David J. Bookbinder, LMHC
First, they came for the Mexicans and the Muslims.
Then, they came for the refugees and the immigrants.
Then, they came for the Blacks, the Latinxs, the Native Americans.
Then, they came for the old, the sick, the poor.
Now, they come for us all.
Therapist as Analyst
I’m a psychotherapist.
It may seem unusual for someone with a background in psychology to analyze national public health and political events. But these events are shaped by people, and all people are governed by psychological forces.
Specifically, Donald Trump is a person, as are his closest advisors, each with their own motivations for their words, actions, and inactions. Collectively, they form an entity I’ll call “Trump & Company.”
And as I’ll demonstrate here, Trump & Company are killing us.
When I work with clients, I’m always looking for consistencies and inconsistencies – what fits, what doesn’t fit, and what I may be missing.
As I learn about their particular collection of symptoms and complaints, I look for patterns, and then for the conscious and unconscious motivations that generate those patterns. Like a detective investigating a crime scene, I follow clues, gathering and analyzing bits of evidence until, over time, the puzzle pieces fall into place and a coherent, consistent whole emerges.
Many of my clients come to me with a set of symptoms that at first seem unrelated. But there’s always a common denominator, an underlying motivation behind their actions and inactions.
I work backwards from effects to causes. The process resembles the way astronomers discovered Pluto nearly a century ago. From observed perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, they predicted that another planet, or something like a planet, must be in the vicinity. The perturbations were the effects that led them to the cause, the gravitational force of Pluto.
With my clients. I observe the perturbations in their lives, and those perturbations lead me, eventually, to the motivational forces that cause them. At that point, I have a working diagnosis of the underlying disorder.
Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been applying a similar process to Trump & Company and their handling and mishandling of the myriad actions needed to tame a global pandemic. What are they doing? What are they not doing? What are the effects? And, working backward from these effects, actions, and inactions, I’ve asked myself, What are their motivations?
The perturbations in public health, the economy, and in the streets are on a scale far greater than any of us alive today has seen. Like the perturbations in the lives of my clients and in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, they have a common origin. If we sift through the haystack of information, we can pinpoint exactly where the proverbial needle lies.
When clients come to therapy in crisis, the first few sessions feel like we’re playing Whac-a-Mole with their problems, tamping down one issue one week, only for another to pop up the next. But once we’ve located the source of their perturbations, we can work together to restore balance.
Unless we understand the source of the perturbations in our country since the pandemic began, we, the people of the United States, can only play Whac-a-Mole, tamping down one emergency only to have another surface somewhere else. But once we’ve located that source, we can work together to restore the nation to balance.
In therapy, initially, all we are working with is the unfolding of apparently unconnected behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and history. The diagnostic process requires patience and an open mind, what the poet John Keats called negative capability – the ability to dwell in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” But it’s important to get it right.
The same is true for discerning the motivations behind the actions of Trump & Company. It’s important to get that right, too. Their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is often described as chaotic. But when we look carefully at what they’ve done, what they’ve delayed, and what they’ve failed to do, we see that everything has unfolded in a consistent pattern, driven by a common agenda.
To understand this agenda, it’s helpful to distinguish between unconscious and conscious motivations.
When a client’s motivation for self-defeating behavior is unconscious, it usually fulfills a secondary gain.
Let’s say I have an alcoholic client whose family, job, and health are all collapsing. He’s aware that he has a problem, and that getting sober could avert disaster, but he keeps drinking anyway. Common sense, and Nancy Reagan, would say, “Just say no.” But he can’t, because the only time he gets relief from his misery is when he’s drunk.
What he really wants is relief, the secondary gain. Alcohol is just a means to that end.
Sometimes, however, motives are conscious. An alcoholic client with a pending court case might hide his drinking for months, feigning sobriety, because a positive letter from me is like a Get Out of Jail Free card. This client, too, may drink to find relief – the secondary gain – but lying to cover it up is consciously motivated.
Despite Trump & Company’s declarations that “everything is under control,” the steady march of disease continues, millions are still jobless, and businesses continue to collapse. Yet their pandemic response follows the same pattern.
Are their motivations unconscious or conscious? And if the latter, what are they concealing?
When I first saw Trump & Company through a therapist’s lens, my thought was that they have stayed this disastrous course because they can’t bear the shame of admitting they’ve failed. Protecting fragile egos might be the unconscious secondary gain, I considered, that has kept them heading in the wrong direction.
But a few months into the pandemic, I had to set secondary gain aside. Their briefings, tweets, and interviews subjected them to widespread criticism and ridicule. People who are protecting fragile egos avoid criticism and ridicule at all costs. So I looked, instead, for conscious motivations.
I have to listen very carefully to clients, like the court-mandated alcoholic, who might be hiding something from me. It isn’t easy to catch a proficient liar when I see only what goes on in the laboratory of my office. Week after week, I must patiently sort through the details, separating fact from fiction.
With Trump & Company, however, I have almost unlimited data at my fingertips – thousands of speeches, interviews, tweets, and stories on the evening news, YouTube, and in my email feed. And I don’t have to rely only on their words. Every day, I can see how their actions play out in the world.
In my early days as a therapist, I was naïve, and some clients successfully deceived me to achieve their hidden agendas. But as time has passed, I’ve wised up.
I’ve wised up to Trump & Company, too. And the penny has dropped.
In February and March of this year, Trump & Company’s motivation still seemed like denial: This can’t happen here. Hands covering their eyes, fingers in their ears. Like George W. Bush, reading with children for more than 20 minutes after the Secret Service had told him about 9/11.
Then it looked like negligence: Caught with their pants down. Nobody could have seen this coming.
Then I thought it was derangement: Injecting disinfectant, shining UV rays into the lungs. “Is there a way we can do something like that?”
Then I was sure it was narcissism: This China virus can’t mess with my beautiful economy and my beautiful re-election.
Then, as the richest got much richer while the rest of us got poorer, it looked like greed.
But now I see what it’s been all along: Trump & Company are using the pandemic to further their agenda. And to further their agenda, many of us must die.
The Virus King
When I first meet with clients, I’m seeing the effects of causes that are, most of the time, unknown to me. The effects may be addictions, attention issues, relationship troubles, suicidal thinking, or any of the hundreds of presenting problems I’ve seen in my practice. As my clients and I get to know each other better, we uncover the causes and motivations for these effects.
When I look at how Trump & Company have handled things this year, the effects are that we are in the midst of widespread, unchecked viral infections and deaths on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world, along with the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, and the greatest racial divide since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
When I drill down into the pandemic, and who is dying from it, a more specific effect is that older people, poorer people, Blacks and Latinxs, Native Americans, people with chronic illnesses or mental disabilities, and prisoners are dying at a disproportionate rate when compared to younger, healthier, wealthier white people.
Some examples: Blacks, Indigenous people, and Latinxs are dying at more than twice the rate of white people, and they are dying at much younger ages. People with chronic illnesses are dying at 10 to 15 times the rate of people without them. People older than 75 are dying at more than 100 times the rate of those under 45.
These are the effects. What are the causes and motivations behind them?
As statistics on COVID-19 deaths emerged, the clouds parted around the Trump & Company’s seemingly chaotic pandemic response.
The sensation was familiar. It’s how I feel when a client reveals a missing piece of information that abruptly, and permanently, clarifies their diagnosis. Ah, you were raped; I see. Ah, you were beaten; I understand. Ah, you’ve been shooting heroin; that explains a lot.
The new information clarifies the shape of the puzzle. Symptoms that might have been accounted for by a variety of diagnoses narrow to just one.
In the case of Trump & Company’s pandemic response, the death-rate disparity between younger, healthier whites and the rest of the population was the missing piece of data that narrowed their possible motivations from many to one.
It seemed strangely coincidental that the people hit hardest by the pandemic were the very people that the white supremacists in Trump & Company’s base would like to see eliminated from the U.S. population.
Once the penny dropped, I saw that the only conclusion that fit all the facts was this: Trump & Company are encouraging the virus’ unchecked spread so it will have precisely the effects we are seeing.
Skeptical? So was I. I’m a dot connector. Was I connecting dots that weren’t actually there to be connected?
When my diagnoses for clients differ from those of previous therapists they have seen, I examine their history in more detail. Let’s do the same with Trump & Company. Following is a summary of their actions, delays, and failures to act that, rather than mitigating the spread of the virus, either contributed to its escalation or failed to diminish it.
Trump & Company set the stage for an uncontrolled pandemic as soon as they took office by:
- Discarding pandemic response plans from the Bush and Obama administrations and failing to create their own plan.
- Shutting down the long-running PREDICT global pandemic prevention program.
- Closing most of the CDC’s offices outside the United States, including those in China.
- Dismissing pandemic warnings from their own experts
As the pandemic progressed, Trump & Company weakened this country’s ability to contain the outbreak by:
- Closing borders to China but allowing U.S. citizens and permanent residents to re-enter the country without quarantine, then doing the same thing with European countries several weeks later.
- Alienating and antagonizing China, the country with the greatest expertise in fighting the virus.
- Denying the threat of the disease
- Failing to develop a nationally coordinated strategy for rapid testing and for PPE and ventilator distribution.
- Delaying lockdowns until after the virus had seeded coastal states, then making no preparations for containing hotspots or handling a subsequent infection wave.
- Sidelining trustworthy infectious disease experts and replacing them with advisors who have no experience in infectious disease.
- Refusing to fund trials of treatments that other countries successfully implemented.
- Withdrawing from the WHO and refusing to participate in their COVAX global vaccine development and distribution program.
Throughout the pandemic, Trump & Company have encouraged the virus’ spread by:
- Politicizing masks and discouraging people from wearing them.
- Pressuring states to open their economies while infections were still rising, and encouraging armed protests in states that refused to relax restrictions.
- Promoting ineffective and potentially hazardous treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, as well as dangerous measures such as injecting disinfectants and shining UV light inside the body.
- Blaming the increase in infections on testing, trying to block funding for more testing, and pressuring the CDC to recommend that asymptomatic people not be tested, even when they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.
- Holding large-scale political rallies and events without social distancing or masks.
- Attempting to force colleges and primary schools to hold in-person classes regardless of the rate of infection in their areas.
- Attempting to force people to vote in person by undermining mail-in voting
Who does these things in a global pandemic?
If, as Trump so often puts it, this is a war against an “invisible enemy,” then we are all cannon fodder in the service of the Virus King.
I was raised Jewish, and my favorite holiday was Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt.
When I consider the many ways that Trump & Company could have responded differently to the pandemic, I’m reminded of the song Dayenu.
Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” The song expresses gratitude for the miracles God performed when He freed the Hebrew people from bondage. It describes divine interventions such as parting the Red Sea, feeding His people for 40 years in the desert, and leading them to the Promised Land.
After each of God’s deeds, the response is dayenu, “it would have been enough.”
If He had split the sea for us, and not taken us through it on dry land
– Dayenu, it would have been enough!
The Hebrew people’s God intervened to relieve their suffering. I imagine how our lives might be, had Trump & Company intervened with similar intent. I see families sitting around a table together, decades from now, singing a version of Dayenu that goes something like this:
If Trump & Company had followed the pandemic response plan and not kept the CDC strong
– Dayenu, it might have been enough!
If Trump & company had kept the CDC strong and not developed a national testing strategy
– Dayenu, it might have been enough!
And so on.
Of course, none of that happened here, and so we find ourselves in a nightmare from which we cannot awaken.
The New Paradigm
In my work with clients, when new data or a new insight creates a paradigm shift, it’s as if a bright, clarifying light illuminates everything that had previously been in the shadows. Guided by this light, we can move forward with confidence and efficiency to help restore their disrupted lives to balance.
For me, a paradigm shifted as I watched Trump’s July 3rd speech at Mount Rushmore.
Earlier that day, reading about the plans for massive Independence Day celebrations in South Dakota and Washington, D.C., I was struck dumb with astonishment.
Why would even this president insist on gatherings of this scale when mayors across the country had almost universally cancelled their much more modest celebrations? Didn’t he know that asymptomatic infected would spread the virus at these events, then carry it home? Didn’t he know that even his own people might sicken and die? Hadn’t he learned from the Tulsa campaign rally that killed his “close friend” Herman Cain, co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, just days before?
Sitting on a friend’s deck, drinking a cup of tea, watching the speech on my phone, the horror descended, and I thought: Of course he knew.
In that moment, everything fell into place: the denial, the incompetence, the delays, and intertwined with all that, the racial hatred, the dog whistles to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, the saber rattling with China, the countless lies.
These people cheering as Trump drinks a glass of water with one hand are the foot soldiers. Like those who have been manipulated to see public safety measures, such wearing masks, as oppression, they are the martyrs who must spread the contagion, so that the Master Race may be made pure.
Ah, pandemicide. Of course.
This was not denial, not incompetence, not accidental. Not even manslaughter, because manslaughter is unpremeditated. It is pure, cold-blooded murder-by-virus.
Once you see this strategy, it’s impossible to un-see it. It’s like discovering a new law of physics.
Every action or inaction – past, present, or future – is better explained by the new paradigm than by any previous theory of motivation. Each new head-scratching decision or deflection that risks lives or prevents saving them makes a macabre kind of sense. Each day, as new information emerges about what should have happened but didn’t, or what did happen but shouldn’t have, my response is no longer horrified bewilderment, but one of more horrifying certainty.
Once the overall pattern is revealed, it becomes easier to also see its components. Within the overall strategy of promoting the virus’s spread, there is a persistent sub-strategy. The basic algorithm goes like this:
- Deny or minimize the threat.
- Delay, dismantle, discredit, or prevent effective interventions, or recommend ineffective ones.
- When it is too late for an intervention to be effective – the proverbial horses are out of the barn – implement interventions that might have been helpful earlier.
- Take credit for doing everything possible to contain the pandemic.
- Go to Step 1.
This pattern began shortly after Trump took office, when his administration took down the website for the Obama-era pandemic response plan and crippled the CDC, and it continues today.
Three of the more obvious examples of this magician’s sleight of hand include Trump & Company’s travel bans on China and Europe, their testing fiasco, and their incoherent message on masks.
Example: Travel bans
On January 31, 2020, Trump announced his much-touted “travel ban” on China.
Trump has repeatedly cited this executive order as proof that he acted preemptively and effectively. He claims, inaccurately, that he was the first to ban travel from China, that this action “saved a tremendous number of lives,” and that had he not done so, “we would’ve had hundreds of thousands more people dying.”
According to epidemiologists, travel restrictions like this have little to no effect on the spread of a global pandemic. At best, they buy a little time to implement a rigorous program of testing and contact tracing, and to prepare hospitals for a surge of infections. But Trump & Company didn’t use that time to do any of these things.
And the ban was not really a ban. The travel restrictions forbade foreign nationals from entering the United States from China, but nearly 400,000 people had already re-entered since the beginning of the year, and the travel order itself permitted another 40,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents to return from China during the following two months, further seeding the infection.
Six weeks later, Trump ordered a similar set of travel restrictions for Europe. This “ban” was also too little and too late. By mid-March, European strains of the virus had already spread across the country. and the returning American citizens and permanent residents who were exempt from the “ban” added to their numbers.
“Those were tremendous moves,” Trump has said. But by design, the travel bans were actually near-empty gestures, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Go to Step 1.
The same algorithm applies to testing.
The time to ramp up testing is early in a pandemic. In the many countries that have fared far better than the U.S., free, easily accessible tests were quickly made available, and rapid turnaround time for results permitted the local authorities to quarantine the infected and identify and isolate their contacts. These countries were able to stay ahead of the virus and keep the infection and death rates relatively low.
Although Trump proclaimed that “anybody that needs a test gets a test” shortly after he declared a national emergency, tests were actually in very short supply, and there continue to be rolling test shortages in the hardest-hit parts of the country.
Even where tests are available, turnaround time is often problematic. The PCR tests used in the U.S. are expensive, require lab processing, and capacity can’t always keep up with demand. It can take as long as two weeks for results, rendering them useless for contact tracing and quarantining. And even where turnaround time is relatively rapid, the PCR tests are inherently ineffective in a pandemic scenario. A positive test means only that you were infected sometime in the past few weeks, not that you are currently contagious.
“The majority of all U.S. tests are completely garbage, wasted,” Bill Gates told Wired magazine.
The greatest failing of U.S. testing, however, is that there is no national-wide system. Early in the pandemic, a response team led by Jared Kushner cobbled together a strategy that might have worked, but it was scrapped because at that time, in April 2020, Blue states were the most affected. So Trump & Company decided to leave testing strategies to the states, resulting in the testing chaos that much of the United States still experiences. Because of their delayed and uncoordinated response, testing cannot keep up with the rapidly spreading virus.
The most widely cited counter example is South Korea, which reported its first case at nearly the same time as the U.S. Two months later, in mid-March, the United States had tested only five people per million of its population. South Korea had tested 4,000 per million – 800 times as many people, relative to population size.
Trump brags that we have the most accurate tests in the world – “our tests are beautiful” – and have tested more than any other country. But again, by design, it’s actually too little, too late.
Go to Step 1.
Example: Face masks
To mask or not to mask, has, bewilderingly, been the question.
In many Asian countries, face masks were adopted almost immediately. Months before Donald Trump made his single public appearance in a mask, millions of people in Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam were protecting each other from COVID-19.
But in the United States, mask wearing, a neutral public health measure elsewhere, has become yet another source of division, one encouraged by Trump & Company. By adamantly refusing to wear a mask himself and by mocking those who did (including a Reuters reporter and Joe Biden), Trump set an example for millions, many of whom now see mask wearing as an infringement on their liberties.
In late July, with new cases increasing at unprecedented rates, Trump abruptly recommended mask wearing at a press briefing. He followed the briefing with this self-congratulatory tweet:
“We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”
But this apparent change of heart lasted only a few days.
Trump & Company’s momentary shift in mask policy is another instance of too little, too late. They had already succeeded in making face masks a divisive issue, and mask wearing has not been widely adopted, even though researchers say that if we all wore masks, deaths would be cut by more than half.
By design, the steady work of the virus continues, unimpeded by Trump’s tweet.
Go to Step 1.
These are just three examples of a pattern that pervades Trump & Company’s pandemic response: Deny, delay, discredit, misdirect – and intervene, if at all, only after it is too late for the intervention to slow the virus’ spread.
Everything is going according to plan.
Still skeptical? To dig a little deeper into this problem, let me borrow another term from my profession: differential diagnosis.
Differential diagnosis is the process of determining, from a set of symptoms that can occur in multiple disorders, the actual disorder involved. To develop an appropriate treatment, therapists, like doctors, need to pinpoint which of the possible diagnoses best describes a client’s illness.
For example, when I meet clients who have difficulty focusing and constantly fidget, they may have anxiety. But, these symptoms are also typical of ADHD, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or intoxication.
To determine the most accurate diagnosis, I need to take an inventory of all their symptoms. Then I’ll check them against the diagnostic criteria for all probable diagnoses, looking for the closest match. At that point, I’ll have a working diagnosis.
I say “working” because I continue to look for consistencies and inconsistencies. As new information is revealed, consistency with the working diagnosis tends to affirm it. Inconsistency leads me to look for a new diagnosis that fits all the facts. When emerging details continue to match the working diagnosis, then I know that diagnosis is reliable.
I’ve been applying the differential diagnosis methodology to Trump & Company’s response to the pandemic. Media commentators and members of Trump & Company have, at various times, attributed a wide variety of motivations to their actions. But is there one that fits all the facts?
Let’s take a few of the questions from the list I presented earlier and look at their possible motivations.
Why did Trump & Company disband the PREDICT team, pull out of a collaboration with Wuhan epidemiologists, and cripple the CDC?
It could be because, as Trump claimed, he’s a good businessman and saw no need to have a lot of scientists sitting around on the payroll doing nothing. But the effect was that the United States was unique in its inadequate response to the pandemic, and the virus spread like wildfire.
Why did Trump & Company discard the Obama pandemic response plan?
It could be because they saw the Obama administration as anathema to their vision of Making America Great Again, and that discarding the pandemic plan was just one of dozens of steps in a relentless plan to erase Obama’s presidency. But the effect was that the United States was unique in its inadequate response to the pandemic, and the virus spread like wildfire.
Why did Trump ignore the advice of his own team when they sounded the pandemic alarm?
It could be, as he has often claimed, that Trump truly believes he knows more than the scientists, that he is “right about a lot of things,” and that he felt in his gut that the virus would “disappear, like a miracle.” But the effect was that the United States was unique in its inadequate response to the pandemic, and the virus spread like wildfire.
Why did Trump & Company deny or minimize the threat of the coronavirus?
It could be, as Trump has claimed, that he wanted to reassure the American people. It could be, as his critics have maintained, that he was pushing for the economy to rebound before the November election. But the effect was that the United States was unique in its inadequate response to the pandemic, and the virus spread like wildfire.
And so on through the list of actions and inactions – past, present, and ongoing.
Trump and Company continue to represent themselves as the heroes who lead the valiant fight against the “invisible enemy.” Media commentators continue to describe the pandemic response as “chaotic” and to attribute the motivations behind its failures to denial, incompetence, re-election positioning, or to Trump’s “mercurial” nature, his vanity, and his personality, among others.
These commentators see only the parts, not the whole.
They are like the three blind men who come upon an elephant in the forest. One touches the leg and observes that an elephant is like a tree trunk. Another touches the ear and concludes that an elephant is like a fan. The third touches the trunk and proclaims that an elephant is like a snake.
The elephant in the room is all of these parts, but also more.
When I work with clients who have a persistent pattern of destructive or self-destructive behaviors, their actions are not chaotic, and they do not have a laundry list of different motivations for their actions.
And neither does Trump & Company. Though other, less important motivations may also be in play, beneath them is a singular intention. The motivation that drives all of these actions, and dozens more, is that Trump & Company want what is happening to happen.
Everything is going according to plan.
Having identified pandemicide as the motivation behind a catastrophic pandemic response, on a scale seen nowhere else in the world, I shifted my focus to other issues that have been happening at the same time.
This is something I often do as a psychotherapist. When clients come to me with multiple problems, I start with the issue they see as most urgent. Then, after we arrive at a full understanding of how to deal with that problem, we look at the other problems, their diagnoses, and their treatment.
The term for coexistence of two or more problems is comorbidity.
Sometimes problems are unrelated, but more often, multiple problems have a common origin, one that the client may initially consider unimportant.
Most addiction clients, for instance, have another, underlying disorder. They might show up in my office wanting help to quit heroin or alcohol and to repair the damage their addiction has done to their lives. But addiction is almost always comorbid with trauma, anxiety, a mood or personality disorder, or some other issue that predates it.
The relationship between comorbid issues is usually unclear when I first meet a new client. In the back of my mind, I hold the question of how their issues might be connected, waiting for clarity as we get to know each other better and as events play out in their lives.
Looking into how Trump & Company has mishandled the pandemic has been like that for me. Along with their initially bewildering response to the pandemic, I noticed the equally strange, co-occurring responses to the economy, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the environment.
At first, the link between the pandemic and the economy seemed to be simple cause and effect, the escalating racial division an unrelated issue, and the savaging of environmental policies simply another instance of Trump & Company’s allegiance to corporate billionaires. But as each of these issues has played out over time, I began to sense a deeper connection.
But what could it be? Much of what they were doing seemed counterintuitive, and explanations in the media shed little light.
If Trump & Company’s ticket to re-election hinged on a booming economy, why did they, at every turn, exacerbate a pandemic that would inevitably gut that economy?
And why, if Trump & Company were trying to win over Black voters, did they demonize the Black Lives Matter protesters, when even an insincere response could have projected a veneer of sympathy?
And how, I wondered, did relentlessly reversing progress toward slowing global warming fit in? During a pandemic, when the price of oil briefly dipped below zero, how could expanding drilling, fracking, and coal mining at the expense of the environment make economic or even political sense?
It was the daily display of infections and deaths that arrives in my morning email that provided a clue to the unifying thread.
When I looked at the tables of infections and deaths, I saw that only Brazil and India appeared to have runaway contagion similar to what was happening in the United States. From a review of how their leaders governed, I saw that Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Narenda Modi were both described as right-wing populists who ruled in a “strongman” style parallel to that of Trump & Company.
When I took a deeper dive into how the pandemic was playing out in these countries, and to how these leaders were responding to economic recession, racial division, and the environment, I saw that all three men were following a similar playbook.
Together, the United States, Brazil, and India account for half of all COVID-19 infections. In Brazil, Afro-Brazilians have been disproportionately sickened and killed by COVID-19, just as Black Americans are afflicted in the U.S. It is unclear whether this same disproportionate COVID-19 spread applies to Muslims in India, but Modi’s administration has used the crisis to demonize Muslims, blaming them for the virus’ spread and referring to it as “Corona Jihad.”
At the same time, each of these leaders had escalated racial division in his country. Each country suffered from high levels of police violence, disproportionately directed against minority populations – Blacks and Latinxs in the United States, Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous people in Brazil, and Muslims in India. And each had exhibited flagrant disregard for the environment.
I asked myself, Did each of these leaders and their administrations also have a common underlying agenda? Again, the penny dropped and the puzzle pieces fell into place, much as they do when I see the link that connect a client’s comorbidities.
“Fascism is a disease, and there are symptoms,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once remarked.
Her statement invites the question: Is Donald Trump a fascist?
Although some writers have referred to Trump & Company as a fascist regime, most mainstream commentators and historians pull that punch. Donald Trump is a right-wing populist, an authoritarian, a bigot, a xenophobe, a racist demagogue, they say, but he’s not fascist. They see fascism as the product of another time and set of conditions. Fascists, they also add, want to reshape the world to fit their own ideology, not just use it for personal gain.
It’s as if applying the “F” word to the leader of the free world is too extreme. “It,” they seem to be saying, “can’t happen here.”
I’m not a historian or a political scientist, but I do know how to match a set of symptoms to a disease. Do the symptoms of the Trump & Company agenda match the disease of fascism?
Shall we see?
To arrive at a client’s diagnosis, I first draw from my past experience with clients who’ve had similar collections of symptoms. Once I have a probable diagnosis, I confirm it by consulting the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual, the oddly named encyclopedia of psychological disorders, now in its fifth edition.
The DSM-5 provides descriptions of each known psychological disorder, how it usually arises, its typical symptoms, and how it tends to progress. I consult the DSM to verify whether my proposed diagnosis fits the criteria and history described in the manual. If there’s a match, I’ve found the correct diagnosis.
Most mental illness diagnoses are on a spectrum. At some point, symptoms are severe enough to cross the line between, say, transient anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder, occasional mood swings and bipolar disorder, or eccentricity and schizophrenia. Once that line has been crossed, there may be varying degrees of illness, from mild to moderate to severe. The progression is cumulative; that is, if you have moderate depression, you meet the criteria for mild depression, but also meet additional depression criteria.
Political systems are also psychological and also on a spectrum. At some point, they, too, can cross the line between, say, right-wing populism and fascism. Like any other disease, varying degrees of illness exist, and the progression is cumulative; early fascism, if unimpeded, develops into a more mature fascist movement.
To see if Trump & Company’s political agenda is a match for the disease of fascism, let’s take a look at how fascism is defined, the circumstances under which it arises, its symptoms, and the how it typically progresses.
The term fascism, like the terms terrorist or democracy, can be applied to a broad range of regimes.
Since Mussolini coined the word in 1919, fascism has taken many forms, adapting to the culture of the place and time from which it emerges. But fascist regimes have a set of core characteristics, values, and implementation strategies that are essential to their growth.
Historically, fascist regimes have arisen during extreme national crises, which catalyze ordinary citizens to align themselves with the fascist leaders.
For Germany, Italy, and Japan, the catalytic crisis was the Great Depression. Today, in the United States, we have the pandemic and its fallout of illness, deaths, and economic chaos. Since the George Floyd murder and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests, we also have an additional catalyst, the most disruptive racial division since the 1960s.
Central to fascism is the idea of a naturally superior people whose mythic greatness has been tragically destroyed by a pernicious enemy. For Hitler that enemy was the Jews. For Mussolini, the Bolsheviks. For Modi, it’s the Muslims. And for Trump & Company, in a bizarre hijacking of the term, it’s a nebulous grouping of minorities, academics, journalists, and liberals they refer to as “far-left fascism.”
Fascists relentlessly cultivate division between themselves and the identified enemy, whom they demonize, using propaganda to recruit a growing body of supporters.
Fascists position themselves as the heroes who will vanquish the imagined enemy. Their followers rally people behind what is presented as a dire threat by a devious “other,” against whom they will prevail only through allegiance to the regime.
Fascists convince potential supporters that their existing government institutions have betrayed them, and that those institutions cannot rid the nation of this threat, and cannot restore it to that mythic greatness. Only the fascists can accomplish this heroic task.
Accomplishing restoration to greatness requires total allegiance to the party, and above all to its leader, whom followers come to regard as their god-like savior. “Only I can fix it,” Trump declared in his 2016 inaugural address. “I am your voice.”
Fascist leaders typically move from conventional head-of-state positions such as prime minister (Mussolini) or chancellor (Hitler) to autocratic rule as their party grows more powerful. Trump has already indicated that should he lose, he will contest the 2020 election. He has said he may refuse to leave office if defeated, and has floated the idea that, should he be re-elected, he will rule for an additional four to eight years beyond his second term.
The deified leader neutralizes opposing points of view by discrediting the media and other critics. Adolf Hitler labeled the mainstream media lugenpresse (lying press). Trump’s updated version is fake news.
Fascist regimes suppress dissent, often through police or military violence. Hitler had the SS, a powerful paramilitary militia that began as a small, voluntary organization. We have seen the seeds of such a militia in Trump’s calls to armed white supremacist groups to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and more explicitly, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” And we have witnessed police, the National Guard, and anonymized Federal troops attacking Black Lives Matter protesters.
Extreme policies become normalized, so that what was once intolerable becomes ordinary. In Nazi Germany, most Germans knew about and eventually accepted that Jews were being sent to death camps. In the United States, police violence, abuse of executive power, and the daily count of COVID-19 deaths has been similarly normalized: “It is what it is.”
Fascists use propaganda to indoctrinate the population with their own vision of reality. They manipulate feelings, rather than appealing to the intellect.
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler describes how, in 1921, he began to build what would become the Nazi party. He started with spreading the party’s ideas through propaganda, acquired followers, and from them recruited elite members who would continue to spread propaganda and acquire additional followers. On the key role of propaganda, he wrote:
“In every great revolutionary movement that is of world importance the idea of this movement must always be spread abroad through the operation of propaganda. The propagandist must never tire in his efforts to make the new ideas clearly understood, inculcating them among others, or at least he must place himself in the position of those others and endeavor to upset their confidence in the convictions they have hitherto held.”
To broaden and strengthen their movements, fascist propagandists use a variety of techniques to discredit opponents, displace people’s existing values, and demonize their perceived enemies. Common propaganda techniques include:
- Building a cult of personality (idealizing the leader, creating a heroic public image, holding euphoric rallies, flag waving)
- Repetition (of symbols, slogans, and accusations against the opposition and the media)
- Defaming (name-calling, ridicule, smears, ad hominem attacks, character assassination, stereotyping)
- Distortion (intentional vagueness, loaded language, denial, minimization, half-truths, disinformation, obfuscation, lies)
- Demonization (scapegoating, appeals to fear and prejudice, hatemongering, dehumanizing)
Trump & Company employ every trick in the fascist propaganda playbook, from flag waving and name-calling to character assassination and dehumanization.
During the 2016 campaign we heard endlessly about Crooked Hillary – Lock her up! For four years, we’ve been warned about Mexican rapists, illegal immigrants from shithole countries, the deep state, the radical left. Bad people. Scum. Thugs. Now it’s Sleepy Joe, the empty shell, the Trojan horse, anarchists, far-left fascists, antifa, and dark shadows. On and on.
Throughout the presidency, Trump & Company have used distortion, defamation, disinformation, and demonization, along with constructing a cult-like allegiance to Trump himself, and the use of these propaganda techniques has dramatically increased since the start of the 2020 campaign.
We also see a stream of specific signals to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, such as:
- Retweets of white supremacist videos and tweets
- Facebook ads that used the Nazi’s inverted red triangle badge for political prisoners
- Tweets, posts, and Trump & Company websites that use the numbers 88 and 14. “H” is the 8th letter of the alphabet, and among neo-Nazis, “88” is code for HH, or Heil Hitler. “14” is code for “The Fourteen Words,” a white supremacist mission statement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”
- The Trump 2020 “America First” campaign logo, which is a clone of the eagle used by Hitler and by modern white supremacist groups
- Announcing a ban on all immigration into the United States on Hitler’s birthday
- Scheduling Trump’s first live campaign rally in Tulsa, the site of one of the most vicious massacres of Black people, on Juneteenth
- Scheduling the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville on the 60th anniversary of a brutal Ku Klux Klan attack on Black activists in that city known as “Ax Handle Saturday”
- Setting major campaign speeches and events, such as Trump’s Independence Day rallies and his RNC acceptance speech, against a backdrop of majestic symbols of America, visually echoing the rallies of Adolph Hitler and other fascist leaders
And then there is the explicit fearmongering and hatemongering of the rallies and speeches themselves. Trump’s July 3rd speech, which triggered my own pandemicide epiphany, is a textbook example of fascist rhetoric. An excerpt:
“In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.
“It’s not going to happen to us.
“Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”
In addition to the origin stories and messaging I’ve already described, fascist regimes also typically exhibit the following traits:
- Large urban centers are portrayed as threatening to the values of the heartland and the home through subversive ideas, pestilence, and disease.
- Demonized groups are seen as inherently lawless and impure, while the chosen group, by virtue of its natural superiority, can do no wrong.
- There is widespread fearmongering around racial mixing of the pure group with “inferior” blood from within and without.
- Sexism is widespread.
- Academics and intellectuals are discredited and eventually suppressed. Discourse is replaced with unsupported declarations by the leader and his party.
- Obsessions with national security and with law and order are pervasive.
- The military dominates, and there are ostentatious displays of military might.
- Regimes are backed by the conservative, wealthy elite and big business.
- Corporate wealth and power are enhanced, protected, and favored, while the power of labor is repressed.
- Government corruption and cronyism is rampant
- Fraudulent elections ensure the continuation of the regime.
- Human rights of the demonized group are progressively violated, until finally the group is dehumanized, expelled, imprisoned, or eliminated.
If you’ve been following the progression of Trump & Company from the start of the 2016 campaign through the present, you already know that each of these traits is either fully developed in the Trump & Company regime, or is actualizing now.
From the start of the 2016 campaign, Trump & Company put forth an agenda that includes demonizing immigrants and limiting their influx into the country, representing the United States as a failed state brought to near-ruin by prior administrations, and positioning themselves as the only ones who can “drain the swamp” and Make America Great Again.
Since the inauguration, Trump & Company have been advancing that agenda.
For four years we have seen the steady growth of demonizing out-groups, cronyism and corruption, alliances with corporate power, and the suppression of labor found in fascist regimes of the past and in contemporary fascist states.
In Trump & Company’s messaging, there is pervasive appeal to the heartland values, rejection of intellectuals, academics, and of science itself, and the discrediting of anyone in the media or in government who speaks out against them.
Trump positions himself as the self-deified leader, “the chosen one.” There is the presumption of absolute power (“When the president says it, it’s absolute”), the steady erosion of the rule of law, glorification of military might, encouragement of paramilitary forces, and the deployment of Federal troops against civilians.
Ominously, there is movement toward fraudulent elections, including documented Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump & Company’s current efforts to delay the 2020 election, cripple the Post Office’s ability to handle mail-in ballots, and undermine their credibility. And there is Trump encouraging North Carolina voters to test the system by voting twice – once by mail and again in person.
Like Hitler, Trump is a believer in eugenics (literally, “good genes”). He is heir to his father’s dynasty and appears to envision the presidency as his own. Though Trump may not entertain hopes, as Hitler did, of a thousand-year Reich, he has already named his son Donald and daughter Ivanka as likely successors.
And then there is the pandemicide. Hitler had to build concentration camps and gas chambers and force his victims to wear colored badges. Trump & Company have a much more convenient mechanism, one with plausible deniability. They just have to let the virus do its work while hundreds of thousands of the “impure” die.
Although Trump may have begun his term as something shy of fascism, throughout his presidency, Trump & Company’s homegrown brand has become much more sharply defined. And since the pandemic emerged, that process has radically accelerated.
Though not the mastermind Hitler was and Putin is, Trump is skilled in the art of salesmanship, and he has succeeded in selling, to a large segment of the American people, a lethal narrative.
Trump & Company do not want to maintain the basic structure of our democracy. They want, to paraphrase the title of the book of Hitler’s speeches Trump kept by his bedside during his first marriage, a new order.
Fascism adapts to the characteristics of the countries in which it arises. Just as the German, Italian, and Japanese fascist regimes differed in their implementations, the Trump & Company agenda is different still. But it contains the core characteristics of its predecessors, and if it continues, we are likely to see a far more blatant version in the coming years.
So, is Trump & Company a fascist regime?
All signs point to “yes.”
Turbocharging a Fascist Agenda
Fascism thrives on crisis, fear, and chaos, and Trump & Company’s response to the pandemic has provided them with all of that.
To the ordinary citizen and the media, the pandemic appeared to be an unprecedented disaster and, to liberal observers, an impediment to the Trump & Company agenda. But when examined through the lens of fascism, it is a once-in-a-century opportunity to turbocharge that agenda.
Trump & Company have used the pandemic as an accelerant, maneuvering what could have been a manageable outbreak into multiple, ongoing crises.
By initially allowing the pandemic to spread unchecked, then resorting to lockdowns to contain it but doing nothing to keep it contained once lockdowns were lifted, Trump & Company – like Bolsonaro and Modi – created a perpetual crisis machine, in which god-like leaders advance their power in the service of a “war” against an “invisible enemy.”
In an environment of fear, people are more susceptible to the emotional appeal of propaganda and more accepting of the apparent efficiency of cutting through red tape with executive orders. Within months, Trump & Company have expanded the power of the executive branch beyond anything ever seen in United States history, and have sown more division than at any time since the Civil War.
In the same way the Bush administration was able to use 9/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq, Trump & Company have manipulated the health and economic crises to advance their nascent fascist agenda into true fascism, leveraging the pandemic to close borders, halt immigration, threaten social programs such as the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and kill the demonized “others” within our own borders.
At the same time, by seizing on the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter protests to fan the flames of racial hatred, they have expanded their white supremacist agenda beyond the external targets of Muslims and South American refugees to also put Black Americans in their sights.
And to benefit their corporate partners now and in the future, and ensure ongoing crises, they have reversed decades of environmental progress. A pandemic can only be kept going for so long, but the disruption of climate change is effectively forever.
Where to Go From Here
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
— Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770)
Donald Trump may not have the intellectual horsepower to run a fascist engine, but the people advising him, coaching him, writing his speeches and creating his policies and executive orders, do. And while Trump & Company have yet to seize total power the way fascist leaders of the past have, they will if we give them time. It took the regimes led by Hitler and Mussolini more than a decade to reach that goal; Trump & Company have gotten perilously close in only four years.
Should Trump & Company get a second term of office, we risk entering a period of totalitarianism never before seen in the United States. And we will not be alone.
When I was in high school, we learned in our American History classes about the fascist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan. But what nobody mentioned to us was that fascists ruled in much of Europe and in South America, China, and South Africa, and that fascist movements were also strong in democratic nations, including Canada, Great Britain, and the United States.
These fascist regimes and movements were spawned from health and economic crises not unlike the ones we have today.
I believe we are at a critical juncture in human history that is, in every way, equal to what the Great Generation faced when they fought against the Axis Powers in World War II. Throughout the globe, fascist regimes are on the rise not only in the United States, India, and Brazil, but also in Russia, North Korea, and Turkey, among others.
It is easy to imagine these regimes uniting to form an Axis Powers 2.0, and repeating their predecessors’ attempt to dominate the human race.
Like the contents of Pandora’s Box, hatred, division, dehumanization, and violence have been unleashed upon the world.
The stage is already set.
In my work with clients, at some point in our relationship their diagnosis becomes clear. The question then becomes how to work together to restore the client to health. This is the question we must answer, as a people, now that the diagnoses of pandemicide and fascism are also evident.
Let’s begin with hope, the last item in Pandora’s Box.
Humans are a resilient species. We have survived predators larger and fiercer than us, ice ages, plagues and pandemics, and global wars. We have recovered from totalitarian regimes more vicious than that of Trump & Company.
There is reason to hope.
But the difficulty of recovering from a problem is directly proportional to how entrenched it has become. Beating the Axis Powers took six years of devastating warfare, and it cost more than 60 million lives, incalculable trillions of dollars in material costs, and a generation of rebuilding.
Before the end of this year, hundreds of thousands of Americans who need not have died will no longer be living. Millions more will have been deprived of their livelihood, and also their dignity and self-respect. If we continue on our present trajectory, we will have begun the descent into madness from which it will take a generation to ascend.
There is hope, but after hope must come action.
Once we have a diagnosis, once we have instilled hope, my clients and I work together to replace mistaken beliefs with more accurate ones, to transform self-defeating patterns into new ones that create well-being, and to encourage interconnection and wholeness where isolation and fragmentation have dominated.
These are also the steps we must engage in now, as a people, to restore our world to sanity. We have been under a fascist spell for the past four years. We can break it now and avert a catastrophic plunge into a new Dark Age.
There is no more important task before us – no distraction, no entertainment, no project, no job, no creative endeavor, no family matter, nothing – than breaking this spell.
At this critical juncture in the history of this country, I think of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, whose second book begins with his father’s arrival in Auschwitz. It’s subtitle: “And Here My Troubles Began.”
Let us not look back on this year as the time where our troubles began.
© 2020, David J. Bookbinder