Whether Trump knows it or not, his words may incite violence

Whether Trump knows it or not, his words may incite violence
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It is possible that the president is not the evil genius skillfully exploiting the anxieties and hatreds of his followers, as he is often depicted. Given his shifting ideological adherences (he used to be a Democrat; now he is to the right of the Republican establishment he eclipsed), Trump may not understand the historical significance of proudly claiming to be a “nationalist,” the incendiary racial impact of referencing “infestations” of Baltimore communities and an “invasion” of immigrants. 

Trump may simply be indulgently feeding off of public adoration. But his perceived entitled victimhood, seeming lack of empathy, however justified in his own mind, can incite violence. 

One way or another, white supremacist groups draw strength from his endorsement of their grievances. In his quest to prove that he is the smartest, toughest, most powerful “kid”on the block, Trump feeds fears of “the great replacement” of the white majority by the decidedly non-Norwegian immigrants who out-reproduce and will soon out-number those used to the historical privileges that come with political power. This threat can be illusorily assuaged by ownership of military grade weapons.  

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The picture emerges of one who has no coherent set of ideas, plans or principles other than seeking the approving roar of the crowd. This was evident in the stark lack of emotion in what many have called a “hostage” presentation on Monday, when emotions like empathy were much in order but appeared absent in his robotic reading of the teleprompter’s script. Contrast this with his delighted, engaged, energized call and response with a crowd’s shouting of “lock her up,” and suggesting “shoot them.” 

Following his NRA minders, the president emphasized mental health. Empirical studies clearly show that individuals with mental illness are not any more dangerous than the general population. Rather than perpetrators, those suffering from mental illness are more often victims of violence.

This directly contradicts the popular misconception that “anyone who would do that would have to be crazy”— unless that argument refers to a definition of craziness far broader than anything that is normally referred to as mental illness. 

There is no greater likelihood of violence, for example, among those with depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, PTSD, or other anxiety disorders.  

But let's take the president at word, namely calling for the identification of characteristics that would allow us to identify mass shooters ahead of time. Let us review what we know about such predictors.

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Other than a history of past violence, these are the psychological characteristics that are linked to violence: 

  • Lack of empathy — an inability to feel or sense how one’s behavior affects others and their experience of pain or suffering 
  • Cruelty — a history of enjoyment of hurting animals or other people 
  • Sense of grievance — the feeling that others have hurt, taken advantage of, belittled or damaged oneself or one’s family or community 
  • Entitlement — the feeling that oneself or one’s family or community has special status, deserves special treatment or privilege 
  • When grievance and entitlement are combined, a feeling those who fail to recognize or even who actively attack one's entitled position deserve to be eliminated 
  • Intensified threat or attack — the affronts to special status are actually or perceived to be growing worse 
  • Access to means of attack 

Trump fits every one of these criteria, and that is why we have publicly and repeatedly called attention to his dangerousness. 

We make clear that his dangerousness has nothing to do with any diagnosis that may or may not apply to him. It has much to do with the other characteristics noted here. These do not need to be elicited in a clinical setting, as they are on display in the president’s everyday public behavior. 

When we have a president who is dangerous, a societal disorder is far more likely to play out.  In addition to embodying the “craziness” of society, Trump is spreading it; an office as powerful as the presidency is capable of laying the social and cultural groundwork for epidemics of violence.  

Both in the actions he incites and those of which he is so capable with his access to the nuclear codes, the president of the United States is a past, present, and future source of danger and harm to many Americans and the world. 

Edwin B. Fisher, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Leonard L. Glass, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital. Bandy X. Lee, M.D., is a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine.