“Sounding the Alarm” Transcript

Guest: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton
(Listen to the audio on the episode page.)

Betty Teng: Welcome to Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. I’m psychoanalyst and trauma therapist, Betty Teng.

Jonathan Kopp: And I’m communications strategist and political hack, Jonathan Kopp. Join us as we welcome experts in politics and psychology to consider this: the state of our nation through the state of our minds and the mind of our state. Hi, Betty.

Betty: Hi, Jonathan. You know, Jonathan, we’re a few weeks away from the election and you’re our resident politics guy. How are you doing?

Jonathan: We’re down to the final couple of weeks. And I’ll tell you what, I’m amped up. I am.

Betty: I can only imagine.

Jonathan: This is the time. And you feel it everywhere, right? It’s like this isn’t just, you know, political junkies who are paying attention. Everyone is paying attention to the election.

Betty: There’s a lot riding on this election and everyone is sounding the alarm about what’s to come.

Jonathan: You’re so right. On the left, we’ve got folks sounding the alarm about the end of democracy as we know it as totalitarianism takes over. On the right, sounding the alarm about Biden coming in and ushering in the socialists, right. And conveniently for us, we have the expert on sounding the alarm, don’t we, in today’s guest.

Betty: That’s right. This is a man who has 70 years of experience writing and teaching and thinking about authoritarianism and authoritarian states and how societies fall into cult-like leaders.

Jonathan: He’s sounding the alarm right now, isn’t he? He’s sounding the alarm about Trump. He’s sounding the alarm about the erosion of democracy. And he’s sounding the alarm about climate change. And what’s fascinating is that these forces are coming together as one. And so the alarm is that much more intense.

Betty: Right. They’re interrelated.

Jonathan: And so I’m really excited to bring him on. But before we do, I just want to note that we recorded this conversation before President Trump was diagnosed with COVID. Okay, so now onto our guest. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist and public intellectual who has written numerous award winning books on topics ranging from the survivors of Hiroshima to the doctors who perform medical experiments in Nazi concentration camps to the psychology of genocide more broadly. He has taught at both City University of New York and Columbia University. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Lifton.

Robert Lifton: I’m happy to be with you.

Betty: Robert, we are in an anxious place right now, possibly dire, with respect to how Trump assaults our reality. Now that we are sitting in a time where reality seems to be assaulting Trump, I wanted to get your sense of where we’re at now.

Robert: We are in a crisis of reality created by Trump and Trumpites in relation to extremely powerful and threatening events. The central event that has caused the breakdown of reality in Trump and Trumpites is, of course, the coronavirus. That and other forces have resulted in a situation where this kind of crisis, along with a climate crisis of the fires on the West Coast and a social crisis involving not just Black Lives Matter, but the whole issue of oppression and inequality. All these come at a time when we have an administration that is both criminal and corrupt. And a president who engages readily and actively in what I would call presidential killing. The breakdown in reality, in my view, can be looked at in this way. Trump’s reality has always been solipsistic, as I see it, that is self contained. His only reality is that which the self experiences and needs. And that’s, of course, enormously dangerous because it ignores larger reality, as experienced by many others and ignores also the requirements of evidence. But when the coronavirus came along, everything changed because the coronavirus is not something abstract about possible conversations. It is organic and bodily in the illnesses and deaths that it causes and in that sense Trump’s reality system or efforts to impose solipsistic reality and the falsehoods surrounding it collapsed.

Jonathan: I’d love to back up just a second. Could you just explain what you mean by solipsistic reality?

Robert: Well, solipsistic really means individually based and solipsistic reality has a specific meaning of being based only on what the self perceives and needs and not at all on the larger reality of other people or on evidence.

Jonathan: So is he basically saying, who are you going to believe me or your lying eyes? Is it an assertion that what Trump says should be taken as truth regardless of the evidence that’s out there? Or is it that he believes what he says?

Robert: It’s both. We can make a distinction between lies and other kinds of falsehoods because he sometimes will consciously manipulate and falsify reality. But he also can come to believe in the falsehood of his solipsistic reality. If you look at the recent revelations in the Bob Woodward book, particularly the contradiction between his recognizing in private conversations the reality and the plague nature of the pandemic on the one hand, while in public statements he tended to dismiss it. It’s quite possible for people in general to believe in antithetical concepts. These were antithetical ideas. It was a terrible scourge. It didn’t exist. People, in my judgment and from my experience with extreme situations, can do that and believe in such contradictory ideas. With Trump, that capacity is even greater than usual, because by simultaneously believing in opposites, he can push forward elements of his solipsistic reality and elements of what he perceives he needs politically, which is toning down the virus. So in that sense, there are both from Trump what we can call manipulation of lies, which he knows to be lies, and expression of solipsistic reality, where he believes in falsehoods.

Jonathan: For those who follow and support and believe in Donald Trump, there are two levels, right. There’s first, the do we believe the numbers? And then second, there’s iff we do believe the numbers, there’s a tendency to say but it’s not Trump’s fault, right. That the virus happened and it’s political opponents that are seeking to use the virus as a way to politically tarnish Donald Trump. And so I’m wondering if you can talk about your historical context to how a supporting public can bend to the political narrative that a charismatic leader puts forward.

Robert: Yes, that becomes a deeply troubling and enormously significant question. And there can be a cult-like pattern in Trump’s relationship to many followers. In addition to the cult-like relationship, there is a mafia-like relationship in Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. Republican Party isn’t really a party as we know one, but it’s a rogue group which has delegitimated any kind of opposition. Direct contrast with the American concept of the loyal opposition and in that sense this kind of following can fit anything Trump says into a positive narrative. I have spoken of the concept of narrative necessity where there are deep contradictions to the positive aura of the leader. One can ignore them, falsify them, join in falsifications, or say that they are a hoax and the work of people who are antagonistic to the guru in order to carry through not only a positive narrative, but a narrative of omniscience and of perfection. And there is some of that in that narrative. And then there’s another dimension where Trump, although he’s notoriously limited in his knowledge, he can be clever in certain forms of political and psychological manipulation. And he brings that cleverness together with an ugly arrogance in which he seeks not only to beat back those who question his narrative, but to destroy them. And since he has such authority in his presidential standing, people are deeply afraid of him. And such people among Republicans not only fear him, but at the same time have tasked their political lot with him.

And there’s one more that maybe even more important than the ones that I’ve mentioned and that has to do with a longstanding American pattern of anti-government, of distrust not only in government, but in governance at all of any kind. And it has to do with being what has been called a settler society, where we came into a society that had a native population that we fought with and destroyed. And then, of course, the experience of slavery, which was another form of violence. All of these feed the pattern that we’re seeing today. I would reject the idea that it’s simply a matter of tribalism. It’s rather the Republican Party taking a direction that delegitimates opposition, doesn’t accept it. And in that sense, moves toward some version of a strong man or dictatorship, and that’s been a pattern that has joined in with Trump’s own traits. So it’s wrong to say that Trump doesn’t matter. This is only American society producing this. That’s not correct, because Trump does matter. But it’s also wrong to say that it’s Trump alone because Trump has required these elements in American society. Going back to its beginnings and reactivated in recent decades.

Jonathan: It’s one thing for Trump to have run as an outsider, anti-government settler mentality the first time. But what confounds me is he’s running as the anti-government outsider sitting behind the resolute desk in the Oval Office. And so I don’t understand how he’s able to carry that out and how his followers continue to buy that line when the buck has to stop with him, doesn’t it?

Robert: Logically, yes, the buck has to stop with him. But in terms of his followers, cult-like and mafia-like relationship to him, that’s a very different story. So Trump continues to be, in a sense, the outsider who violates all norms of presidential behavior. There is even an attraction for some in his converting presidential responsibility, which, as you know, is mainly to care for and enhance the lives of one’s people, being turned on its head so that it comes to the systematic killing of one’s people. Trump does this as a rogue and an outlier rather than a president, even though he is technically our president now. But that doesn’t mean that it’s working. It’s not working at all. And there is more and more accumulating in the minds of American people that is wrong and, simply in a moral sense, unacceptable transgressions that democracy cannot sustain. That idea, that sense is ever increasing. And there’s a dynamic which, as it increases, it causes more desperation in Trump and more extreme expressions of misbehavior. The dynamic is very dangerous. But that doesn’t mean that Trump is succeeding in carrying forward this mythology of his not being a president or to put it more directly, of his attacking the presidency, including his own, as a means of expressing his violent tendencies and his efforts, as I put it, to own reality.

Betty: I’m particularly interested in what you’re talking about in terms of the desperation and the challenge that the COVID-19 pandemic sets against this solipsistic fantasy. And I want to understand what you see as the threat that the pandemic being a concrete, scientific, and real global event. Where is the breakdown happening?

Robert: It’s one thing to reject truths about previous conversations, even when there is paperwork to confirm them. It’s quite another thing to reject the truth of somebody extremely ill or of American deaths of a number greater than the total of deaths in all of our wars. As this truth becomes increasingly impossible to reject or to deny, there are consequences of increasing opposition to Trump, which can be recognized by him and by the people around him. He then tries evermore desperately to take steps that will disprove this concrete, organic truth that I’m describing the virus to be. And those desperate steps can include opening up the whole society, despite the fact that a greater part of it is still involved in a deeply dangerous surge of the pandemic and also influences his very recent statements that he could well decide against peaceful transition of power if he’s defeated in the election and he decides that the election was rigged.

Jonathan: I want to come back to this question of the facts of the virus and the blame for the virus, right. The numbers are the numbers. And sure there are some who are probably, you know, minimizing those or dismissing them or saying that they’re not accurate. But by and large, people seem to accept the numbers, but they’re not accepting the blame.

Robert: I would say that the great majority of people are accepting the blame, are putting it on Trump. Of course, there is an all too large group of people who are not.

Jonathan: That’s who I’m interested in.

Robert: If 35 to 45 percent of the population will reject any blame for Trump, that’s deeply disturbing.

Jonathan: Yes.

Robert: But it does mean that 60 or 70 percent of Americans are placing the blame directly on Trump. And that is a major issue in the election because people, you know, in many related polls are deeply concerned about the economy and going out and working in order to bring home money, in order to really have food on their table. But they’re even more concerned about illness and about the death anxiety. It is the pandemic that is breaking down Trump’s claim to the truth of unreality in a way that no prior claim could do, and that recognition of many deaths may also be deadly to Trump’s ambitions to sustain his presidency.

Betty: With a strong man like Trump with his mafioso followers, this is heading towards or is already at a collision point. I see this almost as in terms of an abusive partner not able to maintain control over their victim. That the break point, the separation point is often most dangerous. And so I see that possibly being a metaphor for what we are headed towards in the election, that there is a separation point, a break point between Trump’s hold on reality, which is being stressed right now, and how he does or does not let go of it.

Robert: I would say okay to the metaphor, but be careful about precise details. I don’t know that there’s some separation for Trump. He does reach a collision point because he recognizes that more and more of the country are increasingly aware of his falsehoods and his failure at what he knew to be the most challenging task of his presidency. In order to sustain his solipsistic falsehood, he has to create or be part of a narrative in which the opposite is true, namely that the COVID-19 virus is an overwhelming plague that he has heroically combated, as no one else could have and therefore has been very successful. But also revealed as his solipsistic reality or unreality breaks down are the lies and failures of the presidency in terms of the economy now, in terms of his obeisance to Putin and his interfering with prior alliances and breaking them down in both his domestic policies and his international approaches in which he’s attracted to dictatorships and can be critical and nasty about any former allies who raise questions about his efforts at reality control or owning reality.

So all of this can be at issue as the coronavirus makes impossible Trump’s continuing reality claims. And then I would add it isn’t only the virus, but look at the climate change issue now, which envelops everything. It’s wrong to speak of wildfires, rather, it is a climate event of major proportions. We think of climate change as incremental. Gradually it builds and then it builds a little more and it doesn’t do anything for a very long time. Well, climate change is upon us and it’s not gradual. It’s here. And these fires, these blazes are a combination of extreme heat and drought and the ready occurrence of the most extreme fires ever experienced in those areas. So Trump’s criminality and presidential killing may be a little bit more indirect in climate change, but it contributes to something all enveloping, something that totally contains our habitat and what is necessary for human life, and all that comes to be revealed to a greater extent, as his claims, his false claims, to reality break down largely in relation to the coronavirus.

Betty: You know, how do we prevent the slide into Trumpism that may not end with Trump? You know, as you say, there is a sweet, generous quality to Trump and yet also some social, historical, psychological elements which brought about this perfect storm of his administration these last four years. So where do you see us being right now, Robert? Grappling with a slide into authoritarianism and yet not there. Mother Nature assaulting a solipsistic reality of a strong man who happens to be our president. And we are at a very interesting moment of possibly being out to turn the tide, just like with climate change, but in hot water.

Robert: Our greatest concern now has to be short term. Getting Trump and Trumpites out of office, nothing is possible with them in office. Much is possible, however difficult, after they are forced out of office. Trump’s turning to an intention to stay in office under certain conditions that he describes is a manifestation of his sense of pending defeat and his sense that his transgressions are catching up with him. And that’s why a still more dangerous transgression could be in the offing. I think, and this is my psychological as well as political judgment, that Democratic responses have to be strong. Really, we need a return to governance. Any democracy that has survived and done well by its people, has offered them some kind of life enhancing government. We see that at the best moments of response to disaster. But we see it also when opportunities are offered for those economically at the lowest end of society, for some sort of safety valve that only a decent society could offer. So, after Trump we have to return to morality with toughness in a new administration. That means sensitive governance, which has disappeared in the Trump administration and governance that is life enhancing to the people. That’s a broad term, but one can look at policies and laws that will fit that category.

Jonathan: Well, of course, morality is critically important to American norms of government, but morality is very hard to legislate and to write policy around. The Congress, or at least the Republican Congress, was content to leave it to the voters to decide, as long as the morality was the question, which candidate they would elect or reelect. I guess my question is, Robert, you’re here on Mind of State because you’re both a psychiatrist and a student of history. And for those who have always maintained that this is America, the greatest democracy in the history of the world, and it could never happen here, what do you say to us today in 2020 in America, teetering on the edge of potential authoritarianism and erosion of democracy? What can history teach us? What can we do as a society to get back on track? How do we say that this will never happen again and never happen here?

Robert: It’s risky and inaccurate to say it couldn’t ever happen here. Of course it could happen here. It, being some kind of authoritarian government, could happen anywhere and has throughout the world over the course of history. And that mistake can be made together with a kind of idealistic version of American purity, the idea of American exceptionalism being a form of decency that’s different from that of any other country. We’ve had struggles and nastiness, whether they’re with Native Americans, whether in slavery, whether in frontier actions and violence, whether in waves of immigration where each immigrant group has been victimized over the course of its integration or partial integration into American society. So it’s never been a story of American perfection, as some American mythology would have, as you’re suggesting, as against the cruel and antagonistic and less moral outer world. That requires us to come to terms with our history. One of the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s really an uprising, is that we come to terms with specifically our relationship to slavery on every level. And that, of course, is inseparable from issues of oppression and inequality still very active in this society.

Betty: Now, Robert, in terms of talking about the exceptionalism of the United States and how we need to be careful about that self identity, which might even feed into the Make America Great Again slogans of the Trumpists. In the blend of personas that you hold as a psychiatrist and as a historian of authoritarianism and its mechanics as it’s played out in different movements in history, right now, how can we, as the psychologically minded who are involved in politics or very concerned about the politics of the United States, how can we inform the movements and the debates and the thought on American politics right now?

Robert: Well, it would, I think, be necessary to be taking actions right now in the way of passing laws in the House of Representatives, where it’s possible to do that, taking actions that help people, starting with a new bill to provide help for those affected by the pandemic, economic help that is so desperately needed and to provide it for the states and all other sources of healing that’s crucial in this epidemic. It also would include recognizing that Black lives have been threatened through our police system and through some of the subculture of police systems and other sources of white supremacy. Taking a stand on this while recognizing that it’s a deep problem that doesn’t go away overnight. And also in what I mentioned about climate change, making clear what is at stake at climate change, as many among Democrats or progressive people are trying to do, and speaking out also about what steps have to be taken with renewable energy in order to overcome climate change, which so threatens our country and really threatens the world. So by speaking and acting in these ways and by speaking for the American people in general, including a recognition of the value and importance of work and workers, all that will do much more than stepping back and holding forth to great ideals that America represents, which it hasn’t always represented.

Jonathan: Robert, you’ve been so generous with your time and so thoughtful, both in reflection on history and on this present day. Do you have any last thoughts to wrap up this conversation.

Robert: This is really a critical moment, and I think that all of us, we’re talking mostly about psychologists and what they have to say about the administration, but all of us can embrace the role of what I call witnessing professionals, one can be a witnessing worker too, in which one uses the knowledge and experience of one’s professional life to uncover malignant normality put before us and to express alternatives in the way of life enhancement. It involves everyone, even at modest levels, in small groups, in groups that one forms. It’s a moment that needs the whole country and I feel hopeful about its success.

Jonathan: You raised a term that’s important for our audience. If you could just define malignant normality.

Robert: Malignant normality is a term I learned from my study of Nazi doctors. To put it starkly, the German doctor standing at the ramp in Auschwitz or Birkenau sending Jews to the death chambers, wasn’t breaking any law. He was just doing his job. That’s what he was expected to do. That was the malignant normality of Nazi society. Trump isn’t a Nazi. He doesn’t have enough of an ideology to be one. But he does bring us, along with Trumpites, a malignant normality of their own. And that malignant normality includes some of the things I’ve been talking about. Lying, presidential killing of his own people, obeisance to Putin and representing Putin and Russian interests rather than American interests, and disdain for ordinary people in favor of billionaires. So this is the malignant normality Trump brings to us. The term really means a destructive form of behavior that is put forward as routine, as the norm, which has to be uncovered and opposed.

Betty: And Robert, I really appreciate your evoking the witnessing professional or witnessing worker to stand up against the malignant normality and the assault on reality that Trump insists upon because it really talks about truth as a grounding place against traumatic people and events. And we are certainly in that moment right now of great crisis and suffering as a result. And so you’ve reminded us of how we can stabilize ourselves in this time and move forward in a productive fashion. Thank you so much for joining us. This conversation is so fruitful.

Robert: Thank you.

Betty: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Mind of State. If you like this episode, you’ll find plenty more on Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Jonathan: You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Mind of State Pod. Our website is MindofState.com.

Betty: Mind of State is produced by Alletta Cooper and Jenny Woodward. Special thanks to our co-founder, Thomas Singer. I’m Betty Teng.

Jonathan: And I’m Jonathan Kopp. Join us next time on Mind of State.