Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton: Trump's attempts to "own" reality follows “pattern of the Nazis"

Expert on Nazi Germany and cult movements says he sees extensive parallels to the Trump administration

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published September 21, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump stops to talk to reporters as he departs the White House (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump stops to talk to reporters as he departs the White House (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

A prominent psychiatrist who spent years studying Nazi Germany called for mental health professionals to speak out ahead of the election about President Trump's attempts to "own reality" by recasting institutions, warning of a pattern that echoes the Nazis.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, distinguished professor emeritus at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a leading psychohistorian who has written extensively about doctors who aided Nazi war crimes, has long called for mental health experts to defy warnings from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and speak out about Trump's mental health. Lifton recently published a book entitled "Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry" and was one of the 27 mental health experts featured in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," the bestseller edited by Yale psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee in which mental health professionals assessed the president.

Lifton told Salon that the book and a Yale conference on the topic began the movement of "psychologists and psychiatrists speaking out against Trump."

"I spoke about what I called malignant normality that was being imposed on us, and the need to be witnessing professionals who told the truth and oppose the malignant normality," he said in an interview last week.

Lifton said that Trump's supporters and enablers exhibit the same "cult-like behavior" that he has studied, adding that the current administration has "Trumpified" every part of the federal government, in much the same way that the German government was "Nazified" under Adolf Hitler.

Lifton spoke with Salon about the duty of "witnessing professionals" to speak out and the various parallels he sees between the Trump administration and the Nazi regime. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Explain what you mean by "witnessing professionals."

Witnessing professionals are those who make use of their professional knowledge to confront falsehoods, malignant normality and disruptive behavior, particularly on the part of their own country. They bear witness — and rather than surrender their professionalism, they invoke their professionalism in the form of knowledge and experience to uncover destructive behavior and combat it. That's what I see myself as doing, and others with me, in connection with speaking out about Trump.

The APA has opposed mental health professionals speaking out, citing the Goldwater rule, which holds that it is unethical to give a professional opinion of a public figure whom one has not personally examined. How does being a witnessing professional fall in line with the Goldwater rule?

Well, without going into that whole story in great detail, I would say that the Goldwater rule has been so narrowed as to become a source of quieting or repressing the thought of psychological professionals at a time when that thought is desperately needed. And I do agree that it's completely different from making a hands-on diagnosis or having a patient. It's rather observing public behavior and giving commentary on psychological conflicts and psychological vulnerabilities on the part of Trump, including in my case, my emphasis on what I call solipsistic behavior, or solipsistic reality. Reality consists for Trump of only what the self needs and wants, as opposed to the large-scale experience of others or the nature of evidence. So I feel it's really a requirement on the part of those of us who can look at these matters to speak out.

Are there examples where you have seen this play out during Trump's presidency?

Let me give you a very contemporary example that's occurring right now. You know about Bob Woodward's book and the evidence on tape that Trump became completely aware of the nature of the pandemic and its danger as a plague-like event on one hand, and yet at the same time spoke out publicly in ways that negated or denied this danger, dismissed it as unimportant and something that would soon go away.

Well, people point to his hypocrisy and there's plenty of that, but I would also add that I've learned in my work that a person can hold two antithetical, opposite views at the same time. And in the case of Trump, he's particularly prone to do that through his solipsistic reality. At some point, the self needs to take in the full brunt of the pandemic. And at another moment the self needs to take in or respond with the idea that it's a hoax, it doesn't exist. So this extreme dichotomy, this contradiction, in Trump is very much part of his solipsistic reality.

Is there a distinction between this "solipsistic reality" and someone who understands the coronavirus as a major threat, but just blatantly lies about it to preserve his political fortunes?

Well, of course they blend. So in Trump's behavior toward the virus, there can be a combination of manipulating truth and lying directly, on the one hand, and actually believing through his solipsistic reality, on the other, that it's no big deal and will go away. He can vary between conscious manipulation, which is lying, and solipsistic reality, which brings falsehoods. And they blend. There's plenty of both in him.

You've referred to "malignant normality" a few times. Can you talk more about what you mean by that?

Well, I can tell you where I got that idea. It came from my work with Nazi doctors. I studied Nazi doctors and I spoke to a number of them. And in that situation, if a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz, at the ramp, was sending Jews to the gas chamber, that was considered his job. That was what he was supposed to do. He may have had problems with it, but that was what was expected of him. That was a form of the malignant normality of that regime. Now, Trump isn't a Nazi, but still there's an American malignant normality that Trump and his followers impose on us, and that malignant normality has to do with lying. It's particularly extreme in relation to the virus, but it has to do with a more general pattern of lying, a kind of paranoid grandiosity.

It has also to do with attacking and seeking to destroy anyone who questions his version of reality. All that is part of the malignant normality imposed on this country by Trumpites, which I think it's our responsibility to expose and combat with the full knowledge and experience of our professions brought into play. So that is how witnessing professionals, again, confront and combat malignant normality.

The virus is particularly important in connection with malignant normality and in connection with Trump's falsification of reality or his attempt to own reality, as I put it. Prior to the virus, Trump of course told falsehoods and lies and they could confuse people. If you talked about the Ukrainian president being pressed for a contribution to the American election, that's talk between people. But with the virus, it's an organic event. Bodies become sick, people die, it cannot be falsified. 

So the country is aware of the enormous toll that the virus is taking on us. And this now brings us as professionals or citizens to a particular and difficult relationship to the president. The president is embracing policies that are demonstrated reliably to kill or result in the deaths of very large numbers of Americans. This is presidential criminality that we now find ourselves confronting. The presidential responsibility of caring for and protecting the citizens of this country has been turned on its head, with a president threatening the lives and causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans in relation to his corrupt policy. And that's a really intense and accurate, I think, reflection on the state of things.

Have you been surprised by the way some top medical officials, like Robert Redfield at the CDC or Stephen Hahn at the FDA, have been willing to enable some of Trump's rhetoric and actions during the pandemic?

Trump also follows another pattern of the Nazis. In German it's called Gleichschaltung. The Nazis didn't destroy professions. They attacked them, got rid of independent people, put their own people in place to head them. And then in that way the professions were not destroyed, but Nazified. Not only the professions, but all institutions. Trump, in a parallel way, Trumpifies our institutions and our professions.

So he installs political hacks into groups that are supposed to keep a close scientific view on the virus and its dangers and how to combat it. And instead we are faced with politicized versions that are false and have to do with Trump's seeing in them some electoral advantage. So Trump's attack on medical and scientific institutions both inside and outside of government is part of a larger process. And again, that's part of the malignant normality he seeks to impose on us. That is really unfortunate because it's really at the heart of American lives, and is a fulcrum for causing so many American deaths.

He's able to do that, it seems, because he has the support of his party. No matter what he does, it seems like he's able to keep about 40% support in the polls, and virtually 90% of Republican support. Why do you think that is? Why do his supporters, despite the pandemic and the deaths and the lies, remain so fully on board with the president?

Nobody can fully explain Republican supporters. The first thing to say is that they take on virtually the same guilt in their behavior. They share Trump's responsibility for this criminality in the way in which American lives are taken by their policies. They vary in their attraction to Trump, and I would give a few ideas. There is a base of white supremacy. That doesn't mean that all his followers are white supremacists, but they are a dominant group in his base and they follow him and have no complaint against his policies. There is also a cult-like quality to Trump's hold on many followers. Some of the most extreme have a cult-like relationship to him, in which they give themselves to the cult-like leader — offer their lives and their views to him.

Some of them may be defecting, and it's quite possible that when some additional followers who are now so intense become disillusioned or find that the guru can no longer satisfy their needs, they could turn against him, as I have found to occur in other cult-like situations. And then there is a strictly pragmatic Republican evaluation that Trump is still the best way to survive politically, and that it's too dangerous to their survival, should they question him. I think that runs deep because patterns of rejecting the idea of a loyal opposition, of delegitimizing the opposition, had been occurring among Republicans long before Trump. Certainly from the time of Newt Gingrich.

The other thing I would say here is that one shouldn't just say that the country is polarized and we can't talk to each other. That's true enough, but the polarization has been initiated by the Republican de-legitimation of opposition. The opposition is treated as wrong and evil, and they've lost the necessary democratic give and take of a respected, loyal opposition. That began before Trump and has led many Republicans to move all too readily into Trump's orbit, even as he led what his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has called a "hostile takeover" of the Republican party.

There have been an increasing number of concerning statements lately. Michael Caputo, the top spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services, claimed that government officials are plotting against Trump. Roger Stone recently suggested that people should arm themselves in time for the election, and that Trump should declare martial law. Are you worried about what that can lead to?

Well, I don't think there's going to be a kind of a civil war, as these fanatics are calling for. But I do worry, of course. One has to worry because that Trumpites, and that now includes the Republican supporters, are doing everything possible to suppress the vote. And they do that on many levels, as has been observed. And the latest has been seeking to take over and corrupt the Postal Service, which is an extreme thing to do in American history, but also to put up barriers to voting, and especially to Black people voting, in various states. That's going to vary state by state and very much includes Trump's systematic attack on voting by mail, which one would have thought would be completely unacceptable to both sides during a pandemic. 

Trump is also doing everything possible in his misleading and contradictory statements, and his reluctance to accept the actual outcome of the election if it goes against him. He's doing everything possible to render the election confused and less than legitimate in many people's eyes. So, yes, I worry about this, but I'm also heartened by an increasing recognition of Trump's misbehavior, of what I'm calling his criminality and what others are calling his transgressions. Things don't just bounce off him, as has been assumed, without his paying anything for it. More and more his misbehavior is being recognized, his lies and nastiness and immorality are being recognized, and the country has turned against him.

What role do you think mental health professionals should play in highlighting these issues that you've discussed ahead of the election?

Ultimately these are political decisions, but psychological professionals like myself can uncover psychological behavior and reveal its dangerousness and what I'm calling its solipsism or self-contained nature. When we do this, we can help inform political leaders about what is at stake, and in that sense have influence on their behavior. I think it's imperative that we speak out, because this is a profound crisis that the country faces — as great a crisis as our nation has ever faced.

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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