Avner Falk
Clinical and political psychologist and psychohistorian

What Will Trump Do If He Loses the US Election?

What Will Trump Do If and When He Loses the Presidential Election?

In a little-noticed article published last March, the courageous American psychiatrist Bandy Lee, who has been warning against Donald Trump’s dangerousness to our world and to our species ever since his election four years ago, compared the danger from Trump’s fragile emotional health to the deadliness of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Cassandra-like, Lee warned that Trump’s emotional illness must be treated with great care to avoid a catastrophe. She wrote, “As the US president grows more symptomatic, our window of being able to intervene is also rapidly closing. People keep asking, ‘what is it going to take for the public to realise that he is unwell?’ The problem is, the sicker he becomes, those under his influence will see it less as a problem — and this has been the trend. The coronavirus epidemic will become more deadly because of poor mental health and capacity rather than because of the organism itself.”

Tragically, Lee’s predictions have become true. The US has had almost seven million Covid-19 infected patients, of whom only about four million have recovered, and nearly two hundred thousand have died of the pandemic. Many millions have become unemployed. And the people under Trump’s unhealthy influence include his vice president, his Cabinet secretaries and his closest aides and advisers.

US voter polls give Trump’s Democratic rival rival, Joe Biden, a significant lead over Trump in the forthcoming US presidential election, and predict Biden’s victory. Biden needs 270 of the 538 members of the Electoral College to win, and even the cautious 270towin website gives him at least 278 electors with another 91 potential ones.

The terrible question arises of what Trump might do in case he does lose the election, which would be a crisis for him. Several possibilities present themselves:

  • Trump will refuse to concede the results, call the election a fraud, and refuse to leave office.
  • Trump will start a war against America’s “enemies,” such as Iran, China or North Korea.
  • Trump will become psychotic.
  • Trump will commit suicide.

However far-fetched these scenarios may seem, we have a historical example to go on, and its name is Adolf Hitler. Several historians have compared Trump to Hitler. The most prominent of them was the Holocaust historian Christopher Browning in his article The Suffocation of Democracy. Like Hitler, Trump almost certainly suffers from a “borderline” personality disorder that includes a “malignant” narcissistic personality. Trump’s emotional disorder can be traced back to his very early life. As the psychiatrist Justin Frank and several others have shown, he was emotionally abandoned as a two-year old toddler by his mother, who had almost died giving birth to his younger brother. This younger brother, Robert Trump, died recently.Trump has always unconsciously sought the mother’s love that he had lost, with America as his idealized mother, compensating himself with money and property, or with power, but his attempts to win it have been both destructive and self-destructive.

The reader may ask, “Can you make an armchair diagnosis of Donald Trump, whom you have never seen in person?” The diagnosis, however imperfect, is not the key issue. The issue is Trump’s mental makeup, his instability, unpredictability and dangerousness, and his reactions to emotional crises. You do not need to have examined the “patient” Donald Trump, because his life and actions speak loudly to the trained ear of the mental health professional. Trump will not seek psychotherapy because he lacks self-awareness. He does not think there is anything wrong with him. He thinks there is everything wrong with his rivals, critics, and enemies. No direct diagnosis can be made, nor needs to be. And, of course, if he were someone’s patient, that person could not say anything about him in public.

Psychoanalysis is at least two different things: it is a therapeutic method for human emotional suffering but it is also a discipline for understanding human behavior, with the concept of the unconscious at its center. The disciplines of applied psychoanalysis use every type of data available about human behavior. Thus we have the psychoanalysis of art, of music, of politics, of history, of geography and of every other aspect of human endeavor. Then we have psychoanalytic biography. You cannot “psychoanalyze” dead people, but you can understand and explain their often irrational actions using the insights of psychoanalysis. The purpose of this article is not to diagnose Trump but rather to understand his mind and behavior.

Trump was indirectly the cause of the early death from alcoholism of his older brother, Freddy, who was an airline pilot, by taking his place in the family and by constantly denigrating him as a “glorified bus driver.” Trump harbors unconscious guilt feelings for his “fratricide.” He unconsciously needs to punish himself for it. Throughout his life he fights to prove to  himself that he exists. And he must always win, or else he feels humiliated and worthless. If he loses, he may be devastated. This is a very dangerous emotional makeup.

As the political psychoanalyst Blema Steinberg has shown, the underlying issue is that of shame and humiliation. Just as the Germans adapted themselves to Hitler’s warped reality, which included delusions about the Jews and many other matters, many Americans, including the people directly under him, have adapted themselves to Trump’s patently abnormal behavior as if it were normal.

Trump’s emotional instability, unpredictability, and dangerousness, the intense narcissistic rage that overwhelms him over and over again, his inability to bear public shame or humiliation, his need to hurt others and to humiliate them in order to feel good about himself, as in his famous “You’re fired!”, his inability to brook any opposition to his will, and his belief that he has a “bigger nuclear button” than that of Kim Jong-un of North Korea, as he “tweeted” in January 2018, make him far more dangerous to our species and to our world than Hitler was. The German Führer brought about the deaths of tens of millions of people; the current US president can potentially bring about the deaths of hundreds of thousands, even millions, and even all mankind, if he unleashes what he has called “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Bob Woodward’s books Fear and Rage illustrate this clearly.

In a book entitled Disloyal: A Memoir, just published by Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who worked for Trump and knew him very well for some twenty years, Cohen says that Trump may well start a war to prevent himself from being removed from office: “My biggest fear is that there will not be a peaceful transition of power in 2020.” Cohen may have his own axe to grind, but his warning rings very true.

The possibilities of psychosis and suicide seem less likely, yet not impossible. Justin Frank considered Trump psychotic. He wrote, “Through his public behavior Trump has repeatedly shown that he is mentally unwell. His apparent pathologies include malignant narcissism, delusions of grandeur, an attraction to violence, sadism, a lack of impulse control, utter disregard for rules and norms, and a pathological tendency to lie. In sum, our president can be reasonably described as a psychopath or a sociopath.”

This is a rather loose usage of the term “psychosis.” Trump does not have an obvious thought disorder. He may have delusions of grandeur, but he does not seem to have hallucinations. He does function within the bounds of reality, however loose.

Borderline patients, however, may “decompensate” and become psychotic when the emotional pain is no longer bearable, and when their infantile unconscious defenses, such as denial or projection, break down. This is why they are called “borderline.” They can move in and out of psychosis. Hitler, after all, who ruled most of Europe, killed himself to avoid the shame and humiliation of his capture and execution. Trump may conceivably become psychotic when the reality of his defeat hits him in the face, when the ;pain of his humiliation had become too great.

We are faced with one of the most dangerous situations in the history of our world. As the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson put it, our species  is tragically divided into “pseudo-species” called tribes and nations, which often do battle with another. The political scientist Benedict Anderson thought that nations were “imagined communities,” but psychological reality is more powerful than “objective reality.” People act on how the perceive, think and feel things to be. The most powerful man in the world, who can unleash a nuclear war, may be defeated in his bid to retain his high office, which is the only thing that still shores up his sagging self-esteem, after his obvious failures on the pandemic, on the economy, and in his overall leadership of his country. So far many people have paid with their lives for Trump’s failure to deal effectively with the Coronavirus crisis.

Bandy Lee concluded her March 3 article by saying, “In cases of shared psychosis, the required intervention is to remove contact with the symptom-inducing individual. The symptoms in the induced individuals then usually subside as dramatically as they have appeared. Even if a full intervention was not possible, we can strengthen resistance in society (as we would support the immune system in a body). Honesty, transparency, and education about what we are dealing with can lessen the induction of false beliefs and help us to contain both kinds of pandemics before it is too late.”

This is easier said than done. The “induced individuals” are Trump’s remaining aides and Cabinet secretaries, those he has not fired and those who have not resigned, and they are infected with his “psychosis.” It would be very hard to separate them from him even if he is defeated. The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, which enables the removal of a president who can longer carry out his duties, has never been invoked. It may be no exaggeration to state that the future of our species depends upon how Trump reacts to what happens in the forthcoming US election.

As one wit said, it is very hard to predict, severally the future. The diagnosis, such as it is, is based upon everything we know of Trump: the events of his life, his books, his business ventures, his television career, his public statements, his private statements as revealed by those who were close to him, his public appearances and speeches, his body language, his press conferences, his interviews, his tens of thousands of “tweets,” and many other data about him. Justin Frank, Bandy Lee and the dozens of mental health professionals in the latter’s book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump have never examined Trump, yet they have come up with a range of diagnoses, from narcissism to psychosis.

What can we expect from Trump’s instability, unpredictability and dangerousness? What he will do if and when he loses the election a few weeks from now is crucial. It does not matter whether he is “psychotic,” “borderline” or “malignantly” narcissistic. Each of the possibilities listed above — refusing to concede the election, starting a war, psychosis and suicide — is bad enough in itself. That he will react destructively or self-destructively to defeat is certain from his past history. Whether he alone or countless other people will pay for his crisis remains an open question.

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