What kind of a joke is Donald Trump playing on America? Six months into his presidency, some believe there may not be a master scheme, conspiracy, or trick of puppeteering at all. Could he be inadvertently engaged in…mind control?
Hear me out. Others have pointed out Trump’s habit of “gaslighting” the American public—i.e., offering alternative truths that make us question our sanity. Then there’s his pattern of using distraction tactics to make us look the other way while truly devastating policies are still at play (e.g., Trump tweeted out the transgender military ban in the midst of secretive Republican dealings to destroy Americans’ health care). But some psychologists see an even more powerful effect.
Eric Greenleaf, director of the Milton H. Erickson Institute of the Bay Area, is an expert in hypnosis as a science of psychotherapy. He believes Trump is inadvertently hypnotizing Americans, including the powerful (and supposedly independent-thinking) members of his Cabinet. And in one way or another, we’re all under his trance—not just the folks who voted him in.
What Is Hypnosis and How Is Trump Doing It?
According to Greenleaf, hypnosis is a “naturally occurring human experience”—not just a stage act, as most people think of it. There are five “flavors” of hypnotic trance:
- Trance that occurs during trauma, like after you’ve been in a car accident
- Concentrated attention, like the hyper-focus you may have experienced playing high school sports
- Softly focused contemplative states, accessible through meditation or prayer
- Dreams and visions
- Trance states induced by surprise or confusion, extreme good or bad news
This last one is the version Trump may be using on us, believes Greenleaf.
“In Trumpland,” Greenleaf says, “he says A; then he says, I never said A; then he says, I alone can solve this problem of A.”
It’s essentially distractionary tactics, amped up tenfold. Hypnotists shape our attention and where it falls.
“Perhaps the best parallel is the Wizard of Oz, who tells Dorothy, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, look at the fire and listen to the Great and Powerful Oz instead.”
Or, there’s the analogy to the persuasive sales tactics behind QVC.
Greenleaf says, “To understand the powerful effects of this approach to political speech, consider a natural example of confusion induction: The late-night TV shopping channels pepper the viewer with a confusing and contradictory set of statements, numbers and possibilities. ‘This sweater is one-of-a-kind, available only here for the first 15 callers.’ Then a message crawls across the screen: If you call before midnight, you can get two for the price of one, in so many easy payments… And, in a somewhat stunned state of trance, millions of people do call.”
To be clear, Greenleaf does not think Trump is hypnotizing anyone intentionally. “He’s stumbled into the technique that works. He’s done it his whole life, it’s just the way he speaks. It’s the kind of hypnosis that stage hypnotists use to stun and dissociate people.”
Rather, like most demagogues, Trump is unintentionally controlling people out of fear. Trump’s staff members are in a sort of abusive relationship with Trump, which has put them in a state of trance based on fear. Scaramucci’s demands to Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker—“who leaked that? I’ll fire them!”—are a great example: he’s like an abused dog who has been beaten by his master and is biting to take down his enemies, fueled by some muddled combination of fear and devotion.
Trump, in turn, feeds these high emotions by alternating between declarations of love for his staff and vicious name-calling on Twitter, further setting those around him into shock.
Clear Evidence That Trump Hypnotizes His Staff
It makes sense that those most dramatically affected are those who spend each day in Trump’s direct orbit. Their relationships with him are often intense and volatile.
Kellyanne Conway told Joe Scarborough she needed a shower after glorifying Trump on air, but then insisted she respects and admires the president.
“It is commonplace in our understanding of strong emotion that, at a high pitch, an emotion can shift to its opposite. We know that tears and laughter can at high intensity switch to each other. A lesser-known pair of emotions is disgust and love. At high intensity one may become the other,” Greenleaf says.
This certainly explains the explosive relationships Trump has cultivated with his closest advisers. He often humiliates people he claims are on his team, yet they still come back and praise him. After he humiliated Jeff Sessions, the attorney general praised Trump, shrugging off his bullying as a form of tough love.
“They’re in a kind of spell. They’re humiliated, but say they love him anyway,” Greenleaf says.
Scaramucci called Trump a bully and a hack on Fox in 2015, followed by enough instances of “I love the man, I love him” to qualify him for a mashup.
“Scaramucci had to move from public disgust to public love,” Greenleaf says. In cases of hypnotic trance, disgust and love are often two sides of the same coin.
After meeting with his full Cabinet for the first time, Trump nudged the Cabinet members to offer him praise, taking turns around the table. These are supposed to be independent heads of their respective departments positioned close to the president in order to advise him. Reince Priebus must have forgotten that when it was his turn, gushing to Trump, “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda.”
“You may have noted the look of those that surround the president as he speaks and of his spokespeople as they speak,” Greenleaf says. “Their facial expression can remind one alternately of hypnotic subjects in an awake trance, or of Stepford wives. Their confusion and contradictory emotions are replaced by stunned acceptance and approval.”
OK, We’re Being Hypnotized. So What?
It’s not just his staff. Even those of us who only interact with Trump through the television screen are affected. In the Republican debates, after Megyn Kelly called him out for misogyny and name-calling against women, Trump joked his remarks were aimed at “only Rosie O’Donnell,” and the audience laughed and cheered. Political beliefs aside, they were momentarily stunned by his comedic timing, as were many of us at home, too.
Sixty-three million people fell under his spell enough to vote for him (though polls indicate many are waking up from their Trump trance). It’s well-documented that arson, racist graffiti, assault, and other hate crimes are significantly on the rise nationwide since he won the 2016 election, and Trump has no interest in taking responsibility. Bizarre, since in his recent speech to the police force, he told police to “rough up” suspects of color, indicating he’s moving from subliminal encouragement of violence to outright endorsement.
The clearest example of Trump’s inadvertent hypnosis over the American people can be seen in his constant lying. Joseph Goebbels famously said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This was the reigning principle behind Hitler’s style of speech, which combined with his talents as an orator, allowed him to captivate crowds of thousands and bend them to his will.
Trump may have learned this lying tactic from studying Hitler’s Mein Kampf. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times, “From his days peddling the false notion that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, to his inflated claims about how many people attended his inaugural, to his description just last week of receiving two phone calls—one from the president of Mexico and another from the head of the Boy Scouts—that never happened, Mr. Trump is trafficking in hyperbole, distortion and fabrication on practically a daily basis.”
Are you scared yet? Wondering if you’ve unknowingly fallen under Trump’s spell? Good. Be on guard. Don’t fall for the lies and the distractions, or ignore the power players (here’s looking at you, Mitch McConnell) who are really behind the curtain, doing the most possible damage. Don’t fawn over Trump’s latest tweet. If we’re aware, active, outspoken citizens, perhaps the truth will set us free.