Four years ago, just after the inauguration of Donald Trump, I noticed a peculiar thing: the press had become unable to report his lies as lies. At the risk of mistakenly psychologizing an organization such as NPR, or a sector such as the entire US media, or a nation, I saw then that all of these were falling into a dangerous relationship with Trump and, more worrying, with truth itself.
To all those on the outside of a relationship with Trump, the man is clearly a pathological liar, likely a malignant narcissist, an all around nasty human being that all would do well to avoid.
Unfortunately, as happens with narcissists and abusers everywhere, people get sucked in. Narcissists and abusers become very good at developing power and wielding it to control others. Likely, most of us have encountered one or more of these people: a boss or potential boss, a partner or potential partner, a colleague, and so on. If we’re lucky, we can get out of any relationship or quit the job if the narcissist/abuser has authority over us. If it’s a colleague or other person in our world, we can just keep strict boundaries (although we’ll notice those boundaries being tested often).
With Trump the allure for people has probably always been money, particularly easy money, and the status/women/stuff that goes with it. He doesn’t come off as particularly charming or charismatic; more the kind of buffoon one would put up with for material and status gain.
However, once you’re putting up with him, the question becomes: how much is too much? As we’ve seen from the past four years, many people have quit. Others, mistaking him for a non-narcissist, have stood up to him and were promptly fired. Unfortunately, everyone who has gone along with him in any way has added to his gravitas, allowing him to draw yet more people in and subsequently cause more damage.
The greatest damage done by narcissists and abusers is a breakdown of truth. When they lie, their lies have to be reframed as mis-statements, misunderstandings, mis-construals or so on. The lie isn’t their fault, it’s ours. Or it’s not a lie: they just keep repeating it until people around them nod in acceptance (think about the inauguration crowd size or countless others from Trump). In small groups, this is where you see families drift apart or co-workers quit. Living in a completely different reality from those around you is exhausting.* Unfortunately, this has been America for four years.
It’s about to get a lot better. We’re nearing the end of the break-up with Trump. This is when it can be the worst. For us in America, clearly it has been. This is when the fullest extent of the narcissist and abuser’s manipulative powers come out. They will say and do anything to either win you back or destroy you. So before it truly gets better, we could be in for a wild ride. People who have been convinced by Trump will go along with him and could lash out at the rest of us for as long as Trump holds sway over them. This is why media giants banning him has been so good: he’s isolated, losing power, and lashing out. Only now his destruction is more focused on those near him: Pense, Giuliani, aids and advisors, and so on.
As for the rest of us? I think it’s paramount to regain our hold on truth. It makes me hopeful that media organizations in the last month or so have been more forceful with fact-checking in real time anything coming from Trump or his closest allies. For a good historical overview, here is Timothy Snyder on the Daily Show discussing the way this leads to political tyranny:
As I wrote four years ago, the gaslighter’s manipulation leads to three stages: Disbelief. Defense, and Depression. We as a nation are probably pretty depressed. I’ve heard from dozens of people that they’re just tired. And a lot of that is covid, but it’s also the crazy, lie-filled political un-reality we’ve been subjected to for the last four years. But we can emerge, together.
“Now, more than ever, we need a strong press, willing to identify lies and report on them as such. We also need vigorous reporting on those in office who are speaking truth. Give them a greater voice. Get out of the manipulative gaslighting bubble however you can. It’s not easy – I can say from experience – but it is possible, and it is liberating.”
* In How Sexual Misconduct Shatters Spiritual Communities: Lessons for Buddhists, Barbara Gray, Katheryn Wiedman, and Leslie Hospodar of An Olive Branch, consultants who work with organizations on issues of abuse/misconduct, write about three groups that tend to form in a community rocked by misconduct: loyalists, allies, and agnostics:
One group of followers, the loyalists, finds it impossible to believe that their teacher could be guilty of misconduct. Their instinctive response is to deny or dismiss the allegations outright as untruthful. They may even disparage those making the allegations in order to protect their teacher’s reputation. A second group, the allies, are quick to side with the accuser(s), knowing all too well that the potential for abuse has become an unfortunate reality in religious organizations—and Buddhist organizations are no exception. This group accepts at face value the claims of those alleging abuse and seeks to protect them and relieve their suffering. Still another group, let’s call them the agnostics, adopts a wait-and-see attitude, perhaps hoping that the allegations are the result of a big misunderstanding and that life can return to normal as soon as the truth is known. Unfortunately, that outcome is unlikely unless the organization addresses the causes of the problem and undergoes an intentional healing process.