I know, know. I headlined my previous blog “My Last (?) Blog about Trump.” And here I am writing about him again. My aim had been to distance myself from His Toxic-ness and reclaim my life. But this topic has me outraged and so here I am again writing about our Sociopath in Chief, much to my chagrin.
President-Elect Joe Biden is hinting that he is taking a hands-off approach to pursuing criminal or civil investigations against Individual 1 (aka Donald John Trump). Perhaps he is doing this in the interregnum to calm the waters. But I completely disagree with this as a long-term strategy. As a psychologist, not a lawyer, I am not basing my opinion on legal arguments; others have done that admirably, notably Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times. There are, however, very important psychological arguments for pursuing justice against Trump and his co-conspirators that must not be ignored in some ill-conceived pursuit for national unity.
I am also not a political scientist or sociologist, but we know that behaviors that occur in individual relationships are mirrored in larger groups of people. The maneuverings we witness in society, organizations, and political movements are merely individual human behavioral patterns writ large. To highlight this, I described that the country was in a relationship with an abusive president in the 2017 bestselling book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Professionals Assess a President.”
Just like the coronavirus, Trumpism has reached community spread and has vectored out of Donald’s brain into a cult of personality infecting at least 70 million voters and cult followers. I would now widen that label of abusive to include the Republican Party and Trumpist voters who have backed Trump at even larger numbers than in 2016, despite his shockingly sociopathic behavior.
Using a broad definition of abuse as harming another by taking unfair advantage, we can draw comparisons between individual relationships and our national political climate, which helps us clarify why we must prosecute Trump.
To help therapy clients quickly identify abusive personalities, I use the term Other-blamer. Other-blamer is an umbrella term for behaviors you might recognize as narcissistic, sociopathic, borderline, just plain combative or “toxic.” Because of childhood emotional neglect, Other-blamers have low self-worth and poor self-acceptance. As a result, they are fearful of experiences that exacerbate feelings of inadequacy. Many have learned maladaptive strategies to deflect or minimize shame. Other-blamers attempt to externalize shame or criticism by blame-shifting to others, rather than engage in accountability for their mistakes.
In every unhealthy relationship I work with in my therapy practice, Other-blamers are responsible for most of the difficulties. They are hypersensitive to criticism and over-reactive with anger. They hold grudges and behave vindictively. Most are very selfish, uncompromising, and non-reciprocal. Most important for our topic is they are extremely unlikely to be accountable for their bad behavior through prompt apologies and sincere efforts to change.
These Other-blamer behaviors are a source of constant betrayal in relationship. They violate our primal need to feel we can depend on our partners to engage in a relationship in good faith and with reciprocity. Healthy relationships are about give and take. Other-blamers are takers with no give.
What we know in psychology is that repair of relationships requires apology, contrition and accountability. In contrast, Other-blamers rarely repair relationships, leading to distrust that disconnects the partnership and causes it to fail. In working with couples and families, if a partner refuses to apologize or be accountable, or is merely recalcitrant or apologizes insincerely, then it is difficult to heal the relationship. The victim knows the perpetrator doesn’t “get it.” The perpetrator never fully feels guilt and so he sees no reason to reform. Accountability is essential for personal wellbeing, relational peace and social harmony. When we own our mistakes, we are more likely to change our behaviors and so have better relationships.
The main benefit of prosecuting Trump is to achieve reparative justice by holding him accountable. Just as in personal relationships, if a wrongdoer refuses to apologize with true contrition, then we as a society, through the rule of law, must enforce accountability. Pro-social behaviors are encouraged by society through the use of shame and guilt, either through social pressure to conform or, if that does not work, legal measures for the non-compliant.
For sociopaths and narcissists, the only way they they feel consequences is through public shaming and accountability in the courts. Or, as Amsterdam Vallon stated plainly in “Gangs of New York”: “When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
STOP EXPECTING GOOD BEHAVIOR
I educate victims of relational abuse to be very aware that Other-blamers do not enter into relationships with a pro-social mindset. These narcissistic personality types are on the anti-social end of the spectrum, some severely anti-social like Trump. Anti-social is not a diagnostic term, but a description of people who are more focused on their individual needs, rather than concerned about the needs of others. Pro-social individuals embody the “caring and sharing” emotions and behaviors that encourage cooperation, compromise, reciprocity, and altruism and that, in turn, build trusting and trusted relationships.
Just as abuse victims delude themselves that Other-blamers have the same generous and tolerant approach that they do, Biden’s strategy assumes that Trump, the GOP and his cult followers are engaging in a political relationship with the same pro-social aims and morals that he is. Biden hopes that they will see his respectful attempt to “go high” and they will respond in kind. Good luck with that. The past 30 years have shown us plenty of evidence that this hope for a well-behaved GOP is misplaced.
Most recently, as of December 4, 2020, a month after the election, only 27 Republicans agree that Joe Biden is president elect. That leaves 220, or 88%, who refuse to even concede the election result. How likely is it that these blatant partisans are going to be willing to work across the aisle on bipartisan issues? If they cannot concede the obvious fact that Trump lost the election, how are they going to give way on less-obvious issues?
To blindly believe a false narrative of GOP goodwill is like an abused spouse staying in a relationship because “this time he’s changed.” The GOP only views this kindness as weakness and chuckles at our naiveté.
I have to repeatedly remind victims of their tendency to over-trust their abuser and hope for change. While this is a very trusting approach, it merely sets the victim up for more abuse.
Other-blamers have no intention of playing by normal, pro-social norms of reciprocity and fairness in the relationship. They can never be wrong, so you will always be wrong. They will never seek compromise or common ground. You must be the one to accommodate to their needs. They will rarely generously give and will always selfishly take. They do not seek to understand their partner because to do so would require empathy, which would lead to guilt. (It’s been said that Trump and narcissists lack empathy. It is actually that they avoid it because to feel the pain one is causing another triggers feelings of guilt, an emotion which Other-blamers assiduously avoid.)
When working with victims of relational abuse, I try to get them to tap into their innate sense of right and wrong, which has often been weakened through years of their relationship with the abuser. Other-blamers train their victims to ignore injustice and unfairness so that the rules are changed permanently in relationships to permit bad behavior and so that they are not held accountable.
I hope as a country, we do not ignore our own laws and our sense of morality in a rush to “move on” from this abusive relationship.
HEAL THE NATION’S MORAL CORE
Throughout the Trump years we have experienced constant emotional distress at witnessing thousands of instances of antisocial violations of our moral, social and political norms — from Trump’s pointless ego-protecting lies to outright treason to inflicting thousands of deaths through criminal inaction. We have been the victims of Trump’s abusive behavior, with very little recourse except political involvement and activism.
Many Americans are indignant that justice was not done via impeachment, and that tax fraud investigations are grinding along so slowly. There has been no enforcement of violations of federal rules such as election finance, the emoluments clause or the Hatch Act. We now count the days until January 20, watching Trump rage tweet and play golf, all while our fellow citizens die by the thousands because he has worsened the COVID-19 pandemic with his misinformation, inaction, and malfeasance.
I have many clients who express daily distress from moral outrage that the GOP is getting away with such horrific illegal and immoral behaviors. I consider this a form of moral trauma, complete with trauma’s markers of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming, powerful threat. Many of these clients have experienced narcissistic abuse in their lives; seeing Trump get away with his blatant abuse retraumatizes them daily.
For those of us on the pro-social side of the spectrum, our innate sense of right and wrong is triggered just by listening to the news. To find justice disregarded by those who are supposed to embody and enforce it is a violation of our need to hold wrongdoers to account. I, too, have felt a sense of dismay and disgust at the failings of so many people; my faith in humanity has been markedly weakened in the past four years.
If the Biden administration does not prosecute the Trump crime family, this national sense of injustice and betrayal would continue unresolved with long-lasting psychological effects on millions. We would continue to look at our government and fellow citizens with a sense of distrust that would weaken our bonds as a civil society in deeply felt, emotional ways.
Worse yet, a pardon of Trump would destroy our hope for a more moral country. Trump followers would be given an absolute green light to engage in even more horrific, hate-filled behavior and will have no shame-induced motivation to change. GOP politicians would have no reason to reduce divisive rhetoric, to compromise, or curtail corrupt power-grabbing behaviors.
