Donald Trump held the American people hostage for 35 days in a vain attempt to extort billions of dollars from Congress for his pointless wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This is the longest shutdown of the federal government in our nation’s history. Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s political hostage-taking hurt the approximately one million people who are directly employed by the federal government. In total this is part of a decades-long pattern in which the policies of the Republican Party and their leaders cause pain and harm to the American people. This is an empirical fact and reality. How do the Republicans stay in power when their policies are actually dangerous to the United States and its citizens? How healthy is American society if it produces leaders who actually do not serve the common good? Does Donald Trump represent a broader cruelty and selfishness on the American right? What does Trump’s hostage taking and his desire to hurt millions of people reveal about his mental health and psyche? In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Dr. James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University and author of the book “Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others.” Gilligan is also a contributing writer for the 2017 bestseller “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”
Once Trump got elected, I expected the worst. And frankly, I think that’s what we’re getting. He’s constrained to some extent by the fact that the United States still does have a more or less intact democracy and legal system. Trump is trying to tear it down as much he can. But there is no question that Donald Trump is a would-be dictator who would take advantage of any opportunity to trash the notion of “rule by law.” The United States has incomparably the highest murder rate of any economically developed country. Our punitive policies are not in the least diminishing our rate of violence. If they are having any effect on it, it is only to increase it. When I speak of the United States as a sick society, I use public health as a framework. The famous physician Rudolf Virchow made a great observation: “Medicine is a social science, and politics is simply medicine on a larger scale.” By that criterion, the U.S. is the sickest of the societies that have achieved industrialization and technological progress and other so-called indicators of being “advanced.”
In my opinion, Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder. Trump also appears to have a sociopathic or antisocial personality disorder as well as a paranoid personality disorder. Those are conditions common to people who are shame-dominated. They want to make sure no one can disrespect them or laugh at them and so forth. Human beings are interdependent and that is an insight and fact that people on the right wing of politics, or who have personality disorders like Donald Trump, have lost sight of. Note that what we call “welfare” in America is when money is given to people who don’t have much. But the fact is there are all kinds of corporate welfare in America. It is little discussed and there is little shame about it from the recipients.
“The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” In the United States there is an error of reasoning where the world is divided into the superior and the inferior as opposed to the idea that all men are created equal. Such leaders and people have a moral value system which they may or may not have thought out consciously. This value system is real, and conservatives and other right-wing authoritarians feel justified in hurting other people as a way of proving their superiority and gaining power. What I keep trying to communicate to such people is that they are actually not helping themselves when they behave in such a way. In the long run, such behavior hurts them as well as others. It destroys relationships. It destroys their capacity for love. You can’t exploit people and love them. Leaders and other people who cause pain are really hurting themselves, even though they may not realize it.
By adopting this sort of dog-eat-dog moral and political philosophy, such people really wind up isolating themselves. The power that they think they’re getting cannot ultimately be satisfying. We see that with Donald Trump. He has gotten a lot of power by means of lying to everybody and cheating people and not paying his bills. Trump has even gotten to the White House by behaving badly. But now look at Trump. People from every side are coming down on him. He’s going to have to fight off being sent to prison for the things he’s done. You don’t really help yourself in the long run if you just become antisocial. He would likely say, immediately, “Look, I’m perfect. I’m president and I’ve got all this money.” I would respond, “Well, OK, how well is life actually working out for you?” Then, he’d have to start confronting the fact that people hate him and the criminal justice system is gunning for him. All his associates are being sent to prison, and they’re testifying against him. At some point, Trump is going to have to realize that his strategy for living is not working well for him. Perhaps that would give him some motivation to get better and change his behavior.
In the book, Sims describes himself being more power hunger and unethical the longer he hung around Trump. Sims said that being around Trump can “distort” people’s moral compass. “Are people getting pulled into it and they’re believing a reality that’s not necessarily reality?” Lemon asked Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio. “I think they do, but you also bring your own lens to this experience. And I think that a lot of people drawn to Donald Trump want to be fooled,” D’Antonio said. “When I meet him he was a very shabby figure, he made Trump Tower look worse. He was only interested in himself,” D’Antonio said. Former White House adviser David Gergen said that people who work in the White House should be held accountable for their actions because they work for the American people and not Trump.
Some things have not changed. Meadows was reelected chairman of the Freedom Caucus, the group of roughly three dozen Republicans who are the most hard-line conservatives in the House. They made life miserable time and again for John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) during their combined eight years as House speaker. They regularly opposed their leadership team’s proposals as not sufficiently conservative and denied Boehner and Ryan enough votes to pass legislation with Republican-only votes. And on must-pass measures, the GOP speakers were left to turn to Democrats for support, which led to legislation becoming even more ideologically lukewarm before passage.
The Freedom Caucus’s mission often looked as if weakening its own leadership team served as big a goal as was its conservative purity. In 2015, Meadows turned to an almost unprecedented move that would have forced a vote on Boehner remaining speaker, knowing he could deny Boehner enough votes to win on the GOP side of the aisle. Boehner resigned rather than make his allies cast that tough vote and keep the gavel with Democratic support. He has never forgiven Meadows. “When I was looking for legislative strategy, the last place I looked was talk radio,” Boehner told a Monday gathering of local Republicans in Marco Island, Fla. “The second-last place I looked was the knucklehead caucus, who don’t know how to vote yes on anything. They did the president a total disservice.”
Boehner was specifically blaming Meadows for driving Trump into the politically disastrous 35-day shutdown that ended with no dollars for the president’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. On Wednesday, Meadows declined ownership of the shutdown strategy, stumbling over his words at one point. “I don’t know about that. I did — I’m not confirming nor denying that,” he said. “I mean, I think it’s been reported, but I’ve never been on the record as saying that.” The original plan had been to pass a temporary funding measure keeping federal agencies open until Feb. 8. That would have given Trump weeks to try to mount a pressure campaign on the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He could have used the State of the Union address to put the blame on her.
But Meadows lobbied Trump to blow up that plan and announce he would veto the temporary funding bill. “Mr. President, we’re going to back you up if you veto this bill; we’ll be there,” Meadows said during one of many Freedom Caucus speeches on the House floor Dec. 19 as the Senate unanimously approved the funding plan. The next morning, Meadows appeared on Trump’s favorite show, “Fox & Friends,” explaining conversations he had with Trump pushing him toward a shutdown. “Quite frankly, now is the time to fight,” Meadows said. Later that day, Trump told GOP leaders that he would not go along with their plan, siding with Meadows and outside conservatives who wanted a fight for border wall money. On Dec. 22, the longest shutdown in U.S. history began.
By last week, Senate Republicans had enough of this approach, a shutdown with no real strategic planning other than hoping Democrats caved. When Trump finally agreed to reopen the government, the Freedom Caucus had no leverage. They allowed the short-term funding bill, to Feb. 15, to pass without opposition on Friday. Meadows now runs the weakest type of coalition in the House: a small minority in the minority. Their leverage against Boehner and Ryan is long gone, as Pelosi has 235 votes on her side before she has to ask for support from any of the several dozen GOP moderates remaining in office.
The United States is undergoing a unique adventure in surreal governance. Its president has assembled a team of advisors and cabinet department heads that he is publicly assailing as ignorant and lacking the knowledge and abilities to perform the jobs to which he appointed them. Donald Trump is literally calling his own Intelligence chiefs incompetent. This is the sort of breakdown that would be laughably unbelievable in political fiction. If Trump has such little respect for the people he appointed, why does he keep them in their jobs? Wouldn’t a sane president remove people who he thought were getting everything wrong so that they wouldn’t continue to put the country at risk? Would a mentally stable leader tweet that his “Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive,” and then follow that up with another tweet saying that they “should go back to school,” and then allow them to keep their highly sensitive jobs in national security? Trump was long ago proven to be a malignant narcissist who regards himself as the most brilliant expert at whatever he happens to be talking about at the moment. Despite having evaded military service with five phony deferments, he said that he knows more about military affairs than “his” generals.
So Trump has no confidence in his CIA director or his director of National Intelligence. And he followed that up with a rambling array of nonsense regarding Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea. Literally none of it had any resemblance to reality. Trump has cloaked himself in a shroud of fantastical fiction that he either has convinced himself is true, or is deliberately lying about in order to advance some perverse narrative that is contrary to the interests of the nation. When John Brennan, a former CIA director who had the confidence of his boss, heard about Trump’s remarks, he tweeted that it “shows the extent of [his] intellectual bankruptcy” and that “All Americans, especially members of Congress, need to understand the danger [Trump] poses to our national security.” So if Trump isn’t getting his advice on these critical issues from the experts he appointed, where is he getting it? Is it coming from his pal Vladimir Putin, with whom he’s been meeting in secret without any other Americans present to record their conversation or refer it to professionals for analysis? Or is he getting it from his shadow cabinet at Fox News: Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, Steve Doocy, Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, etc.? Could there be a more pathetic batch of know-nothings in such positions of power?
Thursday afternoon Trump returned to his Twittering to announce that he had a meeting and that everything was now copacetic with his intelligence team. He said that the media “mischaracterized” what they said during the Senate hearing on Wednesday. But it was Trump who said that he had “no confidence” in his team, not the press. And he’s been saying it for quite a while. These tweets are obviously an attempt to repair the damage his big mouth got him into. But anyone who’s buying it is terminally naive. In the end, it’s America that is losing out by Trump’s reliance on foreign adversaries and propaganda shills at State TV (aka Fox News). Trump is selling out the nation for reasons that are not fully known yet, but probably have something to do with his indebtedness to Russian oligarchs, his clandestine conspiracy with Kremlin operatives to steal the election, or some other means by which he has been compromised and forced to serve as a puppet to our foes. And at this point, the only reason that the Intelligence community hasn’t resigned en masse is that they feel a patriotic duty to shield the country from the potential harm that Trump represents as its most virulent national security threat.
We keep hearing the same Trumpian gobbledygook over his arguments for a wall, like it’d be the ultimate cure-all in preventing border crossers. In reality, he’s just looking to appease his rally-chanters who shouted in unison build that wall as part of the entertainment value for attending. And he keeps spouting this falsehood a lot of the wall is already being built. If that was true, why did we just have the nutty month-long government shutdown? Declaring a national emergency which seems likely could establish a crazy precedent for some nutty executive orders from presidents of either party, but the echo-extremists who run the country are still pushing for it. As a great opportunity lost, the prez is bombing out on proposing a big comprehensive deal where he could have gotten lots more money for his wall, if only he would agree to a permanent deal on DACA. But the echo is calling the shots on that too. So we might soon have a prez declaring a disingenuous national emergency for a crisis not even in our top 100 only to please his xenophobic base. The top half are live links & the bottom half aren’t:
This makes sense, because Trump has of late been acting as if he draws his authority from the divine right of kings. He’s asserting his absolute power to act without — and often in contravention of — the Democratic House, the Republican Senate, his own intelligence agencies, law enforcement authorities and diplomats, and the will of the American public. Presidential defenders say the Sanders claim is simply a repetition of the biblical admonition that all temporal leaders are established by God. And conservative evangelicals have reason to be pleased with Trump’s judicial picks and other policies. But Sanders appeared to go further in suggesting that God, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, played an active role in installing Trump (“that’s why he’s there”). For the president’s principal spokeswoman, during a West Wing interview, to claim God is for Trump — and, by extension, God is against Democrats (she also ridiculed the idea that Democrats have any moral authority) — goes beyond an expression of personal belief.
It contradicts an American creed, embraced by many believers in this nation under God, best captured by John F. Kennedy at the close of his inaugural address: “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” Now we hear from the White House that God’s work is . . . Trump. If so, His choice of a thrice-married, foul-mouthed, untruthful casino mogul as His vessel raises thorny theological questions, not least: Why did God award Hillary Clinton the popular vote? And why, given all the Christian conservatives of high character running for president, did God go with a man who boasted about grabbing women by the [expletive], who paid hush money to a porn star, and who derided the “interesting” tendency of Vice President Pence to pray?
Perhaps it was Trump’s boast that “nobody reads the Bible more than me.” Or his National Prayer Breakfast call to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Apprentice.” Or his sermon to Liberty University students about the “two Corinthians.” Or his vow to keep “Merry Christmas in department stores, believe me. ” We can’t be certain that God didn’t approach Donald, son of Fred, from a burning bush, and that Donald didn’t tell God that in Finland “they spend a lot of time on raking . . . and they don’t have any problem” with forest fires. Or that God didn’t speak to Donald, as to Joshua outside Jericho, telling him the wall would fall, to which Donald replied, “Mexico is going to pay.” God works in mysterious ways. But this much isn’t at all mysterious: The president is acting as if he answers to nobody here in the mortal realm.
Later in the hour, former GOP strategist Rick Tyler slammed Franklin for ignoring the president’s lies. “I call them lies,” Tyler explained. “In the beginning of the segment, he’s talking about objective truth and what he’s going to get people to believe about objective truth, that is Jesus is the savior of the world and died for our sins. That’s objective truth. At the same time he wants to make excuses about Donald Trump when we know Donald Trump has said things that are just demonstrably and provably false.” “But there are things that Donald Trump has said over and over again that are just flat out wrong,” he concluded. “I don’t know whether Franklin is being willfully ignorant or is covering for the president but that undermines his message about objective truth.”