Will Trump's illness break his hold over his followers? Mental health experts say probably not

Malignant narcissism can form unbreakable bonds, experts say: Expect even nuttier pro-Trump conspiracy theories

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 5, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a campaign sign through the moonroof of a car as they drive past Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after the President was admitted for treatment of COVID-19 on October 4, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a campaign sign through the moonroof of a car as they drive past Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after the President was admitted for treatment of COVID-19 on October 4, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

On Friday, Donald Trump was hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center near Washington after testing positive for the coronavirus and exhibiting symptoms. His wife Melania and other members of Trump's inner circle have also tested positive for the coronavirus.

Given the consistent strategy of disinformation, contempt for the American people and outright lies that have come from the Trump White House, all reports about Trump's health and the timeline for his infection must be viewed with suspicion. It remains unclear exactly when Trump tested positive and was diagnosed with COVID last week, but it appears likely that even after knowing he had been exposed to the virus, the president put his staff members, financial donors and family members, as well as members of the public at risk. He could well have exposed Joe Biden and members of Biden's campaign team to the virus during their debate last Tuesday, although Biden has so far tested negative.

Trump's condition has been described in contradictory ways, and reports from his medical team have been inconsistent. It is possible Trump will soon be released from the hospital -- and also possible that he faces a long and serious illness. 

Trump was clearly unwell when he spoke to the American people on Saturday by video. That same day, the White House released a series of photos which purported to show the president "hard at work." In fact, the photos showed Trump using a marker to sign blank pieces of paper positioned next to empty plastic binders. On Sunday, Trump, eager for narcissistic fuel, was briefly driven through the area around Walter Reed Medical Center so he could acknowledge his followers gathered outside. He is suffering from a highly infectious disease and instead of remaining in quarantine chose to imperil the health and lives of his Secret Service detail and whoever else he came in close contact with.

All this intrigue and lack of transparency by the Trump regime is another example of how the White House has become the Kremlin on the Potomac, a place where the public is left to decipher the schemes and machinations of the ruling party.

Donald Trump is not a normal president (or human being). He is a fascist authoritarian who leads a cult of personality and revels in what he considers "alpha-male" displays of toughness and violence. He presents himself as being immortal. To his cult followers, he functions as a type of godhead whom they love and to whom they constantly express devotion. Trumpism is a form of collective narcissism and groupthink in which the self is subsumed by the libidinal, violent and other pathological emotions and behaviors of the mass movement.

Karma has asserted itself: Donald Trump has now been inflicted with the same disease that he lied about, showing no human concern for the 210,000 Americans who have died so far. This is the same disease for which he actively sabotaged relief efforts and common-sense public health measures. In total, Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic is an act of de facto genocide against the American people, and should be prosecuted as criminal negligence and homicide.

As Dan Froomkin of Salon and Press Watch recently explained, it isn't gloating "to point out that this could have been avoided if Trump had taken the obvious and proper precautions that he petulantly and ignorantly chose not to":

The entirely self-inflicted nature of this tragedy is one of its central elements, as is the way Trump's incredible irresponsibility and arrogance was mimicked by his supporters, significantly exacerbating the pandemic…. But I fear that, especially if Trump's condition worsens, the attention will shift so entirely to the coverage of incremental developments and the political fallout that the American public will be deprived of this crucial context: He brought this upon himself.

Dan Kois' essay for Slate, "How Should We Feel About The Suffering of This Man?", channels what many Americans and others around the world are feeling about Trump suffering the effect of a disease he lied about, mocked and belittled, expressing callous indifference about the death and destruction it has inflicted:

The burst of unseemly glee that accompanied the news of the president's positive test was yet another salvo in this four-year war between my feelings, my intellect, and what I've always thought of as my morality. In 2020 the president's malignancy has expanded. He now directly threatens the lives of every person in America. Over 200,000 of them have died so far, in large part because of his incompetence and cruelty. And so hearing that the virus he has spent months downplaying, lying about, and ignoring has, at long last, stricken him was a moment of such narrative perfection that its power was nearly overwhelming.

