While spontaneous celebrations have broken out across the country in support of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, we cannot ignore the danger inherent in Donald Trump’s presidency entering its new, terminal phase. Trump has only 11 weeks left in office, but he appears unable to deal with his defeat in a rational and mature manner. His distress and dysfunction may imperil the nation in the coming weeks because of his efforts to soothe himself by keeping his base at fever pitch and undermining the legitimacy of the new administration.
Trump and his family seem to hold a binary view of people: They are either winners or losers. He has portrayed himself to a credulous public as a winner, saying “I alone can fix” what ails the country. At the same time, he has expressed his contempt for people with disabilities, those from what he called “shithole countries,” even military heroes he deemed losers because they were killed or captured and held as prisoners of war. Now Trump has to process the reality that, in a very public way, he has lost. Because he knows no alternative to that binary, this reality has him cornered. He is facing fear that his long feigned victimhood has come to pass.
Trump’s dangerousness is rooted in primitive tendencies, such as impulsivity, denial, lack of empathy, and externalizing blame. Thus he may lack the emotional resilience to process this failure and to place it in context: It is a political loss, but he knows no other way to see it than as a humiliating verdict on his own self-worth.
His speeches following Election Day were demonstrably more disorganized and permeated with conspiracy theories; this could signal a worrisome psychological deterioration. We anticipated this in our 2017 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” To wit: America has suffered 238,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, many of them preventable if the president hadn’t downplayed the risks. They represent inescapable evidence of Trump’s failure to be the only one to protect us. Those deaths, and predictions that US COVID-19 deaths will surpass 400,000 by the end of the year, led to Trump’s loss of support among older voters who stopped believing in him and his solipsistic proclamations that the United States was “rounding the corner” on the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Trump is working with his legal team and advisers to overturn the election, leaving him encircled by those few who continue to provide false comfort by echoing his seemingly delusional explanation for his plight. This vicious cycle can lead to further isolation and less access to sound advice.
While many of Trump’s supporters were disappointed with his loss, others don’t trust the results, and Trump may encourage them to stand up for him. He did this during the first presidential debate when he said to a far-right extremist group, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” Until Trump makes a clear and unmistakable concession acknowledging Biden’s victory, his ongoing incitements and their provocative impact on his followers remain a threat to all of our safety and our tradition of the peaceful transition of power, a hallmark of our democracy.
While the last acts of this tragedy play out, we have a protagonist who is vengeful, irrational, and apparently willing to go to extremes to defend his fragile self-worth. He has abused the nation for the past four years, and many feel as though they are leaving an abusive relationship. Notably, he is still in a position to threaten the victim who tries to leave. America must be aware and be prepared that he holds virtually unchecked power until Jan. 20, 2021.
Dr. Leonard L. Glass is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a senior attending psychiatrist at McLean Hospital. Dr. Bandy X. Lee is a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and editor of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” Edwin B. Fisher is a clinical psychologist at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.