Most people find Donald Trump bewildering. His lies, cruelty, corruption, greed, delusions of godlike power and other unconscionable behavior seem unbelievable. If Trump were a character in a TV show, movie or comic book, the audience would laugh at his clumsy, obvious villainy. The whole story would be rejected as horrendously bad writing and a waste of time.
But Trump is not that in fact complicated or puzzling once his core motivations are understood and then accepted as basic facts: He appears to be a sociopath. As such, he lacks human empathy and a capacity for the norms of healthy human social relationships. In so many ways, Donald Trump is like a space alien who came to Earth and is (badly) impersonating a human being.
The coronavirus pandemic, and Trump's cruel and callous reactions to it, have only served to amplify his gross defects in personality, behavior and values.
Writing at the Guardian, Lloyd Green summarizes Donald Trump's emotional and cognitive defects as magnified by the coronavirus crisis:
On Sunday, initially at least, there was no White House briefing on the president's public schedule. But the bad news kept coming. Coronavirus deaths continued to climb and reports of the heartland being unprepared for what may be on its horizon continued to ricochet around the media.
In the words of one administration insider, to the Guardian: "The Trump organism is simply collapsing. He's killing his own supporters."
Members of the national guard, emergency workers, rank-and-file Americans: all are exposed. Yet Trump appears incapable of emoting anything that comes close to heart-felt concern. Or just providing straight answers.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Frank Bruni speaks to the human emptiness and lack of care, concern, empathy, and overall decency at the center of Donald Trump:
One more question: Do you remember the moment when President Trump's bearing and words made clear that he grasped not only the magnitude of this rapidly metastasizing pandemic but also our terror in the face of it?
It passed me by, maybe because it never happened.
In Trump's predecessors, for all their imperfections, I could sense the beat of a heart and see the glimmer of a soul. In him I can't, and that fills me with a sorrow and a rage that I quite frankly don't know what to do with….
And while I'm not looking to Trump for any panacea, is it too much to ask for some sign that the dying has made an impression on him, that the crying has penetrated his carapace and that he's thinking about something other than his ratings? I watch. I wait. I suspect I'll be doing that forever.
I recently spoke with Dr. Lance Dodes, a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and now a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. We discussed the coronavirus pandemic and what this crisis has revealed about Donald Trump's mental health and behavior.
Dodes was a contributor to the bestselling volume "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President," and is a regular guest on MSNBC's "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell".
In this conversation, Dodes explains how the coronavirus pandemic offers further evidence of Trump's predatory, sociopathic behavior and his lack of care or concern for other human beings. Trump's programming and behavior, in fact makes him perhaps the worst person imaginable to lead the United States through the coronavirus crisis. Dodes also explains why too many people, especially in the news media, remain in a state of deep denial about Trump's behavior and the depths of his mental pathologies.
If Trump had not been born into money, Dodes told me, he would have wound up in prison by now. Instead he is president of the United States and vigorously protected by the Republican Party and its supporters.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Is Donald Trump the freest man alive? He has no internal restraints — and increasingly no external restraints either.
I think he is the least free man. You and I have some degree of choice about how we're going to behave and react to the world around us; we are complex and we make complex decisions because we have a conscience and we care about the effects of our actions on others. Donald Trump, in contrast, is very simple. Everything he says or does is for himself, either to have power over others or to hurt them in revenge against their disagreeing or standing in his way. Because he has shown himself to be incapable of either conscience or empathy, he is basically a predator, lacking the most essential parts of our humanity.
Despite this, he has two techniques that have allowed him to be successful in business and politics: He is a bully, and he lies continuously. Repeating his lies over and over is like the "big lie" technique made famous by Hitler. It works because when a lie is endlessly repeated, even decent people assume there must be some truth in it.
Donald Trump has lied at least 16,000 times. Why are there journalists, reporters, politicians and people among the general public who keep giving him the benefit of the doubt despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a compulsive liar?
People want to trust others. I, too, would rather believe that the president of the United States was an honest, decent, thoughtful person. For some people, having an authority figure be trustworthy is so important that they will not accept the obvious facts about Trump. Like other predators, or other sociopaths, Trump takes advantage of this very human quality by pretending to be trustworthy through endless lying about his real motivations and even his real actions.
Donald Trump has said and done many unconscionable things during his time in the White House. But his recent suggestion that doctors and nurses are stealing ventilators from hospitals is, even by standards, one of his most despicable comments. Is that just his instinct — to go to such an unbelievably dark place?
As my colleague Dr. John Gartner pointed out, if Trump were walking around wearing a tinfoil hat and talking about Martians controlling his mind, it would be easy for the public to recognize how severely ill he is. Trump is the most dangerous person we could have as a president precisely because his delusional core is not as obvious. When he makes these claims about ventilators and the coronavirus, they need to be understood as delusional beliefs that he summons from his imagination to protect himself, and which he is incapable of altering when presented with reality.
Donald Trump actually believes that he is a great president. I believe he is likely to win a second term. His entire presidency stands as an indictment of the American people, the news media, the political class and the country's culture and values as a whole.
With respect to the political class, Donald Trump would have been removed from office already if the Republicans in Congress were not propping him up. If a Democrat were behaving like Trump, Republicans would certainly have impeached and convicted him already. Many decent Americans have been successfully conned by Trump, but there is no excuse for the Republicans in Congress. Trump's decisions about the coronavirus are killing Americans and he will continue doing it. The Congress should remove him from office immediately.
If Trump was not born into wealth, what do you think would have happened to him?
People with Donald Trump's very severe personality disorder are rare, which is good for civilization but helps explain why most people cannot understand his behavior. Sociopaths can be camouflaged by being successful in certain areas precisely because they get to the top by lying, cheating, bullying and manipulating, stepping on people who are in their way. Dictators, crime bosses and similar types of people are examples. But most sociopaths end up with criminal records. Donald Trump has committed multiple civil crimes that we know of. If he had not been born into money, it is likely that he would be in prison.
In terms of "metacognition," is Donald Trump aware of what motivates and drives his behavior?
Donald Trump has made it clear that he processes reality in a different way than most human beings. When he says that if 100,000 people were to die from the coronavirus it would be a "victory" for him, he is revealing who he really is. He is showing that his perceived self-interest is the only thing that is ever on his mind. Insight into himself wouldn't make any sense to him.
Given your expertise in mental health, do you find Donald Trump to be an interesting person to study?
I find Donald Trump to be boring because he's so simple; it is always obvious what he's going to do. In any situation, its merits or complexity will have no bearing on his statements or actions; he will simply say or do whatever he thinks will benefit himself. Part of that calculus, of course, is to act as though he actually cares about others. But with four years of experience, everyone now ought to be able to see through that. When he was first elected, many reporters and commentators wrote that they hoped he would change and become "presidential." People with the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder do not change. This is just who Trump is.
What do you want the American people and the world to be prepared for, in terms of Donald Trump's behavior?
No matter what happens with the coronavirus, Donald Trump is going to claim victory. He will say that he did the best job possible and use the "big lie" strategy to double down on this falsehood. He will blame his critics for his failures with the virus. If there is a truly horrible outcome, Trump will blame the Democrats, the doctors, the governors and anyone else he can imagine while, as he has already said, taking no responsibility himself.