"Delusions and Lies" Transcript

Guest: Dr. Michael Tansey

(Listen to the audio on the episode page.)

Michael Tansey: It’s rare that Donald Trump opens his mouth when words come out that the words actually match up with the truth.

Betty Teng: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State, I’m Betty Teng.

Michael Epstein: And I’m Michael Epstein. And together, we’re your hosts. Here at Mind of State, we don’t so much discuss the news as psychoanalyze it by talking to some of the smartest, most interesting minds in mental health and the social sciences. Hi Betty.

Betty Teng: Hi, Michael. So today our guest is Dr. Michael Tansey. Michael happens to be a friend and a colleague and I think it’s safe to say we’ve bonded and become closer over being horrified by Donald Trump. Although lately, can I admit something to you, Michael?

Michael Epstein: Sure. Go ahead.

Betty Teng: I’m kind of bored.

Michael Epstein: Bored?

Betty Teng: By Donald Trump.

Michael Epstein: You’re bored with- I love this, you’re bored with Donald Trump?

Betty Teng: I’m totally bored. I really find him repetitive. He says the same things over and over and over again. And I am just not that I’m not that interested. Here’s the show

Michael Epstein: Right, exactly. We’re like episode three in and we’re bored.

Betty Teng: I’m really ADHD.

Michael Epstein: Can I say that I love this idea because I think it may be the greatest insult you could hurl at Donald Trump, which is I am bored with you.

Betty Teng: I’m not interested. I’m really I mean

Michael Epstein: But we have a show to do.

Betty Teng: Don’t get me started. You can- Tansey, Michael Tansey. You can analyze me on that.

Michael Tansey: Well, just great. There’s a phenomenon called Trump fatigue. And I think it’s less about boredom, less about not caring than a sense of powerlessness at being able to do anything about it. I don’t think it’s that you don’t care about these issues at all. I don’t think that it’s true boredom. I think it more has more to do with a sense of powerlessness and fatigue at this stuff. Keep coming at you again and again and again.

Betty Teng: Too true, too true.

Michael Epstein: So who is that voice and why does he have any standing to say what he does?

Betty Teng: Yes, let’s welcome him to our show without further ado. Without further ado, I’m pleased to introduce Dr. Michael Tansey. Michael is a former associate professor in clinical psychology at Northwestern University Medical School and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago for nearly 40 years, treating adults, adolescents, and couples. He has written numerous professional articles and coauthored a book on empathy and the therapeutic process. He is also among the coauthors of the New York Times bestseller The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Welcome, Michael. Thanks for being on Mind of State.

Michael Tansey: Yeah, pleasure to be here.

Betty Teng: Well, you hit us off well by talking about the Trump fatigue and boredom and addressing my boredom as more than boredom, which is part of our field, to kind of look at what we are saying and kind of look underneath what we’re talking about. What does my boredom really mean? And we brought you on to talk about lying, which is really what are people really saying when they’re saying what they’re saying? I’m getting roundabout, but talk to us about lying and your views of what’s going on in the White House and what’s coming out of that?

Michael Epstein: Because we all, I think the thing is, Michael, we all lie, right. In the, you know, the bit small lies over the course of our day sometimes.

Michael Tansey: Sure.

Michael Epstein: More. But you seem to think it’s quantifiably different here. It’s not just like when I lie, I know I’m lying.

Betty Teng: And there are different kinds of lies.

Michael Epstein: Exactly.

Michael Epstein: So we’re going to have a psychological and semantic conversation about language and mental health.

Betty Teng: We’re going to bring them into the stadium.

Michael Tansey: So I think that, you know, over the course of my really intensive study of Donald Trump, for example, I continue to read his tweets first thing every morning. So that shows you how utterly preoccupied I’ve been with him really since he declared his candidacy for the president in 2015. I think we have to distinguish between lies and falsehoods. Lies are a subset of falsehood. So it’s rare that Donald Trump opens his mouth when words come out that the words actually match up with the truth. But I think that there are two separate categories that really need to be understood. And it’s central to understanding this man’s personality, makeup, and the profound danger that we are all in. I’ve been writing for years that we are not nearly as afraid as we should be. So here’s the deal on the falsehoods. There are strategic lies, lies that serve an immediate purpose. The dog ate my homework, variety examples.

