Delusion, and lots of it, is pretty much a prerequisite for dictators. The New Yorker’s David Remnick notes that Finnish autocrat Urho Kekkonen reportedly opened his public orations with the line, “If I die…” Ugandan dictator Idi Amin decreed his official title was “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Saparmurat Niyazov, the insane strongman of Turkmenistan whose prolific lunacy demanded an astonishing number of gold statues be erected in his image, once conceded “there are too many portraits, pictures and monuments [of me],” and claimed that while he did not “find any pleasure” in the ubiquity of his visage, benevolently allowed for it because “the people demand it,” as Paul Theroux noted. Ferdinand Marcos, whose 20-year rule of the Philippines was marked by terror, corruption and brutality, repeated his public lies in his private journals, which biographer William C. Rempel has written were “riddled with falsehoods and self-serving fictions” and “blatant, bald-faced, and occasionally comical” untruths. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi told journalists that there were “no demonstrations at all” even as protesters crowded the streets of Tripoli and cities around the country calling for the end of his regime. “All my people love me,” Gaddafi insisted in a 2011 interview. “They would die to protect me.”
Donald Trump, who (for now) remains a mere lowly president, but whose autocratic aspirations have been endlessly noted, has consistently shown a similar propensity toward magical thinking at odds with objective reality. To be sure, Trump has always had a contentious relationship with the truth, preferring to dispense what he called “truthful hyperbole,” a forerunner to “alternative facts.” “Give them the old Trump bullshit,” he reportedly instructed an architect just before a 1980 press conference, encouraging him to lie about how grand Trump Tower would be.
Since his election to president, Trump has promoted “1,628 false and misleading claims,” a number that grows daily, according to the Washington Post’s count. But Trump’s willingness to fib has always seemed to be linked to a pathological inability to sort fact from self-aggrandizing fiction, and recent reports suggest the president may be more than just the world’s most recognized liar. In private conversations with friends and staffers, Trump has begun raising the same lies and obfuscations as he does in public, indicating he may be so delusional he actually believes his own fabrications.
According to the New York Times, Trump has recently held “closed-door conversations” to revisit the racist birther campaign he used to launch his political career, again raising the non-issue of President Obama’s birth certificate. Aides note that Trump has “repeatedly claimed he lost the popular vote last year because of widespread voter fraud,” a theory widely debunked by multiple voting experts with actual research and numbers on their side. In a general sense, staffers report, Trump “continues to privately harbor a handful of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in fact” and Axios notes Trump is now particularly “prone to confidently indulging wild conspiracies and fantasies.” The president has “expressed certainty” the Russia investigation will wrap within the next six weeks, “complete with an exoneration from Robert S. Mueller III,” according to sources who spoke with the Washington Post. Trump has even suggesting that 2005 footage of him bragging about grabbing women’s pussies—which he previously verified as authentic and even tepidly apologized for—may not be real. “We don’t think that was my voice,” Trump told an anonymous senator, according to the Times.
To be honest, while all this is a bit worrisome, none of it is particularly shocking, considering Trump’s track record. Self-delusion has always been an integral part of the Trump brand, and is nothing short of a defining trait of the Trump presidency. Along with callous indifference toward others, as well as paranoia, narcissism and schizotypal thinking, the failure to recognize plainly observable reality is a classic marker of aspiring despots and tyrants; a character and personality flaw that, to put it mildly, tends to get worse as time and power accrue. What’s far more alarming than Trump being Trump is the response from those around him, who recognize how aberrant his behavior is, but do nothing as his decline accelerates. The most frightening aspect of Trump’s deteriorating mental state is how many of his confidants, colleagues and advisers seem totally okay with pretending everything is fine, at least publicly, indicating their willingness to endanger us all.
The Times cites a senator who listened as Trump ranted about Obama’s birth certificate and “chuckled” when he “recalled the conversation,” as if it was a bit of comic relief and not an awful sign about the president’s lack of mental clarity. Trump seriously attempts to float the idea that the Access Hollywood tape is part of some grand conspiracy against him, and instead of sounding a warning bell, “most of Mr. Trump’s aides [have] ignored his changing story.” When Trump asks advisers to support his completely unbelievable new storyline about the video, they simply keep things rolling, despite the elephant of mental illness in the room. (“[P]eople would kind of say, ‘Okay, let’s move along,’” one source told the Washington Post.) Complicit politicians have gotten on board with the mission to keep Trump’s condition under wraps, according to the Times report. “Mr. Trump’s journeys into the realm of manufactured facts have been frequent enough that his own staff has sought to nudge friendly lawmakers to ask questions of Mr. Trump in meetings that will steer him toward safer terrain.”
As they fail to address Trump’s affliction, those involved in this illusion continue to baby the president, showing him only those polls “designed to make him feel good”; advising other world leaders to “compliment him on his Electoral College victory”; ensuring only positive news crosses his desk; and gingerly guiding him away from his kneejerk tendency to make irresponsible, dangerous and irrational decisions. (“You either had to just convince him something better was his idea or ignore what he said to do and hoped he forgot about it the next day,” former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res told Politico. “[H]e reacts to everything, and he is always reacting.”)
Basically, the sycophants in the White House and the self-serving politicians filling the seats of Congress are not just standing idly by as this president slips further into what sounds like serious mental wreckage, they are actively enabling him. As Trump shuttles from one self-created disaster to the next, belligerently baiting foreign powers and ratcheting up racism and xenophobia at home, the country slides closer to chaos. But this matters little to a group more dedicated to its billionaire donors than any other other cause. They will continue to look past the president’s delusions, no matter how harmful they are to the country and the well-being of its citizens. This, it seems worth mentioning, isn’t unlike what happens in dictatorships. As Trump’s condition gets worse, so will the situation as a whole.
“Trump has internalized the belief that he can largely operate with impunity, people close to him said,” a Washington Post report stated on Wednesday. “His political base cheers him on. Fellow Republican leaders largely stand by him. His staff scrambles to explain away his misbehavior—or even to laugh it off.” With no expectation that the 25th Amendment solution will be employed, Trump is likely to be more reckless, and yes, dangerous to the country and quite possibly the world. “White House officials,” recognizing the inevitable downturn of any untreated mental instability, “expect Trump to be even more outrageous and cocksure in coming months,” Axios notes.
“The more stress he’s under, the more delusional he’s going to become, the more out of control and, from a danger standpoint, the more enraged he’s going to become,” Harvard psychiatry professor Lance Dodes told Newsweek. “He is a far more sick person than people realize or want to realize. To say for example that he is even a con man is way too benign. He loses track of reality when it comes to a challenge to his sense of himself, which is extremely fragile. It’s out of his control—he is not clever like a fox, he is just very, very sick.”