Psychiatric expert: Trump will not hesitate to cause violence to stay in power
Dr. Bandy X. Lee was interviewed by Patrick R. McElligott, who is a retired psychiatric social worker from upstate New York. He has decades of experience in grass roots social-political activism, including working on his late friend Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's case, serving as Onondaga Nation Chief Paul Waterman's top assistant on burial protection and repatriation, and providing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency information on Super Fund sites for federal court cases. Dr. Lee agreed to an interview regarding current events in post-election America.
McElligott: In April, 2017, you organized the "Duty to Warn" Conference. Later, you were the editor and contributor to the book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Has Donald Trump's behaviors since losing the 2020 election reinforced your opinion on the dangers Trump poses to a civilized society?
Lee: Absolutely. We are seeing the last bout of just how much he is willing and able to destroy norms and to push the limits. It is clear he does not intend to leave without placing us in further danger, and without obstructing the president-elect's agenda as much as possible. My regret is that, because of the "gag order" on all mental health experts, which the American Psychiatric Association forced through public campaigns since this administration, the people are still left vulnerable without having learned much. As we see from the 72 million who voted for him again, we are very likely to repeat our errors.
Recently, my brother sent me the following e-mail: "He is the estranged husband who returns on Christmas Eve to murder his wife and children." As the author of Violence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Causes, Consequences, and Cures, do you think that our culture's serious problems with domestic violence are related to the aggression we are witnessing from Trump and some of his supporters?
Different forms of violence are interrelated, and our culture has maximally cultivated conditions for violence through extreme economic inequality, which divides the population into superior and inferior. When vast segments of the population are deemed "inferior", they will be inclined to try to escape the shame by resorting to other hierarchies, such as white supremacy or gender superiority. These are all what I call, "structural violence." Structural violence is the most lethal form of violence as well as the most potent cause of behavioral violence.
Thirty minutes after my brother's first message, he followed with one noting that Trump had just fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. He expressed concern that Trump might attempt to create a "national emergency" by attacking Iran in January. I said that I think this is more likely an escalation of Trump's attack on our nation's institutions. Does it make sense that a furious Trump would seek to punish the country that he is convinced betrayed him by rejecting him in the election?
I would say we need to be concerned about both. Donald Trump may desire maximum revenge, but he is also a follower, including of public opinion. Our feelings of helplessness arise from a paralyzing anxiety or the complacency that "It can't happen here," but the difference we can make with serious understanding and deliberate preparedness is overlooked. I again lament the American Psychiatric Association's acting as an arm of the government, and not only itself failing to meet its societal responsibility but preventing other professionals from doing so, as outlined in its own ethics code. Education and awareness about psychological dynamics had the potential not only to prevent vast harm to the public's collective mental health but to save a quarter million lives. Instead, by keeping the public in the dark and unable to protect itself, extreme dangers continue.
The formal study of "crowd behavior" began in 1908 (F.H. Giddings). In the late 1950's, sociologists first used photographs and film to support their theories (R. Turner, l. Killian). In general, crowds can behave the existing social structures, such as laws, and can organize in a positive, meaningful manner. However, with the introduction of rumors, panic, and/or hysteria, crowds can easily be led to participate in behaviors that are well outside of the social structures, and include riots and arson. In our nation's history, for example from the post Civil War era until the 1950's, this included groups such as the Ku Klux Klan lynching black Americans, attacking Native American communities, and the too often forgotten "disappearing" of Chinese immigrants by the hundreds (likely thousands) in the "old west." What factors beyond Trump are responsible for the current rise in these types of threats?
A spectrum of theories exist about group behavior, from irrationality as the predominant observation, as by Gustave Le Bon, to the unrealistic "rational choice theory," which dominates a lot of economic and political science models. I find the multi-layered understanding of psychoanalysis to be more consistent with the complexity of the human mind, including in groups. We think of laws and social norms as objects that are "out there," but they are rational constructs that require mental health to operate and have meaning in the collective mind. And just as individuals cannot function at a higher level if the mind breaks down, neither can groups. Unconscious, "primitive" processes take over in situations of regression, but we can guard against this through awareness, education, and engagement in collective decision-making. Many advanced democracies have developed into harmonious, higher-functioning societies, which improve a society's health across many domains. Donald Trump is a product as well as a cause of breakdown of democratic organization.
Yesterday, a news report from Utah showed that a hospital had problems with a group of five conspiracy theorists seeking to enter and film its Intensive Care Unit. They were convinced that it was not filled with COVID 19 patients. Such behaviors cause unnecessary strain on the medical professionals. What factors have turned so many seemingly "normal" people into being aggressively anti-science?
They are not just anti-science but tragically anti-reality now. Taking their cues from a president whose fantasy is that he be a "winner" and that a deadly pandemic be a "hoax", they know well what is required of them. I have defined authoritarianism as "the handing over of all institutional, professional, and personal authority, including over their own survival, so as to appease a single person." The more his followers' minds are controlled, and the more horrific his oppression and massacre of the people, the less they will be able to face the truth. Therefore, a subconscious collusion happens between perpetrator and victims. We can see how powerful this emotional force is if we recall that the pandemic was not always politicized, and the right mindset in the beginning would have changed people's behavior to be life-saving instead of death-spreading.
When the media announced that Joe Biden had won the election, and is indeed the president-elect, public celebrations across the country rivaled those at the end of WW2. By no coincidence, similar celebrations took place across Europe, and in many other places around the globe. However, it appears the January 20 presidential inauguration ceremony will come at a time when the virus will hold an increased risk of spreading. There also seems to be a risk of white nationalist Trump supporters planning to disrupt the events in Washington, DC, on that day. Do you have any thoughts about how those celebrating the long national nightmare coming to an end honor the day?
The public celebrations were phenomenal, indeed. You can see the level of oppression, fear, and sense of seizure people have been living under, the world over. However, I am worried not only about the inauguration but the persistent lack of awareness of psychological factors. Politicians, networks, and social media are still giving him a platform, without realizing how destructive this can be, capable even of disrupting an election through psychological manipulation. After a recent rally in Washington energized him, he responded by "tweet": "ANTIFA SCUM ran for the hills today when they tried attacking the people at the Trump Rally, because those people aggressively fought back. Antifa waited until tonight, when 99% were gone, to attack innocent #MAGA People. DC Police, get going—do your job and don't hold back!!!" He shows that he would not hesitate to cause violence and mayhem to stay in power, in which case there may not even be an inauguration day if we are not vigilant.
I think there are several distinct, though overlapping, levels within the millions that voted for Trump in 2020. Some were motivated primarily by financial issues, others by long term party loyalty, many by an external locus of control looking for a hero, and still others by fear and anger. I remember years ago, when Rubin "Hurricane" called me from the other side of the world, when he was working with Nelson Mandela on an attempt to get peace in the Middle East, based on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Do you think something similar to that is possible in this country, or are we more likely to experience something similar to "the Troubles" in Ireland?
I believe it is useful to keep in mind that followers of Trump are diverse and complex, but we should not miss important overarching patterns. First, there is the psychological injury that relative, not absolute, poverty produces—whether it is relative to previous generations or those currently at the top—and this makes people vulnerable to false authority figures. Sociopathic individuals who exploit such psychological vulnerabilities to claim they will take care of them, when their intention is to plunder, become a gift for the billionaires. There is nothing like mental pathology to distract and detach people from the reality of their unfair power arrangement. So, as a psychiatrist, I consider the time when our society consults with mental health experts, whether for the 25th Amendment or some other intervention, to be the moment when it is ready for truth and reconciliation; for now, we are worsening the troubles just to avoid facing the issue. In my new book, Profile of a Nation: Trump's Mind, America's Soul, I recommend three steps: (1) removal of offending agent (the influential person with severe symptoms); (2) dismantling cultic programming and propaganda, which have vastly increased in recent years; and (3) fixing the socioeconomic conditions that give rise to poor collective mental health in the first place.
Follow Dr. Lee at bandylee.com.
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