Editor's note: Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., M.D., has diagnosed and treated more than 1,500 patients as a board-certified clinical psychiatrist and examined more than 2,700 civil and criminal cases as a board-certified forensic psychiatrist. Author of the acclaimed 2011 book, "The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness," Rossiter here offers a new and eye-opening analysis of those Americans growing increasingly hysterical over the presidency of Donald J. Trump, a condition often labeled "Trump Derangement Syndrome."
By Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., M.D.
Research in child development over the past few decades has revealed a process of growth to adulthood far more complex than anything envisioned by earlier theories. Recent work in neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology have provided new insights into how we think, emote, behave and relate as infants and toddlers interacting with our earliest caretakers. Those insights, in turn, help shed light on how we eventually understand the adult world.
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It is not news, of course, that the foundations of adult competence are laid down in the earliest interactions between an infant and his mother. She is, after all, his first and most important connection with a world he must eventually comprehend. But the nature and quality of that connection are both profound and subtle in ways we did not suspect in earlier inquiries.
The child's interaction with his mother begins with her willingness and ability to engage him, bond with him and enable his secure attachment to her. The child brings to this relationship certain genetically determined dispositions – his own abilities and limitations – for connecting with her. But it is in that most basic relationship that he must begin to understand a complex world of psychosocial interactions, and what he learns there will strongly affect how he relates to others as an adult.
Unfortunately, some individuals who do not complete this difficult task well enough develop personality disturbances that cause significant impairment in coping with life's challenges. Many of these disturbances are formally catalogued by psychiatrists as personality disorders, but occasionally such impairments get labeled informally by laypersons as "derangement syndromes."
One such syndrome has been especially prominent since the 2016 presidential election. Certain kinds of reactions to the victor of that event have earned the label Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS. A close look at it can be instructive.
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Like past versions (Bush Derangement Syndrome, for example), the TDS is notable for its intense subjective distress. Persons suffering from a TDS experience high levels of agitation and fear about their own safety and about future prospects for a good life. The sufferer may also fear more broadly for the survival of whole nations and even for life on our planet. In fact, it is not unusual for a patient with a Trump Derangement Syndrome to predict apocalyptic events in the near future. These expected disasters are attributed to the predicted actions of Donald Trump in his role as president of the United States. In that role he is seen as an especially destructive individual bent on wreaking havoc on a highly vulnerable world.
In addition to fear and related symptoms, anger and rage are prominent in this syndrome. In the present case, Trump is hatefully portrayed as a diabolically villainous perpetrator of evil deeds. Calls for his death or torture or for harm to his family are not unusual and may even be displayed with pride.
What is most striking in these syndromes, however, is not the quality and degree of emotional upset. What is most striking is the extent to which individuals suffering from the syndrome distort their perceptions of real world events, especially events in economic, social and political realms. Most prominent among those distortions is the intensely negative bias in perceptions of America in general, and of Donald Trump in particular. According to TDS sufferers, neither Trump nor America can do anything good economically, socially or politically, and neither has redeeming features.
The mindset in this syndrome sees Trump as a hateful man bent on destroying lives. But there is no evidence to support this view. Trump is more than 70 years old and has no record of criminal behavior or history of destructiveness in other ways. He is certainly self-centered, egotistical and grandiose, and he is often boorish, insulting and contemptuous. He gets defensive easily and retaliates when offended in ways that are adolescent at best. He can be careless with facts and he lies too often. He has been unfaithful to his wife. There is ample evidence for all of these allegations on casual observation. But many of these traits have been prominent in other political figures. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for instance, have engaged in far more serious wrongdoing, but have not evoked a fraction of the agitation that characterizes the TDS.
