The Assault on Reality

The Assault on Reality

Essential to understanding Trump is his attempt to subject the public to his own solipsistic reality—and thereby destroy our shared basis for democracy.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC, February 2018 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

An important way to understand Trump and Trumpism is as an assault on reality. At issue is the attempt to control, to own, immediate truth along with any part of history that feeds such truth. Since this behavior stems from Trump’s own mind, it is generally attributed to his narcissism (and he has plenty of that). But I would suggest that the more appropriate term is solipsistic reality. Narcissism suggests self-love and even, in quaint early psychoanalytic language, libido directed at the self. Solipsism has more to do with a cognitive process of interpreting the world exclusively through the experience and needs of the self.

We must first acknowledge that reality is a concept that, despite centuries of psychological and philosophical investigation, defies precise definition. That is because reality is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand what we call reality can be largely constructed by dominant social and political beliefs—the belief that democracy is the best political system, or that God exists, or that human beings are weak and require dictatorial leadership. In any society those claims to reality can change and give way to alternate and even contrary claims. But there are at the same time more immediately factual components of reality in no way dependent upon such theoretical constructions. For instance: my father’s name was Harold Lifton and I am a Jewish-American psychiatrist writing this article on the American president’s approach to reality. Reality always contains these two contrasting dimensions—the changeable/constructed reality that so influences our worldview, and the immediate/factual reality on which so much of our everyday lives depend. We consider a person to be psychotic when he or she “breaks” with immediate reality in the form of delusions, hallucinations, and extreme paranoia. And we require a shared sense of reality, consistent with experience and evidence, for our collective function in a democracy.

Ideological Totalism

Danger arises when zealots and despots claim ownership of reality, as I could observe in my first research study, that of Chinese Communist “thought reform” (or “brainwashing”), which I conducted in the mid 1950’s. Thought reform, at least in its full expression, is a systematic project that makes extensive use of criticism, self-criticism, and confession, both in groups and individual interrogations. Its ambitious aims were not only to bring about change in people’s political views but in what Erik Erikson called their inner identity. That is, traditional Chinese filial sons and daughters, still identifiable in modern China, were to be transformed into filial Chinese communists. The scope of thought reform was remarkable: versions of it were conducted throughout the society—in universities and schools, every kind of organizational workplace, neighborhood groups, prisons, and special centers for reform—so that tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of people were subjected to formidable pressures toward significant personal change. Brutal interrogation methods for confession-extraction seemed to be borrowed from Russian Communist (and before that, Tsarist) usage. But the focus on systematic “reeducation” was Chinese, apparently influenced by traditional Confucian stress on “rectification.”

The narrative was relentless: the “old society” in China was evil and corrupt because of the domination of the “exploiting classes”—landowners, capitalists, and the bourgeoisie. The residual mental effects of that exploitation had to be removed not only from members of those exploiting classes but from all who lived in the old society. As Chairman Mao put it, one had to “punish the past to warn the future” and “save men by curing their ills.”

The reformers were totalistic in their all-or-none assertions, including claims to absolute truth and virtue. To impose those claims they created what I called milieu control, the domination of all communication in the environment (including at times the inner environment of individual selves). They insisted on doctrine over person, so that any doubts experienced concerning ideological claims were considered a form of personal deficiency, of individual-psychological aberration. Overall there was a dispensing of existence, a line drawn between those who had a right to exist (in harmony with the official doctrine) and those who possessed no such right. That “dispensing” could range from discrimination in terms of jobs and status to imprisonment and even execution.

The coercive element that I’ve emphasized was always present but was accompanied by an appeal to high idealism: the promise of a utopian future and of individual and collective revitalization, even a sense of rebirth. That promise of personal revitalization would also loom large in my study of another totalistic movement. Albert Speer, who was known as “Hitler’s architect,” told me how Hitler spoke at his university in 1930 and declared that Germany had become weak and everything seemed hopeless but by uniting behind his movement Germany and its people could once again become strong. These words lifted Speer out of his despair over social and economic chaos and his hopelessness about his own future; he experienced a new sense of inner power and joined the Nazi Party a few days later.

I came to realize that Chinese thought reform was attempting to do something quite remarkable—to eliminate the validity of all thought prior to Maoism. This was a kind of psychological apocalypticism: the destruction of one’s prior mental world in order to be reborn into Maoism. The Communist claim to ownership of reality was unyielding and all-pervasive.

Yet despite all this, thought reform had mixed results. As Chinese society changed and opened up economically, maintaining anything approaching milieu control became increasingly difficult. Moreover, people could become inured or even antagonistic to the psychological assaults of thought reform, resulting in what I came to call the “hostility of suffocation” and the “law of diminishing conversions.” Thought reform came to limit what one could say and do in society rather than bring about genuine personal change. In dealing with dissidents, prior efforts at painstaking reeducation gave way to the physical brutality and ominous threats that had characterized Soviet-style show trials. Nowadays very few people in China seem to have much belief in the prescribed ideology. The Chinese experience suggests that it is very difficult—perhaps impossible—to establish and sustain ownership of reality.

Solipsism and “Narrative Necessity”

How does all this apply to Donald Trump? One’s first impression would be that his mindset is the very antithesis of the kind of ideological totalism that I’ve just described. Trump doesn’t have a consistent ideology: his ideas readily change and reverse themselves in response to specific situations. Such a relationship to ideas would seem to have nothing to do with ideological totalism. Yet, as different as he is from totalists, he too seeks to control reality.

Trump’s solipsism conforms to a tradition in psychology and philosophy for rendering the self an insistent source for all reality. With extreme forms of solipsism the external world and other minds cannot be known and may, in effect, have no existence. What results is continuous falsehood, whether of an almost automatic kind, or of the intentional form we call lying. In raising this issue, I follow standard psychiatric ethics by making no claim to a hands-on diagnosis of the president; in fact, I make no diagnosis at all. But I do, like a burgeoning number of psychological professionals, insist on speaking out concerning these dangerous psychological tendencies.  

Trump’s presidency has followed a predictable sequence starting with an initial falsehood (Hillary Clinton’s nearly 3-million margin in the popular vote was derived from fraudulent ballots cast mostly by illegal immigrants). As the falsehood radiates outward it becomes increasingly difficult to defend, first on the part of the spokesperson who must turn the falsehood into truth, and still less credible as others examine its claims, until, in its journey through society, it becomes mostly recognized as patent untruth. Yet in the process it not only gets a hearing but lingers as something whose truth—or untruth—is repeatedly examined. To that extent, each of Trump’s expressions of solipsistic reality somehow remains “out there.” More than that, these falsehoods and lies may be ignored if not embraced by immediate followers who identify passionately with Trump himself, or by Republicans insistent upon holding on to Trump-centered power.

If Trump has no consistent ideology—lacking the conviction and discipline of a fascist or even a populist—he does have a narrative. And that turns out to be important. The narrative does have consistency: America has been great in the past, but has been in the wrong hands and allowed to become weak and misused by foreign forces, especially allies, who cheat and take advantage of us. He, Trump, and only he, has both the strength and negotiating skills to “make America great again.” As a strongman and a dealmaker, he will restore America to its rightful world-dominating military and economic power. At the same time his solipsistic self-presentation includes claims to decency, loyalty, and lovability, along with a toughness that will destroy any who treat him unjustly, which means any who call out his lies or falsehoods or in some way oppose him.

The psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of the narrative construction of truth and pointed out that falsehoods can embody a “narrative necessity” required for the flow and consistency of a larger, encompassing story. The narrative necessity can be crude indeed, given the flagrant untruths of Trump’s solipsistic reality. But those untruths can be subsumed to what is claimed to be a larger truth. And when the solipsist holds a position of power he can transform the falsehood into public policy. That was what Trump did when he created a special electoral commission to expose the “fraudulence” of Clinton’s popular vote, a commission whose purpose seemed to be that of exercising further control over the electoral process, and which in any case did not last very long.

Yet we should avoid falling into a cult of solipsistic personality. Trump’s falsehoods connect with longstanding American Nativist and Know-Nothing movements, and with totalistic contemporary Republican assertions. He in fact draws upon the voices of right-wing extremism, what Todd Gitlin calls the “vortex” of “Birthers, Whitewater, ‘Travelgate,’ and Vince Foster conspiracy theorists, ‘death panel’ enthusiasts, ‘Lock her up!’ chanters, scientist-haters or other Flat Earth factions. . . .” In other words Trump’s solipsism can connect with a sea of mostly right-wing exaggeration, misinformation, conspiracism, falsehood, and lies.

Is Trump’s solipsism, then, simply an extension of a cultural trend in American life? I would argue that it is something more. Despotic control over reality usually relates to specific goals, those having to do with the dictator’s holding onto power or furthering his pet projects. Trump is different. His solipsism is sui generis. He is psychologically remarkable in his capacity to manufacture and continuously assert falsehood in the apparent absence of psychosis. Those suffering from schizophrenic psychosis, for instance, can also be highly solipsistic in their hallucinations and delusions. But Trump does not appear to have hallucinations or delusions in a structured, classical sense. That is, without being psychotic, he is just as solipsistic as those who are. He in fact manifests a considerable talent for manipulating his solipsistic falsehoods in ways that enhance his own narrative and connect with related political projects.

In that sense Trump has an extraordinary psychological capacity for sustained solipsism. Have we ever encountered a public figure who has so consistently reversed truth and falsehood and done so on so such a vast scale? David Leonhardt, the journalist who has done most to track Trump’s lies, describes him (with co-writers) as “virtually indifferent to reality, often saying what helps him make the case he’s trying to make,” and as “trying to make truth irrelevant.” It is difficult to overestimate the dangers that stem from such extreme assaults on reality by a man who holds the most powerful office in the world.  

Does Trump believe his own falsehoods? The question itself suggests a clear dichotomy between belief and disbelief, which is not always the way things work. In studying people’s behavior under extremity, I have found that the mind can simultaneously believe and not believe in something, and can move in and out of belief according to perceived pressures. I could witness that tendency in false confessions made by European missionaries accused of being spies and subjected to brutal versions of thought reform in Chinese prisons. One priest told me how, after experiencing unbearable pain from torture, he came to imagine a “spy radio” in his mission house and to view talks he had with other priests about the approaching Communist army as a form of “espionage” on behalf of the “Imperialists.” He spoke of it as similar to writing a novel in which events in the novel become understood as actual history. Trump has been subjected to no such external abuse, but his own inner conflicts and anxieties could create his own version of abuse. The larger point is that, like all other forms of human behavior, belief can be a form of adaptation to existing conditions.

Consider Trump’s most egregiously self-serving lie: that Barack Obama was not born in this country and therefore not a legitimate president. Trump did not invent that lie but embraced it and became its most persistent articulator. Consciously and repeatedly, he manipulated the lie as a way of entering presidential politics. But to make one’s falsehoods convincing one has to develop a belief in them, and it is likely that in some part of his mind Trump has believed (and may still believe) in Obama’s foreign birth. The larger narrative of illegitimacy and racism becomes crucial in providing a structured story that can encompass the falsehood and allow for its further manipulation.

But this “narrative necessity” can itself be unstable. Trump’s solipsism will likely destroy his presidency. Yet along the way something is happening to the rest of us as well. We are experiencing what can be called reality fatigue. The drumbeat of falsehoods and lies continues even as we expose them as such: we are thrust into a realm in which a major segment of our society ignores or defies the principles of reason, evidence, and shared knowledge that are required for the function of a democracy.

From Malignant Normality to Living in Truth

In recent work I refer to malignant normality, by which I mean the imposition of a norm of destructive or violent behavior, so that such behavior is expected or required of people. I came to the idea through my study of Nazi doctors. The physicians arriving at Auschwitz were expected to carry out selections of Jews for the gas chambers. Whatever conflicts they experienced, the great majority adapted to that malignant normality. In America we have encountered dangerous forms of pre-Trump malignant normality in connection with nuclear weapons, including not only their stockpiling but their proposed use in a war we expect to survive and “win.” And in connection with climate, the malignant normality creates what I call an ultimate absurdity: If we were to continue to do just what we are now doing in our use of fossil fuels—changing nothing—we would come close to destroying our civilization over the course of this century. Trump reinforces these expressions of malignant normality and adds others associated with his solipsistic reality. Indeed his administration renders it routine and “normal” to lie and defend lies, and to ignore the traditional independence of the judicial and legislative branches of our society—that is, to seek to own the institutions meant to limit presidential power.

We need to bear witness to the malignant normality imposed by Trump and his administration, to identify and oppose it. We find a historical model for doing just that in the “Velvet Revolution” against communist suppression, which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and subsequently in other Eastern European countries. The great principle of those revolutions was articulated by Václav Havel, as “living in truth.” As Havel explained, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie then it is not surprising that the main fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” Havel spoke of the “parallel structures” of those who resisted the regime and their formation of a “second culture.” What Havel meant, and did much to create, was an expanding community of people living in freedom, living as if there were no oppressive regime controlling their lives. For him, living this way in truth was an expression of direct opposition to that regime, one which took place at “the level of human consciousness and conscience, the existential level,” which he called (in the title of his now classical essay) “the Power of the Powerless.”

I was able to observe and join in such a community—a “parallel structure” and “second culture”—in work I did in Poland in 1978 and 1979 with members of the Department of Psychiatry at the University Medical Center in Krakow. Psychiatric colleagues there did much to facilitate my interviews with Polish survivors of Auschwitz, providing me with interpreters and with valuable counsel. They were open and candid with me and with each other in their wide-ranging observations about the survivors, about Auschwitz, about the practice of psychiatry in Poland, and about the Communist regime whose power they were all too well aware of even as they refused to allow it to control their personal and professional lives.   

No wonder that Mohandas Gandhi spoke similarly of his nonviolent resistance as “experiments with truth,” and Erik Erikson used the title Gandhi’s Truth for his psychobiographical study of the Mahatma. Or that Henry David Thoreau, whom Gandhi read, declared, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Havel, Gandhi, and Thoreau sought to live out humane truths that challenged the falsehoods imposed upon them by what they perceived as the malignant normality of their societies. They demonstrated how truth-telling can connect with other forms of life-enhancing activism that are at the heart of opposition to solipsistic falsehoods of any kind. The fragility of such truth-telling movements is all too evident in the recent reemergence of repressive regimes in Eastern Europe and in the vicissitudes of India after Gandhi. But those truth-telling movements remain a vital model for us in our unending psychological and political struggles.

Now, as Americans in the time of Trump, we can see ourselves as both witnesses to, and prospective survivors of, what may well be a brief Trump era. Compared to Havel, we have the advantage of working institutions, including those having to do with justice and with legal and journalistic investigation, however they are attacked and sometimes weakened by Trumpist falsifiers. At the same time we recognize that our society’s social ills, including its aberrations concerning truth and reality, extend far beyond Trump and his followers. And we are witness to the spectacle of a major political party, controlling most of the levers of power, which supports, equivocates, or remains silent about the Trumpist assault on reality. Yet as elements of what has been called a “post-truth society” manifest themselves, so does increasing opposition to it. In this opposition we struggle, however uncertainly, toward exposing falsehoods in our public and private lives, in seeking our own version of “living in truth.”

Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist at Columbia University and author of many books, including The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, and most recently The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival.