(WTHIWWDT?!? part 1)
In the beginning, we all knew he was crazy, including his own people. His people – the Trumpets – find him an entertaining champion, don’t they? It’s as if they revel in his bonkersness, isn’t it?
The difficult thing for most people to understand is Trumpets don’t support Donald Trump in spite of his being crazy, they support him precisely because he is crazy.
Crazy as bat guano, ninjas on the roof, poo-flinging monkeys, Captain Insano crazy.
Yes, we’ve all known it all along. Yes, the Republican party owns his insanity. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. They’ve known too, and they still do, though most pretend not to. The previous article is from the Wall St Journal. This one is from the Weekly Standard. These are conservative writers in conservative publications.
“This isn’t the behavior of a rational, stable individual. It should embarrass those who have endorsed him and disgrace those who have attempted to normalize him.
The degree of this normalization is stunning. The Republican nominee for president made comments Friday one might expect from a patient in a mental institution, the kind of stuff you might read on blog with really small print and pictures of UFOs.
And yet his remarks barely register as news. There are no condemnations from fellow Republicans. His supporters shrug them off as Trump being Trump.
This is about something simple and important: Donald Trump is not of sound mind.”
Trump being Trump: the All-American sequel to The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The diagnoses going around for Trump are legion: narcissism, megalomania, sociopath, anti-social, dyslexia, dementia, ADD, and so on…
Yet from the beginning, I’ve had this nagging feeling Trump is somehow different than the explanatory power any one of these diagnoses alone can offer us.
In a nutshell, we’ve all known for at least the last two years he’s a nutter. However, it wasn’t until about a year ago I figured out the answer to the riddle.
“What’s he got? What makes Trump being Trump?” asked the Sphinx.
Oedipus replied: “He’s got solipsism.”
Folks seem to either not have heard of or understand solipsism. It isn’t a mental illness diagnosis from the DSM. Well, “asshole” isn’t a diagnosis in the DSM either, but Trump has that, now doesn’t he? Prior to now, everyone I read or spoke with on the subject of his crazy already has their mind made up it’s narcissism. Psychiatrists typically use the diagnosis malignant narcissism.
This essay is not an argument that Trump is not narcissistic. He certainly is a raging narcissist. Again, the case being made here is solipsism has more explanatory power for Trump’s behavior than what narcissism alone accounts for.
In other words, Trump’s narcissism is a symptom. It’s his solipsism which causes it.
So what is solipsism?
Solipsism is a state of mind and a philosophic world view. No, of course Trump wouldn’t know the difference between philosophy and the ingredients listed on the label of his Diet Coke. He doesn’t need to understand it to have it.
Here is a description from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Solipsism is sometimes expressed as the view “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states.” Solipsism is therefore more properly regarded as the doctrine, in principle, “existence” means for me my existence and that of my mental states.
Existence is everything I experience — physical objects, other people, events and processes — anything that would commonly be regarded as a constituent of the space and time in which I coexist with others, and is necessarily construed by me as part of the content of my consciousness.
For the solipsist, it is not merely the case he believes his thoughts, experiences, and emotions are, as a matter of contingent fact, the only thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Rather, the solipsist can attach no meaning to the supposition that there could be thoughts, experiences, and emotions other than his own.
In short, the true solipsist understands the word “pain,” for example, to mean “my pain.” He cannot accordingly conceive how this word is to be applied in any sense other than this exclusively egocentric one.
This description sure as Hades sounds like Donald Trump, doesn’t it?
Here’s a cartoon diagram to illustrate:
What is relevant (to me, and I hope to you) is two things from the Duke University Philosophy Dept.
First of all, when somebody starts the Solipsism Game with you (where they assert that they are all that exists and dare you to disprove them), whack them upside the head – not too hard now – and cry out “Bullshit!”
Second of all, disprovable or not, Solipsism is an ugly philosophy. We find people who live as if they were the center of all being ethically repugnant. We consider them to be narcissists, sociopaths, characterological people who want to be the center of all being and hence, are incapable of love. We feel sorry for them, when we aren’t being terribly angry at their immaturity (all children are born solipsists, and departing from the philosophy is one of the main signs of the advent of real human maturity).
Oh yeah! That’s what the fuck he’s got. It’s clear as an unmuddied lake now, isn’t it?
He seems like he’s not a person at all because he’s literally the only person he’s ever known. Trump’s so much more grating on our nerves than the average narcissist (such as Obama and Hillary) because his thoughts, speech, behavior… these actually create reality itself from moment to moment, and his is the only reality there is or could be.
This is why he contradicts himself constantly and frequently does the opposite of what he tells people. It’s not a contradiction because he creates the truth. He treats people as if they are objects, because they are. People are just props to arrange as he wishes on his reality TV show. And it is a REALITY TV show to Trump. Holy crap! Umm hmm.
Reality is completely malleable depending on how Trump feels about the situation at any given time. If a person’s speech or action does not accord with the reality in his head, Trump loses his mind – literally! To avoid any cognitive dissonance, he yells, complains, and generally makes a bastard of himself until he gets what he wants. Thus his mental state and the world are congruent.
He cannot love himself or anyone else. This is the black hole we can feel him generate.
By the way, if you are wondering whom to blame for solipsism, the fault lies at the feet of Rene Descartes. Everyone has heard him say, “I think, therefore I am.” The gist of it is he’s trying to prove he exists, and if he thinks, there must be something which thinks. That something is “he.” Descartes.
This leads to some problems. One of these problems is the stuff of which I can be certain may or may not go beyond his “I think, therefore I am” statement. Descartes has stated he exists, without doing us the work of providing any real details about the nature of the “I” he has just proved to exist. That’s a problem.
It may not be so obvious at first why this train of thought is such a pain in the philosophical ass. It is. If the only thing I am certain I can prove exists is “I,” then how can I know “You” exist too? “Exist” as in You are here reading this essay independently of my mind. If I disappear in this very moment, it doesn’t affect whether or not You, dear reader, exist, not in the slightest.
Then again, maybe it’s all in my head, brain in a jar, it’s a dream, and so on.
The bottom line being, Descartes took Trump – and by extension, us – to Crazytown. For which, Rene should be scolded and spanked like the dog who just piddled on the rug. Bad Descartes, bad!!!
This guy figured it out too, soooo glad to find at least one other person out there who gets it! This is an excellent essay by Lifton on the subject.
The Assault on Reality
Essential to understanding Trump is his attempt to subject the public to his own solipsistic reality; thereby to destroy our shared basis for democracy.
Trumpism is as an assault on reality. At issue is the attempt to control, to own, immediate truth along with any part of history that feeds such truth. Since this behavior stems from Trump’s own mind, it is generally attributed to his narcissism (and he has plenty of that).
I would suggest the more appropriate term is solipsistic reality. Narcissism suggests self-love and even, in quaint early psychoanalytic language, libido directed at the self. Solipsism has more to do with a cognitive process of interpreting the world exclusively through the experience and needs of the self.
We must first acknowledge reality is a concept that, despite centuries of psychological and philosophical investigation, defies precise definition. This is because reality is inherently paradoxical:
On the one hand what we call reality can be largely constructed by dominant social and political beliefs: the belief democracy is the best political system, or God exists, or human beings are weak and require dictatorial leadership. In any society, these claims to reality can change and give way to alternate, and even contrary, claims.
But there are at the same time, more immediately factual components of reality in no way dependent upon such theoretical constructions. For instance: my father’s name was Harold Lifton and I am a Jewish-American psychiatrist writing this article on the American president’s approach to reality.
Reality always contains these two contrasting dimensions: the changeable/ constructed reality that so influences our worldview, and the immediate/ factual reality on which so much of our everyday lives depend. We consider a person to be psychotic when he or she “breaks” with immediate reality in the form of delusions, hallucinations, and extreme paranoia. And we require a shared sense of reality, consistent with experience and evidence, for our collective function in a democracy.
Danger arises when zealots and despots claim ownership of reality, as I could observe in my first research study, that of Chinese Communist “thought reform” (or “brainwashing”), which I conducted in the mid 1950s. Thought reform, at least in its full expression, is a systematic project that makes extensive use of criticism, self-criticism, and confession, both in groups and individual interrogations. Its ambitious aims were not only to bring about change in people’s political views, but in what Erik Erikson called their inner identity. That is, traditional Chinese filial sons and daughters, still identifiable in modern China, were to be transformed into filial Chinese communists.
The scope of thought reform was remarkable: versions of it were conducted throughout the society—in universities and schools, every kind of organizational workplace, neighborhood groups, prisons, and special centers for reform—so that tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of people were subjected to formidable pressures toward significant personal change. Brutal interrogation methods for confession-extraction seemed to be borrowed from Russian Communist (and before that, Tsarist) usage. But the focus on systematic “reeducation” was Chinese, apparently influenced by traditional Confucian stress on “rectification.”
The narrative was relentless: the “old society” in China was evil and corrupt because of the domination of the “exploiting classes”—landowners, capitalists, and the bourgeoisie. The residual mental effects of that exploitation had to be removed not only from members of those exploiting classes, but from all who lived in the old society. As Chairman Mao put it, one had to “punish the past to warn the future” and “save men by curing their ills.”
The reformers were totalistic in their all-or-none assertions, including claims to absolute truth and virtue. To impose those claims they created what I called milieu control, the domination of all communication in the environment (including at times the inner environment of individual selves).
They insisted on doctrine over person, so any doubts experienced concerning ideological claims were considered a form of personal deficiency, of individual-psychological aberration. Overall, there was a dispensing of existence, a line drawn between those who had a right to exist (in harmony with the official doctrine), and those who possessed no such right. That “dispensing” could range from discrimination in terms of jobs and status to imprisonment and even execution.
The coercive element I’ve emphasized was always present, but was accompanied by an appeal to high idealism: the promise of a utopian future and of individual and collective revitalization, even a sense of rebirth. That promise of personal revitalization would also loom large in my study of another totalistic movement.
Make America Great Again… AGAIN!!!
Albert Speer, who was known as “Hitler’s architect,” told me how Hitler spoke at his university in 1930 and declared Germany had become weak and everything seemed hopeless, but by uniting behind his movement, Germany and its people could once again become strong. These words lifted Speer out of his despair over social and economic chaos, and his hopelessness about his own future; he experienced a new sense of inner power and joined the Nazi Party a few days later.
I came to realize Chinese thought reform was attempting to do something quite remarkable—to eliminate the validity of all thought prior to Maoism. This was a kind of psychological apocalypticism: the destruction of one’s prior mental world in order to be reborn into Maoism. The Communist claim to ownership of reality was unyielding and all-pervasive.
Yet despite all this, thought reform had mixed results. As Chinese society changed and opened up economically, maintaining anything approaching milieu control became increasingly difficult. Moreover, people could become inured or even antagonistic to the psychological assaults of thought reform, resulting in what I came to call the “hostility of suffocation” and the “law of diminishing conversions.”
Thought reform came to limit what one could say and do in society rather than bring about genuine personal change. In dealing with dissidents, prior efforts at painstaking reeducation gave way to the physical brutality and ominous threats that had characterized Soviet-style show trials. Nowadays, very few people in China seem to have much belief in the prescribed ideology. The Chinese experience suggests it is very difficult—perhaps impossible—to establish and sustain ownership of reality.
Solipsism and Narrative Necessity
How does all this apply to Donald Trump? One’s first impression would be his mindset is the very antithesis of the kind of ideological totalism I’ve just described. Trump doesn’t have a consistent ideology: his ideas readily change and reverse themselves in response to specific situations. Such a relationship to ideas would seem to have nothing to do with ideological totalism.
Yet, as different as Trump is from totalists, he too seeks to control reality.
Trump’s solipsism conforms to a tradition in psychology and philosophy for rendering the self an insistent source for all reality. With extreme forms of solipsism, the external world and other minds cannot be known and may, in effect, have no existence. What results is continuous falsehood, whether of an almost automatic kind, or of the intentional form we call lying.
In raising this issue, I follow standard psychiatric ethics by making no claim to a hands-on diagnosis of the president; in fact, I make no diagnosis at all. But I do, like a burgeoning number of psychological professionals, insist on speaking out concerning these dangerous psychological tendencies.
Trump’s presidency has followed a predictable sequence starting with an initial falsehood (Hillary Clinton’s nearly 3-million margin in the popular vote was derived from fraudulent ballots cast mostly by illegal immigrants). As the falsehood radiates outward, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend, first on the part of the spokesperson, who must turn the falsehood into truth, and still less credible as others examine its claims, until, in its journey through society, it becomes mostly recognized as patent untruth.
Yet in the process, it not only gets a hearing, but lingers as something whose truth—or untruth—is repeatedly examined. To that extent, each of Trump’s expressions of solipsistic reality somehow remains “out there.” More than that, these falsehoods and lies may be ignored, if not embraced, by immediate followers who identify passionately with Trump himself, or by Republicans insistent upon holding on to Trump-centered power.
Omphaloskepsis (navel-gazing) is contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation. The word derives from the Ancient Greek words ὀμφᾰλός (omphalós, lit. ’navel’) and σκέψῐς (sképsis, lit. ’viewing, examination, speculation’).
If Trump has no consistent ideology—lacking the conviction and discipline of a fascist or even a populist—he does have a narrative. And that turns out to be important. The narrative does have consistency: America has been great in the past, but has been in the wrong hands and allowed to become weak and misused by foreign forces, especially allies, who cheat and take advantage of us.
He, Trump, and only he, has both the strength and negotiating skills to “make America great again.” As a strongman and a dealmaker, he will restore America to its rightful world-dominating military and economic power. At the same time, his solipsistic self-presentation includes claims to decency, loyalty, and lovability, along with a toughness that will destroy any who treat him unjustly, which means any who call out his lies or falsehoods, or in some way oppose him.
The psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of the narrative construction of truth and pointed out falsehoods can embody a “narrative necessity” required for the flow and consistency of a larger, encompassing story. The narrative necessity can be crude indeed, given the flagrant untruths of Trump’s solipsistic reality. But those untruths can be subsumed to what is claimed to be a larger truth.
And when the solipsist holds a position of power, he can transform the falsehood into public policy. That was what Trump did when he created a special electoral commission to expose the “fraudulence” of Clinton’s popular vote, a commission whose purpose seemed to be that of exercising further control over the electoral process, and which in any case, did not last very long.
Yet we should avoid falling into a cult of solipsistic personality. Trump’s falsehoods connect with longstanding American Nativist and Know-Nothing movements, and with totalistic contemporary Republican assertions. He draws upon the voices of right-wing extremism, what Todd Gitlin calls the “vortex” of “Birthers, Whitewater, ‘Travelgate,’ and Vince Foster conspiracy theorists, ‘death panel’ enthusiasts, ‘Lock her up!’ chanters, scientist-haters or other Flat Earth factions…”
In other words, Trump’s solipsism can connect with a sea of mostly right-wing exaggeration, misinformation, conspiracism, falsehood, and lies.
Is Trump’s solipsism, then, simply an extension of a cultural trend in American life? I would argue it is something more. Despotic control over reality usually relates to specific goals, those having to do with the dictator’s holding onto power or furthering his pet projects.
Trump is different. His solipsism is sui generis (in a class of its own). He is psychologically remarkable in his capacity to manufacture and continuously assert falsehood in the apparent absence of psychosis. Those suffering from schizophrenic psychosis, for instance, can be highly solipsistic in their hallucinations and delusions also.
But Trump does not appear to have hallucinations or delusions in a structured, classical sense. That is, without being psychotic, he is just as solipsistic as those who are. He manifests a considerable talent for manipulating his solipsistic falsehoods in ways that enhance his own narrative and connect with related political projects.
In that sense, Trump has an extraordinary psychological capacity for sustained solipsism. Have we ever encountered a public figure who has so consistently reversed truth and falsehood, and done so on so such a vast scale?
David Leonhardt, the journalist who has done most to track Trump’s lies, describes him as “virtually indifferent to reality, often saying what helps him make the case he’s trying to make,” and as “trying to make truth irrelevant.” It is difficult to overestimate the dangers that stem from such extreme assaults on reality by a man who holds the most powerful office in the world.
Does Trump believe his own falsehoods? The question itself suggests a clear dichotomy between belief and disbelief, which is not always the way things work.
“All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.
It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”~ Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X
In studying people’s behavior under extremity, I have found the mind can simultaneously believe and not believe in something, and can move in and out of belief according to perceived pressures. I could witness that tendency in false confessions made by European missionaries accused of being spies and subjected to brutal versions of thought reform in Chinese prisons.
One priest told me how, after experiencing unbearable pain from torture, he came to imagine a “spy radio” in his mission house and to view talks he had with other priests about the approaching Communist army as a form of “espionage” on behalf of the “Imperialists.” He spoke of it as similar to writing a novel in which events in the novel become understood as actual history.
(As far as we know,) Trump has been subjected to no such external abuse, but his own inner conflicts and anxieties could create his own version of abuse. The larger point is that, like all other forms of human behavior, belief can be a form of adaptation to existing conditions.
Consider Trump’s most egregiously self-serving lie: Barack Obama was not born in this country and therefore not a legitimate president. Trump did not invent this lie, but embraced it and became its most persistent articulator. Consciously and repeatedly, he manipulated the lie as a way of entering presidential politics. But to make one’s falsehoods convincing, one has to develop a belief in them, and it is likely that in some part of his mind Trump has believed (and may still believe) in Obama’s foreign birth.
The larger narrative of illegitimacy and racism becomes crucial in providing a structured story that can encompass the falsehood and allow for its further manipulation. But this “narrative necessity” can itself be unstable. Trump’s solipsism will likely destroy his presidency.
Yet along the way, something is happening to the rest of us as well. We are experiencing what can be called reality fatigue. The drumbeat of falsehoods and lies continues even as we expose them as such: we are thrust into a realm in which a major segment of our society ignores or defies the principles of reason, evidence, and shared knowledge required for the function of a democracy.
From Malignant Normality to Living in Truth
In recent work, I refer to malignant normality, by which I mean the imposition of a norm of destructive or violent behavior, so that such behavior is expected or required of people. I came to the idea through my study of Nazi doctors. The physicians arriving at Auschwitz were expected to carry out selections of Jews for the gas chambers. Whatever conflicts they experienced, the great majority adapted to that malignant normality.
In America, we have encountered dangerous forms of pre-Trump malignant normality in connection with nuclear weapons, including not only their stockpiling, but their proposed use in a war we expect to survive and “win.” And in connection with climate, the malignant normality creates what I call an ultimate absurdity: If we were to continue to do just what we are now doing in our use of fossil fuels—changing nothing—we would come close to destroying our civilization over the course of this century.
Trump reinforces these expressions of malignant normality and adds others associated with his solipsistic reality. Indeed, his administration renders it routine and “normal” to lie and defend lies, and to ignore the traditional independence of the judicial and legislative branches of our society; that is, to seek to own the institutions meant to limit presidential power.
We need to bear witness to the malignant normality imposed by Trump and his administration, to identify and oppose it. We find a historical model for doing just that in the “Velvet Revolution” against communist suppression, which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and subsequently in other Eastern European countries. The great principle of those revolutions was articulated by Václav Havel, as “living in truth.”
As Havel explained, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the main fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” Havel spoke of the “parallel structures” of those who resisted the regime and their formation of a “second culture.” What Havel meant, and did much to create, was an expanding community of people living in freedom, living as if there were no oppressive regime controlling their lives. For him, living this way in truth was an expression of direct opposition to that regime, one which took place at “the level of human consciousness and conscience, the existential level,” which he called (in the title of his now classical essay): The Power of the Powerless
I was able to observe and join in such a community—a “parallel structure” and “second culture”—in work I did in Poland in 1978 and 1979 with members of the Department of Psychiatry at the University Medical Center in Krakow. Psychiatric colleagues there did much to facilitate my interviews with Polish survivors of Auschwitz, providing me with interpreters and with valuable counsel. They were open and candid with me and with each other in their wide-ranging observations about the survivors, about Auschwitz, about the practice of psychiatry in Poland, and about the Communist regime whose power they were all too well aware of even as they refused to allow it to control their personal and professional lives.
No wonder Mohandas Gandhi spoke similarly of his nonviolent resistance as “experiments with truth,” and Erik Erikson used the title Gandhi’s Truth for his psychobiographical study of the Mahatma. Or that Henry David Thoreau, whom Gandhi read, declared, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Havel, Gandhi, and Thoreau sought to live out humane truths that challenged the falsehoods imposed upon them by what they perceived as the malignant normality of their societies. They demonstrated how truth-telling can connect with other forms of life-enhancing activism that are at the heart of opposition to solipsistic falsehoods of any kind. The fragility of such truth-telling movements is all too evident in the recent reemergence of repressive regimes in Eastern Europe and in the vicissitudes of India after Gandhi.
Those truth-telling movements remain a vital model for us in our unending psychological and political struggles.
Now, as Americans in the time of Trump, we can see ourselves as both witnesses to, and prospective survivors of, what may well be a brief Trump era. Compared to Havel, we have the advantage of working institutions, including those having to do with justice and with legal and journalistic investigation; however, they are attacked and sometimes weakened by Trumpist falsifiers.
At the same time, we recognize that our society’s social ills, including its aberrations concerning truth and reality, extend far beyond Trump and his followers. And we are witness to the spectacle of a major political party, controlling most of the levers of power, which supports, equivocates, or remains silent about the Trumpist assault on reality.
Yet as elements of what has been called a “post-truth society” manifest themselves, so does increasing opposition to it. In this opposition we struggle, however uncertainly, toward exposing falsehoods in our public and private lives, in seeking our own version of “living in truth.”
~ Robert Jay Lifton
(psychiatrist at Columbia University) April 10, 2018
Here’s a philosophic riddle, for which the answer is slippery, slippery:
The Problem of Other Minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief others have minds very like our own.
That other human beings are mostly very like ourselves is something about which almost all of us, almost all of the time, are certain. There are exceptions, among them philosophical skeptics, and perhaps those suffering from some abnormal mental condition.
We do not, of course, believe we always or even mostly know about others’ inner lives in detail, but we do not doubt they have an inner life, they experience the physical world much as we do, rejoice, suffer, have thoughts, beliefs, feelings, emotions, and so on.
But what, if anything, justifies our certainty? Philosophers cannot agree on what underpins this most basic of human beliefs.
What justifies certainty? It is precisely this worm hole Trump exploits. His goal isn’t to lie. That’s small potatoes. His goal is to annihilate the idea there is such a thing as an objective truth in the world to start with. In obliterating the truth altogether, Trump cannot compete in the objective world. So he intentionally sabotages it. Thus, Trump’s reign becomes unchallenged, as there will be no one who can differentiate the true from the false in public life, except for him.
This is the black hole of Trump’s solipsism…
This essay is part of our O Society continuing series called “What the Hell is Wrong With Donald Trump?!?” (WTHIWWDT?) – which focuses on the mental, spiritual, and medical illness of Trump. Indeed, as he epitomizes, personifies, and makes manifest the problems rampant in America for all the world to clearly see, these essays are written from the varied viewpoints of expert authors: