Trump’s presidency has basically been a self-serving authoritarian rule

As a psychiatrist and retired Army general, I listened to John Bolton’s various interviews and pored over his book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir” looking for insights into the president’s mentality and leadership regarding national security. Bolton didn’t disclose any secrets regarding the president’s character or give us a view of his personality that we have not already seen. 

If there is one takeaway from Bolton’s book, it’s that this president has systematically been able to govern with a single-minded instinct for looking at issues of national interest almost entirely through the prism of what is good for him and not what is good for the country as a whole. People with such aptitudes for thinking and acting with only their interests and ambitions in mind have an advantage over opponents and challengers. 

It’s mind-boggling to think of all that Trump has said or tweeted. Perhaps the best example is when he announced that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” 

Trump’s years of service as president have not been for the nation but to master the art of self-serving authoritarian rule. He has been able to serve himself because he understands a fundamental axiom for fighting his opposition: United it stands; divided it falls.

Since ancient times, despots and autocrats have exercised power by setting up factions against one another in the domains they govern. Such folks are actors thriving on the spotlight and self-absorption, in a world seen through their own personal outsize lens. These personalities inhabit a world of vivid needs and appetites. They have an exquisite sensitivity to the fears and motives of their audience.

They artfully play them off, dividing and conquering, raising suspicions and doubts out of the consciousness of the puppets they are manipulating. They undermine the inclinations of the people around them to form alliances. They cannot tolerate anything that threatens the exclusive loyalty and fealty they crave. With a creepy awareness of the deepest emotions, they personalize any and all issues. They mesmerize their targets. The professional associations admonish psychiatrists against using labels such as “pathological narcissism,” but that is what it is. 

There is no remediation or possibility for change in such personalities. Everything they do is transactional. Bolton and other former advisers made a fatal error of thinking they can manage this president. Instead, Bolton and others learned what many have known in working with these extreme characters — they cannot be controlled, managed or outmaneuvered. Any game played on their field gives them an advantage. No doubt, many effective leaders enjoy the skills of reading the mentality of their allies and opponents but not to the destructive level that it completely crowds out any considerations of national interests. 

Bolton warns us of the dangers of reelecting Trump but did not tell us how to protect against the next wave of self-serving attacks by the president as he seeks reelection. The incendiary rhetoric and staging of professional narcissists evoke primitive reactions and marvelously manipulate the gallery. But rather than heal and unite, we have already seen that the president’s campaign for reelection seeks to exploit the fault lines of our society and create factions.

To add to the divisions of our nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of problems, not least of which has been a psychological crisis of fear, pain and worry. A fragile society is primed for gaslighting at a national level. The voters need to steel themselves for the onslaught that this election cycle will bring and do what Bolton will not — use their vote in a way that removes Trump from office. 

If there can be a cure, the cure is endorsing a candidate that can heal, unite and prioritize the challenges of the broad citizenry.

That candidate builds coalitions, respects the rule of law, and engages the diverse interests and groups across the country. No candidate is without their warts and weaknesses. Trying to unite a beleaguered and besieged populace can be an inhuman task, but it has to be done, for the soul of the country.

The one thing that all Americans must agree on is that our survival depends on being united and acknowledging that what we share must overcome what divides us. This is a time for Americans to unite behind those values inscribed in declaring our independence and establishing the country. There are important differences across our vast land and communities. But these differences should not be allowed to shred the high-minded purposes and beliefs that have brought us all to America.

Stephen N. Xenakis is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and a retired Army brigadier general. He is the Founder of the Center for Translational Medicine, a nonprofit serving soldiers and veterans. Follow on Twitter @SteveXen.

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