America in denial: Aaron and Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate

Physician, mental health expert, and best-selling author, Gabor Maté sits down with his son, Aaron Maté to analyze the Psychology of Russiagate and how the story  took hold of U.S. society following Donald Trump’s election.

by Aaron Maté GrayZone edited by O Society May 8, 2019

Transcript follows:

ARON MATÉ: It’s The Grayzone, coming to you from The People’s Forum in New York City. I’m Aaron Maté, here with another Maté – his name is Gabor. He is a physician, an expert on childhood trauma, mental health, chronic illness, and the author of several best-selling books. He’s also my father. And I bring him today to discuss Russiagate, which is now in a new chapter. Many people are now grappling with the fact Robert Mueller just returned a verdict on the issue of a Trump-Russia conspiracy – which so many people were led to believe in – and Mueller rejected it.

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And so, Gabor writes a lot about psychology and mental health, and I don’t think we can understand what we’ve just went through in Russiagate without understanding the psychological angle. So that’s why he’s here. Very happy to have you, dad, on The Grayzone.

GABOR MATÉ: Nice to be here with you Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: So we’ve just been through this two-year ordeal with Russiagate. It’s in a new phase now with Robert Mueller rejecting the outcome that so many were expecting, that there would be a Trump-Russia conspiracy. Your sense of how this whole thing has gone?

GABOR MATÉ: What’s interesting is that in the aftermath of the Mueller thunderbolt of no proof of collusion, there were articles about how people are disappointed about this finding.

Now, disappointment means that you’re expecting something and you wanted something to happen, and it didn’t happen. So that means that some people wanted Mueller to find evidence of collusion, which means that emotionally they were invested in it. It wasn’t just that they wanted to know the truth. They actually wanted the truth to look a certain way. And wherever we want the truth to look a certain way, there’s some reason that has to do with their own emotional needs and not just with the concern for reality.

And in politics in general, we think that people make decisions on intellectual grounds based on facts and beliefs. Very often, actually, people’s dynamics are driven by emotional forces that they’re not even aware of in themselves. And I, really, as I observed this whole Russiagate phenomenon from the beginning, it really seemed to me that there was a lot of emotionality in it that had little to do with the actual facts of the case.

There is no question that for a lot of people in this country, the election of Trump was a traumatic event. Now, when a trauma reaction happens, which is to say you’re hurt and you’re pained and you’re confused and you’re scared and you’re bewildered, there’s basically two things you can do about it. One is you can own that I’m pained and I’m hurt and I’m bewildered and I’m really scared. And then try and look at what happened to bring me to that situation.

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Or you can instead of dealing with those emotions come up with some kind of explanation that makes me feel better about them. So that I’ve got this pain. I’ve got this bewilderment. I’ve got this fear. So what I’m looking at, what does it say about American society that a man like this could even run for office, let alone be elected?

What does it say about American society that so many people are actually enrolled in believing that this man could be any kind of a savior? What does that say about the divisions and the conflicts and the contradictions and the genuine problems in this culture? And how do we address those issues?

You can look at that. Or you can say there must be a devil somewhere behind all this, and that devil is a foreign power, and his name is Putin, and his country is Russia. Now you’ve got a simple explanation that doesn’t invite you or necessitate that you explore your own pain and your own fear and your own trauma.

So I really believe that really this Russiagate narrative was, on the part of a lot of people, a sign of genuine upset at something genuinely upsetting. But rather than dealing with the upset, it was an easier way to in a sense draw off the energy of it in to some kind of a believable and comforting narrative. It’s much more comforting to believe that some enemy is doing this to us than to look at what does it say about us as a society.

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I mean there was a massive denial of the actual dynamics in American society that led to the election of this traumatized and traumatizing individual as President, number one.

AARON MATÉ: Because you think Donald Trump himself is traumatized?

GABOR MATÉ: Oh, Donald Trump is a clearest example of a traumatized politician one could ever see. He’s in denial of reality all the time. He is self aggrandizing. His fundamental self concept is that of a nobody. So he has to make himself huge and big all the time and keep proving to the world how powerful and smart, what kind of degrees he’s got and how smart he is. It’s a compensation for terrible self image. He can’t pay attention to anything, which means that his brain is too scattered because it was too painful for him to pay attention.

