"A classic God complex": Dr. Justin Frank on Donald Trump's increasing "persecutory delusion"

Meet The Press; Donald Trump William B. Plowman/NBC
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Donald Trump's "interview" last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" was a spectacle, one that embodied many of the failings that the mainstream news media has willfully made throughout the Trumpocene and America's continuing democracy crisis. Trump was allowed a platform to lie, circulate disinformation, amplify his disproved conspiracy theories about how the 2020 Election was "stolen" from him and the MAGA movement, and to act like he is leading a righteous struggle to retake the White House from a usurper. What is perhaps most concerning is how Trump was allowed a platform by NBC and "Meet the Press" where he in his role as a political cult leader could recruit new members for his neofascist MAGA movement.

Intentionally (or not), Donald Trump is also a type of teacher. As seen during his "Meet the Press" interview Trump's lessons are cruel and sadistic: his apparent pathological if not sociopathic behavior is a way of traumatizing and abusing the American people.

As I and others have argued here and elsewhere, Trump's use of political sadism is one of the main reasons why so many among the news media, the country's political elites, and general public are still stuck in a state of denial about the dire and existential threat the ex-president and the Republican fascists and larger white right represent to the country and its democracy.

For many people, to see and accept the full horror is too frightening. Unfortunately, denial, wish-casting, liberal schadenfreude, mockery and learned helplessness offers no protection against such malignant leaders and the people who follow them. Moreover, for those Americans who have had direct interpersonal relationships with aberrant and malignant personalities such as Donald Trump, his public behavior is all too familiar and potentially triggering.

In an attempt to make better sense of Trump's "Meet the Press" interview, how it represents the news media's much larger failures, the ex-president's behavior and increasing dangerousness to the public, and the ongoing democracy crisis, I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights.

The interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M, and author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump."

Donald Trump did not "meet" the press, he used propaganda strategies to overrun the press. He portrayed the world in fascist terms: everything is dark and corrupted, the nation is weak and humiliated and only he can fix it. None of that is true, but Trump offered hundreds of different lies and distortions of reality to make it appear to be true.

Anyone who interviews Trump faces the same problem: you try to get Trump to specifically answer a question, but he tells 20 lies in the process and you can't stop each of those 20 lies—especially if you focus on the one question you're trying to get him to answer. Old time propaganda analysts called what Trump does a "gish gallop." He also used ad hominem, tu quoque, conspiracy, lies, false accusations of corruption, attacking the interviewer, frame warfare—among others. Every response he gives is an evasion.

Consuming fascist propaganda like this makes you even more vulnerable to fascist propaganda. It is engineered and designed to create the conditions under which fascism flourishes. You cannot put Trump on tv without normalizing fascism in America.

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the biography, "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success". His other books include "High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump" and The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence".

Donald Trump does not change. For forty years he has brushed aside the substance of every question designed to get at an uncomfortable truth or hold him accountable for his action of past statements. Instead, he uses the network airtime — worth how many dollars? – for his own purposes. In this "deal" he wins, no matter how many extra viewers tuned in.

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Trump has mastered the Mussolini pose. Chin jutted out, his eyes rather dead, which closes the so-called window to the soul. Other body language cues — leaning in to dominate the space, using the classic "salesman" hand gestures, and occasionally leaning back, or looking to the side, as if he were receiving wisdom from some unseen source. The micropauses and poses suggested authority in a setting where he was alone.

When asked if he is worried about going to jail, he lies and says, "I don't even think about it." This bald-faced deception is something he began as a small child who could either lie or face harsh punishment from his temperamental father. He discovered that the lies worked.

His words? Here it can be noted that he's still leaning on tropes like "people said," and flipping terms to describe those defending democracy as "fascists" and talking in sentence fragments so that he can reference talking points without bothering to think of sentences. He knows that slogans — "Biden indictments" – work far better than coherent statements, especially when stated in rapid fire sequence that makes it impossible to focus long enough on one to detect the deception. No one could keep up with him.

He also signaled his supposed revelations with phrases like "Are you ready?" and "I'm going to tell you something I never told anyone else." Thus, he draws attention to the point he wants to make and deprives his interviewer of the chance to note what's important and what's not.

Marcel Danesi is Professor Emeritus of linguistic anthropology and semiotics at the University of Toronto. His new book is Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories: A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective.

The interview was another Trump performance of defiance and implied potency. As in other interviews he leaned forward as if to listen closer, but he was actually "performing intimidation." Breaching the perceived safe space between oneself and one's interlocutor is intended to induce uncomfortableness and even distress, thus blocking fluid interaction. Another aspect of the performance was his unswerving stare. When asked about the situation in Ukraine, Trump kept his eyes fixated on the interviewer, and then, responding to the question of the inhumanity of Putin's actions, his stare become even more intense, as he opened his hands and moved them apart—a mixed signal that was meant to say "I am open, trust me." In response to the interviewer's question of the possibility that he was going to jail, he answered "I don't even think about it," as the stare on his face became increasingly intense and virtually identical to his mug shot—an expression of anger and defiance that seems to have become his public persona.

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and the author of "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President." 

It is hard to watch Donald Trump without wondering how he was elected president in the first place. When he's pressed with questions (and doesn't have the assistance of a speechwriter's words delivered via teleprompter) he perseverates, constantly repeating himself without being able to vary his response.

He used a set of vague stock phrases in response to Welker's questions, such as, "Something's going to happen" when talking about Roe v Wade. He was unable to respond directly to the interviewer's question about whether he supported a federal ban on all abortions. He regularly called his multiple criminal indictments "Biden indictments" as if to deflect blame and distance himself.

But most telling was when he often repeated the phrase, "Just so you understand" or "just so you know." It was like he was imparting information, but really wanted her to understand that "I know everything." That means that anything Welker has read or heard about him was wrong because only he knows the truth. This is again a classic God complex driven by a persecutory delusion. His sense of omniscience is compensatory and more disturbing than ever.

The fact that Welker so rarely confronted him on camera about his outright falsehoods may have been a clever way to get him to inadvertently babble into some hard truths, as he did when he admitted that he alone declared that the 2020 election was invalid and single-handedly led staff and supporters into go along with the idea and committing a myriad of crimes in the process.

Rather than call out the rambling wreck of Fulton County, Welker paused the recorded interview to give herself sidebars (not unlike the "confessionals" we see on reality TV) in order to fact-check his responses and set the record straight on his lies and fantasies.

When most people feel angry or defiant, they become more focused. Such is not the case with Donald Trump. He was wearing his mug-shot face, but the eyes were uncomprehending. When talking to a reporter who's not on his payroll, he often looks like he's struggling to listen – especially when he anticipates that he won't like what hears. But in this interview, he was unable to muster even the semblance of a conversation.

In my opinion, Trump's incessant, word-salad repetition reflects chronic substance abuse or impending dementia, which is consistent with the blank eyes. His blotchy red and puffy face (and constant sniffling) are not new but underscore a clinician's natural suspicion that he is not cognitively healthy. His cartoon character menacing and bellicose posture is second nature to him.