Michael Epstein: Like so when Betty says, Michael, that, you know, when she tells me I did a nice job on the podcast, there’s a strategic lie there for her.

Betty Teng: A caring one.

Michael Epstein: A caring one to sort of keep me on the team.

Michael Tansey: That actually might be called a white lie as opposed to Trump’s lies like I never met David Duke. I didn’t call that country a shithole, et cetera.

Michael Epstein: Yeah. Can I give a litany of these, Michael, that you would had published and because they’re there in descending order of seriousness, right. So he has at different times asserted that he owns an original Renoir, The Sisters, which is not true.

Betty Teng: Two Sisters.

Michael Epstein: Two Sisters, excuse me. That he won the largest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan, which is not true. Barack Obama did with three hundred and twenty two electoral votes to Donald Trump’s three hundred. But, you know, a very ugly, pernicious lie that thousands of Muslims he saw in New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Michael Tansey: These are delusional falsehoods. It reflects a psychotic detachment from reality. Delusions are rigidly held beliefs, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. The twin sisters, for example, he insists that he owns the original Renoir when it’s hanging in the Art Institute. I’ve seen it many, many times. He insists that Muslims celebrated, Muslims celebrated in New Jersey. It simply didn’t happen. And yet he pounds the table and insists that it did. That to me, and I believe that if he were wired up, as I talked about, if you were wired up to a reliable lie detector test, he would believe that he would pass with flying colors. So delusional falsehoods versus strategic lies are really very different.

Betty Teng: So they function differently. So a delusion is a separation from reality that somebody believes. They’re not in reality, but they believe that their unreality is true.

Michael Tansey: So when you think about the psychotic spectrum of disorders, schizophrenia, the delusions are bizarre. Martians are infiltrating the United States. For Trump, he believes that Muslims and Mexicans are infiltrating the United States. One could sort of think, well, is that true? Maybe there’s something to that. And it kind of gets a pass on it. When he says that the Central Park Five, I’m not going to go into that story, but, are guilty–

Michael Epstein: This is a New York City story from the 90s.

Betty Teng: Right.

Michael Tansey: Yeah.

Michael Epstein: For people who don’t know listening back home.

Michael Tansey: Yeah, he pounds the table and insists that they’re guilty, they’re guilty, they’re guilty despite the perpetrator, the man who committed the crime coming forth, his DNA evidence that matches, he knows the details of the scene, et cetera. It’s clear that these young men, after having spending eight to nine years in prison, are absolutely innocent. Trump pounds the table and insists otherwise. So now we have to consider, given the fact that, you know, we have to look at the bigger picture. So throughout his run for the presidency, for example, I just was looking at it this morning, there’s a viral tape out about him saying, it always starts with, I know more than, you know, fill in the blank all the generals.

Michael Epstein: I’m an expert.

Michael Tansey: Right. Well, it’s more than an expert. It’s I am the supreme authority and I’m an expert, you know, if he were to say he’s an expert, well, you know, I might say I’m an expert. But if I say I know more than anybody about a raft of 30 different things, you know, when he said it at the time, I know more than all the generals, it seemed like, you know, hyperbole. Now with what has just happened with Masters, I’m sorry–

Michael Epstein: Mattis. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis.

Michael Tansey: For him, but especially with Mattis, we now have to take that seriously. He thinks he really does know more than all the generals.

Michael Epstein: But can we stop, because I think that one of the things that I intuit in all of this is that he doesn’t trust experts or facts, right. So Mattis can give him a briefing about Turkey and the influence of Iran and Russia and the Kurds and on and on and on. And for Trump, it’s all about in his terms and his or his language, feeling, gut. And so his gut makes him the preeminent voice, the expert, the person who knows more, because it matters more than facts.

Michael Tansey: It’s way worse than that. It’s way worse than that. So the way that I would describe it, and this would be nice for us to have a back and forth, because I think it clarifies misunderstandings, not only among the public, but frankly, within my profession, where people just simply don’t get the profundity of the psychotic detachment from reality. So here’s the deal. Here’s the deal. With a delusional disorder what’s utterly mystifying about it is that the person on the surface, it sounds like a mythological creature that I’m making up, but is an actual disorder that exists in the DSM manual. And what is beguiling about it is that on the surface, the person can seem charming, charismatic, high achievement, funny, etc., etc.. As long as the underlying delusions, it’s psychotic detachment from reality that’s fixed, that’s in there, it’s lifelong but doesn’t typically show up unless the delusions are challenged. So a way to think about him is if we consider gaming system. So a video game, you know, it’s on a TV screen. You’re working away at it. But, you know, you can hear the doorbell ring. You can hear your mother call you for dinner. You can look at the clock and see, I got to get to a meeting, etc., etc.. There’s still as avid involvement, but there’s connection with other reality around you. In the game of Oculus, which I think perfectly captures what it is that we’re talking about here. Oculus has now evolved to a point where it’s not only three dimensional video, it’s audio as well. So it is.

Michael Epstein: So we’re talking Oculus for people who don’t know. We’re talking Oculus Rift, right. The–

Michael Tansey: It’s a gaming system.

Michael Epstein: The virtual reality game system where you put the headsets on, you have the headphones.

Betty Teng: And you’re in the game.

Michael Epstein: You’re immersed.

Betty Teng: And you’re in the Matrix.

Michael Tansey: You are the game. You are in the game. People will see pictures of this where someone’s wearing it and they’re sort of reaching out, trying to catch things and so on and so on. But it’s full-on immersion in an alternate reality. And you don’t know if the doorbell rings. You don’t know if it’s time for dinner. You don’t know if someone has walked into the room. You are full-on immersed in your own alternate reality. And the problem here is that, you know, so a distinction between Trump and a severe narcissist, which is what he is typically referred to, as a severe narcissist. For a severe narcissist, it’s extremely difficult to empathize with another person. For someone of Donald Trump’s nature, and we can talk about solipsism, there is no person there to empathize with any more than a spaceship flying overhead in a game of Oculus.

Michael Epstein: There’s nobody other than Trump.

Michael Tansey: There’s nobody other than Trump. So the term

Betty Teng: He’s in his own reality, he’s in his own 3-D reality.

Michael Tansey: He is in his own reality and all of these things out here are mere, sort of accouterments of his own, full-on alternate reality.

Betty Teng: Well, and I think now that he’s in the top seat of power in the world, the president of the United States, that position holds a lot of authority. Therefore, truth or an assumption that that person who holds that office is going to be accountable to the truth. And here we have this juncture where we have this person who has not even, it’s not about, as you’re saying, Michael Tansey, it’s not about lying. It’s about a person who doesn’t even have any relationship to reality. So that’s very different. And you’re pointing out a good distinction because we are debating truth lies. He’s 70 percent of the time he’s lying. He doesn’t care because he doesn’t even, he might not even know the distinction. He’s in his own reality, as you put it.

Michael Epstein: You know, it’s funny. I was thinking there’s all of the press. There’s The Washington Post, Pinocchio’s. There’s, you know, Stephen Colbert. There’s all these things, you know, that’s not true. You’re lying.

Michael Tansey: Yeah. There’s like 7,000 or 8,000. I think they’re keeping count at a number.

Michael Epstein: Right. He’s just hit some milestone like the 20,000th lie or 2,000. I forget what it was. I mean, he’s like some astronomical number per day. He’s like, remember Wilt Chamberlain.

Betty Teng: Yeah.

Michael Epstein: Remember this years ago when he came forward and he said he slept with about 10 thousand women.

Betty Teng: Yes. He did say that.

Michael Epstein: You’re like, that’s- 20 thousand, is that what it was?

Michael Tansey: 20 thousand.

Michael Epstein: 20 thousand. I was like and everyone was like doing the math, like that’s just not, that’s impossible.

Betty Teng: Like twelve people a day or something like that.

Michael Epstein: Course, my response when I heard that was, you know, I’ve not even been that lucky with myself, let alone somebody else.

Betty Teng: T.M.I.

Michael Epstein: Thank you. But you’re like, how is Trump lying this much, right? I mean, how does he keep pace with himself in this way? And I guess what you’re saying is, is that in, and this may be semantic, he doesn’t think he’s lying, right. I mean, there is that, right? Is that fair?

Michael Tansey: No.

Michael Epstein: You think he knows he’s lying.

Michael Tansey: I think when he said I never met David Duke, when he said I never called that country a shithole, that version of falsehood, he knows he’s lying.

Betty Teng: But when he says that it was–

Michael Tansey: When he says I know more than all the generals, he doesn’t consider that as a lie.

Betty Teng: As many people as Obama, right.

Michael Epstein: How about the inauguration, right? Or how about the Electoral College? I mean, those are facts that you can–

Michael Tansey: Irrefutable facts to the contrary.

Michael Epstein: Right, check.

Michael Tansey: Those are things that enter into the land of delusion. And this is so hard for people to grasp that a person can look, let’s call it relatively sane or just like a narcissistic jerk who lies all the time, and leave it at that.

Michael Epstein: Functioning.

Betty Teng: And that’s the big debate.

Michael Epstein: And he’s functioning, right.

Betty Teng: That’s the big debate. Is he, that that some people say calling him delusional or therefore mentally ill, it–

Michael Tansey: Gets him off the hook.

Betty Teng: Right. Gets him off the hook. And also maligns mentally ill, those who are mentally ill.

Michael Tansey: I’m not concerned about that.

Betty Teng: Yeah, I know you aren’t but I’m just citing the opposite side of this. But what you’re pointing out–

Michael Tansey: And I’ve never heard that from a patient ever.

Betty Teng: Right. And so what you’re pointing out, Michael, is the impact or the function of Donald Trump’s, you know, various different lies and on a sort of local level, it’s to defend himself. I never met David Duke or I never said that. That’s like an, almost, an impulsive way to protect himself when he’s faced by the–

Michael Tansey: The dog ate my homework.

Betty Teng: The dog ate my homework. I’m going to get away with this. And the other piece is these grandiose expressions, expressions of grandiosity that he must live within. And then how it functions for the collective, meaning those who don’t care or obviously, he’s subsisting very well with these 7000 lies and counting. And there is something to be seen in all of this. That the truth, which, you know, you can get into a lot debate of what is the truth. But the truth of facts that you can see recorded and go back to are not functioning the way, they’re not functioning the way they have been functioning before.

Michael Tansey: They’re not doing what the role that we need truth, facts to do. And this is the assault on the news. Fake news. I mean, there is a role that these things play in a functioning society. And I think we’re recording this on day, I don’t know what it is now, I mean, they’re measuring the shutdown at this point, not in days, and they’re going to stop doing it in weeks, soon. It’s going to be turning into months. And, you know, facts have stopped functioning or playing a role in our culture, in our society. And we are suffering.

Betty Teng: Or there’s an impasse between facts and fantasy.

Michael Tansey: Exactly. I think that’s a better way to say it.

Betty Teng: There’s an impasse between facts and fantasy right now. And fantasy could be seen as lies. You know that, and Michael, you’re pointing out the crux between the uses of the lies. There are different kinds of lies and therefore

Michael Tansey: I would say different kinds of falsehoods, of which there are lies and there are delusions. I know more than all the generals. That’s not a falsehood. I don’t think anyone can question that now.

Michael Epstein: Right.

Michael Tansey: But here’s one point that I want to make about the shutdown. And this is what I mean about Donald Trump. And people have, you know, there are no people there to empathize with. They’re ornaments or they’re impediments. So when we think about the eight hundred thousand people who are out there and then the ripple effect through the diners and, you know, the movie theaters and et cetera, et cetera, it’s rippling through the economy in a huge way. Does Donald Trump think about, with any measure of empathy, sympathy, any sense of feeling bad for the people who are really, really getting into hot water in all sorts of ways financially? The answer to that is no. They are viewed as ornaments or impediments. And that’s it. Same thing with children being ripped apart from their parents at the border. He is not- he is a monster in so many ways. There is no sense of duty or obligation or responsibility or empathy because it’s merely he will look at it as, okay that’s going to create pressure on the people that do care. The Democrats. And he’s sort of throwing temper tantrums because it’s not working out that way. But so the monstrous nature of this man’s personality organization is vastly underappreciated.

Betty Teng: As long as he can get his deal for the wall pushed through.

Michael Epstein: You know, I guess the other thing in all of this is I’m fixated with this language that we use and how hard it was for the press initially to say he’s lying, right. I mean, you remember back in the day, they would say, well, that’s not true. We’re going to fact check it. You know, nobody could come out and say, the guy’s lying. And I think about that in terms of Steve King, the congressman from Iowa and NBC, who sent out an email in the midst of all this controversy, that was a directive or an advisory email to the reporters to not say that Steve King’s comments are racist and they are racist. And instead, you were just say something like, as, you know, some people are saying, and what is our collective reluctance to say he’s racist in the case of King or in the case of Trump, right? Or to say he’s lying, to call the fact out for what it is.

Michael Tansey: So I think that there are many aspects to that. I think it’s easier to discuss not with King, but with Trump himself. So we remember Charlottesville and the shocking comments that he made about there are good and fine people on both sides and both sides are to blame, et cetera, et cetera. You know, leaving people mouths agape that he possibly could have said something like that. I think Trump is so deviant from the norm that we’ve never had to deal with anything like this before ever. And so we have now continued to evolve as more and more irrefutable facts have arisen. So that terms like racist, terms like Russian agent, et cetera, et cetera, are gaining wider acceptance. But, you know, the idea was that, well, we can’t say that because we don’t really know. It’s, as you just said a minute ago, speculative when it’s not speculative.

Michael Epstein: And you guys experienced something like this too, Betty, right? I mean, when you and Michael and others have gone out to call Trump out, you’ve been chastised for doing so.

Betty Teng: I think it’s a question, there’s so many layers to this that are socio-cultural, political, philosophical, but what comes to mind is Robert J. Lifton’s term malignant normality, and that the office of the president of the United States holds some symbolism, an incredible amount of symbolism. And to join that with this kind of behavior is a shock to the American system. And I think that even the media who is, you know, takes it on their own mandate to speak out whenever possible, however possible. We’ve got a great First Amendment law protecting our journalists and they take it very, very seriously. However, I think that there is something entrenched in us where we want that office to be a certain thing. It’s a symbolic protection. It’s a symbolic meaning. The icon of safety. And if you say that that president is lying all the time, it is not just about Donald J. Trump, then it’s about what do we have to do, what is governing our whole system here?

Michael Epstein: It’s about America.

Betty Teng: It’s about faith. It’s about Social Security. I mean, it’s about.

Michael Tansey: And it’s about this can’t be happening. Where have we heard that before? This can’t possibly be happening. Prior to the election. He will most certainly make a soft pivot. You remember that idea?

Michael Epstein: Right.

Betty Teng: Right. And I think it’s this kind of thing you have to look at as almost even a traumatogenic response, meaning it’s a shock. And now we’re coming out of the shock, which takes time. And where we’re still grappling with looking through the lens of when something happens to somebody and it’s somebody that they know or that they voted for. Something horrible, a traumatic event.

Michael Epstein: Or something done to them.

Betty Teng: Exactly. And when you have a perpetration done on you and it’s your coworker, say, you don’t want to believe that that’s happened. You don’t want to tell other people that that’s happened because you don’t want it to be true, because it’s going to break apart everything. It really is very disruptive and destabilizing.

Michael Epstein: It’s fascinating what you’re saying, Betty, because it sounds to me very much what you’re talking about is identity. For ourselves, presidency is a symbol. It’s something that we incorporate into our identity. And we have yet been able to find a way to cooperate healthy.

Betty Teng: Sure.

Michael Epstein: I mean, so we sit there, as Michael was saying, and deny the lies. We call them something else for a long time until we finally kind of come out of it and start recognizing the trauma for what it is.

Betty Teng: Right. Right. And then it is I’m not the kind of person that this kind of thing happens to. If you look at it in terms of survivors who are not wanting to speak out or they want to be seen as that one thing. So this is we are Americans. This is not happening on our shores.

Michael Epstein: Not who we are.

Betty Teng: This is not who we are. So you are grappling with that takes a lot of time and there’s not a lot of time to think. There’s a 24 hour news cycle constantly going. And so that’s where we’re at.

Michael Tansey: So the one thing that I just want to add here, because I know we’ve got to be up against time, is that if indeed I am correct and very few others have spoken in these terms, Lance Dodes is one, that he has a psychotic core that is belied by this appearance of, let’s call it normality, such as it is normal. If indeed that is correct and we consider what’s going on now where the walls are coming in on him. I mean, how many times have we said that? But us, you know, he has only yes men around him. The Republicans are starting to peel off. He’s gotten himself into this fix with the shut down. The Mueller investigation is becoming more and more and more compelling. He’s not approaching the White House. He’s camped out in the White House. All of that is coming down on his head. Enemies everywhere, enemies everywhere. In my view, and I’ve been saying this since before he was elected, that it was about apocalypse and not politics, that presidential election.

Let’s remember because people forget this or they don’t believe it. If he decides to launch nuclear missiles, he can do that without any filtering process whatsoever and they’re in the air in under five minutes. People don’t believe that. People need to believe that. And that is one thing that needs to happen immediately. And people like McConnell and Ryan have prevented that from happening. He can launch nuclear missiles. And as he becomes increasingly delusional, paranoid, enemies everywhere, enemies everywhere, enemies everywhere. I’ve worked with people who are in the midst of an extreme psychotic episode. I worked at McLean Hospital. People would come in believing I can’t figure out if I’m Jesus Christ or Mozart or Jimi Hendrix and floridly psychotic. The CIA is coming at them, et cetera, et cetera. Donald Trump, we don’t know that he will launch nuclear missiles, but we don’t know that he won’t. And other than a brief period with Richard Nixon, that’s never been a question before. And it is a huge question now. Why? Because he is, as I’ve said, crazy like a crazy, not crazy like a fox in terms of being shrewd, calculating, et cetera. The idea is, if I am going down, since I am all that is in the end, at the end of the day, I am all that is, everything out here are ornaments or impediments. So what’s to prevent him from, there is nothing to prevent him from taking the world down with him.

Michael Epstein: Well, on that high, lovely note.

Betty Teng: That hopeful, hopeful message.

Michael Epstein: Unlike your I mean, maybe the CIA is after him, right–

Betty Teng: Hopeful but useful.

Michael Epstein: And the FBI–

Betty Teng: There’s a situation where–

Michael Tansey: All of them, all of them–

Michael Epstein: The New York Times–

Betty Teng: There is a very different element of a persona in the White House that we have to reconsider and consider again and again, which is what we brought you on for, Michael.

Michael Tansey: Yeah, John Gardner referred to me as Dr. Doom.

Betty Teng: Doom among doomers, really.

Michael Tansey: Right. Exactly.

Michael Epstein: Well, we have reached the end of yet another session. And as my analyst likes to say to me. Take your problems home with you. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media, LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Rick Serbini. Mind of State original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Michael Epstein.

Betty Teng: And I’m Betty Teng. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Media, on our Facebook page and on our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show at the iTunes store or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.