Some people remember great events vividly – where they were when they heard the news, how they heard it, what they did immediately afterwards. The assassination of Jack Kennedy was one such event. My propensity has been to remember when I first encountered an intellectual presentation that shook me up – the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn lecturing in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto when he presented his study of five different cultures in Texas who organized their conception of change and the passage of events into five distinct time frameworks. I was in my first year of medical school at the University of Toronto sitting in a balcony seat in a packed auditorium holding 1,600 in 1956. I raced home and wrote an essay on the “Carnie Sense of Time” based on my experiences as a summer carnival worker and my experiences with old time carnies. They were not so much lying to me as operating within a totally different time frame for organizing their experiences in life. Using Margaret Mead’s methods, I wrote the essay for my anthropology class and earned my first A+.
I also remember when I first read Elisabeth Kűbler-Ross’ 1969 book on Death and Dying. I was living on Highland Avenue in Toronto, dealing with American draft dodgers and deserters in addition to my teaching. I had also gone through the death of someone close. I was mesmerized by the book. Whether her theory did or did not stand up to theoretical verification, I have used it since to understand a number of experiences which go through different phases.
Based on her work in Chicago counselling patients diagnosed with a terminal illness, she presented the five stages of death that these individuals normally go through – 1: Denial; 2: Anger; 3: Depression; 4: Bargaining; and 5: Acceptance. The characterization of each stage was not intended to tuck each response into a small, neatly packaged emotion. Nor were the stages depicted as necessarily following one after the other. They did not depict a linear and predictable progression. Rather, the work identified the fact that many dying patients go through different states when they learn they are about to die and that, more often than not, they seem to experience those emotions in the order she depicted. Later, she would expand her research in collaboration with David Kessler to identify parallel stages of people in grief dealing with a dying loved one.
No matter how often the authors indicated that not everyone goes through any or all of these stages or does so in the prescribed order, many took up the taxonomy of dying and grief as a cookie cutter to depict stages of dying or grief for everyone. I want to repeat their warning. I have discerned what I believe are the ten stages of self-destruction that tyrants go through before they implode. There are ten stages, not five. They were outlined in this blog in the depiction of the self-destruction of Pharaoh when he tried to hold onto his Hebrew slaves before they got their freedom, a freedom which they developed in phases and first experienced very equivocally because the troubles encountered were at first overwhelming and bleak and the taste of freedom itself so bitter that they questioned the original decision.
In moving from slavery to freedom, the Israelites likely went through many stages and those stages may typify the experiences of other peoples. But my concern here is with tyrants who bring self-destruction upon themselves in the exercise of their tyranny. Like Ross and Kessler, I do not want to make any claim that tyrants such as King Charles I or King George III or any other tyrant went through the stages I propose and did so in the order I offer as if that order were prescriptive. Rather, this is simply a manner of depicting the process by which the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in dealing with the Israelites and how, I believe. Trump has been behaving since he was elected President of the U.S.A.
I am convinced that Trump did not expect to become president when he threw his hat into the ring with other Republicans seeking the nomination and even when he was running against Hillary Clinton in the general election. He sought the post because of the transactional benefits it brought and might continue to bring to the Trump brand. Then, even though he did not expect to win, he wanted the post because he likes being a winner. But the election results were as much of a surprise to him as it was for most of the rest of us. It is very easy to see how his narcissism, his unswerving dedication to advertisements for himself, turned into a divine complex where he was not only the chosen one, but the one who did the choosing.
When elected president and confronted by others who challenged his assumptions of divine power, Trump, like Pharaoh, adopted a dismissive stance towards his critics. His attitude clearly revealed his indifference towards both facts and the law in dealing with the asylum seekers requesting the protection of the U.S. government.
The first two stages that I have already outlined might be considered the two faces of denial in the first stage of death and dying. Stage I, as I depicted it for both Pharaoh and for Donald Trump, emerged in DT’s effort to control who entered America. For that policy and practice was the most critical one in determining the character of a society. Most interesting, in the opening days of his presidency, his initial exclusionist propensities targeted Muslims at the same time as he expressed his indifference to the principle of equality for all citizens, especially women. He had openly labeled women as pussies when it was he who was in the process of revealing how much of a pussy he was in dealing with Putin and Russia. Ignorance of the law and indifference to those unfairly treated by his application of his power characterized the first stage of his self-destruction.
The second stage was characterized by unequivocal denials. The denial shifted in shape and colour through each successive stage as it became a constituent part of the next stage. “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.” That was February of 2017. The qualification “to the best of my knowledge” would be dropped subsequently as the denial evolved and shifted until it came back to, “I never said that no one in my administration colluded with the Russians. Only I did not.” Co-terminous with the denial stage that succeeded the dismissive stage with its characteristic indifference to others and the law, was Trump’s differentiation in the third phase into “us” and “them”. The differentiation was at a more general level than the earlier one aimed specifically at women and Muslims. Evidence of Trump’s ignorance and ignoring of reality piled up.
The shift in his posture from indifference to overt denial turned passivity into outright aggression.
This was not the denial in the Kűbler-Ross sense of dropping into a survival mode by denying what is happening, but a denial, outright and absolute, of what we later learned had actually happened. Rather than the world becoming meaningless and overwhelming, as in the first stage of death or grieving, denial entailed laying the foundations for an alternate reality that was meaningless to anyone who looked on with any degree of objectivity. That alternate reality was necessary to give the would-be tyrant a mental framework from which he could operate. Trump was not numb, just dumb. Rather than a postponement in facing the end, the end was denied in a process that itself brought that end closer. Instead of denial being part of healing, it was part of a process of self-inflicted violence that detached the pain from himself and projected it onto others.
On 2 March 2017, Jeff Sessions recused himself from supervising any inquiry into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russians. Trump never forgave him and repeatedly regarded the act as a betrayal. It was anger that never dissipated but simply went deep under the skin. It grew over time to the point where it became embarrassing. Sessions was one of the best cabinet members he had – if the measure was delivery on the promises The Donald had made. Sessions vigorously pursued and implemented Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.
The anger was not driven by reason, but by the deep pain of what Trump took to be betrayals. It was not like his initial indifference to and disconnect from others. Instead, and, ironically, it was the way he connected, ensuring that Sessions remained the puppet at his side ready at any and all times to take a verbal beating. In the meanwhile, Trump experienced the anger as an expression of strength and ruthlessness to the first Senator who had pledged his loyalty to him. For Trump, and as it would turn out in reality, Sessions’ act of recusing himself was a betrayal, even though the action was one obviously called for under the rule of law. The anger covered the sense of loss and absence Trump felt within his own chest.
But Trump also gave the game away. Somehow, he knew that the FBI was after him, for he accused Obama of ordering a tap on his phone. Though he did not feel secure enough to fire Sessions, he allowed his National Security Adviser, LT. General H.R. McMaster who replaced Mike Flynn, to remove the chief strategist and architect of his election victory, Steve Bannon, from his position on the National Security Committee. Displacement was the order of the day, displacement from himself onto others and then displacement of others closest to him who had been critical to his victory. Trump, the super magician, turned loyalists into lice whom he felt he had to pick off himself and flick away
However, lice are not swarms of flies or scarabs that seemingly come from nowhere to attack you. Lice cannot fly. They are wingless insects with barbed legs that live on your scalp. Sessions and Bannon were parasites living on the monarch’s head and proved very difficult to kill as Trump tried to wash them out of his hair. Sessions and Bannon gradually became itches that Trump raged against but it took a great deal of time for him to remove them. But remove them he eventually did. However, the swarms of agents that really began to assault him had not begun. And they were turned into a swarm by his own actions.
To be continued