By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
While Donald Trump played golf over the Memorial Day weekend and America’s official COVID-19 death count neared the 100,000 mark, two things stood out:
First, Trump’s negligence. A Columbia University study has shown that if national shutdown actions had been started just one week earlier, 36,000 deaths could have been averted by May 3. About 54,000 deaths could have been averted if shutdown actions started two weeks earlier. But it gets worse: South Korea, which had its first case at the same time, has had only 267 deaths, just one-fifty-seventh of the United States on a per-capita basis.
Second, the threat to American’s well-being goes much farther than just one man. Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, seemed solidly opposed to taking any further action to help Americans cope with the ongoing disaster.
As mentioned in the prior issue of Random Lengths News, 20 countries and five U.S. states have shown that it’s possible to contain the contagion. The real challenge is the Trump administration and the forces supporting him.
Now, there are 48 countries that have shown the virus is containable, according to Endcoronavirus.org. The number of states has not improved, even as all 50 have taken steps to start re-opening. Experts warn that will lead to further outbreaks. A study from Imperial College London, using mobile phone data, warned that 24 states are still seeing epidemic spreading — including California. The challenge represented by Trump and those supporting him has only intensified.
To better understand that threat, Random Lengths turned to Ian Hughes, a physicist, trained psychoanalyst and author of the 2018 book, Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy, describes how leaders with dangerous personality disorders — incapable of feeling the full range of normal human emotions — have repeatedly managed to build power bases largely comprised of similarly disordered supporters: Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Joseph Stalin’s Russia, Mao Zedong’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
America isn’t in that same league. The V Dem [Varieties of Democracy] Institute categorizes it as a democracy suffering “autocratization”: worse than Venezuela, but not as bad as Brazil. Still, the increasing emergence of violent rhetoric and armed protest fueled by Trump in recent weeks points ominously in this frightening direction. Hughes also describes how the growth and development of democracy serves to protect society against the dangers posed by this violent, malignant minority.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized two truths about America,” Hughes said. “The first is the self-evident fact that Donald Trump suffers from a dangerous mental disorder,… Mental health experts have been saying this since before Trump was elected, of course, but his response to the pandemic has made his cognitive and emotional deficiencies even more glaringly obvious.
“The condition that mental health professionals converge on with respect to Trump is malignant narcissism, which is a combination of extreme narcissism, paranoia and absence of empathy or conscience…. All of these aspects of malignant narcissism are plainly visible in Trump’s response to the pandemic. The degree to which he has made the tragedy all about himself is mind blowing, and completely inexplicable except in terms of psychopathology,”
Thus, Trump first described the pandemic as “a Democratic hoax,” as if it had been fabricated simply to make him look bad. More systematically, a New York Times analysis of Trump’s coronavirus briefings and other remarks from March 9 through mid-April found that:
“By far the most recurring utterances from Mr. Trump in the briefings are self-congratulations, roughly 600 of them, which are often predicated on exaggerations and falsehoods.”
“His absence of empathy for the victims of the virus, and his complete inability to conceptualize the suffering of the sick and dying is chilling,” Hughes continued.
Of course, Trump has tried to show some superficial concern, but his feeble efforts only underscore how incapable he is.
“Mr. Trump’s attempts to display empathy or appeal to national unity (about 160 instances) amount to only a quarter of the number of times he complimented himself or a top member of his team,” The New York Times reported.
“He is experiencing the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans as a personal affront,” Hughes added. “His narcissistic delusions are also evident in his constant reiterations that it will magically disappear, and the world will return to that wonderful state in which he can once again bask in adulation at his political rallies.”
Trump is only part of the problem facing America.
“The second truth that the pandemic has exposed more clearly is perhaps even more disturbing, namely the power structure that supports Trumpism and the extent to which pathology pervades the disparate elements of it,” Hughes said. “Pathology is visible in those within the GOP and its wealthy backers pushing people back to work, risking other people’s lives so they can secure their fortunes.”
The refusal to protect meatpacking workers, led by Republican governors in Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas and elsewhere, is a striking case in point.
“Pathology is evident in the evangelicals claiming that the blood of Jesus will save them, while recklessly dismissing the likelihood that their ‘religious freedom’ will kill others,” Hughes continued.
Churches are already virus-spreading hotspots, as noted by Forbes recently.
“As President Donald Trump sides with churches that want to reopen faster than their state’s safety guidelines will allow, new COVID-19 virus outbreaks associated with in-person religious services are being reported worldwide,” Forbes reported. Among the victims was a Virginia pastor who died in April after defiantly holding services throughout March, saying he would continue “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.”
“Pathology is evident in the armed white militias threatening violence against governors who are acting to save people’s lives,” Hughes added.