After four years of Trump tantrums, some of us have experienced a deadening of our sense of outrage at egregious behaviors — another day, another “never-before” scandal! Holding Trump accountable for his behaviors would re-awaken society’s sense of morality.
To stabilize society and decrease widespread psychological stress, we must see justice done. This is how, as humans, we can relax into a belief that our leaders will protect us, rules and law will be enforced, and it will be safe for us to be in relationship with each other.
STOP BLAMING THE VICTIM, STOP APPEASING THE ABUSER
I was prompted to write this essay by the numerous articles expressing concern for the defeated Trump voter and demanding that Democrats mend fences with the GOP. This is a very harmful way of framing this relationship. First of all, it is a basic political concept that in our system of government the minority, in general terms, must give way to the majority. When my party loses elections, I accept that I may not get my policy preferences passed or they will be passed in a weaker form than I prefer. That’s how it works. Since when does the victor need to kowtow to the loser? Sure, I understand that compromise and bipartisanship are goals, but why shouldn’t the loser be the one to initiate those efforts? To cater to their supposedly hurt feelings is misguided.
In abusive relationships, the victim, often a woman, caters for years to the abuser. She strives to improve the relationship and is in therapy, reads self-help books, tries to get him into therapy. She’s crying and stressing over the relationship constantly, worried about how to manage his hurt feelings. I often ask her: Do you think he’s in therapy somewhere right now, crying, wondering about your state of mind and how to improve himself to make the relationship work? The answer 100% of the time is an immediate and vociferous “no.” Yet in our national politics, many of these “mend the fences” articles are written by Dems, quivering with self-doubt, wondering how to improve the relationship with the GOP. And where are the Republicans? Weeks later still attacking the election results and Biden and not confronting Trump. Where is their self-reflection, contrition and remorse? Where are the Fox “News” entertainers asking: “What did we do wrong to screw up the country and cause such division?”
From a psychological perspective, appeasing the GOP is not the way toward healing the country. By continually seeking to placate abusers, we are granting acceptance of their immorality and giving power to their minority political position. Instead, we must stand up for the abuse victims, not bail out the perpetrators with pardons.
Rebecca Solnit has written in response to numerous requests for post-election “unity”: “The implication is the usual one: we—urban multiethnic liberal-to-radical only-partly-Christian America—need to spend more time understanding MAGA America. The demands do not go the other way. Fox and Ted Cruz and the Federalist have not chastised their audiences, I feel pretty confident, with urgings to enter into discourse with, say, Black Lives Matter activists, rabbis, imams, abortion providers, undocumented valedictorians, or tenured lesbians. When only half the divide is being tasked with making the peace, there is no peace to be made, but there is a unilateral surrender on offer. We are told to consider this bipartisanship, but the very word means both sides abandon their partisanship, and Mitch McConnell and company have absolutely no interest in doing that.”
In abusive relationships, the abuser can be considered a “taker” and the victim a “giver.” Often a perennial people-pleaser, the victim placates their partner in hopes of less-coercive treatment. The abuser oversteps boundaries, acts entitled, and claims power that isn’t theirs. If the Dems appease the GOP, despite winning 80 million votes for president, this continual position of “giving” will be met only with “taking” by the entitled and domineering GOP. Why keep trying to mend fences, if the Republicans are only going to tear them down?
This tendency to either blame the victim for being “too hard” on the abuser or for the abuser to play the victim and expect or demand forgiveness is a common dynamic in personal relationships. As a child I very often had to placate and “make nice” to my narcissistic and abusive sister to “keep the peace in the family.” This, of course, merely trained me to tolerate and submit to unfair treatment by others. My apologies also enabled my sister, who was never forced to learn that her behaviors were inappropriate.
Accountability requires that the violator apologizes, not the victim. Yet many commentators believe the Democrats should be the ones seeking to understand Trump voters and reach out to them to make amends. Why? The person who has done the damage must make the repair. If they can’t do this voluntarily, society must engage in reparative justice.
