The Mass Psychology Of Trumpism: Mad, Bad, Dangerous, Or All Of The Above?

“Is Trumpism a mental illness?” asked my friend Stefano Morello in an anguished Facebook post.

I half seriously, half flippantly answered with a longwinded version of “What difference does it make?” Evil is evil, regardless of its explanation. If your grandmother gets attacked and killed by a mugger, she’s just as dead, the terror, pain and suffering are just as real, regardless of whether her attacker suffered from mental illness, was abused or neglected as a child, fell in with bad companions, or is simply a rotten excuse for a human being.

There’s nothing wrong with an angels-on-a-pinhead discussion about why evil exists, but when it comes to practical matters, like finding the best ways to build a society that is as safe and as free as possible, “Where did this problem come from?” seems less significant than “What can we do about it?”

It might seem a bit late in the game to worry about Trumpism, with its originator about to depart (at least we hope so; I won’t fully believe it till I see it) from public life. But the movement he has unleashed will not evaporate so quickly, as evidenced by the swastikas and Confederate flags, symbols of past failed movements, that frequently crop up among the ranks of the Trumpists.

I was tempted to tell Stefano, “You grew up in Italy; you know what fascism is,” but he’s too young to remember the full extent of Berlusconi, let alone Mussolini. Anyway, “fascism,” while a literally correct synonym for Trumpism, doesn’t come close to conveying the full extent of its awfulness.

What’s most terrifying about Trumpism is its utter irrationality. True, traditional fascism and Nazism made no sense either, but if you were willing to suspend moral judgment, you could at least see some perverse logic underpinning them.

Not so with Trumpism. While the Trumps themselves were clearly motivated by a lust for wealth and glory, they were more frequently distinguished by their ignorance and idiocy. Looting the national treasury at least makes sense to those of a larcenous nature, but Trump put far more energy into wrecking things for no reason other than cruelty, vindictiveness, or a love for chaos.

In this sense the Trumpists almost have something in common with the early punks who vowed to “fuck shit up,” who rebelled against what they saw as the smarmy niceness of the hippies by rebelling against beauty and order of any kind, even when it made their own lives difficult or impossible.

If a guy breaks into your house and steals your TV, you won’t be happy, but you can at least understand why he did it. What if, however, he breaks in, smashes your TV to bits, scatters garbage and feces all over the floor, then departs without stealing anything at all?

It almost makes it worse. You suffer the same level of loss, but you realize that nobody, not even the crook, has benefited. Compare that to Trump’s dismantling of 50 years’ worth of environmental regulations. Yes, some of that was done at the behest of industries and corporations hoping to make more money by dumping pollution into the public’s air and water, but much of it was so pointless and destructive that even the corporations didn’t want it.

Lowering emission and mileage standards for automobiles, for example, forces us all to breathe fouler air, exacerbates global warming, and leaves us more dangerously dependent on fossil fuels, but it also does huge damage to the very industry it’s supposed to be helping. By switching to pollution-belching gas hogs (especially after they’ve already tooled up to produce more environmentally sound vehicles), American automakers would make their products unsalable almost anywhere else in the world, and, because of their greater oil consumption, more uneconomical here at home.

The motivation seemed to have more to do with giving the finger to environmentalists and conservationists, to say “You hippies want to save the planet? Fuck your planet. And fuck you.” It’s like refusing to wear a mask and giving yourself COVID to own the libs.

So yeah, this would seem to bear the hallmarks of a mental illness, but I wouldn’t want to jump on that explanation too quickly. For one thing, it would be difficult to institutionalize the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump. At any rate, most mental illness these days is treated “in the community,” where those suffering from it continue to be allowed, in that grand American tradition, to vote and own high-powered firearms.

So what do we do about the lingering effects and damage of Trumpism? Many of those who voted for the guy will develop amnesia once the full extent of the damage he wreaked becomes clear, just as it became almost impossible to find a German who’d voted for Hitler after the war ended.

What really worries me is the people – and I know some of them personally – who succumbed fully or partially to the Trump virus.

Yes, that’s what it seems to be, operating in eerie synchrony with one of Trumpism’s vilest legacies, the COVID-19 virus. People who’d always seemed perfectly reasonable, people who were highly skilled in their professions, who in many cases held postgraduate degrees from prestigious universities, went in a frighteningly short time from scorning Trump as a classless charlatan to acknowledging that “he might have one or two worthwhile ideas” to foaming at the mouth with vitriolic invective against “the lamestream media” and “radical socialists” like Joe Biden. It reminded me of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a terrifying horror movie I saw as a kid, only this was more like The Invasion of the Brain Snatchers.

Among the victims I personally knew were a moderately conservative (but decent) church lady who almost voted for Hillary but wound up ready to organize her own crucifixions of homosexuals and liberals, an aging peace-and-love flower child convinced her floral portions could stave off “the COVID hoax” and then suddenly devolved into screaming conspiracy theories from Breitbart and Newsmax, and several middle-aged or elderly punk rockers. The punks were an especially interesting case: some of them were only mouthing Trump slogans to get a rise out of people at first (like the 70s punks who used to wear swastikas for shock value), but before you knew it, their hearts, souls, and brains had gone walkabout in Trumpland.

Trump himself I don’t care that much about. I don’t even care if he’s prosecuted or locked up for his crimes. It’s far more important that he be put in a position where he can never again threaten our democracy, and that can be done through impeachment, lawsuits, stripping him of his assets by pursuing him for business and tax fraud.

But what do we do about those who were bamboozled into voting for him? Can we ever fully trust them again? Suppose they say, “Wow, I don’t know what got into me, it’s like I went temporarily insane. Please don’t let me fall for something like that again.”

That would go a long way toward redemption, but in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking, “Yeah, but once a fascist, always a fascist…?” It’s a creepy feeling, but obviously we can’t have a country where tens of millions of people will be permanently suspect.

It might also be hypocritical. In my life, especially as a teenager, I did a few things that, had the cards fallen slightly differently, could have landed me some hard prison time. On at least a couple of occasions, I weaseled out of trouble by being adjudged “mentally unfit” (it also got me out of the Vietnam War).

Was I a bad person who later became not so bad, or maybe even kind of good? Was I, as Riff from the Jets sings to Officer Krupke, “Depraved on account I’m deprived?” Could I have been not guilty by reason of insanity? Or was Chico Marx closer to the truth when he protested, “You can’t fool me, there ain’t no Sanity Clause.”

In the end, I come back to where I started. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but common sense dictates that certain behaviors simply can’t be tolerated in a civilized society. Whether those crimes are universal and vast – like depriving an ethnicity or race of its civil rights – or limited and local, like robbing your neighbor or destroying his property, we can attempt to explain them, but we can’t excuse them.

There’s a quote – I’ve heard it attributed to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, but also to ancient Buddhist and Daoist teachings – that goes: “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” It seems to sum up our present situation. Eternity might slide by before we figure out why people do bad things, but we don’t have to wait that long to decide that while tolerance is a virtue, too much tolerance will inevitably be exploited, whether by conscience-less street hustlers or a petty conman aspiring to be dictator of the world.

Parents in particular will know what I’m talking about. Catch your kid stealing out of the cookie jar or your purse, and you’re not going to cut off their hand, but you’re also not going to ignore their budding criminal tendencies, at least not if you don’t want a lifetime of hurt for them and yourself. The Trump thing should have been laughed out of existence, or, if necessary, unhesitatingly crushed before it got into a position to do the harm that it’s done. Trump should have been put out of business and made a pariah the first time he pulled one of his New York real estate cons half a century ago.

But nobody was willing or able to do that, and as a result, we’ll be paying the price for decades to come. The survival of the American republic itself is by no means assured, though sending Trump on his way and disarming his legions is a vital first step. Contrary to what F, Scott Fitzgerald would have had us believe, the USA has always been the land of abundant second chances, but sooner or later they do run out. We live and learn – hopefully – but let’s not push our luck.

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