Psychologist Stephen Soldz: With Trump's coup threat, America now faces a "defining crisis"

Trump represents "classical fascism" and Republicans are committed to "abolishing democracy," Soldz tells Salon

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published September 26, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump watching Fox News (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Fox News)
Donald Trump watching Fox News (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Fox News)

A prominent psychologist who has sounded the alarm of the danger posed by President Trump's administration for years warns that Americans should take seriously threats of violence by Trump's supporters or risk being unprepared for a defining crisis.

Dr. Stephen Soldz, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Massachusetts and a professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, told Salon that he was "surprised" by the degree to which the Republican Party has become an "overtly anti-democratic party" under Trump and said that "propaganda" outlets like Fox News help prop up his presidency by feeding his supporters' "illusions."

Soldz, who has led efforts to end the use of torture by the U.S. government and to prevent psychologists from participating in torture and similar abuses, also warned that Americans should take heed of the authoritarian threats of a "coup" by Trump associates like Roger Stone.

Soldz, who is the former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, previously joined dozens of other mental health professionals to warn of the dangers posed by the president's mental health in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," a book edited by Yale psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee.

Soldz spoke to Salon about Trump's "authoritarian" tendencies and mental health professionals' responsibility to speak out ahead of the election.

Why did you decide to speak out about Trump, particularly after the American Psychiatric Association warned mental health professionals to avoid publicly discussing the president's mental health?

Because I strongly believe that mental health professionals should speak about important social issues. That we have this dual role: We are members of the public and we're relevant as mental health professionals. So I found the American Psychiatric Association's attempt to silence this discussion to be very disturbing, and also felt that when we have a situation where there's so much danger to the public, any attempt to silence or reduce discussion is extremely dangerous.

I'm a psychologist. The American Psychological Association issued an internal statement, which was somewhat weaker, and then basically let the whole issue drop. I've been very careful. I don't diagnose Trump. I say that there may be some issues that should be considered. I don't see how that's problematic in the slightest.

There's a duplicity on the part of the American Psychiatric Association because a number of their members have participated in intelligence agencies profiling foreign leaders, say, Saddam Hussein, including at times, I believe, diagnoses. And they never spoke out on that. So unless you're going to say that American presidents are uniquely exempt from what everyone else in the world is subject to, there's a deep hypocrisy there.

What were some of your biggest concerns before Trump took office or early in his presidency, and have those changed over the nearly four years that he's been in office?

Well, he's obviously turned out to be much worse than we anticipated, but I mean, not enormously. I will say one thing is that since I don't watch TV, when he first ran, I had very little sense of who Trump was. I mean, I don't pay much attention to celebrities. So all I knew was he was some idiot celebrity on TV. But as you sort of heard him and realized that his campaign was founded on racism at its core and trying to divide people and attack people, yeah, it was very disturbing.

There was some hope — I didn't believe it — but I thought there was some possibility that the accounts that he would temper some of it when he got into office could be true, and they certainly have not been true. So, if anything, the concerns are far greater now, as I openly call him a fascist. I believe his instincts are totally anti-democratic, and sort of a classical fascism of combining authoritarian anti-democracy with populist rhetoric, and moving people to oppose democracy.

Given your efforts in fighting abusive tactics by the government, what was your reaction to the administration's crackdown on protests this year in places like Washington, D.C., and Portland? There was a report earlier this month that the administration considered using a heat ray against protesters, which makes people feel as if their skin is on fire.

Well, I have a long history of activism so I was generally with the protesters. I support nonviolent activism. So the crackdowns, I was very disturbed by. On the other hand, I will say there's a bit of lack of history in people. The federal government and local government have a long history of suppressing protest movements. It's been done throughout history. A lot of what we've seen is not that atypical of what has been done by Republican and Democratic administrations throughout our history. So there was a bit of, "This is unique, it's never happened before," that I thought was a bit silly. We didn't have, for example, people being gunned down by police, but we did have repeated attacks, including attacks by police and others, in parts of the country.

Certainly, the heat ray is a new thing. Along with that was the report that they brought a lot of ammunition, 7,000 rounds of ammunition into the city. And we don't know what they were thinking about doing with that. So that is deeply concerning. Repression is what governments, unfortunately, do to protest. I mean, remember a lot of the protests were attacked by police who work for Democratic mayors. And I find that deeply disturbing. So it's not unique to Trump. Certainly he has stirred up the concerns about right-wing militants potentially attacking and making matters much worse.

Are you surprised by how much longtime Republican officials like Attorney General Bill Barr, and even nonpartisan health officials like CDC head Robert Redfield or FDA chief Stephen Hahn, have embraced and enabled his actions?