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In fact, Trump is not all bad. He has several good traits that are by now well known to persons who are not prejudiced against him. Stories of Trump's personal generosity, kindness and willingness to put forth great effort for good causes are common knowledge. His record as president for only 20 months is surprisingly impressive. Under his leadership, America is enjoying resurgent economic growth, more jobs, lower taxes, fewer regulations, increased work-force participation, reduced numbers of food-stamp recipients and greater productivity. Most Americans approve of Trump's determination to protect our country's borders. Most Americans are more optimistic since he took office. Trump has attacked with great vigor a corrupt, illegal and massively exploitative Deep State that has become entrenched in the bowels of Washington for decades.
By any reasonable standards, these are constructive achievements, not damaging attacks on America or Americans.
In the personal relationship realm, Trump seems to be on good terms with his several children. Most of us take this fact as an indicator of good character, not a sign of malevolence. By common sense measures, good long-term relationships with one's children argue against allegations of malignant intent. For most of us, a record of such relationships is an important reflection on decency. The open support of Trump's children for him, and their lack of apparent resentment toward him, suggest that he has been a caring and accessible father.
On these observations, it seems that Donald Trump is an obviously mixed bag. He is a very flawed man, but also a very talented, productive, creative man. He is many things. But he is not a criminal or a devil if we look at the facts.
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But persons with Trump Derangement Syndrome don't see a mixed human being with good and bad traits. They see instead an intensely evil man with diabolical goals. These views of Donald Trump distort the reality of who and what he is; they distort his motives and his goals for himself, for America and the world. The facts just cited about Trump, and many others that could be cited, argue that the Donald Trump perceived by those suffering a derangement syndrome with his name on it does not exist. The real Donald Trump is the mixed bag of virtues and vices just described. And, as I will argue further, what we in fact have in Donald Trump is a benign narcissist whose efforts to enhance himself as president of the United States are having a surprisingly positive effect on our country. A little reflection on this topic suggests that in his intense identification with the fortunes of America, Trump is determined to make himself great again by making America great again. By enhancing the power, wealth, prestige and influence of America, Donald Trump is determined to enhance his own grandiose self. He may well achieve that goal. If he does, he would not be the first narcissist to benefit others as he benefits himself.
Trump's views of himself and America, stated routinely in superlatives, are of course directly opposite to the views held by persons suffering from a Trump Derangement Syndrome. Beyond their ideas about Trump himself, however, those afflicted with a TDS typically have ideas about America as a nation. It will surely surprise no one that such individuals see America in ways similar to their view of Trump. From parallel perspectives, many individuals who disparage Trump the man disparage America the country.
In fact, it is apparent that most individuals and groups on the radical political left see America as an incarnation of evil that is at least as wicked as its current president. In their eyes, our country is harsh, mean-spirited, imperialistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, indifferent to the welfare of children and determined to deprive women of their right to have an abortion. These critics believe America is also hateful toward certain ethnic groups, especially Mideast Muslims, some of whom it refuses to admit as political refugees.
The radical left sees only bad motives in the policies implicit in these allegations. It denies any benign or reasonable goals in America's foreign, domestic or immigration policies. In their minds, there are no justifiable reasons for Trump's policies, such as protection against terrorism or avoiding intolerable strain on American welfare, education, crime prevention and healthcare systems. In the eyes of those who hate both Donald Trump and the country he now leads, America is a bad place, especially because it once permitted slavery. The fact that it ended slavery and has fought against it heroically and at enormous cost doesn't matter to the haters.
These one-sided views mischaracterize contemporary and historical America. They deny contrary realities that are essential to a realistic understanding of who and what America is and has been, and who and what Donald Trump is. Among other things, those who hate both Trump and America fail to see the nearly countless good things about America, and the several good things about Trump. They fail to see Americans relating to each other every day in ways both happy and productive. They fail to see that everywhere in America, citizens engage in autonomous and mutual actions that improve the lives of both individuals and groups.
They fail to see the spontaneous, widely beneficial social order that is everywhere apparent in these relationships. Those relationships arise at all levels and in all domains of human action. In ordinary communities across America the virtues of charity, altruism, caring, kindness, compassion, cooperation, problem solving, responding to and caring for local needs and disabilities, overcoming hardship and poverty, assisting and rescuing people from disasters – all of these are commonplace in American life. In fact, these behaviors are natural for human beings when they live in any free society. They are stifled when political conditions, local or national, prevent their spontaneous expression.
Why doesn't the radical liberal mind see all of this, and much more, that is true about America and obvious to the rest of us? The answer is evident on listening to a radical liberal talk about himself and his life and on learning about his early experience of relating to others. In fact, the radical liberal has been traumatized. He has suffered deprivation, neglect and abuse during his formative years. The work of Notre Dame Professor Darcia Narvaez, in particular, has revealed the roots of disturbed early relating and their effects on later capacities for understanding the world of human relationships. Early deficits in maternal engagement, empathy, attunement, identification, synchrony, perspective taking, intersubjectivity and mentalizing result in serious deficits in the child's later ability to comprehend even basic ways in which human beings cooperate for mutual benefit. These deficits in afflicted individuals prevent them from appreciating the personhood of the other, to understand his sensibilities and vulnerabilities, to recognize the qualities that justify seeing him as a unique and sovereign being like oneself, a deeply sentient soul who deserves respect and even the reverence implied by the Golden Rule.
This ability to understand through empathy another human being as a person like oneself, to recognize the other in his full subjectivity as a being with whom one has a deep identification, is developmentally prior to merely learning the rules of a reasonable moral code. The capacity to perceive the other as a person of surpassing importance grows out of a child's earliest relating to its mother and other family members. When well enough developed, it enables one to understand the uniquely individual personhood of the other as a special being and not just an object or thing or fungible member of one or more collectives, an item in some arbitrary identity politics category, an obstacle or tool to be manipulated. Indeed, this reverential view of the other is the basis for the profound moral duty an ethically competent adult feels toward his fellow human beings. It is an ontological prerequisite for the authentic moral commitment that holds a free society together.
It is also a capacity that allows one to see and appreciate in depth the good things that others do individually and jointly, and thus to see the goodness in a society of persons routinely doing good things for each other. In fact, the ability to see a society of basically good people requires the observer to understand the personal and interpersonal operations that define competent human beings acting individually, collectively, reciprocally.
That understanding, for which we have innate genetic dispositions, needs good enough experiences in one's formative years to become operational in one's adult years. Absent those experiences, a child is likely to be blind to the goodness of others. He is likely to see instead only an impersonal world of cruelty, greed, indifference, malevolence, exploitation and selfishness. In his defective perceptions of this world, he is also very likely to deny his own and others' freedom to choose a better life, to see the endless opportunities for improving one's circumstances by entering into the lives of benevolent human communities all around him, to stop blaming imagined oppressors for his difficulties, and stop protesting that others are keeping him down.
The man or woman who identifies with the radical left in America or who suffers from a Trump Derangement Syndrome suffers because his distortions of the relational world construct a false picture of human relating. In particular, he or she distorts the great virtues of America and even the modest virtues of Donald Trump. Individuals so afflicted deny the psychosocial benevolence of America and the vast numbers of generous, decent and charitable people that constitute its core population.
The radical liberal mind is trapped in his bitter cynicism because he suffered certain kinds of neglect, deprivation and abuse at an early age and has had as a consequence to deny, as if they don’t exist, whole realms of human experience, because awareness of those realms is emotionally painful beyond his tolerance. He has not had as an infant and toddler the deeply formative benefits of engagement, love, tenderness, protection and empathy that would allow him to understand and participate happily in the human benevolence that is everywhere available to him as an adult.
To the radical liberal who is blind to an entire realm of interpersonal experience, and who distorts the realities of spontaneous cooperation in every community where freedom prevails, America and Trump are devils that must be stopped from destroying the world. The radical liberal and the Trump-deranged individual see only the projections onto others of their own inner badness, greed, predation, exclusion, prejudice, bigotry, envy, jealousy and exploitative impulses. They don't see, beyond Trump's personality faults, his goodwill for America, his generosity toward veterans and other Americans, his grandiose but effective identification with the greatness of America. The dysfunctional families which radical liberals and Trump-deranged sufferers come from are the source of their projections of badness onto our country. What they see in present-day America are transference versions of their own early traumas.
The deeply pained, hateful, needy, greedy 'me,' the deprived, neglected, abused 'me,' the narcissistic, uncaring, callously indifferent parent I grew up with – all of these negative personas, and more, are projected onto the American people, onto Donald Trump as a particular individual, and onto America, the historical nation. Nothing fair, balanced or objective comes out of these distortions. The mixed realities of our people, our current president and our nation's record of exceptional humanity are lost in the misconceptions of the radical liberal mind and the Trump Derangement Syndrome.
The dire consequences of these misconceptions cannot be overstated. Among them is the constant harangue of injustice that contaminates the postmodern American mood. A steady litany of grievances defines the identity politics of the contemporary left in America. But the most serious consequence of the left's endless complaints is the campaign to "transform" America through government power, to denounce and eventually eliminate the foundational principles on which the first society of ordered liberty in all of human history was created. Persons who, for whatever reason, are afflicted with hatred for America believe her marriage, family, child rearing, ethics, education and religious institutions, as well as her principles of limited government, rule of law, capitalism and free markets must all be changed. Those changes, they believe in their hearts, will cure old wounds of deprivation, neglect and abuse from childhood that torment the radical liberal mind.
In their distorted thought patterns, all of these institutions must be attacked, punished and eliminated because they are evil. In their place, Utopia will appear: the transformations of America through big government coercion imagined by the left will end inequalities of wealth and status. Increased government power will end private property and redistribute it equally to all in need. Socializing what is now privately owned will make all citizens equal owners of the world's most productive assets and give everyone the material security they need. The new and just society thus created will wipe out poverty and end the pangs of envy. Equality of outcomes of all kinds will end class conflict, restore a universal brotherly love in all of us, and allow everyone the freedom to be what he wishes, as Karl Marx promised. The new collectivist regime will protect the environment, end capitalist exploitation of the masses, and eliminate all injustices involving race, ethnicity, gender and social status.
These and other utopian fantasies drive the wounded minds of modern liberalism. They are the "progressive" solution to what those on the left see as existential problems to be solved by changing America's organizing institutions. With a ruling class of superior intellects, a new and better society with the authority to make new rules will create a societal paradise.
But none of this is rational. None of it accommodates human nature. None of it respects the human condition.
This vision for a new socialist society is, in fact, deeply regressive in its embrace of the big government power needed to actualize it. It is doomed to fail like all other statist visions. It is an old liberal madness repackaged as a cure for what pains radical liberals and deranged Trump haters. It is a prescription for transforming America into a second Venezuela. It is a dire threat to all that is reasonable in social policy.
Those of us who understand its power to destroy the American miracle must not let it happen.
That admonition must guide the actions of conservative Americans and all other human beings who understand the madness of the modern liberal-progressive movement. The people who drive this movement are determined to jettison thousands of years of Judeo-Christian wisdom and its culmination in the founding of America. In its place, the radicals will construct a new world order based on distorted conceptions of human nature. Their goals are hopelessly irrational and always in conflict with that nature. For that reason they will be opposed by all reasonable adults.
Preserving the American miracle requires that mature, right-thinking people who still honor America's Judeo-Christian heritage finally win the war of ideas, while simultaneously standing up and opposing the left's violence and attempts at mob rule. The future of a sane social order for human beings hangs in the balance.
Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., M.D., received his medical and psychiatric training at the University of Chicago and served for two years as a psychiatrist in the U.S. Army, later working for decades in private practice in Chicago. Board certified in both general and forensic psychiatry, Rossiter, now retired, diagnosed and treated mental disorders for more than 40 years. He has been retained by numerous public offices, courts and private attorneys as a forensic psychiatrist and has consulted in more than 2,700 civil and criminal cases in both state and federal jurisdictions. He is the author of the 2011 book, "The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness."