Former Harvard psychiatrist Lance Dodes: Trump is trying to "turn America into a police state"

Dr. Lance Dodes: As Trump sinks into "paranoid rage," he will likely seek to cancel or overturn 2020 election

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 7, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

President Donald J. Trump, seen through a window, watches a television in the press office as newscasters talk about him moments after he was speaking with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump, seen through a window, watches a television in the press office as newscasters talk about him moments after he was speaking with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day continue. This people's uprising against police brutality and social injustice have spread far beyond Minneapolis to all 50 states and around the world.

Donald Trump is a destroyer, not a healer. Given his tendencies toward authoritarianism, even fascism, Trump is only capable of sowing more division in a nation convulsing in pain and anger over the murder of George Floyd, the resulting explosion of police violence and what that reveals about our extreme levels of social inequality and broader culture of cruelty.

Enraged by the protesters in Washington, Donald Trump has now retreated into the White House, literally surrounding it with National Guard troops, law enforcement agents (some with no badges or insignias), and an improvised wall of fences and barriers.

Trump has threatened to unleash the U.S. military against Americans exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech and protest. Senior military officials have — to this point — blunted or rejected Trump's demands that the country's armed forces be turned against the American people. It is unclear how this crisis will resolve.

In a new essay at the Atlantic, George Packer describes this ominous and pitiful moment in which America under Donald Trump appears more like a failed state than a great nation. He draws a specific comparison with the aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968:

The difference between 1968 and 2020 is the difference between a society that failed to solve its biggest problem and a society that no longer has the means to try. A year before his death, King, still insisting on nonviolent resistance, called riots "the language of the unheard." The phrase implies that someone could be made to hear, and possibly answer.

What's happening today doesn't feel the same. The protesters aren't speaking to leaders who might listen, or to a power structure that might yield, except perhaps the structure of white power, which is too vast and diffuse to respond. Congress isn't preparing a bill to address root causes; Congress no longer even tries to solve problems.

No president, least of all this one, could assemble a commission of respected figures from different sectors and parties to study the problem of police brutality and produce a best-selling report with a consensus for fundamental change. A responsible establishment doesn't exist. Our president is one of the rioters.

At the Washington Post, Karen Tumulty summarizes the symbolism of Trump as the mad king retreating into his fortress: 

President Trump has finally gotten his wall. But it is not along the southern border. It has gone up around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It is hard to imagine a more apt metaphor for the Trump presidency than the transformation of the White House into a fortress.

For all Trump's bluster about force and domination, the new multilayered black fencing around the executive mansion reveals the reality that he is operating not from strength but from fear.

The protesters who gather nightly across the street in Lafayette Square have been largely peaceful and early incidents of looting have been sporadic. Nonetheless, the president of the United States has erected a barrier that separates him from both the crowds and their anguish over the choking death of George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed African American man, whose neck was pinned under the knee of a police officer….

And at some point, perhaps, the reality that everyone else can see will dawn upon even Trump: A president who needs to take shelter behind fences and barriers because he feels threatened by his own citizens is not their leader. He is their prisoner.

Considered in total, Donald Trump's threats against the American people, and the choices he has made that have inflamed the country's pain and grievances and anger, are part of a much larger pattern of behavior. Trump is addicted to violence. He encourages and revels in police brutality and thuggery — the police officer who murdered George Floyd by crushing his neck was in the most basic way just following Trump's orders.

As a function of his addiction to violence, Donald Trump uses stochastic terrorism to command his followers to attack various perceived enemies: nonwhite people, liberals and progressives, Latin American migrants and refugees, Muslims, Jews, so-called anarchists and antifa members and so on. 

The most recent example: last week, Trump's 2020 re-election campaign sent an email to supporters that referred to a "Trump Army," which should not entirely be understood as a metaphor: 

"The President wants YOU and every other member of our exclusive Trump Army to have something to identify yourselves with, and to let everyone know that YOU are the President's first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB."

In an effort to understand Donald Trump's downward spiral of violence, paranoia, and other obvious mentally pathological behavior, I recently spoke with Dr. Lance Dodes, whom I have interviewed on several previous occasions. He is 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.

In this conversation, Dodes warned that Donald Trump is a sociopath (defined as psychopathic personality type) who will do anything to stay in power. Dodes also spoke about Trump's use of the term "dominate," and what it tells us about his desire to control the American people, the country's elected officials, the military and other institutions of power by any means necessary. Dodes also issued an ominous warning about Trump's character and behavior, warning that our president is a moral weakling, coward and bully who will continue to lash out at any and all people who he feels have wronged or disrespected him. Trump's ultimate desire, Dodes says, is to put his boot on the neck of everyone on the planet.

As usual, this transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Many people in the news media and among the American public are upset that Donald Trump is not acting "presidential" in response to the nationwide protests and the apparent murder of George Floyd. They keep expecting Trump to behave like a responsible leader who can help calm and heal a country in pain. He is incapable of doing such a thing. This is honestly pathetic: Why do so many public voices keep pleading with Trump to be something he is not?

When Donald Trump took office there was a lot of talk about how he would "become presidential" and grow into the office and its responsibilities.

But he could not change his behavior because, as a sociopath or psychopath, he has a severe personality disorder. People with personality disorders don't change depending on the job they hold. The hope that Donald Trump would stop being sadistic, that he would develop the human quality of empathy for others, that he would value the rights and feelings of others, was never realistic. I think people keep pleading with him to be someone he is not because we all wish to have a president who is mature and compassionate rather than someone who is, in his essence, cruel. 

Why are so many people in denial about who and what Donald Trump really is? Are they just trying to hide from the obvious for reasons they believe will help keep them safe?  

We all wish that the world would be better in the face of terrible circumstances. Wishes like this are a tool for avoiding the pain of an awful reality. The helplessness created by a powerful predator like Trump leads some people to withdraw into denial that the problem is as terrible as it is. 

Why would Donald Trump not take the easy route by just modeling his public behavior on another president, one considered more "presidential?" In private, Trump could be his horrible true self, but in public he could play the "traditional" role of president of the United States.

Donald Trump cannot do that. When mental health professionals warned that he has an antisocial personality disorder, that he is a sociopath or psychopath, they were communicating that there is something fundamentally wrong with him. He is expert at conning people, pretending to care about them, lying to get what he wants. But this ability to fool and cheat people falls apart when he is forced to be real, as when he's confronted with his lies or indeed any disagreement. Then the façade of the con man disappears and we see the uncaring and violent man underneath. He is unable to hide this true self when cornered.

The police murder of George Floyd and all the looting and other crime that has occurred afterwards represents a moral crisis for the country. Donald Trump is so corrupt and immoral that he cannot calm the nation. How can Trump speak out against immorality and other bad behavior when he himself, along with most of his inner circle, is an obvious criminal with no regard for the rule of law?

Yes, morality means nothing to him. Therefore, Donald Trump does whatever he wants. He does not care if his behavior is moral or not. If Trump's behavior is immoral, or otherwise wrong and antisocial, that means nothing to him.

By comparison, If Barack Obama were the president right now with the protests, the virus, the economy in crisis and all the other great problems, the whole country would feel different. The United States would be like a family that has challenges, sometimes great ones. But that family also has a father or a mother who can rise above the situation and act with maturity and perspective.

Donald Trump cannot do that. Because he has no morality, his idea about solving the country's problems is to shoot people who are protesting and looting. When he said "looting means shooting" that reflects his inability to see the world through any perspective other than his own.

How do you interpret Donald Trump's recent phone call with the state governors, urging them to crack down on the protests?

What really struck me was his telling the governors that they need to "dominate" the protesters. "Dominate" is a very important word in this context. It's one thing to triumph in a contest, to have superior knowledge or to convince somebody that your point of view is correct. The word "dominate" here means something very different: It means to destroy, subjugate, humiliate.

Donald Trump in fact needs to dominate everyone. It's why he is fundamentally opposed to democracy itself. His efforts to destroy anyone who disagrees with him, claiming they are "fake," incompetent, or bad — as in his declaration that the press is "the enemy of the people" — is a well-known technique of other psychopaths in their rise to power.

In the last week or so Donald Trump has threatened protesters with lethal violence. He has had peaceful protesters beaten, gassed and shot with rubber bullets outside the White House, in an effort to stage a "presidential" photo-op. He has threatened to invoke martial law if the American people do not end their protests against police brutality and other types of social injustice. On numerous occasions he has told America's police to abuse arrestees and criminal suspects. The unifying theme here is Trump's attraction to violence.

Yes, Trump's behavior is deeply pathological, consistent with his antisocial personality disorder. Indifference to the death of others is a characteristic of psychopaths.

The Washington Post reports that Donald Trump has told more than 18,000 public lies while president. Is that a type of "skill"? Or is it pure instinct?

If you are an honest person, lying thousands of times is a lot of work. It is not work for Donald Trump. Again, even though it's often hard for folks to grasp, Donald Trump is different from normal human beings. We've all seen his utterly false statements, which he insists are facts. The degree of his insistence, regardless of the evidence, is essentially delusional.  It's one factor that makes him so very dangerous.

What are some basic assumptions about normal human behavior that Trump violates? 

Except for sociopaths and psychopaths, all people have some degree of empathy. It's normal to care for how other people think and feel. That's a key component of human relationships. Trump has proven he's not capable of empathy. Closely linked with this, there is the enormous body of evidence, from his cheating, lying, harming and threatening to harm others, that he has no conscience. When he said, "I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue because I'm so popular," what he was saying was, "I don't care that I'd be shooting somebody; the death of another person is no problem to me. What's important to me is whether I would be caught or prosecuted."  

Donald Trump has literally ordered that the White House be turned into a type of fortress, with layers of fencing around it — a de facto moat — and rings of military and other armed personnel protecting it. Politically and almost literally, he is under siege, as a large proportion of the population has risen up against him. How is this impacting Trump's mind?

Trump is much more dangerous right now, and he will become increasingly dangerous as the 2020 election approaches if he's losing. Criticism, disagreement or opposition means to him that he is being attacked by evil people. This capacity to sink into paranoid rage is another aspect of his disorder. We should expect that he will try to turn America into a police state, or declare martial law and suspend the Constitution. He will likely try to prevent or overturn the 2020 election if he loses. In order to have an excuse for ending democracy, he is likely to have his own "Reichstag fire" incident, perhaps via starting a war with China or Iran. Like Hitler, he can then announce, "You must turn to me as your leader. I'm the only one who can save us in the time of this disaster."

What motivates Donald Trump? What is Trump's hierarchy of needs?

Power. The need to dominate others. He must be the smartest and the best president, with his boot on the neck of everyone else in the world.

What does Donald Trump's response to the police murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests reveal about his state of mind?

His response is completely consistent with his disorder, and to that extent was predictable, just as many mental health professionals have been able to predict his actions for years now. 

Donald Trump is incapable of properly leading the country because leadership requires attention, empathy and concern for the people who are following you. Trump is incapable of that behavior. Donald Trump is not able to do the right thing because he does not care about doing what is right. Donald Trump is the weakest of men. The bully is always the weakest person.

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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