Has America Lost Its Grip on Reality?

Chairman Mao, Chinese, Propaganda
Chinese propaganda poster featuring Chairman Mao applauding while people behind him cheer. Photo credit: James Vaughan / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 11 minutes

If you watched any part of the impeachment hearing this week, you know that there are two very different versions of reality. Not just disagreements about facts and interpretation, but about reality itself. 

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, renowned author, professor, and psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton argues that one way to understand the America of Donald Trump is to consider the phenomenon of what he calls “ideological totalism.” 

He explains the similarities between our current ideological polarization and efforts like Chinese communist thought reform in the early 1950s. The one thing that makes today different, he says, is Trump’s lack of ideology; instead, the president lives in a self-created “solipsistic reality.”

Lifton attributes Trump’s appeal, in part, to something he calls “psychological apocalypticism,” a pull toward “a new collective mindset that is pure, perfect, and eternal.” This combines a desire to be part of something bigger than oneself with a call to share in the effort of destroying reality in order to save the world.

The 93-year-old Lifton is the author of such books as the National Book Award–winning Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, and the just published Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry.

He details the parallels between cult leaders and demagogic politicians, referencing Trump’s statements, going back to the inaugural address, about “American carnage” and “I alone can fix it.”

As for the future, Lifton believes only a strong commitment to authenticity and truth-telling will protect society against the manipulations of would-be reality controllers.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

As we watch the divide that is the impeachment debate play out this week, as we see the tribalism of both sides living in two different realities, we’re reminded that not only are we living through one of the most polarized times in American history, but that as a result, reality is sometimes up for grabs. Layer on to this modern communications 24/7 news and information, social media and a better understanding of mind control, and it’s no wonder we’ve entered a world where left is right, up is down, and the only thing certain is that nothing seems to be so for very long. Psychiatrist and scholar Robert J. Lifton has been looking at this phenomenon and other nations and sees what he calls ideological totalism as a way to put the America of Donald Trump into some kind of perspective. Robert J. Lifton is the author of over 20 books including national book award-winning Death in Life as well as The Nazi Doctors and The Climate Swerve. He’s taught at Yale, Harvard, and the City University of New York and is currently a lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University. His latest work is appropriately titled Losing Reality and it is my pleasure to welcome Robert J. Lifton to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Robert, thanks so much for joining us.

Robert J. Lifton: Okay.
Jeff Schechtman: Robert, historically, when we’ve looked at extremism and zealotry, it’s generally been in the realm of religion. Politics has been second fiddle to the extremism we’ve seen historically around religion. Today it seems that they’ve come together in a very dangerous way.
Robert J. Lifton: Too often they’ve been viewed as separate entities having little to do with each other. But when I studied… really my first study in this area — Chinese communist thought reform — was so-called brainwashing… their pattern could be religious-like. And I came to a kind of concept of ideological totalism and a set of characteristics that it had, whether it was a religious or political group. And the other thing I would say is that, key to all this is absolute purification. So in Chinese thought reform, the reformers sought to purify completely one’s political views. And in, say the Om Shinrikyo cult — the fanatical Japanese cult that released Sarin gas in Tokyo subway trains in 1995 — there was a spiritual purification that was equally absolute.
Jeff Schechtman: And what was it that really drove that? What were the underlying attitudes that allowed that to have that extremism, that purity to happen?
Robert J. Lifton: Well, I talk about the concept of claiming to own reality. All of these groups move toward a form of totalism or, as I call it, cultism, which seeks to own reality. And in that way, where there’s a guru, he or she creates the reality that the community must internalize and that reality is considered absolute. And key here is the idea that if one questions that imposed reality, it is always looked upon as a personal problem. I call it “doctrine over person” — the larger claim to reality, to ownership of reality, can never really be questioned. As to the ultimate source, it’s very hard to say, but I see it as relating to the entire human dependency period. It takes our children quite a long time to become independent — much more so than with most other animals — and in the process we can, our children can, develop considerable dependency needs, which may later make them vulnerable to gurus who claim absolute truth. That dependency can be lived out and exaggerated in these cultic groups.
Robert J. Lifton: And that’s one reason why cultic groups have always pursued people, especially young people, who were thought to be in some duress where they could perhaps feel the greatest amount of dependency or where their overall need for dependency is particularly great. So the lifelong human dependency could be a very important factor. And the other is another human factor that’s unique to our species. Our awareness that we die. Our awareness that we die and in response a quest for some relationship to spiritual immortality or political immortality, which is embodied by the guru to transcend death, which we know to be our ultimate fate.
Jeff Schechtman: In order for that new reality to set in, in order to lose reality, how important is it to destroy an existing reality first, to create enough chaos, enough confusion, enough questioning of an existing reality in order to argue for a new one?
Robert J. Lifton: Yes, that’s entirely right. One has to not only question existing reality, but dismiss it as wrong or bad in order to open the way for a new reality. And here, characteristic of cultic movements and political equivalents of cultic movements, is an apocalyptic vision, the original religious apocalyptic vision or the narrative of apocalypse. We know it in the Judeo-Christian tradition… but in all religions, it has to do with destroying what exists in the world, destroying the world itself in order to renew the world with perfect spiritual purity. And that idea of renewal is always a promise. So in that sense, the destruction of the world can be either a kind of visionary idea, a virtual concept to embody renewal, or it can be quite literal as in the case of some cults, including Om Shinrikyo or Nazi and communist political extremism where literally much of the world must be destroyed in order to renew it in the spiritual and political realm of those involved in this apocalyptic vision. And we see that with Chinese communism and we see that with Nazism.
Jeff Schechtman: And how does it work on such a mass scale? That really is a fundamental question of this, how it’s able to work on such a large-scale basis?
Robert J. Lifton: Yes. When I took up the study of Chinese communist thought reform in some detail, I was amazed at how it was being applied to millions, tens of millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions of people throughout China. And here there was an intense ideology, the Maoist version of communism that’s claimed a necessity for curing a disease. Using that medical imagery of the disease that existed in prior society, which had to do with capitalism and bourgeois tendencies and instead replace it with pure communist thought throughout the country. Similarly, with the Nazis in a different way, but similarly in this sense, there was the idea that the world had to be improved by biological means. By getting rid of bad biological tendencies as existed in Jews or Slavs or people other than Nazi German sources, so that there was spiritual purification in cults and biological purification with the Nazis in order to purify and strengthen the Nordic race.
Robert J. Lifton: And when you get to biological purification, it’s one step away from killing. As we found out in the Nazis. And again, it was the whole country, it had a certain appeal to a country that was in turmoil, economically and socially, an appeal that would straighten out and bring about a single dominant vision that replaced the vast confusion that had preceded it. And yes, there again, there was an entire national vision. And we have to be on guard for the attractiveness of totalistic ideologies for large groups of people and their embrace by nations as in the case of Nazi Germany and communist China.
Jeff Schechtman: And more than creating destruction, part of it is making people believe, it seems, how bad things are. A kind of American carnage attitude.
Robert J. Lifton: Yes. Well, if we move to America and the whole Trump phenomenon, I can’t say it’s exactly the same. In fact, it is very different in many ways from Nazism or Maoism, because it lacks the systematic ideology, the totalistic ideology of those two political movements. Trump in fact has no consistent ideology, but where Trump resembles those other two is in the claim to own reality. So that with his version of reality, I call it solipsistic, meaning just the reality of the self. That’s all it means. For him, reality is what the self perceives and what the self needs and what the self does, without any concern about the reality of large numbers of other people or proof of evidence or standards of evidence. This is solipsistic reality and it is highly dangerous. And it’s — again — the claim to own reality and the impulse to press that reality on an entire country and even the world and to attack those who in any way question it.
Jeff Schechtman: Have we ever seen examples where this kind of false reality is so effective without any ideology attached to it?
Robert J. Lifton: I think in this way, Trump is unique. I wouldn’t say that he created all of this because there have been particularly right-wing tendencies in which reality there is a claim to ownership of reality, but with Trump it’s much more extreme. This solipsistic or self-contained reality is usually seen in psychotic patients, people who have broken with reality, we say. But he is not psychotic as far as we can tell, and has considerable talent in manipulating the media in relation to this solipsistic reality. And I don’t think we’ve ever seen a country that has been running on unreality in his term of office. It’s a rather unique combination of media manipulation and a claim to ownership of reality in a person who does not seem to be psychotic, though is mentally dangerous and unfit.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean, I guess the broader question is what are the conditions that have to exist on a broad scale in order for that unique approach to be so successful?
Robert J. Lifton: Yes. Well, there has to be preexisting confusion and uncertainty. Polarization in the society. Trump didn’t create the polarization, though he greatly intensified it and that polarization includes a delegitimation of opposition. If you have something called a loyal opposition, you have a country that is functioning according to its rules of law and the rule of law in general. But if you have a party or a group that delegitimates the other side or the opposition of any kind, considers it not to have the right to contest their own realities, then you are creating the seeds and the context for what I call malignant normality. Malignant normality, where you impose destructive versions of reality and insist that they are the routine and the norm. And that’s what we’ve seen a lot of in this country in the past few years.
Jeff Schechtman: And what kind of clash does that set up then, between essentially two different realities existing side by side?
Robert J. Lifton: Yes. Well, we have that considerable polarization, but I don’t think we should feel ourselves to be helpless in the face of it. We have the advantage of an existing democracy with institutions that do depend upon factual reality and with institutions that are based on law. And these have been weakened and attacked and undermined, but they haven’t been destroyed and some of them are operating now with considerable intensity and combating this solipsistic reality. So it’s a struggle now in society and it’s worrisome because of the possibility that these institutions could be existing institutions of law and legality and of the capacity of Congress to examine and have some say over executive power. All that is being tested and at times the results seem worrisome. However, in the long run, I think we have reason to hope that our institutions will prevail and that Trump will be no longer with us in a strong position.
Jeff Schechtman: You talk about the lack of ideology is part of this. To what extent does the religious overlay — the fundamentalist overlay that becomes part of this cult, if you will — play an ideological role, and could that become stronger as this progresses?
Robert J. Lifton: Yes. When… Evangelical groups of course vary enormously, but when they move into totalism, they too can have an aspect of cultism in which they insist upon… They might insist upon a literal biblical reality that cannot be contested and in that sense they can move to a cultish direction, but there is also a political element in evangelicism, so that the evangelicals can embrace Trump as they have because of the political strength that he affords them or his approval of them politically in what he advocates about religion. Now this is being questioned. What I see happening is… the lies and falsehoods — lies when he knows them to be false, falsehoods when he partly believes them — and both exist. These are accumulating and the population in general is becoming aware of them so that we see in various polls interest on the part of the American population in impeachment and in the possibility of removing Trump from office. And we see a clear trend in that direction. So that, it is said often with only partial truth that Trump is like Teflon, he can wash away almost anything and really have no — so that even his lies have no impact, don’t hurt him. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s an accumulation of recognition of a kind of malignant normality, as I call it, on his part and on the part of the general American population.
Jeff Schechtman: When people are inside of cults and have to get out or deprogrammed or try and get away, oftentimes that’s a long, painful, sometimes therapeutic process. How is that different for mass cultism?
Robert J. Lifton: I had this experience that really made an impression on me way back in the 1970s, some years after I published my book on Chinese thought reform. Young people began to come to me — or their parents brought them to me — who had been in American cults or cults in this country like the Moonies, and had conflict with them and in some cases were trying to get out, and had discovered a chapter in the book I had written about Chinese communist thought reform, and the chapter was on ideological totalism. It happened to be chapter 22. And chapter 22 became almost like an underground document for young people struggling with cults in this country. And that was impressive because, here was a book and a chapter about a group who were subjected to Chinese communist thought reform in another part of the world, people of a different ethnic group and tradition. And yet here were young people in the United States struggling with cults who found the experience of those objectives of thought reform very relevant psychologically for them. And that really gave me the sense that zealotry has common tendencies even occurring in different areas. It was a very dramatic example of that — that still holds for me and for many others who have taken up these, what I call eight deadly sins or psychological themes of ideological totalism or human zealotry.
Jeff Schechtman: Robert J. Lifton. Robert, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Robert J. Lifton: I enjoyed our conversation.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and The Epoch Times / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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2 responses to “Has America Lost Its Grip on Reality?”

  1. robert e williamson jr says:

    Total self absorption. Americans among others have learned growing up that to survive requires ones to be self absorbed. Parents teach their offspring through their own behavior just how it’s done. And encourage the behavior. Dog eat dog rat race tactics. Winning by any means possible is one method. Most methods are a-social. See Jeff Epstien and Madoff come to mind off hand.

    These freaks of nature like kissinger and allen dulles and others where smart, convinced they and only they know what is best for all. Records not really based on a record of successful self endeavors but records on their wealth and circle of wealthy rich friends.

    If they cannot be super wealthy and not endanger the remaining humans on the planet they need to be elimnated from the herd, by cutting their wealth until we get their attention

    Thanks!~

  2. Add Harvard’s Henry Kissinger and Yale’s “Skull and Bones(men)” to the list of “totalist ideologues” who base their “dependency”-promoting political rhetoric on the Machiavellian principle ostensibly beneficial “Ends justify (nefariously covert/manipulative) Means” and that “Might Makes Right.”