Phil Garber
10 min readNov 24, 2023

--

Photo by Maryna Kazmirova on Unsplash

Banality Of Madness In The Time Of Trump

The disease that is the era of trump is not madness, ignorance or evil, but rather the trivializing banality of it all, not unlike the way that normal Germans stood silently by as Hitler rose to power.

The phrase “banality of evil” was coined by the historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt after she wrote about the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi official responsible for organizing the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps in support of the Nazi’s Final Solution. Arendt found Eichmann was the personification of the banality of evil; he was an ordinary, bland, bureaucrat, who, Arendt said, was “neither perverted nor sadistic” but “terrifyingly normal.”

Many of the trump followers are also “terrifying normal” making the task of defeating the malignancy of trump that much more daunting.

How else to explain why trump remains so popular when his frequent on-line threats have led to hundreds of menacing calls against the judge and clerk at trump’s civil fraud trial. What other explanation can there be other than banality that leads trump supporters to believe a cockamamie report from a trump’s doctor alleging that he is in top condition when they reject professional psychiatric opinions that he is as an angrily petulant baby, who is erratic, unpredictable, unstable, unmoored. In short, trump is a malignant narcissist who is only getting worse and ever more dangerous.

Very soon, the 2024 election will be decided by tens of thousands of voters in just a handful of states who will decide the fate of the world with their ballots. Their attitudes and beliefs are being carefully manipulated by the trump machine.

Philip Zimbardo and Rosemary Sword were among the psychiatrists who wrote essays for “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” edited by Bandy X. Lee. Zimbardo and Sword wrote that trump displays signs of “extreme present hedonism, the tendency to live in the moment without considering consequences, seeking to bolster one’s self-esteem no matter the risk.”

The two psychiatrists said trump exhibits a “narcissistic personality disorder” which is marked by “believing you’re better than others, exaggerating your achievements and expecting constant praise. Combine hedonism, narcissism and bullying, and you get an impulsive, immature, incompetent person who, when in the position of ultimate power, easily slides into the role of the tyrant.”

One recent and dramatic consequence of trump’s rhetoric was a report of dozens of threats of violence made against the judge and his aide in trump’s fraud trial. Trump has continued to make violent and provocative comments on his social media site while the dangerous comments reverberate in support in the far right wing community.

Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist, said trump’s behavior and attitudes reminds him of Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism.

“She pointed out that one of the central characteristics of a totalitarian regime is what she called, ‘contempt for facts.’ And that is precisely what Trump shows and his whole administration has been showing, and to me that is one of the alarming segments. He has not established a totalitarian government, but he speaks the language of totalitarianism,” Gilligan said.

Trump has scores of enablers for his contempt of facts, most recently put into full view by House Speaker Michael Johnson, R-La. Johnson announced he would order release of thousands of hours of video of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol by trump supporters. Trump and far right supporters have demanded release of the video which they claim shows the government grossly exaggerated the effects of the riot and that it was crafted by the government and government informers, none of which has been proven.

Trump’s lawyers also had sought to have the government reveal “all of the undercover agents who were involved in plotting the January 6 riot at the Capitol building,” according to their latest court filing.

Politicians and right wing media also fanned the flames of early reports of a “terrorist attack” at the border of Canada and the U.S. in an effort to lay blame on lax immigration enforcement by the Biden administration.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a staunch trump supporter, wasted no time in repeating early fears of a “terrorist attack” when a car crashed and burst into flames at Rainbow Bridge at the border of Canada and the U.S. Fox News also focused on a possible “terrorist attack.” The FBI and other authorities later ruled out terrorism as the cause but Cruz did not retract his statements.

Cruz tweeted, “This confirms our worst fear: the explosion at Rainbow Bridge was a terrorist attack. Both attackers are dead and one law enforcement officer is injured. I am praying that officer makes a full recovery and is able to spend Thanksgiving surrounded by family and loved ones.”

Another trump enabler and supporter, far right, Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, announced he has opened an investigation into the progressive, non-profit, news outlet, Media Matters, for alleged fraudulent activity. Paxton, who narrowly escaped impeachment and is under indictment for corruption, announced the investigation shortly after X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, launched a defamation suit against Media Matters after it claimed that X was biased and displayed ads next to far-right figures.

“We are examining the issue closely to ensure that the public has not been deceived by the schemes of radical left-wing organizations who would like nothing more than to limit freedom by reducing participation in the public square,” Paxton said in a statement.

Signs are coming more frequently of trump’s descent into further grandiosity and paranoia. In March, he told a rally in Waco, Texas, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

Trump told a gathering at the California Republican Convention on Sept. 29, that under his administration, shoplifters would be subject to extrajudicial execution and that he “will immediately stop all the pillaging and theft. Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store.”

Thomas Edsall wrote about trump’s mental health in a Nov. 22 op-ed in the N.Y. Times. Donald R. Lynam, professor of psychology at Purdue, emailed Edsall that trump’s “escalation is quite consistent with grandiose narcissism. Trump is reacting more and more angrily to what he perceives as his unfair treatment and failure to be admired, appreciated and adored in the way that he believes is his due.”

Lynam said that grandiose narcissists “feel they are special and that normal rules don’t apply to them. They require attention and admiration. This behavior is also consistent with psychopathy, which is pretty much grandiose narcissism plus poor impulse control.”

Aaron L. Pincus, professor of psychology at Penn State, wrote in Edsall’s column that “Trump is an aging malignant narcissist. As he ages, he appears to be losing impulse control and is slipping cognitively. So we are seeing a more unfiltered version of his pathology. Quite dangerous. Trump seems increasingly paranoid, which can also be a reflection of his aging brain and mental decline.”

By and large, voters may read about the big stories and the headlines but they don’t follow the news closely and they don’t see politics as effecting their daily lives. Most Americans, including the trump backers, are ignorant of trump’s plans; they don’t know that trump has endorsed shooting shoplifters; that he has ridiculed the hammer attack against Paul Pelosi, the husband of the former Speaker of the House; that he wants to create concentration camps to house immigrants, whether they are documented or not; or that, if he is reelected, he may impose martial law to halt protests.

Brian Klaas, a political scientist and contributing writer at The Atlantic, wrote “The Case for Amplifying Trump’s Insanity,” in an Oct. 1 column for Forkingpaths.com.

“Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous, not just because it is the exact sort that incites violence against public officials but also because it shows just how numb the country has grown toward threats more typical of broken, authoritarian regimes,” Klaas wrote. “The man who, as president, incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn an election is again openly fomenting political violence while explicitly endorsing authoritarian strategies should he return to power. That is the story of the 2024 election. Everything else is just window dressing.”

People justify their ignorance of trump’s plans by claiming they are powerless to do anything or that the media distorts and lies. Regardless of the rationalizations, most trump supporters just don’t know what is going on and yet they continue to back trump.

Most disturbing is that long before trump’s 2016 victory, many experts were calling out the dangers the man exhibited. The so-called, “Duty to Warn Conference,” included particularly chilling observations by experts. It was held on April 20, 2017, at the Yale School of Medicine.

Leading the conference was Gilligan, clinical professor of psychiatry, adjunct professor of law, and collegiate professor of arts and sciences at New York University. Gilligan is a renowned violence studies expert, former director of Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, former director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system, and former president of the International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy.

Gilligan said many Germans involved in the psychiatric field remained silent during Hitler’s rise to power. They were the “passive enablers of the worst atrocities that (Hitler) he committed, as were most German clergymen, professors, lawyers, judges, doctors, and many other professional and intellectual leaders,” Gilligan said.

Gilligan said that while trump is not a literal reincarnation of Hitler, the same principles that made it possible for Hitler’s rise “apply to us today.” One concern of Gilligan and others is the so-called “Goldwater Rule” that prompts professionals not to offer psychiatric opinions about political candidates or officials. The “Goldwater Rule” was created during the 1964 presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., after a magazine solicited and published psychiatric opinions about Goldwater for partisan purposes. Goldwater sued the publication and won, leading the American Psychiatric Association to enjoin psychiatrists from professionally diagnosing someone they have not personally evaluated. The association affirmed the rule in 2017 as a result of widespread discussion of trump’s mental health.

Gilligan said a precursor to the Goldwater Rule was espoused before World War II in Germany by sociologist Max Weber who argued that experts should not offer opinions that could be regarded as “partisan.” Weber’s opinion “encouraged the intellectual and professional leaders of Germany to remain silent, even in the face of enormous and unprecedented danger,” Gilligan said.

Gilligan said psychiatric professionals should speak out about trump even if they have not personally interviewed him because there is a wealth of public comments to examine. The public record is replete with trump comments and actions from his past sexual assaults on women to his latest plan to seek vengeance over political opponents, use the military to quell political dissent, imprison immigrants in massive camps and so much more. Gilligan said the most reliable data for the assessment of dangerousness often does not come from the person but from police reports, criminal history, court and prison records.

“Or in Trump’s case, simply from his own public statements threatening, inciting, and boasting of violence, and most importantly, showing no feelings of guilt or remorse about it,” Gilligan said. “This is somebody who is showing a maximum of sensitivity — I’d say hypersensitivity — to shame and humiliation.”

He said psychiatrists who remain silent in assessing trump’s dangerousness gives “passive support to people who would make the extremely dangerous and naive mistake of assuming that Trump is a normal politician. He’s no more normal than Hitler was.”

Another speaker was Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University and distinguished professor emeritus of John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Lifton is known for his studies of doctors who aided Nazi war crimes.

Lifton spoke of trump’s “malignant normality” that is seen in dangerous patterns of behavior.

“He’s violated various institutional norms of the American presidency and has really threatened the viability of American democracy,” Lifton said. “Since he is the President, however, there’s an impulse to see his behavior as normal.”

Lifton compared the normalizing of trump with an early Cold War commission that was chaired by a psychiatrist, social scientists and doctors. The task was to help the American people “adapt to the inevitable nuclear war that was coming. And to not be too frightened, too afraid of annihilation, which people were indeed showing fear of.” Lifton said psychiatrists “and other ostensible healers” were tasked with “defending malignant nuclear normality” not unlike professionals today seem responsible for normalizing the actions of trump.

Another speaker was Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and an expert on traumatic stress. Herman had been unsuccessful in urging support for a psychiatric and full medical evaluation of trump before he was inaugurated. She said only two colleagues were willing to sign a letter calling for the evaluation and that others refused to sign, fearing retribution.

Herman said that the psychiatric community should share pertinent knowledge about presidential candidates like trump.

“We do have the duty to share that with the public,” Herman said.

A member of the audience who said she was a psychiatric professional, compared thought reform by Chinese Communists to trump’s method of manipulating public opinion.

“There is merely the declaration of a reality, a false reality that never occurred, and an insistence that first his spokesmen and then the rest of the world join in this reality, and antagonistic anger toward the ones who refuse to do it,” the audience member said. “We have to recognize it, identify it, and combat it — combat it with truth, but also make clear the psychological pattern that produces it along with the social media, the technology of our time.”

--

--

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer