"Trump derangement syndrome": Hush-money trial suggests it was MAGA projection all along

Michael Cohen testifies about "the cult of Donald Trump" — while Republicans in matching outfits flock to the court

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer
Published May 16, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)
Updated May 16, 2024 10:06AM (EDT)
Donald Trump, Michael Cohen and Todd Blanche (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Michael Cohen and Todd Blanche (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"At that time I was knee-deep into the cult of Donald Trump, yes."

That was Michael Cohen's answer from a Manhattan witness stand on Tuesday when asked by Donald Trump's attorney if he was "obsessed" with his boss in the decade that he worked for the criminal defendant. The lawyer, Todd Blanche, was trying to discredit Cohen by painting him as something like a jilted lover, a man who once worshipped Trump but, ever since going to prison for crimes committed at Trump's behest, now holds an epic grudge. 

If the goal here is to make Trump critics seem "deranged," it's backfiring spectacularly. 

Much of what Cohen does with his time these days is indeed cringeworthy. Since being released from prison, Cohen has tried to rebrand himself as a #Resistance hero, unleashing a torresnt of anti-Trump content and trying to get on cable news as much as possible. But while his current behavior is not exactly classy, as his testimony in the campaign finance fraud trial shows, it pales in comparison to the heights of self-humiliation he performed daily while still in Trump's thrall.

Back then, as Cohen detailed, there was no demand too outrageous from Trump that Cohen wouldn't try to fill. Cohen has carefully detailed not just the astounding number of lies he told or corrupt actions he took for Trump — much of it to cover up Trump's extensive history of violence towards women — but also why he did it. Trump made him feel "on top of the world." He enjoyed being a "fixer," which seemed a lot more daring and romantic than being a boring old lawyer. It felt like a montage from the first half of a Martin Scorsese film, in which we see the gangsters reveling in both their wealth and their legal impunity. Before, of course, the inevitable crash and burn when the law finally catches up to them. If Cohen seems a little nuts now, it's a legible reaction to having spent years in an alternative reality created inside Trump's orbit. 

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What Blanche was trying was a variation of the "Trump derangement syndrome" defense. Anyone who has been poltiical on social media has likely been subject to it: Some member of the MAGA tribe accusing a Trump critic of "TDS," short for this alleged syndrome. The insult is as self-refuting as it is popular, coming invariably from a Trump acolyte spewing unhinged and badly spelled conspiracy theories. Even the most embarrassing member of #Resistance Twitter seems even-keeled next to any random person pulled from a MAGA rally. 

This contrast has been brought into full focus during Trump's trial. The two witnesses accused of being "deranged" by Trump — Cohen and Stormy Daniels — told stories that are coherent and fit with the documentary evidence. Even their anger, which has been a focal point for Trump's defense, makes perfect sense. They're two people whose mistake was trusting Trump. He sent one to prison and subjected the other to traumatizing sex she didn't want. It would be weirder if they didn't hate him. 

Meanwhile, the entourage that Trump has finally coaxed into coming out for him — almost exclusively Republican politicians who are hoping for a payoff in debasing themselves for Trump — all act exactly like the cult member Cohen described himself as once being. One gaggle of minions even wore matching outfits, as if begging for comparisons to a cult. 

Even more embarrassing are House Republicans claiming to have "bombshell" evidence that Cohen supposedly didn't even believe Daniels. 

This behavior does little to discredit Cohen's story. Rather it is an alarming reminder of how Trump expects his followers to debase themselves to serve him. It's unlikely that anyone believes Trump's denials that he had sex with Daniels. As former federal prosecutor Ankush Khardori explained at Politico, Trump's obvious dishonesty on this front gave the prosecutors "an unmissable opportunity for them to tank the credibility of Trump’s entire legal defense." Anyone who echoes Trump's denials sounds either terminally delusional or like a mortifying bootlicker. If the goal here is to make Trump critics seem "deranged," it's backfiring spectacularly. 

As Cohen testified, there's something deeply intoxicating about how Trump makes his marks feel like they're in on the con.

Cohen's description of his time serving Trump neatly illustrated how Trump manipulates his followers, which follows the beats of your most famous cult leaders: First, find people who feel lost or mired in their own mediocrity. Second, convince them they, too, can rise above their current station by hitching their wagon to the leader. Religious cults promise spiritual transcendence, whereas Trump mostly just promises he'll teach his minions to cheat the system as he has.

Either way, the allure is in the hope of finding some secret pathway towards being superior to other people, all without having to actually put in the work of being good at your chosen vocation. Zooming out to the ordinary MAGA voter, we see Trump working the same manipulative magic over people. Trump makes them feel they can stick it to those smarty-pants liberals who they imagine are laughing at them, and all without having to put in the work of learning stuff and knowing things. 

As Cohen testified, there's something deeply intoxicating about how Trump makes his marks feel like they're in on the con. He convinces not just the people around him, but millions of voters that, by sticking with him, they, too, can enjoy the impunity he has long enjoyed. As often happens to victims of con artists, they refuse to admit they're being taken for a ride. Instead, they lash out at the skeptics, insisting that people outside the in-group are those with a problem. Critics of the Church of Scientology are labeled "suppressive persons," for instance. Followers are told that people on the outside are dangerous and delusional, and members should shun them rather than give any credence to their concerns. 

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For MAGA, the term "Trump derangement syndrome" works like "suppressive person" does for Scientology. The Trump follower cannot defend their leader on the merits, since he is the worst in every possible way. So instead, they engage in a blunt form of psychological projection, accusing people who dislike Trump of being "obsessed" and "deranged." They speak as if he's just some random dude his critics have a fixation on, instead of admitting it's legitimate to be worried that a dangerous demagogue is perilously close to being the most powerful person in the world. Or that the people with an unhealthy obsession are those who cling to Trump like a barnacle, making daily excuses for his misogyny, his fascism, his babbling incoherence, and his staggering number of criminal indictments. 

Cohen's self-description as a recovering cult member resonates, right down to his continued erratic behavior. One reason it's hard for people to leave cults is that the underlying issues that led them to join in the first place haven't been resolved. Indeed, under constant brutalization at the hands of the leader, their self-esteem often degrades further. Another reason is that the cult becomes the defining force in the lives of followers, so much so that it's hard for them to imagine what life would be like without it. It's not uncommon for people who leave cults to feel lost. They often fall into other cults or engage in irrational and self-destructive behavior. This is more evidence that cults themselves are dangerous, and it's not "deranged" to take their impact on followers seriously. 

There's no way to know what a jury will make of all this, especially as Cohen isn't done testifying as of this writing. But, from a political perspective, the whole situation has illuminated the veneer of desperate self-delusion behind every "TDS" accusation made towards those who are sensible enough to loathe Trump. Insofar as Cohen has been "deranged" by his association with Trump, it happened when he was in thrall to the man, committing crimes and telling lies on Trump's behalf. Everything since has been fallout from that initial poor decision to ever link his fate to Trump. It's a lesson other MAGA people should learn, but are too proud to accept. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Maga Michael Cohen Todd Blanche Trump Derangement Syndrome Trump Trials