President Donald Trump’s Psychological Violence and Propaganda: Is President Trump creating a personality cult?

Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
7 min readOct 10, 2018

President Trump and his allies have ramped up their already heated rhetoric in the run-up to the November 6, 2018 midterm elections. It’s standard practice to “rally the base” during election season. However, Trump’s rhetoric crosses a dangerous line. Whether or not he knows it, he is using classic nationalistic propaganda techniques to twist reality to suit his preferences and paint his political opponents as enemies of the country itself. This psychological violence is a potential prelude to actual violence.

The recent “Weapons of Mass Seduction: The Art of Propaganda” exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco had this to say:

In 1937, a group of academics based at Columbia University founded the Institute for Propaganda analysis to educate the American public on the techniques of domestic propaganda. Although this Institute ceased operations shortly after the US entry into World War II, its findings are still commonly cited in studies of advertising and political campaigns. One of the most potent propaganda techniques it identified in 1937 is “Card Stacking,” which seeks to manipulate audience perception of an issue by emphasizing one side and repressing another. In stacking the cards against the truth:

‘[The propagandist] uses under-emphasis and over-emphasis to dodge issues and evade facts. He resorts to lies, censorship and distortion. He omits facts. He offers false testimony…He creates a smoke screen of clamor by raising a new issue when he wants an embarrassing matter forgotten. He draws a red herring across the trail to confuse and divert those in quest of facts he does not want revealed. He makes the unreal appear real and the real appear unreal…He lets half-truth masquerade as truth. By the Card Stacking device, a mediocre candidate, through the “build-up,” is made to appear an intellectual titan.

In hearing the defenses of Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or even the president himself over the last week, I hear the dodges, the evasion of facts, the smoke screens of clamor and “throwing in the kitchen sink” to “draw the red herring across the trail to confuse and divert.” It’s the classic psychological defense of splitting: “We are all-good, and our opponents are all-bad.”

An episode of CSI a few years ago gave us these three classic defenses of the sociopath:

  1. Admit nothing.
  2. Deny everything.
  3. Make counteraccusations.

If you add: “4. Rinse and repeat,” and “5. Never apologize for your errors,” you pretty much get the behavior of this administration, in my opinion. (To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting a diagnosis of sociopathy for anyone in this administration. That would require a formal and professional examination, perhaps under the 25th Amendment.)

This last two weeks have been an extraordinary example of state-sponsored psychological violence and abuse of power. The president used his bully pulpit to denigrate, dismiss, and dishonor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and, through her, all women who are victims of sexual assault — and through them, all people who are vulnerable or who have been victims of the abuse of power. By abusing civil discourse, he abuses our common humanity, and devalues the humanity of his opposition. He claimed that the accusations were a “hoax” put forth by “evil people.” A Machiavellian rule of power is to shame, blame, and scapegoat your “enemy.” The president claimed that the understandable civil disobedience around the confirmation hearings were evidence of an “angry left-wing mob,” and that Democrats were “totally unhinged” “radicals” “too dangerous to govern,” without any evidence to support charges that if true, would constitute treason. (If he thinks that the protests were mob behavior, what exactly does goading a crowd to chant “lock her up” constitute?)

The de Young exhibit went on to state:

The Institute publicized other common rhetorical devices employed by propagandists, including Name Calling (using terms such as fascist, red, alien and muckraker); Glittering Generalities (using virtuous terms like truth, freedom, and the American Way); Transfer (aligning one’s argument with a prestigious authority such as the church), Testimonial (false endorsements), the Bandwagon (pressuring the public to join or be left out) and Plain Folks (affecting the language and customs of ordinary citizens).

During the 1930s, politicians, historians, and journalists in the United States became increasingly aware of the role that foreign propaganda played in manipulating public opinion during the run up to World War I. Previously neutral, the term “propaganda” developed a stigma as an inherently undemocratic technique associated with totalitarian regimes. (Emphases mine.)

All politicians aim to sway public opinion. But we should be alarmed with Mr. Trump’s vilification of political opponents, journalists, and survivors of sexual assault. He should instead be decrying the vicious and hateful messages that Dr. Ford and others have been receiving in the wake of their testimonies. Leaders in a democracy should be calling us in with compassion, not attacking anyone who disagrees with them. These attacks should rightly be seen as the earmarks of an authoritarian — a leader who wishes to subdue, overpower and control all others to their will, and wipe out any who oppose them.

The authoritarian, like a cult leader, controls minds by creating a psychological split within individuals and within the society at large. Freedom of Mind’s Steven Hassan outlines the BITE model of mind control in his writings (Combating Cult Mind Control, Freedom of Mind Press, 2015):

  • Behavioral control (by defining what behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t).
  • Informational control (controlling what information comes in).
  • Thought control (defining what thoughts and ideologies are acceptable).
  • Emotional control (directing your emotions, or dismissing emotions that don’t support the cult/leader).

This split suppresses an “authentic self” with a “cult” or “mind-controlled self” within each individual. I would say the authentic self is not motivated by hatred of others. The cult-self hates those whom the leader says to hate, and also causes self-hatred if the individual steps “out of line.”

I’m sure that the president’s supporters might say that those in opposition to the president are vilifying him. That may be true, but they do not hold power in the way he does. With great power comes great responsibility, because the possibility of harm is great. The words and attitudes of a leader matter. But in a psychological sense, these Trump supporters would be right: We cannot meet hate with hate, or power with power, and expect to have a successful society in the long term. We have to change our vision of power itself, from its stereotypical form in toxic masculine aggression, to a balance of masculine and feminine in protection of values, people and the principle of relatedness. We have to see each other as human, and disagree without being disagreeable. We cannot allow ourselves to blindly follow and obey a leader, particularly if the leader is advocating hatred and violence. I believe we have to further commit to non-violence ourselves, in thought and deed.

The psychological violence of being codependent with narcissism

The narcissist leaves a wake of damaged relationships. In fact, if a narcissist suffers, it is often because they are frustrated in relationships, not understanding how to make them work, and hung up on the need to be admired.

Those who find themselves in relationship with a narcissist can become codependent, and feel these emotions:

  • Devalued, diminished, insecure, subordinated, abused, isolated emotionally, irrelevant.
  • Angry, resentful, defeated, helpless, inadequate, disengaged, suppressed.
  • Filled with dread of seeing them.
  • Can push an empathic person into “involution” (introverted thought/feeling).
  • Like an extra in their movie.
  • Like an object for their use, to be discarded when no longer desired/needed.
  • Like your needs, feelings and thoughts are not important.
  • Alternately, idealized, at least temporarily.

Many of us who have been in relationship with a narcissistic leader cycle through these emotions and states. The emotions amount to psychological suppression. In the context of an election, they could account for some of the psychological voter suppression, which I wrote about here.

The goal, I think, is to not feel psychologically or socially defeated, and to gain a sense of adequacy at dealing with our difficult emotions as well as develop constructive strategies to deal with toxic leaders and difficult people. The first step is naming these emotions, and recognizing that they are being induced by the difficult person(s) in our midst.

One such strategy (in addition to setting boundaries) would be to vote in this midterm election, keeping in mind that your vote affects not just your wallet, but the democratic values on which this country was founded.

The country is in crisis. In all of our actions, we are determining our identities, and who we are to each other as fellow citizens. I think we know in our hearts that California is not the enemy of Texas, that New York is not the enemy of North Dakota, that Washington is not the enemy of Georgia or Florida. We all depend on each other in many ways, and rely on each other in good times and bad. It’s time for us to be responsible for one another, and to support the civility that must be the foundation of our union.

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© 2018 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

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Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Psychiatrist, author of Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Facebook and the Other Social Networks, https://www.facebuddha.co, https://RaviChandraMD.com