Anyone who spends a lot of time studying the mind, behavior, emotions and communications of human beings could have told you Donald Trump was disturbed and unfit to hold the office of president, or any significant public service office, well before he decided to make a run for it. When he did make that fateful decision, there were plenty of warnings from experienced politicians, leaders, journalists, and ordinary citizens alike that this was not a good idea.
It did not take long for experienced mental health experts to speak out, abandoning the equivalent of professional gag orders for the sake of what many considered to be of higher importance and graver concern. They believe Trump is not only "not a good idea," but a danger to America, to the world and to the existence of American democracy (see The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump). It seems the country has found validity for its own fears and reactions in the analyses of these experts about how truly dangerous he is.
But Trump does not exist in a vacuum. He is not an island. If we keep hysterically reacting to every off-the-wall and totally dangerous tweet until our nervous systems ebb just enough to allow for the new normal, he will continue to terrorize us and eventually obliterate those facets of America even the least patriotic among us hold dear. Trump is the epicenter of a system that, even if frightened by him, or privately confused by his behavior, is nonetheless working very hard to maintain him in power. He is being explained, supported and justified by enablers, and many of them.
When he blows through norms of presidential conduct, they stretch the norms to make room for him, as if we had all agreed presidential norms were far too restrictive and needed loosening. When he lies, they lie right along with him as if there really were such things as "alternative facts." When he says something openly hateful, it is denied that it was hateful, as if we all don’t share a common language and cultural understanding. When he threatens and humiliates his own staff we are told he is being “reined in,” as if the American public should find comfort in the idea that the president needs to be reined in. And when he turns around and does it again at the remotest sign of competition, we are asked to accept that no one can control him and that controlling him is not in anyone’s job description.
Let’s give some of these dangerous enablers a little benefit of the doubt. It is safe to assume some of them are simply afraid of him. He is a bully and has been his whole life. One can only imagine how he has alternately charmed and seduced thousands of people simply to turn on them or communicate that he would if they ever stepped out of line. I certainly can feel empathy for that. After all, he is very powerful. And a powerful and disturbed man is a dangerous thing.
Let’s assume others are still under the sway of his charm or his big, simple, “let’s get things done” personality, even if reality shows that not much is getting done. They, like any hubristic teenager, can still convince themselves that they are the exception. They may be very motivated to please him and believe that if he is displeased with others it is their own fault. They are under the illusion that he would not turn on them either because 1) they are better; or 2) they know how to manage him. This is a hazardous bet to be sure, but understandably human.
Then there are the deniers. Perhaps they do not feel very secure and so their best survival instinct is to deny what is right before their eyes. Perhaps they keep telling themselves that he will eventually settle down and become a regular president. They may engage in “if only” thinking, as in, “If only the press would just let this whole Russia thing go, he could stop being so afraid and would settle into the job,” or, “If only we could get that tax bill passed, he would relax.” To take in that something is deeply wrong is simply too much for us human beings sometimes, and so the explanation is always that it’s “out there” instead of staring us in the face.
Still others are motivated to further their own agendas. Perhaps they see the ineptitude, impulsivity, delusion, mendacity and how all that in one package is not a great gift. But it is the deal they made. Maybe they even betrayed their own consciences to support him, and now owning that is too hard politically and even too hard psychologically. They have been waiting years to push through a political agenda and conservative judges. The tunnel vision on those issues, as well as the fate of their own political careers, allows them to continue to justify keeping up appearances and keeping him in power, despite the queasiness some may feel.
And finally, there are those who are motivated either by pure greed or lust for power, or both. The desecration of whole swaths of different people (most recently Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Muslims) and the degradation of a system of checks and balances does not give them the willies, because they hope to capitalize on it. The corporate donors who hope to get rich off the tax scheme, the directors of various departments enriching themselves and holding positions of power they never would have held because are not qualified for them, the racists whose long-disguised hatred is joyfully rekindled every time Trump tweets, all relish the brutish tactics of Trump because none of them truly believes in equality. They wear their lapel American flags while they fail to be moved by the idea of America itself.
Whether we can empathize or not, all of these enablers are endangering us. This president and this administration are so much more dominated by vice than by the slightest desire to be virtuous. Fear, pride, weakness, foolishness, selfishness, and greed are all human experiences and something we are all vulnerable to at some point or another. But when they are chronic and when that chronicity has deleterious effects on others, they need to be challenged. We do not elect people to be run by their vices. Nor do we elect them to ignore the debilitating vices of others also in power. We elect them to be guided by their better selves, to embody and make decisions on behalf of all of us based on courage of conviction, concern for fellow human beings (even above themselves at times), intelligence and good discernment, and some connection to a communal striving toward a better life for all. And the beauty of our democracy is that we can stop electing them and we can make their work very unpleasant if they do not measure up to those high expectations.
So what are we doing about the dangerousness of our president and his many enablers? Could we be enabling them in some way? Do we wallow in our helplessness because we are not near the center of power, nursing our anxiety and letting ourselves off the hook? Are we crippled by our fear? Are we engaging in our own self-soothing denial? Do we pass the buck onto the next person, just cross our fingers, or perhaps sanctify Robert Mueller as our next savior? Are we blinded by our own hopes for a financial reward for suffering this presidency? Do we secretly nurture fears and hatred of other people enough to hope for that wall, ignoring all the signs that Trump has never been who he said he could be?
Trump is not the only dangerous one. Anyone who excuses him and does not hold him to account for his behavior in a serious way every time is enabling, and therefore dangerous. If we are not finding ways to participate in our democracy both to resist the destructive things he is doing and to build enough momentum to get him out of office, we are dangerous as well.
In some collective way, whether we voted for Trump or not, we are responsible for the calamity of this presidency. This is because the epicenter cannot hold if the system changes. And the system cannot change until we hold ourselves and all the enablers responsible. We are all potentially dangerous. But we are also all potentially corrective.
Eileen M. Russell is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York and New Jersey. She is senior faculty at the AEDP Institute, adjunct faculty at NYU/ Bellevue Hospital and faculty at the Trauma Treatment Program at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies in NYC. She is the author of Restoring Resilience: Discovering Your Clients' Capacity for Healing.