Losing is "like psychic death for Trump": Psychologists warn Trump may provoke violence after loss

"We are entering a very dangerous period," one psychologist warned

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 8, 2020 8:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Yesterday, the Associated Press and other major media outlets confirmed it: President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid. But unlike previous incumbent presidents who sought an additional term and were denied it by voters, Trump has made it clear that he is unwilling to accept the voters' will

What makes Trump, unlike other one-term presidents, this way? Salon spoke with psychologists who agreed that Trump fits the description of a narcissist with authoritarian tendencies. That means Americans are going to have to brace for an unprecedented situation.

"He is not going to accept defeat — he is psychologically incapable of that," counselor and therapist Elizabeth Mika, who contributed to the book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," wrote to Salon earlier this week. "So he will continue spinning the election results as a fraud and conspiracy to oust him, fomenting rage and hate among his followers, and social unrest which will serve as his revenge by proxy."

As the votes continued to be counted this week, Trump prematurely declared victory, filed numerous frivolous lawsuits in states that he lost and outright fabricated claims of fraud. This is unsurprising and fits with the aforementioned psychological assessment; indeed, Trump spent months falsely claiming mail-in ballots are susceptible to fraud without producing a shred of evidence to back that assertion. (His motive: Democrats in this election were more likely to vote by mail than Republicans.) He has appointed post office officials who slowed down the mail, increasing the likelihood that ballots would not arrive in time to be counted. There have even been hints that he will simply refuse to leave office if he loses, a throwback to his refusal during the 2016 election to accept any outcome other than a victory. (He also made spurious claims of voter fraud after the 2016 election in order to deceive people into believing he had won the popular vote, even though he did not.)

Dr. Bandy X. Lee, who also contributed to the aforementioned book, echoed Mika's assessment.

"Past behavior best predicts future behavior, and we can expect that we are entering a very dangerous period," Lee explained over email. "The 76 days between now and the inauguration will likely be the most norm-shattering, law-defying, and potentially violence-inciting that we have experienced so far in this presidency.  Donald Trump is about to engage in a fight for his life, having given himself no possibility of losing, and even his and our preservation cannot be assured, given the powers he has in his possession."

What makes Trump's behavior particularly concerning is that his brand of demagoguery can lead to authoritarianism.

"Trump has tried, time and time again, to tighten the American mind—like other authoritarian leaders creates an atmosphere of threat and fear, targets people who are already struggling, attacks civic institutions, and promises that he is the only one who can restore order," Dr. Michele Gelfand, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book "Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World," wrote to Salon. "It's a very similar pattern that we see among other leaders with authoritarian tendencies."

Like Mika and Lee, Gelfand also said we can expect troubling psychological behavior from Trump, writing that the president "has proven to be a rule breaker who is willing to try to break norms anytime it serves his agenda. He also sends strong signals to his followers that they should challenge the rules as well, so we need to be extra vigilant to ensure that a peaceful transition takes place."

This is what has, throughout history, placed free societies on a slippery slope toward authoritarianism.

"Authoritarianism arises out of a confluence of a very common personality pathology and political opportunity," Lee explained. "So he has all the ingredients and, yes, traits of an authoritarian leader. This is why the current outcome was predictable for mental health experts from his personality and the power handed to him alone." When asked if there is a risk that Trump will try to defy the law and cling to power despite his defeat, Lee observed that "there is not just risk but certainty. He himself has announced as much. We have a person who has no internal constraints and who would go to any extents to avoid being a 'loser' and a 'sucker.' We know this because he labels other people these things, in order to deny and disavow these qualities in himself, since he cannot tolerate them."

She added, "Losing will be like psychic death for him, which will drive him more easily to annihilate himself and others than to accept. Violating laws and norms is nothing for him, even when he is not in such peril, and so we can expect to see an acceleration of that."

Of course, Trump himself is not solely to blame for putting America at risk of authoritarianism. The threat is only possible because he can rely on supporters to back him in the process.

"Authoritarian submissiveness, which is probably among more frequently encountered traits among Trump supporters: the desire to follow a strong leader who would assume control in the chaotic and uncertain world, and protect them from its influences," Mika wrote to Salon when asked about the psychological characteristics that draw people to authoritarian types like Trump. "Of course these leaders' strength is illusory — it is actually their lack of conscience (psychopathy) that is mistaken for strength. Since they don't have empathy and do not experience guilt, shame and self-doubt, they appear to be decisive and clear-minded. But it is really emotional primitivism and brutality."

She added that many Trump supporters also have narcissistic traits.

"Collective and individual narcissism is the fuel of tyranny," Mika explained. "These character disordered leaders are elected to affirm the sense of specialness and superiority (narcissism) of their followers. It is a symbiotic (and ultimately destructive) relationship as both sides satisfy their narcissistic needs through it, for some time at least — because sooner or later the political or any structure built on narcissism falls apart. However, when combined, as they often are, these two traits alone — narcissism and authoritarian submissiveness — create a powerful mix that cements the followers' devotion to their leader."

She added, "This devotion can be very reality-resistant and justify all kinds of problematic behaviors, including violence."

Even if Trump does not attempt to install himself as an authoritarian ruler, there are still other ways his narcissistic personality could harm America as a result of losing the election, as many experts have suggested. He could punish states that voted against him when it comes to matters like providing federal aid during the pandemic or tank the American economy by pressuring the Federal Reserve to try to drive up interest rates and stop supporting the stock and corporate bond markets. It is nearly certain that he will try to convince millions of Americans that the candidate who defeated him, former Vice President Joe Biden, is not a legitimate president.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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2020 Presidential Election Authoritarianism Donald Trump Joe Biden Narcissism Original