I'm not inclined to condemn people for finding the news of the past 36 hours, in addition to alarming and embarrassing, richly comic. To laugh at the shitstorm currently overwhelming the Republican Party, including Trump, is not to disrespect life, as the outraged tone police might insist. To laugh at what the Republicans and Donald Trump have brought upon themselves is to respect life, to understand that to take wanton risks with life was always a fool's game.

How will Trump's followers respond to his diagnosis and hospitalization? How will they manifest and confront this cognitive dissonance? Trump and his supporters exist in a state of collective narcissism and mass delusion. Will his illness bind his followers closer to him? Or will they finally turn on Trump, seeing him exposed as not just a mere mortal but a lying hypocrite?

In an effort to answer these questions and to better understand Trump and his followers' relationship to one another in a time of plague and death — largely because of him — I asked several of the country's (and the world's) leading mental health experts for their thoughts and analyses. 

Elizabeth Mika, counselor and therapist, contributor to the 2017 bestseller "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President":

The bond between a malignantly narcissistic leader and his followers, created by a narcissistic collusion — the belief in each other's specialness and exceptional greatness — is virtually unbreakable. To sever it, those individuals who worship and unreservedly trust their leader would have to experience a life-shattering catastrophe for which the leader would be directly and indisputably responsible. But even, then their need to maintain their beliefs and thus their identity would likely override reality and even solidify their beliefs in the leader's specialness and infallibility, and, by association, their own.

We can actually see this in Trump's supporters' reactions to the pandemic in general and his own infection specifically. They deny the reality and severity of the pandemic and act accordingly, endangering themselves and others; and when they can no longer do so, they attribute it to nefarious plots designed to harm their leader and his plans to restore the country's — and their own — greatness. Trump's own illness has introduced some cognitive dissonance into those beliefs, which his supporters are trying to minimize by blaming it on others and shifting focus to other subjects.

I want to stress that those are normal defense mechanisms, commonly encountered in almost all of us, that we use in situations that challenge our worldview and cherished opinions.

But those defense mechanisms, when fortified by narcissism, become an emotional-cognitive web that ensnares and enslaves us, and blinds us to the reality of who we are and what the world around us is like.

Narcissism makes us part ways with reason, truth and reality itself, and instead create self-aggrandizing myths about our existence. All cults — religious, political, technological (yes) and others — are based on individual and collective narcissism of their members. Trumpism, with its imperviousness to facts, can be seen as a political cult, with a malignantly narcissistic leader at its center. Its members' main function is to maintain the leader's delusion of his greatness by providing constant affirmations of it, reality be damned. They, in turn, bask in his reflected glory, believing, erroneously, that his greatness and favors will rub off on them and fulfill their dreams.

Of course, none of that will happen and the cult will eventually collapse, usually with the demise of its leader. But even then, true believers will continue their worship. To this day, there are people who revere and miss some of the greatest tyrants in history. Our human propensity for self-deception, of the kind that protects our cherished and narcissistically embellished view of ourselves, our false self, is boundless.

Dr. Lance Dodes, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. He is also a contributor to "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump."

Interviews with Trump's most fervent supporters have repeatedly shown that they minimize or deny his lies, incompetence and absence of morality because they share his conviction that he is (as he has suggested, himself) a godlike figure protecting them against all they hate and fear. Like all populist tyrants, his actual characteristics and actions are, therefore, irrelevant or even praised (leading to increased violence among those who copy his violence). The fact that Trump now has the disease he mockingly said was not serious and would disappear is sadly very unlikely to have any more influence on this group than his past lies and self-contradictions.

Dr. John Gartner, psychologist, psychoanalyst and former professor at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Gartner is the founder of Duty to Warn, an organization working to raise awareness about the danger Trump poses to the U.S. and the world. He was also a contributor to "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" and is featured in the documentary "Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump."

