Impeachment as a struggle to save democracy — from the pathological cult of Donald Trump

History shows how democracy can give way to "pathocracy" ruled by disordered individuals. Are we heading that way?

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published December 1, 2019 12:00PM (EST)

Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

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There are many different ways to view the Trump impeachment process, but perhaps the most important, if least recognized one is to view it as a part of struggle to preserve American democracy from destruction at the hands of predatory individuals utterly lacking in conscience. 

It’s well recognized that there’s an ongoing wave of democratic erosion or backsliding around the world — and that the United States today is caught up in that wave, not standing apart from it. What’s far less appreciated is the role that individuals with personality disorders play in this process — a role that systematically disrupts our expectations of how things work, based on the normal psychology we commonly and tacitly assume. Unless we understand them and their role, we will never fully grasp what is happening, and it will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to correct. 

Although disordered individuals aren’t the primary underlying cause of democratic erosion, they exploit it ruthlessly and are the primary vectors in spreading chaos, turning rising tensions into unmanageable runaway conflicts, which they then claim to be uniquely able to fix. As I noted in July, the 2015 paper, “Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars,” by physician and psychiatrist Dr. Frederick "Skip" Burkle,  cited half a dozen examples, from Idi Amin in Uganda to Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, who “have emerged first as saviors and then as despots, or as common criminals claiming to be patriots.” 

But they aren’t the only disordered personalities involved. A long-suppressed book, published just over a decade ago, Political Ponerology,” by Polish psychiatrist Andrew Lobaczewski, describes what he saw first-hand as a youth about how such individuals form the core of systems of oppressive misgovernment. Two experts who draw on his work, Elizabeth Mika and Ian Hughes, have provided some of the clearest insight into what’s been happening in America since 2015. 

As Hughes explains in Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy,” three personality disorders — psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder — play a crucial role. Individuals with these disorders experience only a narrow range of emotions, are incapable of empathy and are utterly lacking in conscience. They represent only a small fraction of the population — 5 to 10 percent, at most — but when conditions are dire many more ostensibly normal people can come to resemble them. After all, once things get bad enough, being paranoid is almost rational. 

The disordered minority maintain control by imposing this situational logic on everyone, from the highest levels of government down to level of local thugs and enforcers, whose role I asked Hughes to comment on for my story last week. But he responded by giving a good deal more:

The Trump presidency is giving us an insight into the ongoing development of pathocracy in America. Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski described pathocracy as a process whereby society comes to be dominated by pathological individuals and groups. During this process, society becomes segregated into a pathological minority that gradually gains control, and a psychologically healthy majority who find themselves subjugated to this violent minority. Initially the pathology is most visible at the level of a president and the party that brings him to power, but it eventually diffuses through every part of society.

This process developed to its full extent in totalitarian societies such as Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia, where every city street and village came under the control of party operatives willing to inflict violence on their fellow citizens according to the ruler’s wishes.

In the U.S. this process is well underway. To my mind, one of the outcomes of the impeachment hearings has been to show just how far the Republican Party has come under the control of those who mirror Trump’s pathological mindset.

I was struck by realized both how chillingly accurate Hughes' description seems, and how much it captures that is marginalized or ignored by those who simply don't understand the psychological forces at play or the destructive role they have played in recent history. 

I returned to him to more fully explore what’s happening now, and reached out to Mika as well. Before turning to their responses, here's what I have already learned from Mika. Her contribution to the collection "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" (available online here) was arguably the most significant of all, as I have noted, because it places Trump into the larger context of what’s enabling him. "Tyrannies are three-legged beasts," she wrote: There is the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole. The tyrant and his supporters join together in a “narcissistic collusion ... driven by the latter's need for revenge," she wrote, "for the tyrant is always chosen to perform this psychically restorative function: to avenge the humiliations (narcissistic wounds) of his followers and punish those who inflicted them." 

This helps explain the intensity and durability of Trump’s support, which repeatedly baffles pundits. It also suggests that Trump’s enablers — such as Republican senators in an impeachment trial — would be much easier targets to focus on, if we wish to curtail the growing power of the pathocracy centered around Trump. This is one striking example of what’s being missed by not paying attention to expert perspectives like these.

More precisely, Mika continued:

The tyrant’s own narcissism hints at the level of woundedness of his supporters. The greater their narcissistic injury, the more grandiose a leader they require to repair it. While his grandiosity appears grotesque to non-narcissistic people who do not share his agenda, to his followers he represents all their denied and thwarted greatness which now, under his rule, will finally flourish.

Mika also notes a second kind of supporter, those close to the tyrant who serve as his surrogates. In discussing society as a whole, she too referenced how Lobaczewski’s book “discusses at length the formation and progression of pathocracies — political and other systems [run] by characterologically impaired individuals, predominantly psychopaths and narcissists.”

Impeachment as an opportunity to target Trump's enablers

While the bonds between ordinary followers and the would-be tyrant are particularly strong, for reasons noted above, they’re usually much weaker with others, such as his close supporters and local enforcers, who are also involved in running the pathocracy. Because Trump is so focused on preserving his own hold on power, as impeachment proceeds, such lesser figures may become easier to expose, discredit and drive from power — such as, perhaps, enough Republican senators for Democrats to regain control of that body. By expanding our thinking to challenge the pathocracy wherever vulnerable, we create more opportunities to defeat it. 

To date, Democrats have failed to think in such terms, even though it’s clear that Trump has many henchmen and accomplices who either share his personality disorders or have willingly gone along with them. Consider the large number of questionably-qualified cabinet members Trump has appointed, the even larger legion of “acting” appointments he’s made as a means to avoid even cursory Senate scrutiny and the alt-right media sphere that has blossomed in support of him. 

These are all symptomatic of a pathocracy Democrats have too often simply accepted, rather than seeing as prime points to attack. The struggle to dislodge Trump through House impeachment and a Senate trial almost certainly won’t remove him from office, but it does provide opportunities to expose and confront the larger collection of malignant actors who support him, and who threaten America's existence as a functioning democracy.

Hughes helped set the stage with his comments noted above, particularly his observation that the Republican Party is now dominated by those "who mirror Trump’s pathological mindset. This was not the case just three years ago when Trump was elected.”

During this time, individuals within the GOP who share Trump’s disordered mentality, as reflected in their beliefs in conspiracy theories, rejection of facts as the basis of their worldview, propensity to attack and demean opponents, and their sense of entitlement to power at any cost, have risen in stature within the party. Those who privately believe such views and actions to be destructive, immoral and deluded have either been silenced or have left the party. The Republicans' behavior during the impeachment hearings illustrate to me that segregation in terms of pathology within the GOP is now virtually complete.

Mika calls this "a natural development once a disordered leader is elected."

He surrounds himself with people who are similarly impaired, whose conscience is either nonexistent or so ‘flexible’ that it allows them to engage in immoral and criminal activities without an emotional penalty of guilt and shame.

The rise of full-blown p​athocracy shows us how easily so-called normal people can be co-opted for abnormal — psychopathic, immoral and criminal — ends. We can see that this applies to people from all walks of life, no matter their intelligence, education, social status.

In the present case," she continued, "almost the entire Republican Party has become a mirror eagerly reflecting Trump's psychopathology and protecting him from reality, no matter the cost to the country and the world.” 

Preconditions: The trouble with "normal"

I then asked about the preconditions which made Trump’s rise possible in the first place, and the light these may shed on calls for a “return to normal.” 

“The single biggest trigger for Trump and the collapse of U.S. democracy was the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath,” Hughes said. “This is true not just in the U.S. but in Europe also. It was the single biggest factor behind the Brexit vote.” 

Personality disorders played a role here as well, he suggested. “Those at the top of the major financial institutions were seen to have recklessly built an unstable financial system, based on highly unethical practices, profited enormously, and walked away with their fortunes when it all came tumbling down,” Hughes pointed out. “Ordinary people, on the other hand, were left to pay the price in terms of lost homes, reduced salaries and unemployment.”  

Both because of the crisis and the failure to hold those who caused it responsible, this sequence of events "had the effect of destroying public confidence in elites in general and in politicians in particular,” Hughes added. “Trump is part of a slow car crash that has been happening for decades and that originated in large part on Wall Street.”

Mika’s views were related, but expressed from a different angle:

The preconditions that paved way to the Trumpist takeover of America are most of all, in my mind, the narcissism that pervades American culture, as well as the toxic materialism and greed, and the staggering and growing inequality and poverty they produced. The insatiable greed, along with the narcissism expressed in the myth of American exceptionalism, is a defining feature of American capitalism. Narcissism and greed go hand in hand, in individual and collective life. They are both expressions of false consciousness that contains within themselves the seeds of their own inevitable destruction.

More precisely, Mika continued, “Trump, like all leaders with his defective character, is an agent of that destruction. He was elected to ‘drain the swamp,’ and in a perverse way he is doing just that by exposing the rot within American politics and society, and specifically the lack of conscience that characterizes the members of GOP as well as sizable segments of the populace.”

This would all be a great deal clearer if Democrats as a whole were keyed in on it. But there are still too many who yearn for a “return to normal,” as if everything had been fine before Trump.

“The calls for return to normal, which many anti- and never-Trumpers advocate, are misguided, I believe, if not dangerous — but also futile,” Mika said. “First of all, the normal is what brought us Trumpism, so going back to it would be a recipe for more and perhaps even greater disaster.”

“A ‘return to normal’ isn’t possible because ‘normal’ is how we got here,” Hughes agreed. We need a new, healthier normal, instead, he suggested.

“Donald Trump is a violent man,” he continued, who "incites violence and aggression against anyone who opposes him, identifies with and rewards those who are violent, and acts in ways that are gratuitously cruel.” But Trump didn’t arise in a vacuum, and he doesn’t act in one, either:

Trump’s direct violence is enabled by another form of violence that is prevalent in America, namely structural violence. Structural violence refers to the conditions that society imposes on people that constrain them from meeting their essential needs and achieving basic levels of dignity and quality of life. The extreme level of inequality in the U.S. is a form of structural violence that is resulting in enormous levels of the so called diseases of despair — drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide.

“Reducing the structural violence of inequality and tackling or removing the causes of mental illness, depression, racism, incarceration, and other social problems," Hughes said, reprising a key point from his book, "must form the basis for a new, more humane and caring ‘normal’ after Trump.”

Any return to the old normal is “impossible now,” Mika agreed. “The changes set in motion by Trump's presidency are irreversible. They have unleashed forces of disintegration that are impossible to contain, for better and for worse.”

Lessons from abroad 

I asked about similar examples of pathocracy from other countries, and Hughes turned to the example of Stalinism in Eastern Europe — the example that Lobaczewski lived through, and from which the psychological concept of pathocracy was born:

One of the clearest examples from history of the deliberate dismantling of democracy occurred once Stalin gained control of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. I think there are clear parallels between Stalin’s systematic destruction of the central pillars of democracy there and what is happening under Trump today. 

Stalin’s first step was to install puppet leaders across Eastern Europe who would do his bidding — think [William] Barr and [Mike] Pompeo in the U.S. domestic context. Stalin used these proxies to target the rule of law and empower secret police forces tasked with the violent oppression of the regime’s opponents. 

Stalin’s second step was the elimination of free and fair elections. Trump has been working on that since before his election in 2016. 

Ending freedom of religion and replacing religion with the cult of Stalin was Stalin’s third objective. Again, Trump’s sycophants are working hard to realize this objective in the U.S. Rick Perry, Mike Pompeo and Sarah Sanders have all said that God chose Trump to be president. According to a 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, close to half (45%) of Republicans agree. 

Eastern European cultures were catastrophically damaged, Hughes notes:

Philosopher Roger Scruton has written that Stalin’s destruction of Eastern European societies reveals an unpleasant truth about human nature: "If enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational and religious institutions, sometimes for good. And if civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic and as culturally rich as those of Eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere. If nothing else, the history of post-war Stalinisation proves just how fragile ‘civilization’ can turn out to be.”

“Ian's vivid and detailed description of the Stalinist takeover of Eastern Europe is spot on, and it is one that is obviously closest to my heart,” Mika said. “What struck me most in it is the always shocking, but not surprising, ease with which many so-called normal people revert to primitive, quasi-psychopathic functioning when given the opportunity.”

This is what deserves particular attention: How a pathocracy can create a new reality in which its wildly disordered worldview becomes the new normal, and everyone else must adjust. 

“The rule of a pathological leader and his similarly disordered coterie that defines pathocracy normalizes and champions the worst human impulses,” Mika said. “We saw this under communism in Eastern Europe, under fascism in Germany, in the former Yugoslavia where neighbors turned against each other. We see it everywhere when the pathological political leaders give people permission to act on their primitive instincts. We learn quickly how fragile our civilized norms and mores are.”

If pathocracy has sown havoc elsewhere, its seeds have long been planted here as well, waiting for a favorable moment to flourish. Mika again:

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote about "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," describing the pervasive conspiratorial mindset of a large enough, dispossessed portion of American citizenry. This mindset is activated by ethnic, religious and class conflicts, and by times of upheaval and frustrations. It does not take much to foment it, especially when conditions are right, i.e., people become increasingly unable to cope with the difficulties of their daily life and look for scapegoats for their misery and pain. Trump's untruths, big and small, have thus found a naturally receptive audience in America today.

Thuggish enforcers

I also asked for any further thoughts about the support and elevation of those Hughes has described as "thuggish enforcers" —from Trump's persistent defense of police abuse against black and brown people to the pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and the more recent pardons of accused or convicted war criminals, which led to the resignation of the Navy secretary.​​ 

Hughes responded:

During my research for “Disordered Minds,” one of the common features that emerged from studying the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao was how violent thugs played a critical role at a local level in securing and maintaining each of these regime’s hold on power.

Historian Frank Dikotter, for example, quotes one village resident recalling how during Mao’s violent collectivization of agriculture in China: "All the scamps and the village bullies, who had not done a stroke of honest work in their life, suddenly blossomed forth as the accredited members of the Communist Party.” Historian Orlando Figes similarly recounts how the Communist youth organization in the Russian village of Obukhovo comprised a dozen teenage thugs with guns, led by 18-year-old Kolia Kuzmin, who had spent his childhood on the village streets begging on behalf of his alcoholic father. So it was right across both China and the Soviet Union, as violent thugs were empowered to terrorize their communities.

“People with an impaired conscience tend to gravitate toward each other and excuse their crimes and misdeeds because it's their normal,” Mika noted. “Trump's pardons of war criminals and the subsequent ouster of the Navy secretary is very much in line with the developing pathocratic takeover of what we considered our democracy.”

Trump, like all leaders with his character defect, is enamored with brute force and violence. He identifies with and admires thugs, and given more power, he would fully demonstrate this aspect of his character. Now Trump wants the pardoned war criminals to campaign with him. He feels stronger and emboldened in the company of those who openly act out their primitive impulses. They are his role models and sources of inspiration.

Using open and officially sanctioned violence as a means of social control, as well as settling personal vendettas, is a natural progression in the development of tyrants and tyrannies. Tyrants are driven by an insatiable desire to gain and exercise deadly power in order to achieve personal glory. This desire is self-destructive, of course, but that is not obvious to the tyrant wannabe, nor to his followers.

Failures of the supposed free press

The media’s ongoing failure to report on Trump accurately was another concern I raised — reflecting both the pursuit of false balance, among other things, and a general failure to grasp the broader significance and true nature of the spreading pathocracy.​

“To accurately cover what is happening, the media would have to accept four unpleasant facts,” Hughes told me: 

First, it is highly likely that Donald Trump has a dangerous narcissistic character disorder that makes him psychologically incapable of functioning within a rules-based democratic system. In fact, as we are seeing, his character disorder compels him to dismantle that system. 

Second, the Republican Party is no longer a democratic party. It too has rejected the rules and values of democracy and is pursuing a power-at-all-costs authoritarian agenda. 

Third, and most unpleasantly perhaps, a sizable fraction of the U.S. population would be happy to live within such an authoritarian system if those they despise are "put in their place." 

And finally, violence and aggression are increasingly an indispensable means for the alliance between Trump, the GOP and core Trump supporters to achieve their goals.

Traditional media practices simply aren’t suited to reporting what’s been happening right before its eyes, he went on:

You can understand that this is a difficult framing for any mainstream media organization to adopt, but it is a scenario that has been repeated ad nauseam in so many countries, that the media really should recognize it by now. 

I feel very strongly that we won’t be able to counter the threat we face unless and until we understand it. But the mainstream media doesn’t, or chooses not to, and so there is a complacency or a "behind the curve" quality to most of the coverage. As a result, the gravity of the situation is not accepted and communicated, and the lies and disinformation are allowed to continue without being contextualized. 

“We are now a country where war criminals are pardoned and celebrated while innocent children are kept in cages, and this is considered normal,” Mika noted. Mainstream media “does not appear too perturbed by the tragic absurdity of it,” she said. I couldn’t help but think of what CBS CEO Les Moonves said in February 2016: Trump's candidacy might not be good for America, but it was "damn good for CBS.” That attitude seemingly has not changed, except perhaps to become more accommodating toward Trump after he was elected. 

“The inability and/or unwillingness of the American mainstream media to grasp and report what is happening in our country makes them complicit in the spread of pathocracy,” Mika added. “But again, this is typical. The corporate ownership of the media, the purpose of which is to sell ads and generate profits, makes it a natural ally of the political powers that be, with a compromised regard for truth and morality.”

How do we fight back? 

I asked both these experts what ordinary readers can do to resist or deter the spread of pathocracy. Hughes didn’t answer directly, instead voicing his concerns about what wasn’t being done.

“Looking on from Europe, the absence of mass public demonstrations against Trump are a worrying sign,” he said. “I know that a lot is happening in terms of political mobilization at the party level, but the U.S. appears to be standing in complacent silence, in comparison with the mass demonstrations for democracy taking place around the world, from Hong Kong [waves of protests since March, topping one million multiple times] to Chile [since mid-October, peaking at 3.7 million protesters] to Lebanon [since mid-October, hundreds of thousands nationwide].” 

The extent of such pro-democracy mass movements spanning the globe is historically remarkable, suggesting comparisons to 1968 — except for the fact that the U.S. seems to have missed out this time. “These comparisons are telling,” Hughes noted. “Trump and his enablers will take that silence as a free pass to proceed with their dismantling of American democracy.”

Mika answered more directly, and with more assurance. “Be informed, but don't get sucked into the political drama too far,” she said. “Do what you must, and work on equanimity. Voice your concerns, but remember that this too shall pass. Vote.”

In closing, I asked for final thoughts. Hughes raised the question of what Trump is really after.

“History shows that the dismantling of democracy by an autocrat is not an end in itself,” he said “Rather, it is the precondition that allows the tyrant to violently impose his narcissistic vision upon society.” He ticked through a list of examples: 

For Hitler that vision was German domination of, and ethnic cleansing of, Europe. For Stalin, it was to make the Soviet Union a world power, on the backs of the slave labor camps of the Gulag and the subjugation of the population through terror. For Mao, it was to enable the endless use of revolution and violence in pursuit of his vision for China, in which, as he said, “half of China may well have to die.”

It’s chilling to realize that America could be headed somewhere similar, Hughes warned: "If we allow him to continue his attacks on U.S. democracy and the rules based international order, we may find out, to our cost, what the narcissistic fantasy of Donald J Trump, really is."

Whatever that terrifying vision may be, let's make sure we never need to know. 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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