"Trump derangement syndrome" is real — but it's not what they say it is

Like the malicious, boastful schoolboy he will forever be, Donald Trump smirkingly twists apt descriptions of himself and his often cartoonishly deranged acts against those who point out his transgressions. And as in a game of Follow the Leader, his fellow Republicans continue to project their own psychopathies on the truth-tellers.

Thus the all-too-accurate pejorative “Trump crime family,” describing decades of phony charitable and educational scams, purposeful misstatements of property values and massive grifting during the White House years, becomes mock-outraged references to the “Biden Crime Family.”

Call one of his ravings sent out in the wee hours on his social media platform Truth Central deranged, and he’ll latch onto that word to use as invective against his political opponents.

As Salon’s Heather Digby Parton recently noted, Trump is even trying to turn the tables on the increasing number of historians, journalists and politicians who warn that the former grifter in chief is an obvious threat to the continuation of our democracy. Yes, the twice-impeached ex-president who lies about and despises the free press and talks about suspending the Constitution now regularly claims that he is somehow protecting all of us from “Joe Biden’s war on democracy.”

As it turns out, Trump’s exhortation to insurrection, “Fight like hell or you won’t have a country,” turned out to be a warning to all non-faux patriots, the great majority of Americans, who now are now forced to be conservative, whatever else they may be —conservative about preserving the Constitution, political norms, the rule of law and freedom of the press — because no one else seems willing to do that any longer.

That the 77-year-old former president who is still attempting to overturn the 2020 election simply makes use of the “I know you are, but what am I?” taunt of a pre-teen is laughable (Parton calls it “his latest tribute to the late great Pee-wee Herman”) and also repugnant, because he’s supposed to be an adult. But, like all con men and authoritarians, who are also essentially swindlers, he knows that if you repeat something often enough, an amazing number of people will come to believe it.

Or they’ll believe it because they just want to believe it. As Paul Simon long ago wrote in the classic “The Boxer”:  “A man hears what he wants to hear/ and disregards the rest.”

If Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels were here today to witness such rhetoric, he’d no doubt applaud how well it is following form. He might even burst into laughter in delight at how amazingly successful it has been in the United States.

As Rachel Maddow (who likely doesn’t enjoy talking about it, but can tell you a bit about the history of American Nazis) recently noted, Trump uses terms like “fascist” against his critics because, as always, his mission is to obfuscate the truth. As she recently remarked: “He knows he’s going to get called a fascist for talking this way. And he’s calling all of his opponents fascists, too, trying to rob that word of its meaning.”

I thought Maddow’s use of “rob” was well chosen; much of the endless Trumpian grifting involves begging and then misusing money from supporters who, in many cases, can’t really afford to donate to his campaign. But if you’re going to be a successful grifter, you cannot concern yourself about those you hurt. Much better have no conscience at all.

This brings me to “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” a term that has been in use so long that these days people often just go with the acronym. Trump just used it to hit back at former congresswoman Liz Cheney, who recently published a book, “Oath and Honor,” aimed at warning about the dangers of a second Trump presidency.

Trump and his supporters borrowed the term to dismiss their critics for “reflexively” opposing everything Trump puts forward. You know, all his great ideas and well-thought-out plans for protecting the public, boosting the economy, enhancing our leadership on the world stage and bolstering our democracy.

I recently found myself in an email exchange with someone who had taken offense to a recent opinion article of mine about the Biden economy. After I responded, he became reasonably civil, and I was beginning to enjoy the exchange. But his parting shot — skillfully glancing, not direct — was “TDS is real,” which, of course, implied I was suffering from anti-Trump psychosis and might need to seek counseling.

Coming on the jackbooted heels of Trump’s use of Hitler’s term “vermin” to describing the large majority of the U.S. population who aren’t members of his weird, violence-seeking cult — which includes many Republicans and actual Christians — I wondered whether something similar had been used by Nazi propagandists against those who criticized Hitler.

There’s no question the Nazis used derisive language to push back on their critics, especially against Jews, socialists, intellectuals, artists and others who could not be expected to fall in line. But critics of the Nazis didn’t have much time to voice objections to what they saw happening after Hitler came to power during a declared state of emergency, before he ordered his stormtroopers to start arresting or simply killing those who opposed him. Had the Nazis needed to twist the truth with their critics, maybe they’d have come up with something like Hitler-Hysterie Syndrom, shifting the blame to those who were paying attention. Even the German conservatives and major capitalists who thought they could control Hitler found that they could not, much like the “moderate” old guard in the Republican Party.

In this era of the Trump cult, all of this sounds familiar to many Americans, and more than a little terrifying. Trump has actively encouraged followers to commit acts of violence since his first campaign began in 2015. Now his campaign spokespeople say that his critics will be “crushed.” Is it a form of psychosis to be unhappy with that prospect? Was it deranged to be perplexed or horrified by his chaotic and damaging reaction to the pandemic?

In an early comment on the right’s use of of the term, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik observed that TDS was a reasonable reaction to Trump because of his “appetite” to prove his authority through violent means:

With Trump, it is perfectly clear that he only has a series of episodic wounds and reactions — it’s all fears and fits. If he were the governor of a state, or the leader of a much smaller country, we could already begin to discount the more vivid fears with which his ascent to power was met. The problem is that he is the President of the United States, and that the one appetite that he does have is for announcing his authority through violence, a thing capable of an unimaginable resonance and devastation. That’s the only Trump Syndrome we ought to worry about, and it can become deranged.

As a New Yorker, Gopnik no doubt knew all one needs to know about Donald Trump (which, truly, isn’t much: “blustering con man” gets you much of the way there) and his long history of being “a user of users,” as the late Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett worked hard to detail and explain.

Modern-day white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller have barely changed the Nazi approach at all:  disparaging immigrants, trashing the free press, dehumanizing political opponents, normalizing calls for violence against perceived enemies. There’s a way to do this sort of horror, and Trump and his gang of angry misfits regularly crib from some of the most abominable people the world has ever known.

As Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian and author of “On Tyranny,” wrote in a New York Times op-ed about Hitler: “The form of his propaganda was inextricable from its content: the fictionalization of a globalized world into simple slogans, to be repeated until an enemy thus defined was exterminated.”

Trump is a man of simple slogans, of schoolyard putdowns. He’s the type of person who tries to “own” others by giving them a nickname. Hitler depended on the simple slogans of propaganda, repeated endlessly, and had this to say about the public’s susceptibility to the “Big Lie”:

It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think there may be some other explanation.

Trump himself, with his tirades against the free press, his violent fantasies about his political opponents and his eagerness to dehumanize anyone who opposes or criticizes him, is highly adept at delivering propaganda. He’s good at it and often renders it “entertaining,” which makes all that hate go down easy. As many writers have noted over the years, Trump appeals to people who aren’t particularly interested in politics or policies, but who are pleased to have their prejudices supported and enjoy the show of Trumpian invective directed against anyone who might find their views deplorable.

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Godwin’s Law (apparently formulated 1991) states that once you compare someone to Hitler or the Nazis, the argument is over. But Mike Godwin himself, in a 2018 opinion essay for the Los Angeles Times, tried to clarify what he meant:

GL is about remembering history well enough to draw parallels — sometimes with Hitler or with Nazis, sure — that are deeply considered. That matter. Sometimes those comparisons are going to be appropriate, and on those occasions GL should function less as a conversation ender and more as a conversation starter.

In the case of Donald J. Trump, the comparisons have long been more than appropriate — now he’s daring us not to make the comparisons. Mob-speak style, he’ll disclaim it with a wink and a smirk, but you know he takes it as a compliment — and his followers love when he says such un-American (and un-Christian) things as his recent statement that immigration is “poisoning the blood of our country.”

According to many who know him well, including his psychologist niece, Mary Trump, our most recent ex-president is a highly disturbed and dangerous person. But most of us already understand that America can “stand back and stand by” for the end of democracy if this man re-enters the White House.

As for the true nature of TDS, I received an email from someone calling himself “Hang Obama” responding to my commentary on Joe Biden’s management of the economy, which has managed to fend avert the long-anticipated recession. The subject line of this person’s email was “Lying k!k3,” and this was what it said: “The day of retribution will descend upon you usurping jews [sic] like a flock of brave hama$ (funded by bibi) freedom fighters.”

Technically speaking, I’m a Christian. A Presbyterian, as it happens, with friends of various religious faiths or none at all. But there it is, TDS in action. You can hear it at Trump’s rallies — in the unnerving cheers and raucous laughter of his fervent followers as they respond to his increasingly deranged ravings, still playing that invisible accordion behind the podium.

We can apply the diagnosis of TDS to the man-child himself or his followers, but not those of us over here in the reality-based community. If we react reflexively to Trump, it’s because he lies reflexively, claiming that he’s got good ideas and is the man for the job. He’s proven, time and again, that he’s not the man for any job. Now he increasingly speaks of himself in divine terms, which as many experts agree is terrifying, whether it represents genuine delusion or just another cunning maneuver to draw his cult members in even deeper.

Applied to those who see him for who he is, TDS was always a psychological projection. But it is real — and it’s a clear and present danger.

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