Malignant narcissists feel so special and entitled, they believe they are above laws of both man and nature — and because they are also psychopaths, they have no guilt or anxiety about the consequences of breaking those laws. What they can get away with is mind-boggling. Trump should have been successfully impeached 30 times over by now, having crashed through almost every redline we have. Yet thus far, he seemed to defy the laws of gravity — until he didn't.

He is like the old Warner Bros. cartoon characters who would go over a cliff, and just hang suspended in mid-air — until they suddenly plunged, "Trump seemed to defy the laws of science and disease. Then the virus caught up with him," read a headline from the Washington Post. "Invincibility punctured," read another.

There's a reason you don't see many retired drug dealers, and the Thousand-Year Reich ended in a bunker. Call it reality's revenge. Ultimately, malignant narcissists are self-destructive, as they and those that follow them off the cliff learn the hard way.

The laws of nature and karma can be suspended … until they aren't.

Dr. Bandy Lee, assistant clinical professor, Yale University School of Medicine and president of the World Mental Health Organization. Lee was editor of "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump."

Announcing his sickness is advantageous for him with his "base," since their first thought would not be: "You said this disease was on its way out!" — which is rational thinking. Their emotional response would more likely be isolated sympathy for him — never mind that he caused the sickness of millions — identification with him, since many will know by now someone who has fallen sick, and fearful idealization and even less criticism of him, since he is supposedly their only protector and they are defenseless without him. The posturing and grandiose claims arising out of his defensiveness will likely be more compelling to them than his actions.

Dr. Seth Norrholm, translational neuroscientist and one of the world's leading experts on post-traumatic stress disorder and fear. He is currently the scientific director at the Neuroscience Center for Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma (NeuroCAST) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit.

For his supporters, it is another opportunity for a reckoning with their support for Trump, given the fluid, ever-changing, and unpredictable nature of this president's behavior. For some, as exemplified by Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, Trump is the victim of an attempted coup: She tweeted: "Remember: China gave this virus to our President."

That perspective reflects a sense of collective, grandiose narcissism and will work for Fox News and will be echoed by millions. For others, they will have to ignore cognitive dissonance and allow for an acceptance of the president's "moving the goal posts" — starting with it's "their new hoax," moving to "the 15 [cases] within a couple of days is going to be close to down to zero," then to "I think I saved two, maybe two and a half million lives" and finally to "we'll produce a vaccine in record time."

Their support for the president is unwavering, even with the mental gymnastics required to go from hoax to vaccine. This too reflects cult psychology in that loyalty to the leader is maintained despite emerging evidence that he might be flawed. Yet for others, this represents a time to see the naked emperor, to change their beliefs about the deadly nature of the virus, and to actually start practicing mitigation techniques.

Dr. David Reiss, psychiatrist, expert in mental fitness evaluations and contributor to "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump."

Trump and his spokespersons have consistently presented information and opinions intended to strongly impact the emotional state of their followers. This leads vulnerable followers, who rely on their feelings to define reality rather than examining objective facts, to strongly "feel" that the "information" they are provided is accurate. 

Feeling convinced, they will not explore or consider any other information or facts; they distrust, disbelieve and (angrily) reject as "fake" any contrary information; they disregard logical inconsistencies; and ultimately, they act decisively on the basis of the "information" provided (in a manner that meets the purposes of the Trump cabal). Despite the total inconsistency with objective facts, they continue to view Trump as essentially infallible, honor him with adulation, rally to his support — and project onto perceived "enemies" blame for any negative events that befall Trump or his admirers.  

This is occurring at the current time when, even at their own peril and even though medical evidence and objective facts clearly indicate that Trump himself has dangerously ignored warnings and left himself, his administration and his followers vulnerable to COVID infection, Trump's followers continue to maintain convoluted explanations or conspiracy theories in order to justify feeling that they and Trump are innocent victims.

That illogical world view reinforces the belief that Trump is to be admired, adulated and held beyond reproach — particularly for tolerating the "slings and arrows" of "deviant enemies." Whether orchestrated or spontaneous, rallies and "counter-demonstrations" reinforce these emotions and whip followers into an irrational frenzy of Trump adulation and rage at perceived enemies.

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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