Dr. John Gartner on America after Trump: "Dystopian science fiction ... is actually happening"

Former Johns Hopkins professor on the aftermath of Trump's coup — and whether he was a Russian stooge after all

By Chauncey DeVega
Published July 19, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's regime continues to reveal its "secrets." But these are largely confirmations of what was both publicly and privately known for years about Trump and his allies' perfidious and despicable conduct, disregard for human life, and scheming against American democracy.  

New reporting has confirmed what was long predicted: Trump was willing to do anything to stay in power after being defeated in the 2020 election, up to and including ordering the U.S. military to turn against the American people.

As detailed in the new book "I Alone Can Fix It" by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along other high-ranking military leaders, feared Trump as a potential Hitler and saw the potential for a "Reichstag fire" incident. Milley reportedly expressed concern in private that Trump would command his neofascist followers, both within and outside the government, to support a coup attempt and otherwise create chaos and violence.

Perhaps most worrisome, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others at the highest levels of government were concerned that Donald Trump would use nuclear weapons in an act of spite, perhaps to create a global disaster that would permit him to remain in power indefinitely.

If Trump had successfully ordered the United States military to keep him in power by usurping the will of the American people, the result could well have been a second American Civil War. The nation was saved from such an outcome, at least for the moment, through good fortune and the choices of a few real patriots such as Gen. Milley and his allies.

Unfortunately, Trumpism was not routed or finally defeated, and the Trump coup is ongoing. Trump remains in firm control of the Republican Party. At least 30 percent of the American people have been seduced by the Big Lie that the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.

The Jim Crow Republicans are escalating their war on multiracial democracy by proposing laws in numerous states designed to stop Black and brown people and others who support the Democratic Party from voting. The end goal of this anti-democratic campaign is to turn the United States into a plutocratic theocratic fascist state where dissent is not allowed and the Trump-Republican Party rules uncontested.

In a recent interview on MSNBC, historian Timothy Snyder, author of the bestselling book "On Tyranny," described this state of peril: "A failed coup is practice for a successful coup. ... We're now working within the framework of a Big Lie ... so long as we're in that framework of a Big Lie, we can expect one of the parties to try to rig the system."

Like other fascist and fake populist movements, Trumpism draws its power and a type of life force from the slavish loyalty of Trump's followers. Normal politics is fundamentally ill-equipped to grapple with fascism and its commands to ignore reality in deference to the Great Leader, the elevation of that leader into a type of God and extension of the self, and its collective celebration of narcissism and other anti-social behavior including violence and hatred. Ultimately, Trumpism is a cult movement: If Trump and other leaders are the brain and the arms, Trump's followers serve as a hammer meant to smash multiracial democracy.

At the Washington Post, Michael Bender, author of the new book "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost," writes about his interactions with Trump's followers.

They were mostly older White men and women who lived paycheck to paycheck with plenty of time on their hands — retired or close to it, estranged from their families or otherwise without children — and Trump had, in a surprising way, made their lives richer. ...

In Trump, they'd found someone whose endless thirst for a fight encouraged them to speak up for themselves, not just in politics but also in relationships and at work. His rallies turned arenas into modern-day tent revivals, where the preacher and the parishioners engaged in an adrenaline-fueled psychic cleansing brought on by chanting and cheering with 15,000 other like-minded loyalists. Saundra Kiczenski, a 56-year-old from Michigan, compared the energy at a Trump rally to the feelings she had as a teenager in 1980 watching the "Miracle on Ice" — when the U.S. Olympic hockey team unexpectedly beat the Soviet Union. ...

Kiczenski was in Washington with friends for the Jan. 6 rally. She was convinced beyond a doubt that Trump had been reelected on Nov. 3, only to have his victory stolen in what she described as "a takeover by the communist devils." She said she believed that, in part, because she had crossed paths with Corey Lewandowski, a well-known and ubiquitous Trump adviser, in the Trump International Hotel the previous summer. Lewandowski told her, she said, that the only way Trump could lose was if there was massive election fraud.

"If someone put a gun to my head and said: 'Did Donald Trump win, yes or no? And if you're wrong, we're going to shoot your head off!' I would say yes," Kiczenski told me. "I'm that confident that this stuff is not made up."

Since at least 2015, many of the country's leading mental health experts warned that Donald Trump was psychologically unstable if not sociopathic or psychopathic, that his movement constituted a cult, and if elected he would bring mass death and human suffering to the United States. These mental health professionals (and others who shared similar concerns) were demeaned as "hysterical" or accused of "Trump derangement syndrome." Many were cautioned to be silent for violating the obsolete and misunderstood "Goldwater rule," which held that mental health professionals are not to warn the public about obviously dangerous people if they have not examined them in person.

Dr. John Gartner is one such voice. He 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 was featured in the recent documentary "Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump."

In our most recent conversation, Gartner reflects on the uncanny accuracy of his predictions that Donald Trump would unleash death, destruction and mayhem on the United States if elected president. He also explains how the pathological knot of control between Trump and his followers continues to hold because of the deposed president's unique "gift" of being able to stimulate the most primitive and violent parts of the human mind. Gartner reflects on the events of Jan. 6, and discusses why Trump's attack force was so excited and aroused by the violence of that day. 

How does it feel to have been right about Donald Trump and all the destruction he has caused? Few people heeded your warnings.

The first word that comes to mind is "exhausting." This has been a long war. We keep thinking that we're going to wake up from this nightmare and we never do.

Why are Trump's followers and other neofascists still energized so right now? On the other hand, it appears the so-called resistance has had its will broken.

Some people's minds are organized in a more primitive way. Such people are more action-oriented, as opposed to being thought-oriented. The primitive-minded do not reflect, they don't consider, they don't create. They live in a world which is black and white. In such a mindset they are threatened by "bad people" and therefore must respond aggressively to protect "the homeland." People whose minds are organized in a more primitive way are essentially on a permanent war footing. Compared to other people, that is actually a type of advantage in terms of raw aggression.

Trumpists and other neofascists are engaged in an existential battle. They are fighting a life-and-death struggle, and will not stop until they win. A person who is committed to "normal" politics and the old ways of "consensus" and "bipartisanship," and who believes that somehow things will always turn out fine because of "the institutions" is not able to understand the peril the country is facing.

For these people it is not situational: it is a type of fundamental orientation. People who are organized at this more primitive level are fundamentally angry people. They are also fundamentally paranoid people, and ethnocentric. People who are organized at this more primitive level, who are closer to their evolutionary roots, have a program that a demagogue can activate.

Reviewing all the predictions that you made regarding the Age of Trump, what is the one you wish people had taken more seriously?

Even the people who believed us about the nature of Trump's psychopathology did not believe our warnings about how far he would go. Trump was so deviant from everything that we have ever experienced in America from a president. I remember saying, "He's going to form concentration camps. He will do that." When I was comparing Trump to Hitler, one of the things that people said was, "Oh, come on, you're going too far."

I was wrong about Trump starting a war. I am grateful to be wrong on that prediction. But what I did not realize then was that Trump would engage in germ warfare. I did believe that Donald Trump was going to kill hundreds of thousands of people, and he has. With COVID-19, Trump has killed more than 600,000 people.

Why are so many Americans still surprised by these "revelations" about Trump's wrongdoing as president? Based on his public behavior and what we already knew about him, none of this is a surprise at all. 

In a way, we as a society have been so protected and privileged, and lived such a life of peace and sanity, that we don't believe that the dystopian science fiction that we are living today in America is actually happening. There's a certain default option of normality. Nobody wants to give up that default assumption that we are still living in a world of facts and sanity.

How do you assess the events of Jan. 6, with the attack on the Capitol and Trump's attempted coup?

The four traits of malignant narcissism that I've emphasized in my discussions and warnings about Trump and this era are narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personality disorder and sadism. The one trait that is the most important, and the least recognized, is sadism. On Jan. 6, during that attack on the Capitol, there was a sense of carnival for Trump's mob. These people were having fun. There was a weird manic joy, a kind of euphoria, pleasure and excitement at harming other people.

Trump is a sadist, but he's also arousing and tapping into the sadism in his right-wing authoritarian followers. He liberates a level of aggressive energy because one of the beliefs of the right-wing extremist is that aggression should be used for dominance and to enforce conformity and submission. And so aggression is sexualized and celebrated. Freud said there were two kinds of energy, sexual and aggressive. So when you liberate aggressive energy, it's euphoric, elating, you feel alive. So these people felt more alive on Jan. 6 than any other day of their lives.

How does Trump transmit this violence to his followers?

They are already primed for it. Trump just encourages it. The interaction between Trump and the followers creates a whole new state of being. It is almost as if Trump's followers are sleeper cells waiting to be activated by him or some other similarly inclined leader.

How do you explain the connections between the Big Lie, Q-Anon and conspiracy theories more generally?

Noted psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton developed the concept of "malignant normality." This explains how a malignantly narcissistic leader can change the reality of the society so that people actually believe the Big Lie or other propaganda. It becomes the new conventional wisdom.

Right-wing authoritarians are fundamentally paranoid. Their paranoia functions such that everything that is "bad" is projected outward. It is like a mirror reality for them. Using the Republican Party as an example, they use projection to gaslight: "Whatever I am doing, I will accuse you of doing." Joseph Goebbels said much the same thing: "Accuse them of whatever you're doing."

For the psychopaths at the top who are perpetrating these things, it is not an unconscious psychological process. Instead, it is an intentional strategy. The people who are vulnerable to such a tactic exist in a social context where they live in a bubble of information. They also have personalities ready to believe any paranoid conspiracy theory. It's fundamental to their personality to believe that other bad people are doing crazy things that need to be defended against, and there's really no limit to what those bad people could be doing or what theories you could have about them — especially if you and your group are doing some of those bad things.

I receive many emails and other messages from people who are upset when I issue warnings about Trumpists, Republicans and the white right and their collective commitment to using terrorism and other forms of violence to achieve their goals. Trump's followers are willing to kill and die for him and his movement. What would you tell such people who, even now, are still in deep denial about the reality of the crisis facing the United States?

They are very serious about hurting people. They are very serious about criminalizing resistance to their fascistic one-party rule over the country.

The new book by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reveals that during the final days of the Trump regime the highest levels of the military were preparing to disobey Trump's orders in order to save the country's democracy from a coup. They were worried that Trump was behaving like Hitler and could be capable of starting a nuclear war. The Guardian also obtained a document, supposedly from a secret meeting held at the Kremlin, suggesting that Trump was the chosen candidate of Russian leaders because they concluded he was mentally unstable and would be easy to manipulate. I'm wondering how you feel about these apparent confirmations of your warnings?

It's ironic that we were so severely criticized for diagnosing Trump as a malignant narcissist, when it was precisely this diagnosis that proved to the best predictor of his most dangerous behavior. Diagnosis was destiny. If we really allowed ourselves to consider the implications of a leader being this ill, we could have done more to protect ourselves. This would have included invoking the 25th Amendment, which we later learned was widely discussed within his administration.

For example, malignant narcissists don't peacefully transfer power. Period. That's why we warned back in 2017 that there was a high risk that he would initiate a coup or start a war, maybe even a nuclear war, to stay in power. Recent revelations from "Only I Can Fix It" show that both warnings should have been taken more seriously. Gen. Milley felt compelled to take steps to block a coup, and Nancy Pelosi called him to demand a promise that he would not allow "an unstable president" to use the nation's nuclear arsenal.

This [alleged Kremlin document] also validates our contention that Trump is the real-life "Manchurian Candidate," which many have known for a long time. What's new is that his mental instability was a feature, not a bug, for Vladimir Putin, who assessed Trump as an "impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex" and whose election would lead "lead to the destabilization of the U.S. sociopolitical system." This gives new meaning to psychological warfare. A Russian stooge as president is unthinkable enough, but a a mentally unstable one could bring the whole country down. The result has been to cripple us. We are almost incapable of shared reality-based thinking and collective action in our national interest on almost anything, including areas that always rallied the nation, like public health and national defense.

If Donald Trump somehow returns to office, either by election or through a successful coup, what will happen?

I believe it will make "The Handmaid's Tale" look like a vacation.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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