Dr. John Gartner on Trump and terrorism: "If he can't be president, he will make his force felt"

Former Johns Hopkins professor forecasts "violence in the streets of Washington" — in an interview last week

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 8, 2021 7:00AM (EST)

Police hold back supporters of US President Donald Trump as they gather outside the US Capitol's Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Police hold back supporters of US President Donald Trump as they gather outside the US Capitol's Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, hundreds or perhaps thousands of Donald Trump's terrorists assaulted and overran the U.S. Capitol building. The FBI reports that at least two improvised explosive devices were found in the area.

Trump's mob committed these treasonous and seditious acts of terrorism while the Electoral College votes that would formally make Joe Biden the next president of the United States were being counted.

Some of the pro-Trump political thugs were armed. Others displayed white supremacist regalia and symbols, including the Confederate flag and Nazi slogans. At least one member of Trump's terrorist mob was photographed with plastic zip ties, and may have intended to abduct or "arrest" members of Congress. Trump's mob also placed nooses on mannequins and constructed a mock gallows near the Capitol entrance.

Trump's mob of terrorists also looted and defiled the Capitol building, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and the Senate chambers. Paintings, signs and other memorabilia were vandalized or stolen.

Based on what have seen in Michigan and elsewhere over the last few months — a cabal of Trump's followers plotted to kidnap and likely execute Gretchen Whitmer, that state's Democratic governor — it is entirely likely that some of Trump's terrorists had similar intentions toward targeted members of Congress. Some members of the mob reportedly roamed the Capitol hallways hoping to find Vice President Mike Pence, now seen as a traitor to TrumpWorld even after years of servile loyalty.

The assault on the Capitol building was echoed by Trump's thugs in state capitals and elsewhere across the United States on Wednesday. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (another Republican branded as a traitor by Trump and his followers) was forced to flee the state capitol building. Trumpists also breached the gates surrounding the governor's mansion in Olympia, Washington, and briefly occupied the grounds.  

Make no mistake: Trump's terrorists launched their assault on the Capitol with the encouragement and permission of Trump and other leading Republicans, many of whom — even after Wednesday's outrageous spectacle — continued to do Trump's bidding by trying to nullify the 2020 presidential election. Trump's spokespeople and other agents of chaos, sedition and treason, along with the right-wing news media more generally, have also both explicitly and implicitly encouraged such terrorism.

The assault began after a political "rally" near the White House earlier in the day, when Trump, his eldest son Donald Trump Jr., presidential attorney Rudy Giuliani and others tacitly encouraged political violence and a "trial by combat" to nullify Joe Biden's victory and the will of the American people. Five people died as a result of the ensuing assault on the Capitol. 

Despite numbering 2,300 officers and having a budget of almost half a billion dollars, the Capitol Police did little to stop Trump's invading horde. Video footage also appears to show law enforcement allowing the pro-Trump mob entry into the Capitol building. Some officers even posed for selfies with Trump's terrorists.

Compared to the overwhelming force that was directed at the George Floyd protests and Trump's attempt to use the military against Americans exercising their constitutional right to protest, the response by law enforcement to Wednesday's insurrection was almost nonexistent. Once law enforcement forces regained control of the interior of the Capitol, Trump's invading terrorists — the vast majority of them white — were allowed to leave and go home without being arrested. In all, the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol was treated like the management of a rowdy crowd at a sporting event or concert, rather than a horde of political terrorists who had committed many serious crimes. It is a small miracle that the assault by Trump's forces and the ineffectual response by law enforcement did not result in the murders of members of Congress or their support staff. 

It hardly needs to be said that if Trump's right-wing terrorist mob had been Black or brown, Muslims or antifascists, the Capitol Police and other law enforcement would have used overwhelming and lethal force against them. As on many other occasions, Trumpism and white privilege functioned together on Wednesday as a type of protective shield against personal accountability and responsibility for breaking the law.

Instead of trying to defuse the assault by his terrorist mob, Trump released a video telling the rioters, "We love you. You're very special."

Since Wednesday night, we have heard reports of ongoing discussions among Trump's Cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment and then removing him from office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer have threatened to impeach him a second time — although not enough time remains in his term to carry out that threat. At this writing, Donald Trump remains president of the United States.

While many observers in the news media and elsewhere are treating Wednesday's coup attempt as something unimaginable or shocking, it was highly predictable and not at all surprising. Trump and his allies, as well as many in the Republican Party and the right wing more generally, have publicly announced their intent to overthrow America's multiracial democracy.

Political scientist Paul Musgrave offered this observation at Foreign Policy:

It's undeniable at this point. The United States is witnessing a coup attempt — a forceful effort to seize power against the legal framework. The president has caused the interruption of the process that would certify his removal from office. The mechanics of constitutional government have been suspended. Americans are in danger of losing constitutional government to a degree unmatched even during the Civil War, a period when secession itself did not postpone either the holding of elections or the transition of power between presidents.

The moment we face as Americans, in other words, compares more closely to the August 1991 coup that attempted to remove President Mikhail Gorbachev from the head of the Soviet Union or the 1993 armed standoff between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian legislature.

Yet right up until this moment a chorus of voices was telling us not to worry.

Trump's ongoing coup and other destruction has also been predicted by the country's leading mental health experts. His public behavior is that of a person who is mentally pathological and likely a sociopath or psychopath. Moreover, Trump leads a political cult whose members are willing to kill and die at his command.

Ultimately, because a powerful leader like Trump gives permission and encouragement for antisocial and other anti-human behavior among the masses, he is the literal and symbolic head of a very sick society, a "pathocracy."

Dr. John Gartner is one voice who has been sounding the alarm about Trump's mental health and the danger he poises to the United States and the world. Gartner is a psychologist, psychoanalyst and former professor at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and also the founder of Duty to Warn. He was a contributor to the 2017 bestseller "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President" and is featured in the new documentary "Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump."

In this conversation (which took place several days before Wednesday's events), Gartner was almost eerily prescient, warning that Trump is a type of terrorist who will continue to attack American democracy and the American people in search of vengeance for his defeat in the 2020 Election. Gartner explains that because Donald Trump is a sadist, it remains difficult for the news media and the public to comprehend his behavior and the danger it represents.

At the end of this conversation, Gartner offered a prophetic warning: Trump will encourage massive right-wing violence in the streets of America and there will be bombings and bloodshed caused by his terrorist movement. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How does it feel to be right? You predicted that Donald Trump would be a public menace and existential threat to the country five or so years ago. You have also predicted that he would try to destroy the United States and otherwise sow havoc if he lost the 2020 election.

I felt like some version of Paul Revere, warning that Donald Trump's malignant narcissism is coming. But even for Paul Revere, people would get tired of his warnings. But it seems that we mental health professionals did indeed need to continually remind the public how dangerous Donald Trump truly is.

When I was making predictions that, like Hitler, Trump would engage in a scorched-earth strategy there were people who thought I was being extreme. But at this point it is just a fact. It is happening right now. There is no controversy about it. What we once predicted seemed extreme to many people at the time, but now I hope everybody understands that Trump is a saboteur and that he is trying to destroy our way of life and our democracy.

We could make a list of all of the destructive things that Trump is doing. He is sabotaging the Federal Reserve's ability to respond to financial emergencies. He is also basically fomenting protests in the street. He is fanning the flames of right-wing terrorism and trying to incite people to basically create a civil-war mentality, where people feel like they can engage in acts of sedition and take up arms against the United States government. We see this with the Republican congressmen who feel like they can openly attack democracy. Donald Trump is really trying to destroy the United States at every level.

You warned that Donald Trump would be the greatest bio-terrorist in history because of his negligence and sabotage with regard to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has continued to show his indifference to mass death and suffering in this country. He plays golf while people die. Where is the shock and disgust from the American people? Why was Trump not removed from office for aiding and abetting a type of genocide by way of the pandemic?

I believe in Occam's razor. The simplest explanation is almost always the correct one. The only way to explain how at every stage Trump minimized the dangers of the pandemic, did not take the steps he knew would be helpful to stop it and moreover even did things that encouraged people to spread the virus, is that at some level he was supporting and rooting for the virus.

Donald Trump is actually working as an agent of COVID. He is an agent of chaos. The irony is that he could have ridden the coronavirus to victory. All Trump had to do in order to win re-election was to make a half-hearted attempt to appear that he was making some sort of serious effort to stop the spread of the virus.

But what we must understand about a malignant narcissist is that such personalities would rather tell a lie even when the truth would be sufficient. Such people would rather grift and lie and steal when it would be easier to do an honest day's work. Yes, that is irrationally self-destructive behavior, but malignant narcissists are ultimately always self-destructive. Such people take everyone down with them, which is what Donald Trump is doing. People thought they could ride on Trump's coattails to power and victory and riches. But in the end, it is a deal with the devil.

There is still so much denial about the perilous moment the American people and the world are facing during these last weeks of Trump's presidency. There is this attitude where people default to the belief that Joe Biden will become president and somehow everything will somehow be fine. How do you explain such fanciful thinking?

We do have to worry about the Trumpist cult, which is obviously not going away. In fact, we are going to have a huge spike in right-wing terrorism in this country. There are going to be more incidents such as the Nashville bombing because Trump's cult members are being incited to violence.

Trump's obvious mental pathologies are still largely verboten among the mainstream news media in America. How does that help to normalize the evil of Trump and his movement?

There is a wave of panic, where people start screaming that Trump is actually dangerous and crazy. And then the news media and the public accommodate to that level of dangerousness and craziness from Trump. It is understood and framed as some type of political move or stunt from Trump. The behavior is normalized as people accommodate it. Then there is a new escalation in Trump's behavior and the cycle continues with a new wave of surprise and shock.

All the death from Trump's pandemic has also been normalized as well. The country largely appears numb to mass death at this point.

After Trump's inauguration, I warned that he was a malignant narcissist who would be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. I also warned that Trump would have some form of concentration camps. He did that as well. The American people have gotten used to that fact. Now you turn on the television and there is a death counter in the corner of the screen for the pandemic. We have become desensitized to all the deaths. It really is amazing to think that the United States is having a 9/11 death count every day.

Trump is attracted to violence. He enjoys it. For example, he delights in pardoning war criminals. He and Bill Barr accelerated the executions of death row prisoners — which itself was unprecedented for a lame duck president. He has publicly encouraged violence by his followers against their perceived enemies. Why is Donald Trump so obsessed with violence and death?

If a child tortures animals, then we know that he or she is likely going to be a psychopath for life. He or she is a helpless, broken, damaged and dangerous human being. They are so alien to most people, which is why we underestimate their capacity for harm. We expect them to behave more normally than they do. This is why so many people keep getting fooled by such personalities because those who would never do such things cannot imagine the pleasure that Trump would take in chaos, pain and death. Now Donald Trump is punishing and destroying everyone because he has been fired by the American people. It is the abusive-spouse syndrome. The Republicans are firing Trump because they are not fighting hard enough for his coup. Trump is at least, for him, having the pleasure of burning them and everything else down.

Most people cannot imagine being attracted to and delighting in human suffering. What is going on cognitively with a mind such as Donald Trump's?

For such personalities, the behavior is rooted in dominance, which is a basic primitive drive. If you are torturing a person then you are dominant over them.

Remember, Donald Trump is someone who has been accused of serial rape. What is a rapist? A rapist isn't just someone who likes sex. A rapist is someone who enjoys dominating and harming, terrifying and injuring and destroying another person. That's rape. It is like a hobby for him. There are dozens of women who have accused Donald Trump of sexual assault. In the same way we cannot understand rape or torturing animals, most of us cannot understand why a president would want to burn down the country on their way out the door.

Again, this is where malignant narcissism plays a role. It's the psychopathy and it's the sadism and it's the paranoia and it's the narcissism, all coming together.

Sadism is an important component, because sadism means a person gets off on, enjoys and takes perverse glee and pleasure in causing pain. It is not just that Donald Trump is acting out and being destructive, but that he is actually getting a charge out of it. That is very difficult for someone who is not sick and evil in that way to understand.

Several days ago, Trump released a delusional video in which he claimed that countries around the world are grateful for him saving them from the pandemic. Leaders abroad were calling him to offer thanks. What is happening in his mind when he engages in these fantasies? Is he that mentally ill? Does he actually believe any of what he says?

I have been asked that question often during these last four years. I have to admit it is actually a little bit of a mystery to me. I believe that there are times when Trump is delusional. I think there are other times when he is just gaslighting and lying. And then I think there are other times where he is not even sure. Perhaps he convinces himself. For Trump there is a fluidity between delusion and deception at any one given point in time.

There was a recent op-ed in a prominent newspaper suggesting that Trump will just wilt away and disappear once Biden is president. What is your response to such a claim?

That is wishful thinking. We all have the same wish about Trump. But he has a fanatical following, and he is exploiting them and he's not going to stop doing so. The American people and the world are going to be dealing with Trump, unfortunately, long after Jan. 20.

White House insiders have reported that Trump is raging because he was defeated by Biden. He is lashing out at aides and other people in his inner circle. How do you make sense of Trump and his impulses for revenge?

It is bottomless. The analogy would be the abusive partner who in the end kills his spouse or other partner. Trump is that sick and he is that angry. That is one of his traits. Donald Trump never gives up on revenge. He lives for revenge. That is a function of his paranoia: He always feels persecuted and therefore entitled to revenge.

Where does he direct those energies?

Trump seems to be going more and more towards the most extreme right wing. Now Fox News is not right-wing enough for him. He is now focused on Newsmax and OAN. He is going to gravitate towards his hardcore right-wing supporters because there he can manipulate the message more easily. But I'm sure Fox will also continue to oblige.

Trump's going to foment violence. There will be a wave of right-wing terrorism. Trump is whipping up a paramilitary movement. And again, we are going to be desensitized to that as well, to some extent.

I believe Trump will be a type of shadow president and attempt to rule over the country from afar, via his cultists and perhaps even his own TV network. What do you think Trump does on Inauguration Day and beyond?

Donald Trump will try to spoil Joe Biden's inauguration one way or another, as you said. Perhaps there will be counter-programming, which may take the form of Trump claiming that he is the "real president." Trump may have a type of protest inauguration where he announces a presidential run in 2024. Trump is going to do everything he can to be disruptive.

Why are Trump's supporters and other cult members so devoted to him? What about him inspires their willingness to commit acts of violence on his behalf?

These demagogues basically tap into the very primitive prehuman programming in the limbic part of the brain. This is the feeling of "us versus them," the in-group and out-group competition. What these demagogues do is that they take an integrated society and fracture it. We saw this in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Nazi Germany. These types of leaders make the ethnic majority feel as if they are somehow under threat or being persecuted by an ethnic minority. Therefore, radical steps need to taken to protect themselves from imagined annihilation.

You are going to revere the leader who you think is standing between you and the annihilation of your group. Clearly, Trump's movement is a white power movement. These are people who feel like their grasp on power is slipping away because of the browning of America and because the country is getting younger. The demagogues tap into that anxiety and make it real. Trump does this. As we see in history, a society goes from whatever the bias was against Jews in Germany to death camps.

What do you want the American people to prepare for in these final weeks?

I believe that there will be violence in the streets. There will be violence in the streets of Washington. Trump is encouraging it. Donald Trump and the Republican Party are radicalizing right-wing white terrorists. There will be bombs, there will be guns, there will be deaths.

Donald Trump is a terrorist. If he can't be president, then he will make his force felt through terrorism.

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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