Psychologist John Gartner: "Two years ago I compared Trump to Hitler. People didn't believe me"

Trump's presidency is a "coup in process," says Gartner. There may not be "another free and fair election"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 21, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)


On Tuesday, Donald Trump held his 2020 re-election campaign kickoff rally in Orlando. It was nothing new: Trump has held dozens of such events since becoming president. His "speech" was repetitive and monotonous. That was precisely its appeal: For Trump's supporters and other members of his political cult, white rage, violence, bigotry, nativism and lies are entertaining, cathartic and even life-affirming.

Throughout the rally Donald Trump engaged in scripted violence and stochastic terrorism, telling his followers that the Democrats were going to hurt them and only he can protect them:

Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage and want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.

Trump wallowed in racist lies about threatening and dangerous "illegal aliens" and how the Democrats want to let them run amok, raping, killing and otherwise preying upon "real Americans" — primarily meaning white women. Trump played his goon card, bragging that his ICE shock-troops would round up millions of "illegal" (black and brown) immigrants across the country in the upcoming weeks. Trump's people howled in delight. Eros, desire and violent lust are central to fascism. This is the libidinous aspect of political devotion between and among the followers and the leader in a cult of personality. Trumpism is no different.

Trump's political carnival featured the usual attractions. Men pranced around shirtless in charismatic ecstasy at the thought of seeing Donald Trump in person. Women paraded about as deranged versions of Lady Liberty, apparently as teleported to Orlando out of a dark mirror universe. Trump's masses were of course festooned in his MAGA regalia.

Overt white supremacists, or a close approximation thereof, marched in the streets outside the rally. There were plenty of right-wing extremists inside the Amway Center as well. This includes both honest, overt and unapologetic members of the White Right as well as those white conservatives who largely agree with the tenets of white supremacy, but choose to translate their hate into vaguely more palatable terms, such as "Make America Great Again" — or, as in Trump's new version,"Keep America Great." Evidently inspired by the Great Leader, one Trump fan assaulted a local news reporter.

One cannot be a good person and continue to support Donald Trump. This is especially true of Trump's most devoted acolytes.

Tuesday's rally, and the Trump presidency more generally, are teachable moments about history in real time, especially for those who wonder how millions of people in Germany and elsewhere were beguiled to their own mass destruction by the rise of a charismatic authoritarian leader. It can happen here; In the form of Trumpism it is happening now.

Where is the mass resistance to Trump's movement and his assault on American democracy and freedom? Why have some Americans chosen to surrender? How can psychology help to explain Trump's assault on reality? How has the Mueller Report fueled Donald Trump's apparent mental illness and other abhorrent and dangerous behavior? Can Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives be compelled to impeach Donald Trump? Will there be violence from Trump's supporters if he is forced to leave office?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Dr. John Gartner, a former professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Gartner is also the founder of the Duty to Warn PAC, an organization working to raise awareness about the danger to the United States and the world posed by Donald Trump. Gartner was a contributor to the 2017 bestseller book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President." Along with two other expert mental health professionals, he wrote the recent USA Today op-ed "President Donald Trump's poor mental health is grounds for impeachment."

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. My conversation with Dr. Gartner can also be listened to through the player below.

Where is the mass resistance to Donald Trump and his regime's cruelty and assault on the rule of law? Have the American people been cowed into a state of learned helplessness and submission?

I am sure you have had many conversations with people who simply can't take this situation anymore with Donald Trump and what is happening in this country. They have to turn off the TV. I understand that feeling. Stress at a certain point actually becomes physically and mentally destructive. There is only so much stress that a person can endure before they actually start having a physical or mental breakdown. Part of this lack of activity against Trump is a function of simple self-protection — it is a like a circuit breaker, where at a certain point it stops the electricity because there will be a fire. All human beings have a mental circuit breaker.

This impulse to self-protection is normal. People feel helpless. They do not know what else they can do in this moment. They feel like they do not have control over what is happening and they can't let it kill them.

I had the pleasure of speaking with novelist Jonathan Lethem recently, and he made a powerful and profound observation. He said there is a whole industry around Donald Trump that's committed to keeping him in his dream, meaning Fox News and the right-wing news media echo chamber. Donald Trump is dreaming and the American people are all stuck in it.

That is related to a concept known as "malignant normality." The noted psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton introduced it to describe how in a country like Nazi Germany the dangerous and crazy views of the leader can eventually become the normal reality of a whole society.

In psychiatry there is a condition known as folie à deux, which describes how two people share a psychosis. This almost never happens. It is very rare. But on a massive societal level this is when there is a delusion that millions of people share. This delusion becomes its own reality. The people imbibe it and then reinforce this alternate reality among each other. In Rwanda, how did genocide suddenly occur among people who the other day had been previously living in peace? A shared mass delusion. In the United States we are discovering that reality is more fungible and easy to manipulate than most of us realized. With Fox News and Donald Trump, it is possible to create a nightmare fantasy and make it real.

Donald Trump routinely uses scripted violence and eliminationist rhetoric to encourage his supporters to target his enemies. Trump's presidency has been associated with a large increase in political violence by his supporters — some of it lethal. There has been an increase in the number of hate crimes and white right-wing extremist groups that is directly correlated with the rise of Trumpism.

If Trump is removed from office — either through impeachment or the 2020 election — I have no doubt he will cause mayhem in this country. If Donald Trump orders his followers to "fight back," there will be a wave of domestic terrorism in the United States. Many of these plans are likely already in motion.

I agree. Under Donald Trump America is heading towards greater violence. I have no doubt about it.

Two years ago I was comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. People didn't believe me. They thought I was being hyperbolic, exaggerating. They couldn't believe that Trump would build concentration camps. Well, he is doing it now. They're not death camps, but the definition of a concentration camp is where you are concentrating one element of the population that you consider to be undesirable and therefore need to be segregated and imprisoned. In this case it is undocumented immigrants, primarily from Latin America, who are being put in these concentration camps. The original plan was for Donald Trump to put hundreds of thousands of people in these camps. Trump's administration is still pursuing that policy.

Part of Trump's plan is that we will soon, in the United States, going to start having experiences where you are eating dinner in a restaurant, and then Trump's ICE enforcers will come into the restaurant and pull someone out of the kitchen and most people will just continue eating like nothing happened that is wrong or aberrant. It will  be, "Oh yeah, it's the ICE police, they're just dragging people off and putting them in buses and driving them to camps." America under Trump is not far from that situation. It is what Donald Trump wants to do.

If Donald Trump wins re-election in 2020, which is very possible, you are going to see people being dragged off the street and put in camps.

Donald Trump's regime is planning to use the Insurrection Act to allow the U.S. military to operate across this country, particularly in major Democratic-controlled cities, to arrest and imprison black and brown "illegal aliens." This should be a major story but it has been overlooked by most American mainstream media outlets. Trump has also publicly bragged to his supporters that there will be mass arrests across the United States where millions of "illegal aliens" will be put in his concentration camps. ICE enforcers are also doing this, grabbing people from courts, schools, weddings, churches, and waiting for people to walk out of their jobs to arrest them. What can good Americans do about this? Where is the outrage?

People of conscience need to go to Democratic representatives' offices and chain ourselves there. We need to basically say, "You can arrest us, but we're not leaving until you vote to open an impeachment inquiry."

We elected this Democratic Congress to save us from this monster. Instead, they have allowed themselves to be stymied, neutered and cowed. Each day they don't open an impeachment inquiry Trump becomes more normalized, more powerful and emboldened to do even worse. They worry about backlash if they impeach. Wait till those who knocked on doors for them come back to occupy their offices in protest and rage, and they will learn what a real backlash feels like.

The Republicans keep winning elections by inflaming their base. A vast majority of Democrats want impeachment. People are experiencing extreme stress because they can't stand another day of this corrupt lunatic Donald Trump running amok. And what happens? The Democrats are doing nothing. They're being weak.

Somehow they think by being weak and ineffectual it is some clever political strategy. It isn't. No one will respect the Democrats if they follow such a weak strategy.

History is watching. In a crisis some individuals and groups rise to the challenge and others do nothing. I am very worried about how the Democratic Party under Trump will be remembered by history. "Political convenience" and what is "practical" or "expedient" is just another way of describing cowardice.

The Democrats are hiding. They are cowards. They do not seem to know how to fight or when to fight. If these Democrats are so weak that they are not willing to stand up and defend the Constitution, why would anyone believe in them? Do they think anyone's going to believe in them? It's appalling.

History will indeed judge the Democrats for this. And why are they behaving this way? Because they're looking at polls which say a majority of people don't want impeachment? Guess what? The majority of Americans didn't want to impeach Nixon when that impeachment inquiry began. Then support doubled. Why? Because they had the courage to start an impeachment investigation and then, as the evidence came out, more people turned against Nixon. The Democrats should not wait for the polls to tell them what to do. It is time to defend the Constitution.

The Mueller report should have ended Trump's presidency. Instead Trump is standing tall. Based on his public behavior, what is Trump thinking right now?

Donald Trump is thinking that he can get away with anything. When Trump first heard about Mueller being named special counsel, he said, "This is the end of my presidency." Trump thought it was curtains. Every day that his presidency is not ended Trump is realizing, "Oh my God, I actually can get away with this!" It emboldens him.

The Democrats do not understand that Donald Trump is running out the clock. The Democrats can go to court to fight Trump's policies and assaults on the rule of law, but that takes too long.  Every day that goes by where Donald Trump does not have to face consequences or be held accountable for his criminal, anti-constitutional behavior is another day when he says, "Hey, guess what? I got away with it! Let's try going a little further."

America is not in a static situation. Donald Trump's presidency is a coup in process. It's happening right now.

Trump's Republican enablers are becoming more corrupt and also becoming more emboldened to do things that support his cause. Not only do Trump and the Republicans want to use the Department of Justice as a shield, they want to use it as a sword. Trump and the Republicans are going to go after their political enemies using the criminal justice system.

What prompted your recent USA Today editorial — which was one of the most read pieces on their site for a week or so — about Donald Trump's mental health and impeachment?

For some time mental health professionals have publicly been trying to sound the alarm about Donald Trump and how he should be removed from the presidency under the 25th Amendment. What prompted the recent USA Today editorial, which I wrote along with my colleagues Dr. David Reiss and Dr. Steven Buser, was the bizarre meeting between Pelosi, Schumer and Trump, where Trump had a temper tantrum. According to witnesses, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, literally bangs the table and walks out without having a conversation. Trump then goes out to the Rose Garden, spews lies, and basically says, "I'm not going to do my job unless they stop the investigation."

Nancy Pelosi described Trump as exhibiting mentally disturbed behavior. Trump was basically acting in a way that was crazy. Pelosi suggested that Donald Trump could perhaps take a leave of absence or someone should do an intervention. So at this point the Democrats are overtly saying that Donald Trump is psychologically impaired and so sick and disturbed that he is actually incapable of doing his job. That is a reason to consider impeachment. Donald Trump is crazy, dangerous and disordered. This is an urgent situation, an emergency.

What will happen next if Donald Trump continues with his behavior and the United States stays this course?

I think what the American people and the world need to understand is that Donald Trump's coup is almost complete. Congress is the last line of defense. Instead of fighting back the Democrats are going to let him proceed. The Democrats are saying, "We're not going to fight Donald Trump. We're going to wait until the next game. The next election is almost here. We'll win that one."

The reality is that the United States may be getting to a point where there will not be another free and fair election because of Russian hacking and Donald Trump and the Republican Party's unwillingness to protect the country. Not only did Donald Trump collude with Russia and its agents for the first attack on the American electoral system in 2016, he is now using his power as president to open the door even wider for the next attack in 2020.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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