I'm surprised at the degree to which the Republican Party has become an overtly anti-democratic party. But it's not just Trump. I mean, it's the actions that they've taken with the radical gerrymandering in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, the attempts to remove powers from Democratic governors. The entire party seems committed to basically abolishing democracy and establishing a form of one-party authoritarian rule.

Whether they'll get away with it remains to be seen, but there don't seem to be many people [pushing back]. Mitt Romney seems to be virtually the only one who seems to have qualms about it who's in office. I mean, one of the things that's happened is that Trump has been amazingly successful, like no other administration I can think of, at suppressing intra-party criticism, because he has riled up and gotten the support of the Republican base. There's traditionally been a sort of deal the Republicans have had where basically they run on racism and then they govern in the interests of the ultra-wealthy. Trump has taken that to its extreme. And I think, as we've seen, has made any dissent by elected Republican officials extremely unlikely in most cases.

I had not anticipated the extent to which that would be the case. But, on the other hand, I will say that in some ways, Trump is a continuation, for example, of the Bush administration. I think people forget how bad the Bush administration was. We had [former Bush adviser] Karl Rove talk about, "You believe in reality and we create reality." Their attempts to get us into the Iraq war with what they knew was questionable intelligence, at best, about weapons of mass destruction. And their use of 9/11 to give large tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy, etc. So in some sense Trump is an exacerbation of previous tendencies that were obviously there.

It seems like Trump's base is pretty entrenched. No matter what he does he seems to keep around 40% support in the polls. Why do you think that is?

His support is probably fervent loyalty among hardcore supporters, probably only 20% of voters, and then another 20% or so, these are just estimates, are people who take the attitude of, "Well, I don't really like how he talks, but he's only one who's for us." I think that is the great question. In preliminary answers, I think there's a profound alienation in our country in not just the 40% — it's much broader than that — the sense that the government and the powerful don't have our interests at heart. And he's been able to voice that.

I mean, in somewhat an amazing way, authoritarian leaders elsewhere are also good at that. I also think that people experience it as liberating to have him say things that they don't dare say. In psychoanalytic jargon, he sort of speaks the ego: "Beat that guy up." He says things that people feel and feel ashamed of sometimes, or feel that they don't dare say, that the politically correct climate won't let them say. He says them, and I think it excites people. They identify with this person who can get away with breaking all the rules, the rules that they can't break in their life. It also makes life much more exciting. And sometimes he is a TV personality still.

Do you think a lot of that support is driven by this backlash towards "political correctness"?

Well, I think some of it. A lot of it is a basic alienation that goes back at least to 2008 and the economic crisis, and the sense that the government bailed out the banks and left everyone else to suffer. Even though the economy has improved since then, I think that we've never recovered from that. That provides a basis for people's other concerns, in the sense that they believe this guy who breaks all the rules will change things.

Most people don't think very deeply about policy, unfortunately. They're busy living their lives. And then there's also the other factor that we have a propaganda television network, Maybe two, I don't know how big the One America [News] Network is, but Fox News has basically been a propaganda network in which the big lie can be repeated over and over again. I mean, they spread, for example, this myth that only 9,000 have people died from COVID-19, and they repeat it over and over again. So people who watch believe it. So in a way that there's never been before, that I'm aware of, there's this total alternative world in which people can maintain their illusions.

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

Well, I think, first of all, mental health professionals are members of the public. They have every right and every responsibility, like other members of the public, to speak out. But we also have knowledge and like other people with knowledge, we have a responsibility to try and use that knowledge. But we also have a responsibility to be careful.

I am not an advocate of people trying to diagnose Trump. I mean, one of the complexities with public personalities, which I think we have a better sense of now, but only somewhat, is that it's very hard to know what's real and what's an act. Trump has some mixture of that. He's a showman and he's always been a showman. There does seem to be something else going on, and sometimes you have a feeling that he really gets confused, but I don't believe there's enough information to give a definitive diagnosis. So I don't believe that that's what we need to do, but we also have to use our expertise to try and answer that question you raised about why his support is so high, and try to use it in whatever way we can.

I will say I'm very concerned about all the signs that he's not going to leave office willingly. I think that within less than two months, we're going to have a defining crisis for the country, as to whether we're going to be able to keep it a republic, as one founding father said. Because I don't know what form it's going to take, whether it's going to be cheating with the election or refusing to leave office or fomenting civil unrest, but I don't think he's going to leave office. Maybe if there's an absolute landslide, but every indication we have is he won't, and that administration officials like Bill Barr and several others — [top HHS spokesman Michael] Caputo, for example, and Roger Stone — are calling for [Trump] to launch a coup if he loses. I think we should listen to them. When leaders talk about coups, or Trump talks about 12 years in office, we should listen. I'd rather take him seriously and be wrong, then not do so and be unprepared.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

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.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh