Dr. Lance Dodes: Trump is "delusional at the core," will live in "fantasyland till the day he dies"

Former Harvard psychiatrist on Trump's "emptiness inside" and the deepening paranoia of his last days in power

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 8, 2020 7:00AM (EST)

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

Contrary to what the hope-peddlers and other members of "the Church of the Savvy" would like the public to believe, none of this is normal or ultimately "harmless". Everything is not OK. 

Donald Trump and his allies are continuing with their efforts to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election and Joe Biden's victory. Trump's attacks on democracy are a de facto coup attempt which includes not just "legal" tactics but intimidation and threats of violence. Last Saturday night, dozens of Trump's unofficial paramilitaries surrounded the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Instead of properly reporting on the unprecedented attempts by a United States president to usurp the will of the American people in order to remain in power indefinitely — and the larger strategy by the Republican Party to create a new American apartheid – too many in the mainstream news media are looking ahead to the Biden administration and convincing themselves that by ignoring or minimizing Trump's attacks all will somehow be fine in January.

On this, Jack Holmes writes at Esquire:

Meanwhile, those preaching calm over the last few weeks have not merely ignored the guiding principles of the Trump era: never assume there is a bottom to the shameless depravity, and never bet against that shamelessness being rewarded. …

It is also straight out of the strongman playbook to put a number of hare-brained schemes in motion, hoping that at least one will play out in such a way that you can profit off the chaos. But yeah, everybody simmer down. The important thing when witnessing the wild behavior of an authoritarian leader, cornered and desperate, is to be the most Calm and Savvy observer. Don't you know about The Laws?

Such behavior testifies to the fourth estate abandoning its role as truth-tellers and guardians of democracy but and instead becoming dispensers of happy pills and placebos. Reporting on the palace intrigue of Trump's Kremlin on the Potomac in the aftermath of the 2020 election is part of the distraction and denial, a type of joyous schadenfreude by liberals, progressives and others who oppose Trump and his regime's evil and have been made to suffer by it.

As such, it has been reported that Donald Trump is despondent, falling apart mentally and acting like an American Mad King; that he is ranting and raging as aides try to keep him under control, and decompensating as TrumpWorld supposedly implodes.

For example, in his much-discussed New York Times feature "Trump's Final Days of Rage and Denial," Peter Baker reports:

Moody and by accounts of his advisers sometimes depressed, the president barely shows up to work, ignoring the health and economic crises afflicting the nation and largely clearing his public schedule of meetings unrelated to his desperate bid to rewrite the election results. He has fixated on rewarding friends, purging the disloyal and punishing a growing list of perceived enemies that now includes Republican governors, his own attorney general and even Fox News. ...

The final days of the Trump presidency have taken on the stormy elements of a drama more common to history or literature than a modern White House. His rage and detached-from-reality refusal to concede defeat evoke images of a besieged overlord in some distant dictatorship defiantly clinging to power rather than going into exile or an erratic English monarch imposing his version of reality on his cowed court.

Earlier reporting by the Washington Post echoes Baker's account:

The facts were indisputable: President Trump had lost.

But Trump refused to see it that way. Sequestered in the White House and brooding out of public view after his election defeat, rageful and at times delirious in a torrent of private conversations, Trump was, in the telling of one close adviser, like "Mad King George, muttering, 'I won. I won. I won.' "

However cleareyed Trump's aides may have been about his loss to President-elect Joe Biden, many of them nonetheless indulged their boss and encouraged him to keep fighting with legal appeals. They were "happy to scratch his itch," this adviser said. "If he thinks he won, it's like, 'Shh . . . we won't tell him.' "

These details are likely all true. What they describe is a national and global state of emergency. But such behavior must be located properly, relative to Donald Trump's ongoing coup attempt and other attacks on democracy by his allies and followers.

Trump has publicly shown himself to be not just mentally unwell but perhaps even a sociopath or psychopath. Sick leaders attract sick followers. Sick leaders also amplify the various mental and other pathologies of their followers and inner circle. Sick leaders channel and therefore worsen the most unhealthy and unjust aspects of a given society. In all, Trumpism is a type of collective social and civic disease spreading throughout America.

How long will Trump be able to exist in his own reality? What will happen when and if Trump's fantasies are destroyed? Is Donald Trump more or less dangerous after the 2020 election and Joe Biden's victory? What do the accounts of Donald Trump's increasingly aberrant behavior following Election Day reveal about his coup attempt and likely behavior in the future?

In an effort to answer these questions, 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 a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Given the election and its aftermath, with President Trump continuing to deny reality and refusing to concede, and the myriad of events as the United States awaits Biden's assumed inauguration in January, how are you feeling?

I think Trump must be thinking about financial stability, the lawsuits that are going to come down the pike. It's also in his interest to claim that he didn't lose so that he can have a group of followers who believe in him, versus a country that is against him for all the deaths he caused and everything else, and because he needs to have people stay in his hotels and buy his steaks and whatever else he's hawking. He'll also need that for public support when he's called into court for all his crimes.

How does someone with Trump's personality and his many emotional and mental pathologies process defeat? Especially defeat on such a grand stage? Do they just create their own universe in their mind and deny reality?

It would be devastating if he allowed it, that's the delusional quality of it. It's always been confusing because Trump doesn't wear tinfoil on his head and think that he's getting messages from Mars, so people think he's not delusional. But he is delusional at the core, because he can never accept reality that is unacceptable for him. Normal people, we all have losses. Trump doesn't have losses. So he denies it. When it comes down to it, if you push him hard enough, which is what has happened, then you see the delusional core of it. It has all the qualities of a delusion.

Donald Trump is the same man he was before he lost to Joe Biden on Election Day. If anything, Trump is now behaving worse. Trump is remarkably dangerous. But as a function of the desperate yearning for normalcy, many people in the news media and the public just want to make fun of him and call him a buffoon. Which may be true, but nonetheless Donald Trump and personalities like him are very dangerous — and they are not going to stop being dangerous because people mock them.

I've objected to saying that he's a clown because that misses the point. Clowns are funny and harmless. He is anything but harmless. If our country's democracy were as weak as Germany's was when Hitler took power, it would have been the end of democracy here as it was in Germany in 1932.

Is Donald Trump more dangerous now than he was before the election? 

As long as he's president, until Jan. 20, he's still dangerous. Once he's out of office, he becomes your average psychopath. He will continue to abuse workers and not pay people, and he will continue to foment as much trouble as he can. The last thing he would want is a successful Biden presidency, so he will try to cause as much trouble as he can. But once he's out of office, I don't think, for example, that he's going to be able to cause riots in the streets. However, until he's out of office, yes. For years, I and others have been worried about his creating a Reichstag incident, a crisis that would give him an excuse to remain in power, or at least leave a warlike situation in Biden's lap. I think those days are still with us.

How successful he will be is not clear to me. There was a real chance that he could have stolen the election by having the Electoral College stacked the way he stacked the Supreme Court. He could still try to ruin the relationship with Iran for Biden, or do almost anything else to make the next presidency look bad.

When someone like Donald Trump is defeated, do they collapse inward, experiencing some type of breakdown? One cannot overlook that Trump believes he is a god. He needs narcissistic fuel. After he is forced from the presidency, will Trump just live in a fantasy world of his own making?

I think that Donald Trump will continue living in fantasyland until the day he dies. His life is about making sure the truth doesn't hit him. I could see him for example going to jail — but then, in his jail cell, claiming that this is more proof of how he's been treated unfairly. His paranoia is never going to go away. It's always somebody else's problem. Trump is not only the innocent victim, he is the saintly victim.

It appears that Donald Trump is not loved by anyone. Based on his public behavior it seems as though there is no one close to him who will tell him, "You're embarrassing yourself! Have some dignity, man!"

I do not believe that Donald Trump loves anybody. To love somebody means to appreciate them as a separate person, for who they are, and for their life to be important to you, separate from your own. That's why people sometimes are willing to die for other people. Trump can't do that. One proof of that is his total absence of loyalty. As soon as somebody challenges him, he says, "You're my enemy." If you are not supporting him, if you are not revolving around him, if you are not part of him in a sense, then you're the enemy. There's no recognition of other people as separate centers of initiative who can be valued. Their only value is what they do for him.

If a person is not capable of loving others, are they capable of having a healthy love for themselves? One would think that a person with healthy self-love would exit the public stage gracefully: "This is done. Let me walk out of here with some dignity."

I do not think that Donald Trump has healthy love for himself. His pathological narcissism indicates an emptiness inside.  It's not that he loves himself; it's that he needs to protect himself against his enemies. His grandiosity is a reflection of needing to be great because there's nothing else there. Healthy self-love means there is something there, and you love the thing that is there: You admire yourself, you like yourself, you have things about yourself that you think are good. Trump doesn't have any of that.

The Washington Post and the New York Times are reporting that Donald Trump is in the midst of a breakdown of sorts. He is despondent, delusional, lashing out, planning revenge. As a mental health professional, how do you make sense of these reports?

There was nothing surprising in them. Trump is a very simple man psychologically. Normal people are complicated. I think anybody who understands him was able to predict this, and can predict the future as well, which is why we're worried. The fact that all he cares about is preserving his own personal power and worth — and his sadism and wish to hurt anyone who challenges him is well-known. What I found actually much more interesting is how the people around him are dealing with that. Many of the Trump supporters have been willing to sacrifice what is right in order to curry favor from Trump and add to their personal power. Now that it's no longer in their personal interest to support him they are jumping off the ship. But leaving now doesn't undo their moral failure. They've already said something indelible about themselves.

How do you think people in the future will make sense of the Age of Trump and all its horrible events? 

The public, especially all those people who are not particularly informed and who can be pushed either way by whatever is the prevailing norm, will come back to what we used to consider "normal" — at least outwardly sharing American ideals about democracy and decency. In my opinion, the new norm will be to say that Donald Trump was a fascist and he almost took over America. What were we thinking? Trump is a wakeup call that Americans are not different from other people and there will always be a substantial number of people in this country who, when feeling "cheated" and "unheard," will fall again for a fascist leader if we do not address the underlying problems of the country.

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.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections Interview Lance Dodes Mental Health Psychology