Trials and triggers: Psychiatrists warn Trump's psychosis will grow "as he becomes more desperate"

"Trump's behavior is worse now but that's only because we're seeing a peeling away of his façade"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 1, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump appears in court at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on April 4, 2023. (STEVEN HIRSCH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump appears in court at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on April 4, 2023. (STEVEN HIRSCH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump, the traitor ex-president who attempted a coup on Jan. 6, a confirmed sex predator, an indicted felon who has been arrested for his alleged crimes, a white supremacist, an enemy of democracy and the humane society, a man who behaves as though he is a sociopath if not a full-on psychopath, a criminal mastermind, and presumed Republican 2024 presidential nominee made the following pronouncement via his Truth Social disinformation platform in "honor" of Memorial Day on Monday:


While too many among the American news media have convinced themselves – incorrectly – that repeatedly listing Trump's many crimes and other horrible behavior is "counter-productive" and "unnecessary" because "everyone knows it already," it remains critically important to continue to do so. Why? One of the main ways that fascism and authoritarianism and other anti-democracy movements take hold in a society is through normalization.

In total, the mainstream news media, political class, and the American people have, for various reasons, become largely numb to the aberrant, anti-human and generally pathological behavior of Donald Trump and the larger Republican fascist and MAGA movement. Moreover, in the case of the mainstream news media (see CNN's recent Trump "town hall" special), as an institution it has largely decided that Donald Trump and his 2024 presidential campaign and legions of MAGAites are too good for business to be condemned and then subsequently treated as the existential threat to American democracy they actually are.

As such, the denial, normalization, hope-peddling and wish-casting and the other obsolete and dangerous habits and norms (bothsidesism, fairness, neutrality, balance, objectivity, access journalism, etc.) that helped to normalize Donald Trump in 2016 are being committed again.

"There is a through-line that fuels the inner Trump. Though his words seem to tumble out spontaneously, their essence is consistent: He is a racist and a xenophobe."

To make these errors again, after seven years of experience, is a choice.

So how should the American news media be covering Donald Trump and his 2024 campaign?

In a time of democracy crisis, the news media should be (even more) speaking truth to power by holding elected officials and other elites accountable, engaging in bold truth-telling, consistently sounding the alarm about the many threats facing American democracy, and then explaining to the public what they should know about them. The news media should also be explaining to the public how the various policies advocated for and put in place by the country's political leaders are directly impacting their day-to-day lives.

A critically important new article at The Washington Post, "The deepening radicalization of Donald J. Trump," takes on this task by thoroughly documenting how the traitor ex-president has spiraled, becoming even more extreme and dangerous in his threats and behavior as the 2024 Election approaches.

The Washington Post begins:

Now, as Trump seeks to return to the White House, he speaks of Jan. 6 as "a beautiful day." He says there was no reason for police to shoot the rioter attempting to break into the House chamber, and he denies there was any danger to his vice president, Mike Pence, who was hiding from a pro-Trump mob chanting for him to be hanged. He has promised to pardon many rioters if he becomes president again.

On this and a host of subjects, from sexual assault to foreign and domestic policy, Trump's positions have become even more extreme, his tone more confrontational, his accounts less tethered to reality, according to a Washington Post review of Trump's speeches and interviews with former aides. Where he was at times ambiguous or equivocal, he's now brazenly defiant.

The Post continues:

The hardening of Trump's stances comes as he has been operating for more than two years without the official apparatus of the White House, putting fewer gatekeepers and layers of review between him and the public. It also follows a long list of grievances he has accumulated from his eight years in politics.

To experts who have reviewed his proposals, Trump is sketching out the contours of a second term potentially more dangerous and chaotic than his first. Critics across the political spectrum have voiced alarm at his increasingly menacing rhetoric. But Trump's most loyal supporters have relished his combative speeches and followed him in espousing harsher stances.

"When authoritarian leaders lose office, they come back, like, 10 times worse — they never get less extreme, they always get more extreme," Ben-Ghiat said. "January 6 was a profoundly radicalizing event for the base, for the GOP and for Trump himself, because even assaulting the Capitol you could get away with. His campaign events have to be seen as that of an extremist radicalizing people and emotionally reeducating people to hate people."…

For all its strengths, however, this new reporting by The Washington Post continues with the same dangerous choice(s) that has plagued and undermined the mainstream news media's ability to accurately and effectively communicate to the public the extreme dangers to American society and democracy embodied by Donald Trump and the Republican fascists and larger MAGA movement: No mental health experts were quoted or otherwise featured in the text of the article.

"Trump's behavior is worse now but that's only because we're seeing a peeling away of his façade as he becomes more desperate."

Trumpism, like other forms of fascism, is first and foremost an example of collective pathology and other maladaptive behavior on a societal scale. Mental health professionals have the training to explain and diagnose such behavior, as manifest by both individuals and on the collective level. 

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As an intervention against this consistent failing by the mainstream news media, I asked two of America's leading mental health professionals, Dr. Lance Dodes and Dr. Justin Frank, for their insights about The Washington Post's new profile of Donald Trump's increasingly dangerous behavior.

Dr. Justin Frank, who is the author of the book "Trump on the Couch", said this:

The Washington Post article, "The deepening radicalization of Donald J. Trump" is mistitled. I would call it, "The deepening recognition of the real Donald J. Trump." Trump is best described in the article by his former advisor, John Kelly, who said, "There is no compass. What is right today is not necessarily tomorrow."

From a psychoanalytic perspective, Trump manages his chronic, massive anxiety by searching for certainty in the moment. Kelly is right:  Trump is always situational. But his divisive, dangerous rhetoric is the same old story.

There is a through-line that fuels the inner Trump. Though his words seem to tumble out spontaneously, their essence is consistent: He is a racist and a xenophobe. Just one week after his 2017 inauguration, he released an executive order to protect America from "foreign terrorist entry into the United States," unleashing mass protests at airports nationwide. To keep the peace in that moment, he modified his language. But make no mistake, that ban was the real Trump speaking loud and clear. We heard it in his position on the Central Park Five in 1989 and decades earlier when he and his father systematically refused to rent apartments to Blacks.

Today's unhinged, amplified, unencumbered by minimal guardrails Donald J. Trump may seem more radical than ever. But he is the same as he's always been; even more so. It's said that once people reach the age of 70, their only change is to become more the way they are. So it is with Trump. Though the media refuses to call him a demagogue, that is what he is, plain and simple. Each day more people are taking notice, though apparently not yet enough to put him in jail for inciting the insurrection attempt on January 6, 2021.

Dr. Lance Dodes, who 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, shared the following insights with me via email:

When a person has a chronic illness, we all know to expect recurrence of symptoms of that problem. Donald Trump is a permanent, chronic psychopath who has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to be empathic with other human beings, a frightening need to dominate, control and destroy others, an inability to tolerate criticism or accept any defeat, an utter disregard for facts and the truth, endless lying, and clear delusions, insisting things are true that are demonstrably and unquestionably false. As with other permanent conditions, these aspects of his psychopathic personality will not change.

Trump's behavior is worse now but that's only because we're seeing a peeling away of his façade as he becomes more desperate; his actions and speech will continue to show more of what he really is. He's already saying he will call out the National Guard to suppress dissent, as dictators have done forever, and it would be no surprise if eventually, like Saddam Hussein when he was finally put on trial, he shouts that he is the one true ruler and any effort to hold him accountable is illegal and immoral.

Unfortunately, nations being taken over by psychopathic dictators is common in human history. It happened in Germany, in Iraq, in Russia, and for centuries earlier all over the globe. It could certainly happen to us unless enough people recognize that Trump is psychologically just another Hitler, Stalin, Saddam or the other malignant tyrants throughout history.

The picture is clear: As the 2024 presidential campaign begins in earnest, Donald Trump will become more dangerous, violent, threatening, unhinged, and his true horrible self, further unmasked and unleashed if such a thing is even possible.

Unfortunately, because of its horse race coverage and other failed norms and approaches to the news and politics in a time of democracy crisis and ascendant neofascism, the American news media will continue with its failed fixations on the "heroes" and "villains" and "winners and losers" of the week, month, and election cycle. In practice, this means that the American mainstream news media will desperately try to find a "normal" Republican character to juxtapose with Donald Trump's increasing extremism and radical threats to American society and democracy.

As of now, the mainstream news media has decided that the more "reasonable" and "sane" and "traditional" Republican is Gov. Ron DeSantis. In reality, DeSantis is as least if not more dangerous than Donald Trump. Both are neofascists who want to destroy America's multiracial pluralistic society. The choice between them is a false one because the outcome will be the same: the American people will be made to suffer even more as the fascist fever dream nightmare and its culture of cruelty takes hold even more and threatens to become permanent.

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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