Trump’s “presidential” speech to the joint session of Congress on Feb. 28 was a brilliant move. He stayed with his script, was calm and measured, and offered one gem of grace and dignity. Both Republicans and even some Democrats gave high ratings. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared to new heights. The bipartisan crowd went wild. And that’s why this speech presents a new kind of danger.
The problem is that this speech is but one – perhaps the only one – time in Trump’s political career when he had any modicum of decorum and propriety. When the bar is set so low, anything looking remotely better than his typical blustery hate-speech can suddenly be characterized as “unifying” and “optimistic.” The result is that even some who have been battered by Trump’s campaign (including the major media outlets) and targeted by the executive orders and rhetoric of his first six weeks in office are so grateful for a moment of relief, they appear to be lured into thinking that maybe this is the “real” Trump. That he actually is a unifier. That he really does have the country’s best interest at heart. That maybe it’s time for a “reset.”
How can this be? How can we forget the relentless assaults against women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, people of color, immigrants, refugees, public health, the environment, public education, and even reality itself that have been perpetrated by Trump and his team since inauguration day, and during the entire past year? How are we so lulled by the siren song of faux-respectability that we ignore the actual message of the speech (which continues a xenophobic, heteronormative, white supremacist, militaristic, anti-environmental agenda)? How can we be echoing the calls to “give him a chance” when the people he has put into cabinet positions are there specifically to dismantle the institutions of public good? How can we so quickly forget the real damage this administration has done to this country in just the past six weeks, let alone the harm planned for the future?
It may be helpful to view these contradictory reactions by understanding the phenomenon known as the Stockholm Syndrome.
First coined in 1973, the condition derives its name from the paradoxical situation that arose when hostages of a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, developed sympathy for their captors and refused to testify against them in court. Victims exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome irrationally and inexplicably come to defend those who abuse them. At first, we may not understand how this can be. But when we examine the pattern of mind-games used against the victims, we can start to see what’s actually happening.
Imagine a kidnapping victim who is periodically tortured, but is also shown moments of surprising kindness and humanity. When this pattern is repeated enough times, a kind of brainwashing occurs whereby the victim clings to the delusion that their captor is actually beneficent, even as their wounds and bruises say otherwise. Their insistence on defending their abductor is actually their psyche’s defense mechanism when survival is at stake.
Or imagine a spouse who sometimes threatens and abuses their partner, but other times appears charming and conciliatory. In between the times of intimidation and bullying, the perpetrator punctuates the relationship with moments of grandiose gestures of goodwill and periods of relative peace. This leads the victim to not only doubt that the abuse is happening, but also convince themselves that the “real” person they love is the sweet and kind persona shown on occasion, instead of the cruel monster who controls the relationship by gaslighting, manipulation and violence.
When it comes to Trump, America – do not be fooled. One “nice guy” speech does not a nice guy make. The Stockholm Syndrome has begun, and we need to recognize that our collective fatigue weakens our resistance to the Bannon/Trump agenda.
They know exactly what they are doing. They are faking us out with this “presidential”-sounding speech, and all of a sudden even some of Trump’s harshest critics seem to be getting on board. Employing Stockholm Syndrome tactics is enabling this administration to get away with a great deal of abuse that would never be tolerated under normal circumstances. We need to be vigilant in identifying this pattern and recognizing it as a means by which to impose an autocratic rule.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book, Ethics (which he wrote while resisting Hitler and the Third Reich), “It is worse for a liar to tell the truth than for a lover of truth to lie.” This is because “the liar contaminates everything he says, because everything he says is meant to further a cause that is false. The liar as liar has endorsed a world of falsehood and deception, and to focus only on the truth or falsity of his particular statements is to miss the danger of being caught up in his twisted world,” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” http://www.iep.utm.edu/bonhoeff/#H2).
In other words, if we focus only on this one particular speech, we will miss the danger of being caught up in the twisted world of despotism that the Bannon/Trump Administration is creating. Make no mistake – this regime is in no way backing down. Bannon/Trump intend to do everything they promised, so we should not feel any reassurance from this speech or any future instances of fake-presidentialism.
Instead, we need to remember these instructions for surviving an autocracy by Masha Gessen, a student of Russian totalitarianism:
* Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.
* Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
* Be outraged.
* Don’t make compromises.
On this point, Gessen’s words deserve a full quote, given the prescience of this piece [“Autocracy: Rules for Survival”]:, which was written on Nov. 10, 2016, just two days after the election:
Democrats in Congress will begin to make the case for cooperation, for the sake of getting anything done—or at least, they will say, minimizing the damage. Nongovernmental organizations, many of which are reeling at the moment, faced with a transition period in which there is no opening for their input, will grasp at chances to work with the new administration. This will be fruitless—damage cannot be minimized, much less reversed, when mobilization is the goal—but worse, it will be soul-destroying. In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral. Those who argue for cooperation will make the case . . . that cooperation is essential for the future. They will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy, from which the future must be protected.
The protection of the future is in our hands. So keep your eyes open. Understand the psychological tactics being used against us. Check in with people you trust who can give you a reality check when the powers seem to be negating what you know to be true. And keep reminding each other that the Stockholm Syndrome is already at work and must be resisted.