What does this all come down to? The childhood that we know that he had in the home of a dictatorial child disparaging father, and a very weak

AARON MATÉ: Fred Trump, his father.

GABOR MATÉ: Who demeaned his children mercilessly. One of Trump’s brothers drank himself to death. And Trump compensates for all that by trying to make himself as big and powerful and successful as possible. And, of course, he makes up for his anger towards his mother for not protecting him by attacking women and exploiting women and boasting about it publicly. I mean, it’s a clear trauma example. I’m not saying this to invite sympathy for Trump’s politics. I’m just describing that that’s who the man is. And the fact that such a traumatized individual can be elected to the position of what they call the most powerful person in the world speaks to a traumatized society.

And like individuals can be in denial, a society can be in denial. So this society is deeply in denial about its own trauma, and particularly in this case about the trauma of that election. So one way to deal with trauma is denial of it. The other way is to project onto other people things that you don’t like about yourself.

Now, it’s only a matter of historical fact. And no serious person, no serious student of history can possibly deny how the United States has interfered in the internal politics of just about every nation on earth.

AARON MATÉ: And interfere, by the way, is a kind term. We’re talking about what actual physical

GABOR MATÉ: I’m talking about mass murder.

AARON MATÉ: Manifestation. Exactly. It’s mass murder in many cases.

GABOR MATÉ: For example, in Chile, there’s an elected government that America cheerfully overthrows, even boasts about it. Not to mention the current interference in Venezuela, the internal politics. Not to mention, how as you’ve pointed out, many others have pointed out, and [Time] boasts about it on its cover, about how United States helped Boris Yeltsin get elected.


AARON MATÉ: “Yankees to the rescue.”

GABOR MATÉ: So even if it’s true what the Russians have even if it’s the worst thing that’s alleged about the Russians is true, it’s not even on miniscule proportion of what America has publicly acknowledged it has done all around the world. And so this rage that we project, then, and this bad guy image that we project onto the Russians, it’s simply a mirror a very inadequate mirror of what America publicly and openly and repeatedly does all around the world.

Now, you may think that’s a good thing to do. I’m not arguing about that. I’m not arguing politics. All I’m saying is projection is when we project onto somebody else the things that we do ourselves, and we refuse to deal with the implications of it. So there’s denial and then there’s projection.

And then, there’s just something in people. I can tell you well, your mother can tell you this that in relationships it’s always easier to see ourselves as the victims than as the perpetrators. So there’s something comforting about seeing oneself as the victim of somebody else. Nobody likes to be a victim. But people like to see themselves as victims because it means they don’t have to take responsibility for what we do ourselves.

AARON MATÉ: I can relate to that, too.

GABOR MATÉ: Yeah. I’m just saying the effect of somebody else. So this functions beautifully in politics. And populist politicians and xenophobic politicians around the world use this dynamic all the time. That whether it’s Great Britain, or whether it’s France with their vast colonial empires, they’re always the victims of everybody else. The United States is always the victim of everybody else. All these enemies that are threatening us. It’s the most powerful nation on earth, a nation that could single handedly destroy the earth a billion times over with the weapons that are at its disposal, and it’s always the victim.

So this victimhood, there is something comforting about it because, again, it allows us not to look at ourselves. And I think there was this huge element of victimhood in this Russiagate process.


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(“The Resistance With Keith Olbermann”, GQ, December 2016)

KEITH OLBERMANN: The nation and all of our freedoms hang by a thread. And the military apparatus of this country is about to be handed over to scum who are beholden to scum, Russian scum. As things are today, January 20th will not be an inauguration but rather the end of the United States as an independent country

(“The Rachel Maddow Show”, MSNBC, March 2017)

RACHEL MADDOW: But the important thing here is that that Bernie Sanders lovers page run out of Albania, it’s still there. Still running. Still operating. Still churning this stuff out. Now. This is not part of American politics. This is not, you know, partisan warfare between Republicans and Democrats. This is international warfare against our country.

(“All In With Chris Hayes”, MSNBC, February 2018)

JERROLD NADLER: Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor and didn’t react, that’s the equivalent.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, it’s a bit of a different thing. I mean—

JERROLD NADLER: No, it’s not.

CHRIS HAYES: They didn’t kill anyone.

JERROLD NADLER: They didn’t kill anyone, but they’re destroying our country, our democratic process.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you really think it’s on par?

JERROLD NADLER: Not in the amount of violence, but I think in the seriousness it is very much on par. This country exists to have a democratic system with a small D, that’s what the country’s all about, and this is an attempt to destroy that.

(“AM Joy”, MSNBC, February 2018)

ROB REINER: We have been invaded in such a subtle way because we don’t see planes hitting the buildings. We don’t see bombs dropping in Pearl Harbor. But we have been invaded as Malcolm [Nance] points out. We are under attack, but we don’t feel it. But it’s like walking around with high blood pressure and then all of a sudden you’re not aware of it and you drop dead.

So it’s insidious, and it has affected our blood stream. And if we don’t do something about it – and that’s why, guys like John Brennan and James Clapper are running around with their hair on fire because they’re trying to wake people up to tell them: We have to do something about it. We have to protect ourselves and if we don’t, our 241 years of democracy and self-governance will start to collapse.



GABOR MATÉ: And the assumption, that even if you take all the things that Russia was charged with in this whole Russiagate narrative over the last two and a half years, and if you multiply it by a hundred times, even then, you could not have possibly destroyed the United States. Even then, what is our self image if we think we’re that weak, that that kind of external interference could undermine everything that you believed this country has built over the last few centuries?’

So it shows to me a real shock reaction. And what has been shocked here is our beliefs in what this country is about.

And again, as I said before, it’s in a sense more comforting. It’s frightening, but at the same time more comforting to see the problem as coming from the outside than to search for it with amongst ourselves and within ourselves.

AARON MATÉ: How about then the aspect of this that puts so much hope into Robert Mueller? Because Robert Mueller was supposed to be our savior.

GABOR MATÉ: First of all, if we actually look at who Mueller is, who is he?

He’s a man who, amongst many others, was 100 percent convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass discussion.


(FBI Director Robert Mueller, Congressional Testimony, February 2003)

ROBERT MUELLER: As Director Tenet has pointed out, Secretary Powell presented evidence last week that Baghdad has failed to disarm its weapons of mass destruction and willfully attempting to evade and deceive the international community. Our particular concern is that Saddam Hussein may supply terrorists with biological, chemical or radiological material.

GABOR MATÉ: So given the line supported by Mueller led to the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi people and thousands of Americans, and has incurred costs that we all are fully aware of in terms of rise in terrorism and embroilment in multiple wars and situations, it takes an act of powerful historical amnesia for people to believe that this man is going to be our savior. That’s the first point. Just incredible historical amnesia number one.

Number two, America, if you can judge by its TV shows, is very much addicted to the good guy/bad guy scenario. So that reality is not complex. And it’s not subtle. And it’s not a build up of multiple dynamics, internal and external. But, basically, there’s evil and there’s good. And evil is going to be cut out by the good and destroyed by it. And that’s really how the American narrative very often is presented.

Now, the same thing is projected into politics. So now if there’s a bad guy called Putin and his puppet called Trump, then there has to be a good guy that is going to save us from it. Some guy on a white charger that’s going to move in here, and is silver haired, patrician looking man who’s going to find the truth and rescue us all, which again is a projection of people’s hopes for truth outside of themselves onto some kind of a benevolent savior figure.

Needless to say, when that savior figure doesn’t deliver, then we have to argue that maybe he was bought off or corrupt or stupid himself or insufficient himself. Or that there’s something secret that has yet to be uncovered that some day will come to the surface that Mueller himself was unable to discover for himself.

But, again, this projection of hope onto some savior figure. Rather than saying, okay, there’s a big problem here. We’ve elected a highly traumatized grandiose, intellectually unstable, emotionally unstable, misogynist, self aggrandizer to power. Something in our society made that happen. And let’s look at what that was. And let’s clear up those issues if we can. And let’s look at the people on the liberal side who, instead of challenging all those issues, put all their energies into this foreign conspiracy explanation. Because to have challenged those issues would have meant looking at their own policies, which tended in the same direction.

Rather than looking at how under the Clinton, they’ve jailed hundreds of thousands of people who should never have been in jail. Looking at how under the Bushes and under Obama, there was this massive transfer of wealth upwards. Instead of asking why Barack Obama gets $400,000 for an hour speech to Wall Street, which means that maybe our faith in how our system operates needs to be shaken a bit so we can actually look at what’s really going on, let’s just put our attention on some foreign devil again.

AARON MATÉ: And let’s not reckon with the fact that these people like Barack Obama who made so many people feel so good about this country when he was elected. I was one of them. I remember feeling it was a hopeful moment.

GABOR MATÉ: Not for me.

AARON MATÉ: Well, I know not for you. You’re more of a cynic than I am.

GABOR MATÉ: I said on his day of his inaugural that this is the high point of his presidency. It’s going to be downhill from here.

But anyway, Obama soon he represented a more positive tendency in American life. I mean, at least he spoke the right language in many ways. And he genuinely wanted, probably, the right things to happen. But he had no genuine commitment to them or that he had no power to effect the policies that people needed, that’s another issue that the system maybe would not have allowed him to do it anyway even if he was genuinely committed. Those are separate issues.

But he did represent a movement towards peace towards at least internal peace towards confronting of racism.

AARON MATÉ: Certainly not global peace. But maybe certainly on the racism front, yeah, definitely.

GABOR MATÉ: Globally he was a warmaker like all the other American Presidents have been. But in terms of internally, he wanted to stand to reconciliation as opposed to naked hostility that Trump represents.

So there’s every reason why people should have concatenated to which means to become attached to the Obama brand, the Obama image. And for these people that were, all of a sudden the emergence of the Trump brand, again, is a huge shock. And, again, it’s the shock that they have a great difficulty absorbing and dealing with.

And so, again, the foreign narrative is an easy emotionally easier way to deal with it. And it also means if you’re a journalist, instead of digging into what really happened, like what actually happened in that election, how did the Democratic elite deliberately try to marginalize the progressive candidate?

Like if he lacks discretion, let’s assume that Russia did leak those Democratic e mails. Let’s assume that. We don’t know that they did. But we don’t know that they didn’t either. Let’s assume that they did. Which is the greater assault on American democracy? The fact that the Russians leaked the document? Or that the American national Democratic leadership deliberately tried to marginalize one of their own candidates?

AARON MATÉ: Sure and then also

GABOR MATÉ: Which is the greater threat to democracy?

AARON MATÉ: Sure. And then you have to look at what also — which was the bigger boost to Trump’s candidacy? Was it some leaked e mails? Or was it billions of dollars’ worth of free air time from corporate media? And Hillary Clinton and her people choosing not to go to the key Rust Belt swing states because they felt the more they campaigned there, the worse they’d do because her economic message was so unpopular. And these were states that Bernie Sanders won during the primary.

This gets to—

GABOR MATÉ: Let me just interrupt to say that if I were those people, then, then quite apart from the shock defense that we’ve already talked about, it’d be so much more convenient for me to go to the Russia narrative than to say publicly, you know what? We screwed up. We actually tried to undemocratically interfere with the Democratic nomination. We didn’t pay attention to the people that were really hurting in the society because of our policies. We as the press gave this man all kinds of attention that he never deserved and never merited because he was interesting news and sold copies.

You know, instead of looking at ourselves, again, if I were those people, I’d much rather create the impression that this is all the fault of somebody else from the outside.

AARON MATÉ: And there’s a material incentive to do it. Because as you’ve talked about, if you’re the Democrats and you look at the lessons of the election, you saw that people rejected your neoliberal economic legacy, that means you have to start challenging the powerful corporate sectors that you’ve been representing for a long time, actually posing real alternative policies to Donald Trump.

If you do that, though, you risk losing your privileged status within the power structure. And the same thing if you’re in the media and you identify with that faction of the power structure.

As we wrap up, your advice to people for, you know, to avoid something like this in the future, or at least to give people an alternative way of dealing with of looking at scandals like this in the future that become all consuming, what you might want to see people do. What they can look at in themselves in relation to, sort of, all consuming political quote/unquote “scandals” like this?

GABOR MATÉ: Well, first of all, I advise people to do something that I find hard to do myself, but I think it’s essential. Which is that when there’s hard emotions there, just own them. Just own that you’re hurt. Own that you’re confused.

AARON MATÉ: So in case of Trump winning, it’s hurtful and confusing

GABOR MATÉ: Just own it. Say I’m hurt, I’m confused, I’m terrified. And rather than try and find an explanation right away, just own the feeling. And then when you’re ready, then actually ask, what happened here? What actually happened here? What are the facts? What behaviors or beliefs on my part maybe contributed to the situation? So be curious. Be really curious.

In terms of what the public should do, I don’t think most people were peddling anything deliberately. I don’t think most people were trying to scare anybody. I think most people were simply caught up in a kind of a tsunami of fear and paranoia and shock reaction.

If you look at American history, from the Mexican war in the 1840s to the Spanish American wars in the 1890s, I think, the Vietnam War, to the Iraq war, every major I shouldn’t say every. Many major movements in American history have been driven by lies and people being manipulated.

And the same newspapers that will eventually publish the Pentagon Papers and win awards for telling the truth will never apologize for having told the lies in the first place that later on they had to correct. And the newspapers that pushed the weapons of mass destruction narrative never apologized and said, “We were wrong. We contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.” They just carry on as if nothing happened.

And when the next item comes along, they’ll still sign on to the elite narrative. Which means to say that the public needs to have some historical memory. And to know that these sources that you trust as the fountains of truth and the sources of information at least be critical. At least be objective. Don’t be so quick to jump on board. Don’t be so quick to assume that because almost the whole media is broadcasting, trumpeting a certain line, that that line represents reality. Learn from history. Learn from this one. Learn from this Russiagate thing that they were all saying for years that this is a given fact. All of a sudden it turns out not to be a given fact. Well, next time, don’t be so quick to believe them.

AARON MATÉ: You have a line that you often say in your speeches about being disillusioned.

GABOR MATÉ: Yeah. Well, I was once speaking in Berkeley, California, speaking to a few hundred people. And this was in the first or the second Obama administration.

AARON MATÉ: First or second term of the Obama administration.

GABOR MATÉ: Yeah. And it was a mixed race audience. A lot of black people there. And I asked people, how many people here have been disillusioned so far by Barack Obama? And a third to half of the people put their hands up. Hundreds of people put their hands up. And I said, would you rather be illusioned or disillusioned?

Would you rather believe in something that’s false, which means to have an illusion? Or would you rather be disillusioned? In other words, to see the truth. And I’m saying that we should be glad to be disillusioned.

So this Russiagate and this ignoble end to the Russiagate narrative, it’s a disillusionment for a lot of people, but that’s a good thing. If they say, okay, I had this illusion, this illusion I no longer have, which means I’ve been disillusioned, now I can actually look at the truth. So it’s good to be disillusioned.

So this could be a positive beginning for a lot of people if they take the right attitude. Rather than seeing it as a bad thing, they could see it as a good thing. Not as a good thing because it exonerates Trump. History will never exonerate Trump. And there’s plenty of reasons why Trump cannot be exonerated, both for his personal corruption and his political misleadership. So it’s not a question of exonerating anybody. But it’s a question of looking at everything objectively. Let’s really look at what’s really going on. Let’s be glad that we’ve been disillusioned. Now it’s an opportunity to become objective and really effective.

AARON MATÉ: With that call for a positive beginning, we’ll leave this there. Dr. Gabor Maté, thanks very much.

GABOR MATÉ: Aaron Maté, thank you very much.



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