Sick societies produce sick leaders. Donald Trump’s presidency and its aftermath offer perhaps the clearest examples of that fact in recent history. Trumpism, the contemporary Republican Party and “conservative” movement in America seem like a distillation of the worst aspects of human nature in general and American society in particular.
Yet despite an abundance of evidence, America’s political elites remain largely in denial about the human, political, social and moral disaster of the Age of Trump and beyond. For the most part, they remain deeply invested in an obsolescent system that is teetering on collapse. Similarly, America’s mainstream news media refuses to consistently report on or properly explain the many crises facing the country. As a class, its leading practitioners are also invested in a failing system and its fading myths about “normal” politics and inherent American goodness.
Moreover, to consistently and accurately tell the truth about America’s democracy crisis and the country’s other great problems would require the media would be forced to indict itself for the role it played in nurturing and normalizing Trump’s rise to power and then his presidency.
Most Americans, and especially most white Americans, have responded to the Trump era by embracing outright delusions and learned helplessness. Neither will save them. This is not a fantasy, and no superhero will appear at just the right moment to provide a happy ending.
Here are three examples of the sickness afflicting American society in this moment.
Just days after 19 children and two of their teachers were killed in the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the NRA held its national convention in Houston, a few hours’ drive to the east. Donald Trump was, of course, one of the event’s featured guests. Early in his speech, Trump read out the names of those killed in Uvalde, in awkward tones of mock-solemnity, while a gong was sounded. A few minutes later, he ended his address in a jovial mood, laboriously performing a few dance steps with his fists clenched.
Although some liberal commentators expressed outrage on Twitter over this display, Trump was not denounced or condemned by the audience, the NRA leadership, fellow Republicans or Fox News. For the most part, mainstream media entirely ignored this grotesque spectacle.
Vendors at the NRA convention sold expensive handguns designed to “commemorate” Trump’s MAGA rallies. They are engraved with an image of Trump and the slogan “Let’s Go Brandon,” a thinly-veiled code for “Fuck Joe Biden.” This is part of a larger pattern of both right-wing stochastic terrorism and explicit threats of violence against Democrats and other targeted groups.
It was recently reported that on Jan. 5, 2021, one day before the Capitol attack and attempted coup, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff alerted the head of Pence’s Secret Service detail that Trump was likely to denounce Pence, potentially endangering his safety. In effect and almost explicitly, Trump was targeting Pence for violence as punishment for his refusal to embrace the coup attempt.
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Multiple sources have suggested that Trump was gleeful and excited as he watched his followers overrun the Capitol building on Jan. 6, with the apparent aim of hunting down Pence and perhaps murdering him. The New York Times recently reported that Trump told White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6 that perhaps Pence should indeed be hanged for not cooperating with the plot to nullify the 2020 election.
In a healthy society, reports that the president hoped his own vice president would be hanged might provoke widespread concern or alarm. This is not that kind of society.
In a healthy American society these events would be the cause of great concern. But today’s America is not such a place. As such, these “revelations” have mostly been ignored and then consigned to the memory hole by the guardians and gatekeepers of approved public discourse, who cling to corrupt standards of “balance” and “fairness.”
Those are certainly not the only recent developments that would be widely discussed, in tones of alarm, in a more robust democracy. A few weeks ago, a man named Ian Rogers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to destroy a building by fire or explosives, as well as a number of other serious charges. Rogers was one of two men who planned to bomb the Democratic Party’s headquarters in Sacramento, California, shortly after the 2020 election, as revenge against Biden’s victory and in hopes of sparking a “movement” to overthrow the government.
It is now a matter of public record that right-wing paramilitaries and other street thugs played an integral role in the Trump cabal’s coup plot. On Monday, Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, and several of his associates were indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy in connection with the events of Jan. 6. That follows the January indictments of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and 10 of his followers on similar charges
Across the country, the Republican Party and its operatives are refining and expanding their coup against American democracy with plans to sabotage or rig future elections at all levels of government. Sometimes these plans are outright illegal, as with the fraudulent Trump electors, and sometimes they take advantage of anachronistic loopholes in election law, as with the possible nullification of election results by Republican-controlled state legislatures.
Knowledge is power. Here are three concepts and frameworks that should be invaluable for those Americans who want to see and understand this national sickness more clearly.
America now suffers from what social psychologists have described as a state of “malignant normality”.
Psychologist John Gartner has explained this condition as emerging after “a malignantly narcissistic leader takes control of society and gradually changes reality for everyone else. So their crazy internal reality becomes enacted in the lived true external reality of that society. This is how a leader can come in and change the mores of their society.”
The Age of Trump has also further transformed America into a pathocracy. In a 2019 essay for Psychology Today, Steve Taylor explained this concept as developed by Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski, who spent his early life under Nazi occupation, closely followed by Soviet occupation. For Lobaczewski, “pathocracy” was “when individuals with personality disorders (particularly psychopathy) occupy positions of power.” Pathological leaders, he argued, hate democracy, and when they attain power “do their utmost to dismantle or discredit democratic institutions, including the freedom and legitimacy of the press.” That was what Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orbán did in their respective nations, Taylor observes, and what Trump attempted to do in the United States:
Moreover, pathological leaders are completely unable to comprehend the principles of democracy, since they regard themselves as superior, and see life as a competitive struggle in which the most ruthless deserve to dominate others.
But pathocracy isn’t just about individuals. As Lobaczewsk pointed out, pathological leaders always attract other people with personality disorders, who seize the opportunity to gain influence. At the same time, individuals who are moral, empathic and fair-minded gradually fall away. They are either ostracized or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them. As a result, over time pathocracies tend to become entrenched and extreme.
Donald Trump, the Republican-fascists, the larger white right and those individuals and groups that have either tacitly or actively aided them have normalized political deviance in America. That was a precondition for the destruction of America’s multiracial democracy and the reshaping of American society, which is clearly the goal of their movement.
Trump and his movement have normalized political deviance in America. That was a necessary precondition for the destruction of democracy.
There is great reluctance among America’s political elites and other influential mainstream figures to use moral language when describing Trump, his movement or his followers. In fact, mainstream reporters and journalists are explicitly trained and instructed to avoid explicit and direct moral condemnation when explaining domestic political matters.
Such pointless and destructive prohibitions do not change the fact that fascism and other forms of authoritarianism are evil, and this includes Trumpism and today’s Republican Party. By refusing to use the power of moral appeals, mainstream political leaders and public voices have surrendered one of their most important weapon in the war against fascism and the global right.
In her 2016 essay “The Pivoting: On Narcissistic Collusion or How Evil ‘Just Happens’,” psychotherapist Elizabeth Mika offered important insights about the necessity of explicitly naming and confronting evil in a time of grave moral crisis:
The abusive political power structures, those that restrict our freedom and use us as tools of evil while trying to convince us to the contrary, depend on the creation of obedient citizens who are used to not questioning the superiors from an early age, and who have substituted their own thoughts with pre-packaged beliefs. It helps if those beliefs include those about our own specialness because this justifies any and all things we want to do to others.
Because if we are special — better — then they are worse, often not quite human, not in the way we are; and it becomes our right to do to them as we wish or, in our superior judgment, deem necessary (and, to be sure, there usually is no difference between the two). That’s how evil happens, so naturally, imperceptibly, as just another necessity of life as we know it — something we are justified in doing by virtue of our narcissistic belief in our superiority and righteousness; or something we “just” comply with through our narcissistic blindness and the collusion it engenders with an admired authority, which make evil, the one we do or participate in, invisible to us.
If we still retain a functioning conscience, however, the collusion and blindness are never perfect for long, as our conscience insists on being heard. It does so by creating discomfort, doubts, and inner conflicts. Difficult to tolerate as those manifestations of a conscience are, they should never be silenced because they are the best and most important part of us, sometimes the only one that reminds us of our humanity.
A person is not truly healthy if they have found a way to become “well-adjusted” in a sick society. Our society is sick, and while the disease may be acute now, it was decades in developing. To feel this, to know it, to be enraged and disgusted by it, means that you are actually engaging with the world as it is as opposed to hiding behind fantasies and delusions.
Not to feel such things, on the other hand, is a form of surrender to evil, to malignant normality, political deviance, pathocracy and the other manifestations of our societal sickness. The most immediate therapy, individually and collectively, is to be a person of conscience, a fighter for the future in the struggle to save democracy in the 21st century.
One may also choose to be a bystander or spectator, to seek a position of detachment or denial. That will not treat the illness on either an individual or social level. It only leads us closer to societal suicide and mass destruction, which is the ultimate promise of fascism and which now, perhaps, seems all too alluring to far too many Americans.
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