of circumstances. For this group, the toxic leader's rise to power provides a perfect opportunity to grab onto his coattails and gain a share of the power and riches. Many of these sycophants act as cheerleaders and apologists and normalize the toxic leader's pathological behavior. In doing so they magnify enormously the confusion and disorientation of the psychologically normal population, many of whom suffer from the "Trump depression," alarm and outrage you mentioned.
The rise of these sycophants to positions of power in Trump’s administration is one key developments that has accelerated the craziness of late. William Barr’s appointment as attorney general was a watershed moment in this regard. His outright lying about the contents of the Mueller report profoundly misled the public about its basic findings, a state of affairs that persists to this day. That is arguably the driving reason Trump has not already been impeached.
That was echoed as farce when NOAA disavowed a National Weather Service tweet correcting Trump’s false claim that Hurricane Dorian was threatening Alabama. The insistence that Trump had no hand in that — his sycophants were only too eager to take action unbidden — is actually worse, in terms of how the pathocracy is advancing. The rot is spreading, and growing more virulent.
While there’s been a lot of analysis of Trump's supporters since his election, only a minority of them will share his narcissistic pathology, Hughes noted. “Less attention has been paid to Trump's enablers and apologists,” he said. “It is to be expected that a much higher percentage of these folks will share their boss' psychopathology.” Which certainly helps explain how he’s gotten increasingly muscular support in fighting congressional oversight and investigation — in terms of potential impeachment, his racist or nationalist border and immigration policies, Sharpiegate, etc.
Mika went even further in her description. “Once a conscienceless individual assumes position of ultimate power, he gathers around him others who are psychologically similar to him, and builds a government almost exclusively comprised of characterologically defective people to better implement his egocentric, often anti-human agenda.”
America is different — and the same
This may be how classic pathocracies work, but American law and custom — starting with the Senate’s constitutional role to “advise and consent” in the appointment of top officials — have stood in Trump’s way, at least to some degree. His solution, increasingly, is simply to leave positions vacant, filling them with “acting” Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers.
A July GQ story headline captured this situation perfectly, “Trump's Acting Cabinet Is Accountable Only to Trump,” with the subhead adding: “By filling the executive branch with temporary officials, the president shields some of his administration's cruelest practices from meaningful public scrutiny.” Equally important, these "acting" appointees are unilaterally dependent on Trump's slightest whim, without any of the institutional support that a permanent leader would command. Similarly, intelligence regulations prevented Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, from getting a security clearance, until a hand-picked Trump appointee overruled career officials.
Reporters as well as politicians and government employees know this is not how things are supposed to work. But without the conceptual framework of pathocracy and the toxic triangle to explain what’s going on, they simply can’t connect the dots to see the whole picture and recognize the deadly attack on democracy for what it is. The failure to name and confront the evils of pathocracy is a key part of the social sickness on which it feeds.
“The ease with which the sycophants and followers of a pathological leader fulfill their roles astounds us," Mika observed, "because the number of people with an impaired or absent conscience is always higher than we want to believe. We can see it most clearly when a conscienceless leader is given ultimate power, because he allows and legitimizes the most primitive drives and behaviors in others.”
The unending stream of human rights abuses along the border, in immigrant detention facilities and elsewhere in the handling of immigrants and refugees all give evidence of this. What’s more, citing the definition of torture in the international convention, Burkle noted, “Trump practices degrading treatment every day, and under international law that is torture.”
No, the United States is not (yet) practicing indiscriminate mass torture on a population-wide scale. But there are whole communities within the U.S. living in legitimate fear of torture — and more is surely on the way, from what angle no one can say.
“They are testing the waters to see what and where they can get away with ... and pull back quickly if caught,” Burkle said. That uncertainty is just part of the overall pathocracy. Throw California’s homeless into privately-owned, government-backed concentration camps? Sure, why not?
Pathocracy is easiest to recognize and understand in its fully-developed form, as Lobaczewski experienced n Poland. Mika saw this growing up.
“The lessons from the collapse of communism are the same lessons that any peoples fighting against oppression have always had to learn,” she said. “The resistance always starts with like-minded people — in this case, people with a functioning conscience opposing the grip of pathocracy — finding each other, coming together, and turning their first internal, then external protest into a more or less organized social movement.” Ultimately, she assured me, “The resistance wins; all inhumane regimes eventually fall.”
But the worldwide erosion of democratic rights in the “third wave of autocratization” tracked by V-Dem means the United States is not alone. As Mika pointed out, “pathocracies expressed in communism and rapacious capitalism have more in common than one may realize. Both are oppressive and exploitative, both are based on lies about human nature, and therefore both contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction.”
Depression, resistance and "positive disintegration"
The American situation is nowhere near as bad as in Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, and the resistance here did not have to develop gradually, as it did in Mika’s native Poland via Solidarity. It began with immediate street protests as soon as Trump's election victory was known, and resulted in the Women's March protest that dwarfed Trump's Inauguration crowd, followed by the spontaneous airport protests against Trump's Muslim ban.
In one sense, the resistance has continued and deepened — it was the organizational foundation of the 2018 "blue wave." But in another sense, it has waned with exhaustion and overwhelming onslaught: the ongoing border and other immigration atrocities have been met with outrage, but nothing like the mobilization seen when the Muslim ban was announced. This looks to be a worrying symptom of exhaustion, and Trump clearly believes he can outlast this opposition. What lessons should we take from this?
“The anti-Trumpian resistance must enlarge to encompass a wider struggle for social justice — and go beyond Trumpism," Mika said. "Those leaders who can see and articulate that will be able to inspire and sustain wider resistance in the long term. Trumpism is a symptom and a culmination, so far, of pathological processes that have been brewing for a very long time. These processes will continue, deepen and create more suffering after Trump is gone if we don't implement structural changes in our system.”
This recalls Hughes' warning: “When the environment changes to one of scarcity or perceived injustice, then many of us can come to identify with the psychology of the pathological narcissist.” So long as the underlying conditions persist, so will the hunger for illusory Trump-like “solutions.”
Trumpism, Mika said, is best understood "as an acute exacerbation of a life-threatening illness of which we may not have been aware":
Yes, we must attend to — contain and treat — the exacerbation, but we also have to focus on healing the illness that underlies it if we are to live. This acute exacerbation is in fact a sort of blessing in disguise, difficult as it may be to accept it, because its presence has alerted us to a much deeper and pervasive disease destroying our organism.
As for the flagging public attention to our ongoing crisis, “it is not necessarily a bad thing,” Mika said. “It is not healthy to be glued to the news and to constantly react with offense and/or anxiety to the latest political report or tweet from the White House. If anything, the barrage of anxiety and outrage provoking news makes the necessity of cultivating inner peace all the more obvious.”
This is how resistance to pathocracy takes root for the long haul. “Spending time in nature, if we can, and with our loved ones, helping others, simplifying our lives and cultivating a spiritual practice are basic,” Mika explained. "Finding like-minded people to connect with and build relationships is essential. Isolation, especially during times of crisis and upheaval, can be detrimental to our mental health.”
In contrast, “Our positive maladjustment to these unacceptable conditions has the potential to bring us together, helping us form communities of support which could become local centers of both respite and meaningful change," she concluded. "But that change always starts with each of us individually.”
The Democrats' ambivalent response to Trump's lawlessness contributes to the problem:
Demoralization and disillusionment with the Democrats' ability to understand and respect the wishes of their supporters, and to effect change, are likely to result. ... Their ambivalence of course serves to embolden Trump and legitimize his actions. One necessary action to take is to contact and confront our representatives, let them know what we think and publicize it through social media. We are the people. They work for us, after all.
In the long run, she still sees plenty of room for hope:
Any organization, any system built on lies, oppression and injustice, and contributing to the growth of human suffering, is destined to collapse. It may take a long time for it to happen, and it may seem impossible, but eventually it will happen. Our individual and social evolution proceeds toward realization of our highest values, encoded in our deepest nature. Pathocratic systems, with the pain and suffering they produce, spur us to growth and change as they confront us with our lower nature, which they express.
Our suffering has meaning because we make it so. “This is where the role of courageous and morally advanced leaders becomes so important," Mika said, "as they articulate a vision of a better life, along with a critique of the current pathological system. Such leaders may come from all social groups and some may acquire their status by what appears to be an accident of fate. Anna Walentynowicz, the ‘mother’ of the Solidarity movement, who was a crane operator in the Gdansk shipyard where Solidarity was born, is a good example.”
The same could be said of the Parkland students, of Greta Thunberg and the leaders of Sunrise Movement, of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, co-founders of Black Lives Matter, and many other people we see around us now.
But we also need leadership at the highest level, including as a Democratic nominee to oppose Trump. Mika again:
These are the times of transformation. Therefore we need a transformational candidate, one who is experienced, principled, determined and open-minded to be able to preside over the unprecedented challenges facing us and help us navigate them in ways that enable genuine democracy-promoting changes.
These would include “workable, reality-based solutions” such as “Medicare of All, an idea that has a widespread support, free public colleges, living wages and humane benefits that uphold the dignity and rights of American workers.”
“In 2016 Democrats ignored the signs of the times," she said, "choosing a status-quo candidate when the status quo no longer worked and our sociopolitical climate favored what is often called a 'disruption,' although transformation is a better term.”
Disruption for its own sake is what we got under Trump, but it was emphatically not the ideal form of disruption. “When disruption is called for, as happens during times of peoples' increasing pain and suffering," Mika said, "it would take on a transformative character, leading toward, and not away from, higher values. It is the positive aspect of positive disintegration.”
That’s what we should be striving for now. It’s what we should be looking for in our leaders, and in ourselves. “It is up to us to keep this transformative momentum growing,” Mika said, stressing that in her view positive change is inevitable. “Our developmental trajectory leads always toward our highest values, despite — and because of — periods of trials and tribulations.”