Renowned psychiatrist explains how Trump has imposed a ‘malignant normality’ — just like the Nazis did
Whereas we could not have predicted a pandemic three years ago, the authors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President anticipated how the president would respond, should there be a crisis. We tried to warn the public of the very consequences we are witnessing today: the loss of many lives and livelihoods of Americans.
Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has been one of the earliest voices to warn against these consequences. He is distinguished professor emeritus of the City University of New York, a leading psychohistorian renowned for his studies of Nazi doctors and of Hiroshima bombing survivors, and author of Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry.
Lee: What is your analysis of Donald Trump’s response to Covid-19, in which you have said that his own effort at solipsistic reality breaks down?
Lifton: Covid-19 has presented a problem for Trump and his reality struggles. I have written and spoken repeatedly about what I call his solipsistic reality. That means it is entirely self-contained and having little to do with what others consider reality and little to do with classical standards of evidence. With the Covid-19 virus, we have had a dreadful pandemic, which has given us constant, physical, organic evidence of sickness and death, evidence that is before us, that is concrete. And in that sense, the effort of Trump to call forth his solipsistic reality is less and less effective.
When the issue is a massive pandemic causing death and anxiety in everyone, people turn not to politicians but to physicians and scientists for their authority. Or else to political leaders who follow physicians and scientists. And, of course, that is not at all the case with Trump. That makes him more desperate, and we see increasingly absurd and extreme statements and attitudes. He has not broken down, and we do not know whether he will, but his reality claims have broken down.
Your foreword to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump set the stage for the rest of us to be “witnessing professionals” to what you said would become a “malignant normality.” You cautioned at the time that over-technicization of the profession could facilitate adaptation to evil. Is this what we are seeing today in the mass deaths and devastation of the economy?
I came to the idea of malignant normality from my study of Nazi doctors. I came to realize that as extreme and murderous as their behavior was, it was legal and what was rendered as normal so that when a Nazi physician stood at a ramp at Auschwitz and selected Jews for the gas chamber, he was doing what was expected of him. He was doing his job in that structure.
Now, Trump is not a Nazi, although he imposes his own malignant normality which has caused our country to suffer and indeed the rest of the world to suffer. And his malignant normality, as we have seen, includes continuous lying, the attack in a vicious and cruel fashion against people who simply tell the truth.
So, his malignant normality is formidable and has been a profound problem since he took office three years or so ago. Finally, and belatedly, I think his malignant normality is being questioned. And I think that we as psychological professionals who have become, what I call witnessing professionals, we have at least contributed to that process.
You described how, in the early Cold War period, there was a commission that was set up with the task of helping Americans accept a malignant nuclear normality. Has the psychiatric establishment under the Trump administration not forced a similar cultural arrangement?
I think it is more complicated even on that. For instance, in the early commission, during the early Cold War, there were some psychiatrists; there were some military people; there were some religious leaders, all combined. And they were actively supporting the government’s policy towards the building of nuclear weapons and even the possibility of their use. Their goal was to calm the national population so that it would not be too anxious in relation to nuclear weapons.
I and my work and others took the opposite view. It is appropriate for us to experience fear and to confront the source of the fear including the grave problem of potential nuclear holocaust. In the present situation, most psychiatrists, even those who are most critical of our speaking out about Trump, I do not think you would find that they are seeking to promote Trump’s vision or views. But I think they act out of an exaggerated protectiveness of the public image of their profession: it should not be tainted by anybody speaking out in what might be a political arena. That is a ridiculous position, of course, because failure to speak out is a political act as well.
Your past research has considerable relevance for what is happening right now. What does this presidency signify in the scheme of things, and where do you see the American situation in the psychological unfolding of the history of a nation?
Those are large questions, of course, and they confront us in the most extreme way with Trump. It is astounding and troubling that a person so immoral—one can call him cruel in his behavior in his effort to destroy anyone who has stood in the way of his solipsistic reality and in his willingness to bring about large numbers of deaths, which is in effect a willingness to kill large numbers of people—if he thinks it suits his needs, the needs of the self and in his case, the needs of a kind of triumphalist self who beats down all opponents and is stronger than anyone else and also in his more imaginative moments, he sees himself as a fixer and a savior of society.
I think that this can be changed very quickly with an electoral defeat for Trump and bring about at least efforts to restore respect for reality, elements of decency as opposed to cruelty, and a beginning return to moral elements as opposed to amorality and immorality on the part of Trump. Still there will be extensive work necessary to restore institutional structures—because part of the answer to your question is that he will go down in history as a would-be destroyer of American institutions.
American institutions have always been imperfect, but still, they have been the institutions of a democracy which have had to depend upon reasonable versions of reality and have sustained elements of legality and balance.
You have been a guiding light in many ways in this direction. Would you like to leave any last word?
The returns are not in now. It is not clear that we will be successful as a society to reconstruct the independence of our institutions. And there are efforts, hopeful efforts, of awakening in American society in the recent protest movement. It is called Black Lives Matter, and it is very much about that. It is crucial that we all become or stay involved in precisely those efforts.