He has been impeached twice and, since March, indicted four times, accused of falsifying business records related to hush money paid to an adult film star, plotting to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss, unlawfully hoarding classified documents in his Florida home and now of committing massive fraud by wilfully exaggerating his wealth to the tune of $3.6 billion in order to secure better corporate loans for his various businesses.
On Monday, Donald J. Trump, former president of the United States and currently the Republican Party’s frontrunner in the 2024 presidential election, sat at the defence table in a New York courtroom looking, with a scowl, straight ahead, arms crossed, projecting the image of a man both aggrieved and defiant, as he attended the first day of opening statements in his case, the latest brought against him. (Spoiler alert: Trump called it a “continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time”.)
What is it with America and this man, a real estate developer and former reality TV star, who in 2016 stunned the country when he became the first person in its history without academic, military or political experience, say, respectively, like Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, to be elected president, a man who, despite four disastrous years in office — during which he repeatedly mined fear, resentment and prejudice, all the while exploiting the grievances of his extremist base — remains an integral part of the very fabric of America’s political culture and a kingpin in its public discourse?
Why Trump is here to stay
And, in the name of mercy, does anyone know what is driving the never-wavering, but genuine fondness for Trump by his supporters, let alone the ever-increasing strength of his standing in the polls?
For America, it now seems all too clear, there’s no sidestepping Trump. The man is here to stay. And the more outrageous he gets, the more the outrage becomes responsive to the mass sentiment of his supporters.
Consider these cases in point.
During a break in his fraud trial in downtown Manhattan, Trump told reporters that Latita James, New York’s Attorney General who filed the lawsuit against him and who happens to be African American, was a “racist”. More ominously, he added: “You ought to go after this attorney general”. And we all know what “to go after” means in Trump supporters’ lexicon.
At the end of the day, when a wounded individual, like Trump, is given a position of power, he arouses similar pathologies as his own in the population, in a lock-and-key relationship known as “shared psychosis”.
Several days earlier, on Friday, he told a crowd of Republican activists in a speech delivered in California that shoplifters should be shot — “shot as they’re leaving the store”, an observation that elicited wild cheers from the hundreds of attendees, who rose, all as one to their feet and began to chant, “Trump, Trump, Trump”.
And on September 25, he wrote on his social-media platform, Truth Social, that Mark Milley, recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be executed (“put to death”, as he put it) for reassuring his Chinese counterpart in the aftermath of the January 6 assault on the US Capitol — a call to off a high government official that would’ve been seen as unthinkable, not to mention exceedingly bizarre, in any other democracy.
The long and short of it is that Trump has made that kind of rhetoric de rigueur, insinuating it into the Republican discourse and rendering it, as a New York Times news report on Tuesday put it, “[A] familiar backdrop of American life”.
Why psychology says about the Trump phenomenon
Countless analysts, pundits, social critics and, yes, even psychologists have speculated about the factors that underpin this phenomenon, embodied as it is in this national figure we call Donald J. Trump, a man who makes the hair stand up on the back of a Democrat’s head and sends a chill down a liberal’s spine at the prospect of his return to the White House.
So how then to explain the grip that Trump — who claims to have been the most popular Republican president in American history, even more so than Abraham Lincoln — has on America and the symbiotic relationship he has developed with his base, a relationship whose destructive legacy will take years to purge from the American psyche?
Perhaps because I’m partial to psychology as a discipline, I find the conclusions reached by psychologists to be the most convincing — notably those reached by Bandy X Lee. Back when Trump still occupied the White House, Lee, a forensic psychiatrist, led a group of other specialists who questioned Trump’s mental fitness for office in an anthology she titled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, and herself later went on to write an insightful book called Profile of a Nation: Trump’s Mind, America’s Soul.
According to Lee, there are two reasons to account for the nexus that binds Trump to Trumpists: “Narcissistic Symbiosis” and “Shared Psychosis”.
“Narcissistic psychosis refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship attractive”, she said in an interview with Scientific American. “The leader, hungry for adulation [which he needs] to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence, while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress ... yearn for a parental figure”.
At the end of the day, when a wounded individual, like Trump, is given a position of power, he arouses similar pathologies as his own in the population, in a lock-and-key relationship known as “shared psychosis”. The term, shared psychosis, or folie a millions (the madness of millions) — which was coined by the renowned psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm and first appeared in his 1955 book, The Sane Society — refers to how the pathological symptoms of the leader will spread through the population via his emotional bond with its members, thus heightening existing pathologies in society and inducing increased delusions and paranoia, even a propensity for violence.
Now we’re at a stage in that lock-and-key, shared psychosis relationship where, when Trump says “Jump”, his supporters, they will ask, “How high?”
America, time to page Dr. Freud, no?
— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.