I teach victims of narcissistic relationships to feel empowered and to speak up more assertively. In the same way, we as a country have felt disempowered by our inability to control Trump, who lacks the shame necessary to control his own anti-social behaviors. We have tried assertive activism with protest rallies, marches, and voter engagement. This relationship needs to be rebalanced, so that the victims do not have to raise their voices so strongly to get their needs met. To do this, the other side must learn to listen, be empathic to our needs, and to compromise — a lost skill in the GOP for many years. The only way to teach this lesson is through accountability.
Trumpism has solidly turned the GOP into a cult characterized by a stubborn, selfish narcissistic refusal to bend. As a psychologist I can recognize that this is due to their inability to admit fault for fear of damaging their already-low self-worth. But why should 80 million-plus Americans defer to a minority in the country who are merely acting out their insecurities in the form of abusive, bullying behaviors — so they can feel good about themselves? Why should victims take the abuse, so that the bully feels good? Why should we continue to “make nice” so that emotionally immature tyrants can maintain their egos? By caving in to this demand for respect for snowflake Trumpers, we are enabling further abusive behavior.
Think of prosecuting Trump to the fullest extent of the criminal and civil law as helping the victims of abuse to heal, rebalancing our national relationships, and empowering those who have been disempowered for too long.
PREVENTING TRUMP ROYALTY
From a political perspective, holding Trump criminally accountable would help end his political career and that of his children. In a shocking and embarrassing display of petulance, Trump has stated he plans to hold a 2024 election event on inauguration day. Lara Trump has already announced she plans on running for the senate in North Carolina in two years. Ivanka Trump has hinted at running for president. If you don’t hold the Trump crime family accountable, they will be like rats coming out of the sewer — for years.
Let’s game out what would happen in the near term if we don’t prosecute Trump. He will appear on Fox and other outlets and will get his own TV or radio show, giving him platforms to bloviate and lie for thousands and thousands of hours. He will tweet endlessly and keep propagandizing his followers with falsehoods and conspiracies. He will hold election rallies for the next four years and the media will cover them. His campaign emails and ads will stream into his cult members’ email inboxes loaded with exaggerations and lies.
His niece, Mary L. Trump, believes Trump won’t run because he is fearful of being humiliated again by losing. This may be possible, but I believe he will run if he can. His mind, like many severely delusional narcissists and sociopaths, is so trained to avoid humiliation that they don’t really feel this emotion. He’s still claiming weeks after the election that he won and has stated he would not change his mind for six months — an arbitrary date that I guarantee will roll into the future. He has deluded himself into the reality that the election was stolen from him and, therefore, he never really experienced the humiliation of losing. It takes the experience of shame or guilt to learn and change one’s behavior. For Trump, avoiding shame is a well-rehearsed emotional path. If he never feels the shame of losing the election, then running again is a distinct possibility.
Think about the many obvious facts that Trump deludes himself into ignoring, such as his belief his inaugural crowd was bigger than President Obama’s, even though the photos clearly disprove this delusion. If he can alter reality about these facts, then he can continue to alter reality to suit his needs about the 2020 election results, too.
If Biden does not pursue investigations, and Trump runs in 2024, then how can the Democrats respond? They can’t. Democrats will be unable to campaign against Trump’s corrupt actions. Yet their impeachment votes will be brought up endlessly as a biased attempt at a “coup” against Trump. He will crow that he has done nothing wrong and the Dems will have no counter argument. And pity the nominee in 2024 after Trump has spent four years claiming the Dems are all evil socialists. If Trump’s followers didn’t waver in their support with 250,000 people dead from COVID on his watch, four more years of his lies will only strengthen the brainwashing.
If Don the Con spends three years propagandizing his followers on national media, most GOP politicians will be afraid to run against him, just as they are now afraid to stand up to him. The GOP primary will be a coronation of Trump and his family.
Prosecuting Trump is essential if we are to prevent a second Trump election and a subsequent Trump royal family. Even if they are not successful, holding them accountable may protect our democracy by forestalling future tyrants. There is no better reason. Consider it like breaking the cycle of abuse in a family system.
DEPROGRAMMING THE CULT
We must consider Trump followers as also victims of the cult of Trumpism and strive to get them out of this cult as soon as possible. With news coverage of future Trump convictions and punishments, MAGA-heads may finally begin to wake up from their alt-right induced mind meld. They will have a very hard time rationalizing how a judge and jury fabricated evidence in court.
But even if we don’t convince any Trumpers to abandon him, that should not stop us from pursuing justice. The goal of justice is not to convince everyone of the truth, but to speak the truth.
WHY NOT ACCOUNTABILITY AND RECONCILIATION?
In marriage therapy, we work to reconcile the couple, but also hold one or both accountable for their behaviors. It is possible to both reach out to Trump acolytes and hold them accountable. We can both state a willingness to work toward compromise on future issues, if they are willing to do the same, and we can prosecute Trump and his co-conspirators for their crimes. We can say that Trump and the GOP did things that were immoral and wrong (and possibly criminal), and say that if the GOP leadership admits fault and reforms itself, that the Democrats can try to work with them going forward.
WE ARE ALL ACCOUNTABLE
Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor and media commentator, has advocated for holding Trump accountable via the legal system for his many likely crimes, including conspiring with Michael Cohen to pay off Stormy Daniels, soliciting a bribe from Ukrainian president, violating numerous campaign finance laws, obstructing Congress by telling executive branch employees to refuse to comply with legal subpoenas, witness tampering with Ambassador Yovanovic, bank fraud, tax fraud, imprisoning children, and even for causing needless COVID deaths by his malfeasance.
Kirschner makes an interesting argument that the U.S. Criminal Code may offer Biden a viable means of prosecuting Trump without looking like he is vindictively pursuing his former opponent.
The Criminal Code provides that anyone who helped a perpetuator get away with the crime is an “accessory after the fact.” This means that if Biden agrees not to prosecute Trump and his co-conspirators, then he and his administration officials are actually accessories after the fact. Biden and his Department of Justice have the legal responsibility to hold people accountable for crimes. Even if Biden has well-intentioned reasons for bailing Trump out in the name of national unity, the law is clear.
Using Kirchner’s “accessory after the fact” theory, we could extrapolate that the U.S. citizenry would also guilty as accessories to Trump’s crimes if we do not prosecute. Don’t we all learn that if one doesn’t speak up against bullying, we are just as guilty as the bully? If we see a woman being abused and do nothing, aren’t we also somewhat culpable?
Kirscher in this video also asks us to consider this: As a prosecutor, he never told one victim of a crime that the way to heal is to decline to hold the attacker accountable. That is the opposite of justice. We would be compounding the injustice of Trump and the victimization we have all suffered. Trump has committed crimes against the American people and we must do the hard work of holding them accountable. Kirschner recommends opening a grand jury investigation on January 20 to begin pursuing justice.
Or in my psychological framework, Biden giving Trump a free pass would be enabling abuse.
Other-blamers thrive under conditions where their behaviors are normalized, ignored, excused and permitted.
Sociopaths and narcissists like Trump view everything through a binary lens of winning (lack of accountability and the freedom to victimize others) and losing (accountability). We must make them understand unequivocally that they are no longer free to victimize and abuse others.
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This is exactly right, Dr. West…I completely concur!
Ms. West: THANK YOU for your wonderful article on holding trump accountable! As a fellow therapist, I appreciate your “comparisons between individual relationships and our national political climate.” Since the election, I have found myself PLEADING for him to be prosecuted after Jan 20th, but I’ve felt that my reasons for wanting that was mostly due to a gut reaction of right versus wrong. Thank you for clarifying this with your article.
What I have witnessed is a man put on the air with a t.v. show the Apprentice. I have never watched it however after leaving trump announcing his bid and RUPERT Murdoch is responsible for his takeover through the media company trump had many followers. This whole mess is because of bad education and human nature. No one man can to what he has done, he has followers , its nuts
Trump’s recorded comment to Bob Woodward that “You don’t understand me. But that’s OK. You’ll understand me after the election” is a chilling reminder from Trump himself that he will continue to do harm, even if he is not in office, and therefore it is imperative that he be held accountable for his crimes.
Excellent article. Don’t mistake Biden’s “ taking a hands-off approach” to mean there will be no justice at the end. In my view it is important for Biden to take this approach in order to avoid any appearance of making it political like his predecessor. He needs to be hands off and let his justice department handle it. This is as important as the fact that Trump and his conspirators should be held responsible for their crimes. I am 100% with this well written article otherwise.