INTERVIEW

Dr. Mark Goulston on why Democrats keep losing: They're afraid of their own anger

Psychiatrist Mark Goulston says Democrats are traumatized and eager to hide their rage. To win, they will need it

Published July 11, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In a series of recent decisions that have taken away women's reproductive rights and freedoms, given guns more protection than human lives, neutered the federal government's power to protect the environment in a moment of global climate disaster and further dissolved the separation of church and state, the radical right-wing justices on the Supreme Court are attempting to force American society back to the Gilded Age if not before.

As a practical matter, the new-old America that the Supreme Court is serving as a wicked midwife for will be a society where women, Black and brown people, gays and lesbians, and other marginalized groups will have their basic civil and human rights greatly reduced, if not stripped away altogether.

This is a judicial coup by a nakedly partisan institution that is publicly collaborating with the Republican-fascist movement to end America's multiracial, pluralist democracy. To this point, the response of Democratic leaders, including President Biden, has been pathetically, pitiably, embarrassingly weak.

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Shortly after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Dobbs case that reversed the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, House Democrats responded by singing "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps.

Two weeks later, the Biden administration finally responded to the court's evisceration of reproductive rights and freedoms by issuing an executive order that enhances some protections for women seeking reproductive health services as well as their medical providers. The executive order is intended to "protect access to medication abortion," emergency medical care for pregnant people and contraception. It mandates both the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services to defend the rights of women who need to travel across state lines to access reproductive health care and to ensure that those who experience pregnancy-related medical emergencies can access the care they need, no matter where they are in the country.

It had been clear for at least two months how the Supreme Court would rule in the Dobbs case; nothing about this decision came as a surprise. Yet for some reason, the Biden administration took two weeks to respond. When it finally did so, as Claire Lampen writes at the Cut, Biden's response was wholly insufficient to the challenge. Republicans are openly pursuing "new laws that penalize not just providers but also patients, opening them up to surveillance by their neighbors ... and by data brokers," Lampen notes, as in Missouri's attempt "to incentivize private citizens to report people they suspect of crossing state lines" to terminate a pregnancy. Some legislators have already "proposed criminally charging patients directly," and sincerely intend to "pass a federal abortion ban, reconsider gay marriage, scrap the right to birth control."

Joe Biden continues to oppose expanding the Supreme Court in order to neutralize its radical right-wing justices, and has declined to explore allowing access to abortion and other reproductive health services on federal land, including military bases. He now says he supports a Senate filibuster "carve-out" on the issue of reproductive rights, but has done nothing to make that happen. In a statement to the Washington Post on Saturday, the Biden administration even suggested that those who want a more robust defense of women's reproductive rights and freedoms are "out of step" with "the mainstream of the Democratic Party."

Have today's Democrats forgotten how to fight? Or are they refusing to do so because too many of them are beholden to the same moneyed interests that also back the Republican-fascists and the "conservative" movement? Whatever the explanation, at a moment when America desperately needs spirited defenders of democracy, the Democratic Party's leaders are acting demoralized, with little fighting spirit.

In a recent essay at Medium, Dr. Mark Goulston, a leading psychiatrist, former FBI hostage negotiation trainer and the author of the bestsellers "Just Listen" and "Talking to 'Crazy,'" offers a provocative explanation for the Democratic Party's weakness. He argues that Democrats are "highly conflict avoidant" and that such a temperament has made them "mincemeat to the vast majority of the GOP who is allegiant to Donald Trump."

In my recent conversation with Goulston, he expanded on this analysis, arguing that Democrats keep losing to the Republicans because they refuse to speak passionately, clearly and in declarative terms to the American people. He warns that Republicans, especially Trump loyalists, are bullies who embrace and welcome conflict, and that Democrats do not fight back effectively because they refuse to acknowledge the reality that bullies must be confronted and cannot be negotiated with or defeated with rational arguments. Goulston further explains that Trump's followers remain loyal to him precisely because of his antisocial and anti-human behavior, not despite it.

Goulston also explains that many members of America's political class and the news media are naive or in denial about the nature of human evil, and therefore continue to express shock and surprise at each new revelation about the obvious crimes of the Trump regime. At the end of this conversation Goulston shares the advice he would give to Biden and other Democratic leaders about how to break their pattern of self-defeating behavior and formulate a winning plan to defeat the Republicans and preserve American democracy.  

American society is experiencing multiple crises at once. Democracy is in crisis, and fascism is in the ascendancy.  The pandemic has killed more than a million people in this country. There is extreme social inequality. There are mass shootings. The country is in a state of perennial grief and mourning but with no real catharsis or reckoning. It feels like America is on the verge of self-destruction, a form of societal and political suicide. How are you making sense of all this?

What you are describing is not just one moment of "suicidality." There are actually several moments or a prolonged period of time where people who feel suicidal form psychological adhesions to death as a way to take away their pain. It's not a psychological attachment, because a person can reason through that. A psychological adhesion is different: A person tucks that in their back pocket, so to speak. When you get slightly past the impulse, you reassure everybody: "I'm fine." But in your back pocket is this option, this exit strategy, this permanent solution to a temporary problem that you can always exercise if things get really bad. People don't talk about it because they don't want to scare others.

People who are depressed and suicidal feel helpless, powerless, useless, worthless, meaningless and purposeless. It appears pointless to go on. We are seeing this on a societal level.

People who are really depressed and suicidal feel despair at the end. If you break down the word despair, it means "unpaired." Unpaired with the future, hopeless. Unpaired with the ability to get out of the challenging situation. You feel helpless, powerless, useless, worthless, meaningless and purposeless. When those feelings are all lined up like some dark one-armed slot machine, it appears pointless to go on. Death is viewed as a way to take the pain away. We are seeing this on a societal level.

America is also in the midst of a moral crisis. Fascism is a form of evil. What Trumpism has wrought and encouraged is fundamentally evil, yet the country's leaders and the larger political and news media class appear terrified of using the appropriate moral language.

It is important to identify evil at the earliest opportunity and then to stop it. You have to confront and stop evil in order to protect the people that you care about. You also need to identify evil in order to escape it. Most people we encounter are not evil. We are lucky in that way. But evil people do in fact exist. Denial of that fact is not healthy.

As a clinician, when you look at Donald Trump and his followers, what do you see?

The people that have trouble with conflict are not bullies. Bullies like to stir up conflict. Such people can get the best of us not only through their bullying behavior but also through their whining and excuse-making behavior. They can outrage us with their behavior. But if we are the type of person who is uncomfortable becoming enraged, then we will do everything we can to suppress our desire to confront that bully, to fight back, to stand up to them in a strong way.


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As soon as the bully sees that we are restraining ourselves, then they push us harder from being outraged to turning that anger inward through a dynamic I call "in-rage." Most people are so uncomfortable with their anger and rage they use almost all their energy to keep a lid on their feelings. Many Democrats, and other rational-minded people more generally, believe in respectful discourse. Those feelings of rage, and how the bully behaves, neuters and neutralizes them.

Here is how to confront a bully. Step one, identify those bullies in your life. Step two, never expect them to act differently when you talk with them. Never expect them to be decent because that's not who they are. Step three, always hold a bit of yourself back so that you're not off balance if the bully tries to provoke you. Finally, when the bully tries to provoke you, look clearly in their eyes. Stare at them firmly.

Don't try to intimidate them, but hold their gaze. By doing that you are communicating to the bully: "You know and I know what you just did — and it didn't work." When you communicate that in a measured way, the bully is going to get more agitated. You can then try to engage the bully in a reasonable way or decide to disengage. Tell the bully, "If what you have to say is important, you need to talk to me instead of at me." You just hold your ground from there.

Why are so many members of America's political class and the mainstream media repeatedly "shocked" and "stunned" by Donald Trump's antisocial and anti-human behavior? This is a common reaction to the "revelations" about Jan. 6 and the violence at the Capitol, including Trump wishing death on Mike Pence. Trump has behaved this way for most if not all of his public life. If a person keeps being shocked by obvious behavior, what does that reveal about their personality defects? Are they really shocked, or are they just pretending?

The reason they're shocked is because a person cannot be partially sociopathic or narcissistic. It's a slippery road when you allow sociopaths or narcissists to ride over you unchecked. The denial, and giving such people the benefit of the doubt, just encourages them. 

People on the left are afraid to acknowledge the dark parts of their personalities, such as anger and rage. Therefore, they deny to themselves that Donald Trump and other sociopaths and narcissists are dangerous.

People on the left, the Democrats especially, are also afraid to acknowledge the dark parts of their personalities, such as anger and rage. Such feelings fill them with shame. Therefore, they deny to themselves that Donald Trump and other such sociopaths and narcissists are so dangerous. Leading Democrats such as Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi need to learn to talk to the public in a very authoritative way. They smile and talk so rationally. They need to show some emotion and passion.

One of the reasons I believe Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton is that Donald Trump was declarative, and Hillary was explanatory. Hillary Clinton was showing the American people that she was really prepared for the responsibilities of being president of the United States. In an effort to be convincing, she wasn't compelling. Donald Trump was declarative, which meant you knew where he stood. You might not have agreed with him. But Trump was able to hook his base precisely because of how declarative he was, and is, in his speech.

Trump was also being a type of role model for his followers. He showed them that you don't have to sit on your anger and suppress it. You can act on it. Why keep in all that built-up frustration? Trump told his followers, "Let's go get even with whoever's bothering us! Join me, because we could all shoot someone in Times Square and still get elected! Hey, it's fun!"

Ultimately, Trump appeared on the stage and let the genie out of the bottle as a role model for unsuppressed and unrepressed thoughts and feelings. Many Americans of a certain background and political orientation who have a buildup of frustration and anger psychologically adhered themselves to Donald Trump. This is not a mere attachment. It is a psychological adhesion, which explains why they remain so loyal to him.

When the Supreme Court announced that it was taking away women's reproductive rights and freedoms, leading Democrats went outside on the Capitol steps and started singing. Nancy Pelosi read a poem. It was one of the most pathetic things I've ever seen. How do the Democratic Party's leaders see the world? Why would they default to that kind of pitiful behavior and think that's how you fight back against a bully?

Maybe they were singing to keep themselves from forcefully responding to the Republicans. They were trying to suppress their rage. It may also be that those Democrats were singing hymns to calm themselves down because they were being triggered, and they realized that it is dangerous to escalate with a sociopath or narcissist.

The latter are much more comfortable going off the cliff than most people are. They're going to push you to the limits of what you can tolerate emotionally. A sociopath or narcissist is not afraid of being outrageous. If it is your nature to be uncomfortable with becoming enraged, you're going to want to steer away from those feelings.

By comparison, the Republicans and Trump's other followers love becoming outraged. They use a vocabulary full of rageful words. They love that Trump is disrespectful to others, that he calls his enemies and people he dislikes names. Trump is getting his feelings off of his chest. His followers love that. Meanwhile, the Democrats just repress and suppress their dark feelings.

What do the Republicans and the larger right-wing movement understand about emotion that the Democrats do not?

Many Republicans, especially the likes of a Ted Cruz or Mitch McConnell, don't care about contradicting themselves. To them, it doesn't matter what they say. They're aligning themselves with who they perceive to be the person in power — in this case, Donald Trump — because they don't want to trigger his ire and they don't want to lose their own followers.

I'm guessing that a lot of the Republicans were raised by decent parents, and at least when they were children they were taught that certain values and ethics and morality were important. But being a politician became more important than those values. "Politician" became the core identity that supersedes other things.

In your recent article at Medium, you described the Democrats as being "highly conflict avoidant," and said that they deal with conflict in an unhealthy way, which helps explain why the Republicans and Trumpists are rolling over them. How does this unhealthy behavior manifest itself on a day-to-day basis?

They are hiding their legitimate outrage and other feelings under a mask of civility. They appear neutered in the eyes of the public because they are not expressing healthy, aggressive feelings. When someone who is neutered goes up against someone who is outrageous in their behavior, the neutered person loses.

If you had the opportunity to speak with President Biden in private what would you say to him?

I would ask him, "What is really going on?" I would keep pushing him on this question to get at the real answer. At some point Biden would say, "I'm a decent person but I am really angry at Trump and want him to get his comeuppance." Biden could never say that in public because it would be taken out of context.

Today's Democrats appear to be obsessed with compromise and finding an acceptable middle ground with the Republicans. But the Republicans only care about winning and power and are now openly willing to embrace fascism, political violence, white supremacy and other anti-democratic and anti-human values. In essence, this is an abusive relationship on a national scale — and the Democrats are content to keep being abused. How can they break this cycle?

If I was consulting for the Democratic Party's leadership, I would ask them, "What is your desired outcome?" They might say, "Well, the desired outcome is that we find a way to get the Republicans and Trump to listen to reason and that would in turn break their cult."

I would continue by asking them, "What's the specific approach that you're taking that you believe will get Trump's followers away from his cult?" I would continue pushing them by asking, "Do you actually believe that what you just said would work?"

I would get the Democrats to agree that their current approach is flawed and doomed to failure. Perhaps that would help them open up and admit that they don't know what else to do.

I would get the Democrats to agree that their current approach is flawed and doomed to failure. Perhaps that would help them open up and admit that they don't know what else to do. I would continue pressing them by asking, "What has been your success rate these last four or so years?" In that moment, perhaps the Democratic Party's leadership could have some type of realization or epiphany and come up with a better plan.

You can't convince another person of their flawed approach to decision-making or life more generally. You have to get them to a point of self-discovery. Brainstorming with them is helpful too. "Good, now you're being open. Let's be open and see what might work. What do we know about these other kinds of personalities? What do we know about bullies?"

The Democratic Party's leaders need to have a moment where they realize: "We have to find a way to sound really angry, pissed off and insulted by Donald Trump and his followers. We have to do it a way so that whoever watches us knows that we're pissed off in no uncertain terms. We can't act like we are trying to sugarcoat our anger." That is how the Democrats can start to win.

Read more on Donald Trump and America's mental health:


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics 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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