In Michigan, this went so far that the state legislature was shut down in mid-May.
“Individuals who suffer from personality disorders, and who had hitherto not been involved in the group’s rise to power, emerge from within every community to assume positions of responsibility and become indispensable in spreading terror through every village, community and region of society,” Hughes wrote in his book.
So, what we’re seeing now in various reopening protests is just a foretaste of potentially much uglier things to come.
“The more alarming truth about America right now is not Trump,” Hughes said. “It is the fact that his pathology has been shown to be deeply embedded within a broad swathe of U.S. society.
“To overcome the pathocracy into which the U.S. has descended, a strategy is needed aimed at disarming and dismantling the power structure underpinning Trumpism, alongside a strategy to defeat Trump at the polls in November. It is a mistake to think that the task is only to change the president. The real task is to change society. And naming the pathology underpinning Trumpism needs to be a core part of the approach.”
“Pathocracy” is the name coined by Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski, who suffered under the World War II Nazi occupation of Poland as a youth, followed by the Soviet occupation afterwards. What he saw in both was a system in which individuals with personality disorders — psychopathy, malignant narcissism, etc. — occupy positions of power, and shape social institutions to meet their pathological needs. Not everyone in such systems necessarily has a personality disorder, but they willingly accommodate themselves to it — as described, for example in the book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The long line of higher-ups who have joined the Trump administration, only to see their reputations ruined are a tell-tale signature of a pathocratic regime. But it’s not yet one that’s at all secure.
“We are living in a historical moment that is fraught with both danger and opportunity,” Hughes stated. “The COVID-19 pandemic is just one of a whole series of crises that we are facing, from climate change, species extinction, the erosion of democracy, unprecedented levels of inequality, the rise of right-wing nationalism, and rising geopolitical tensions, to name just a few. … Almost every social institution upon which we have relied for direction and stability is failing. … This is true of democracy, religion, economics, gender, technology, education. And they are failing largely because they have lost their moral compass and their focus on the public good.”
In a recent podcast Hughes said that:
We have always had pretty much a majority that are psychologically healthy, and this minority who is incapable of seeing others as equals, incapable of seeing others as anything but a threat, who are much more prone to violence and aggression and inequality … And to my mind, history has been one long struggle of the majority to try and reduce the malignancy of this minority.
Huge strides in this struggle have been made in the past — after the American Revolution and following World War II, for example, when sweeping systemic changes were made in social institutions. “There have been these episodes, but they usually come out of enormous periods of turmoil, enormous periods of violence,” he said.
Hughes also said that these periods of violence were caused by that minority and we’re in another such moment now.
That’s the backdrop for the way forward he suggested.
Fundamental changes are necessary
“As these social institutions are currently configured, the values they valorize encourage pathocracy,” he argued. “A re-imagining, based on values of cooperation, empathy, inclusion and social cohesion, is necessary to neutralize the pathology that currently permeates U.S. society and to move in a more sustainable and humane direction.”
Those values have been vividly on display as the coronavirus pandemic has enveloped America — particularly in the way that essential frontline service workers have emerged as heroes and in popular support for sweeping, large-scale government action to promote the general welfare. But these values also registered strong support before the pandemic, in Democratic primary polling, and yet took a back seat to a supposedly “safer” candidate who promised a “return to normal” which now seems utterly fanciful.
Defeating The Death Cult
That’s profoundly problematic, according to psychotherapist Elizabeth Mika, who joined Hughes on that recent podcast.
“What worries me quite a bit is seeing the calls for return to the so-called ‘normal,’ and I understand that” Mika said in the podcast. “However, the normal is what brought us Trump in the first place,” she pointed out. “The normal is what gave us 150,000 deaths of despair — that’s the number of people who died in 2017 due to alcohol, drug abuse and suicide — in addition to 45,000 that died for lack of access to healthcare. There are thousands of people who die in mass shootings.”
In short, she summarized, “This is not normal. It has not been normal for a very long time. … We have lived in a pathological society well before Trump was elected to the presidency, and so what we are seeing is an exacerbation of that pathological reality.”
Hughes agrees but with a more optimistic outlook.
“A broad coalition, drawn from right across society, opposed to the values of Trumpism and passionate about making the U.S. rational, humane, fair and democratic again is needed not just for a New Deal, but for building a new society which is the antithesis of the pathocracy that is currently destroying America,” he said.
It certainly helps that all of us have seen millions of our fellow Americans act heroically in that spirit over the last few months. It’s no longer a wild-eyed fantasy. We’ve seen with our own eyes what it looks like to see those values in action. We know it’s possible. We can’t un-know it now. We don’t have to accept 57 times the deaths of South Korea. It’s time for the death cult to end.