Donald Trump and Conservatives’ Collective Munchausen Syndrome

During a rally in Virginia this past Tuesday, Donald Trump told a story about a military veteran handing him his Purple Heart as a gesture of confidence. He then commented that he “always wanted” a Purple Heart, which, if you don’t know, is a medal given exclusively to people wounded or killed in combat. Trump never served in the military. In fact, he received multiple draft deferments from from 1964 to 1968.

Most Trump soundbytes simply dare you to make sense of them. Is he simply being flippant at a really inappropriate time, or does he genuinely believe the screwed-up things that fly out of his skull like bats out of an abandoned church, or even better yet, is he just completely detached from reality and doesn’t even know or care what he’s saying? He just keeps you guessing! It’s like a fun party game, except he’s asking us to trust him with nuclear weapons.

This one, however, is a Rosetta Stone that unlocks the psychology not only of Trump, but his supporters. If you click on some of the Twitter accounts that Trump himself will retweet (does he not know how the internet works or does he not care? Oh man, I’m on the edge of my seat because he could actually kill people!) you’ll find not just your typical angry white male, but a special stripe of people who believe that white men in this country are not just marginalized, but actively victimized. They bandy about phrases like “beta males,” “female privilege,” and my favorite, “white genocide.”

(By the way: If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, “can a conversation online be had entirely in poorly photoshopped memes?” then please do yourself a favor and search “white genocide” on Twitter.)

For the longest time I couldn’t make sense of that crowd. In a world where day after day we see stories of violence directed at women, ethnic and religious minorities, and the LGBTQ community, how could they possibly believe that they, white straight males, are the victims of a coordinated campaign against them? Then, finally, seeing their chosen political avatar, a human version of the Monopoly man with less fashion sense, say that he longed to have his own Red Badge of Courage made it all come together. I can make my diagnosis. No, I’m not a doctor, but since Trump believes vaccines cause autism and thus doesn’t actually believe in doctors, why should that stop me?

Donald Trump and his supporters suffer from a collective case of Munchausen’s Syndrome.

For those of you who haven’t received their medical education from repeated viewings of House, M.D, Munchausen Syndrome is when an otherwise healthy patient acts like he’s sick, often experiencing multiple relapses even after treatment, and in more extreme cases consulting with multiple doctors, sometimes traveling to other cities, to get opinions on their non-existent illnesses. There’s no universal agreed-upon cause for Munchausen’s, but many theorize that it has to do with a desire for attention and sympathy, knowing that they will be guaranteed to receive both if they convince people they’re sick.

Why would white men, people who’ve never been told they were worth 3/5th of a person, claim that there is a genocide against them with a straight face? How could people who’ve never been told their labor is worth 75 cents to someone else’s dollar, or ever been randomly stopped by police for “looking suspicious” even when they’re in a suit and tie, actually claim victimhood without a shred of self-awareness? Why would these people support a presidential candidate who actively wishes he had been wounded or killed?

It’s because America is evolving, albeit painfully slowly, into a country that can actually acknowledge and empathize with true marginalized groups, and they are jealous of the attention they’re getting. They see Black Lives Matter getting national media coverage, and their knee-jerk reaction is to go “Uh, no, all lives matter!” when nobody has never told them that theirs don’t. They see movies with female leads or majority-female casts and decry them as a “gimmick” pushing “an agenda.” They don’t look at any of the current social movements through the lens of “oh, I guess this is a reaction to all the oppressive systems they’ve lived under and they’re just trying to get a little respect for once.” All they see is “someone else is getting a portion of the attention to which I’ve become conditioned to feel entitled, and that’s a threat.” It’s like if you found a homeless man looking through the garbage of a restaurant you just ate at and accused him of stealing your dinner.

When you’re part of a marginalized group in the United States, the one consolation you have is being able to form communities around a common struggle. A Black American who immigrated from Haiti can find a bond with a Black American who grew up in Atlanta because they’ve probably been treated the same way at some point. Latinos from different countries… well… the intersectional difficulties there are for another article. The real point is: What do white people in America draw a sense of community over? What is “white culture” predicated on, aside from a sense of inherent superiority? Why would white men be so threatened by movements that ask them to simply take responsibility for their history and admit their mistakes, unless to admit any fallibility would be to deny their inherent superiority, and yank out the very core of their identity?

That is why empathy for the marginalized equates in their mind to their own marginalization. To admit that other people have suffered and that it may have been because of systems that they have contributed to, either actively or passively, means that their way of life has to suffer. So they manufacture victimhood so people can feel sorry for them. The school bully, having broken someone’s arm and seeing how people support the victim and realize what a jerk he’s been, shows up the next day to school wearing his own cast hoping we’ll sign it, too.

The best way to treat Munchausen’s is to stop reinforcing the patient’s behavior and get them to look at themselves honestly. So this is my tough love message to Trump and his ailing masses: You don’t get a purple heart for wounded pride. You don’t get sympathy when somebody else takes your toys when you’ve been hiding them in your sandbox. You don’t get to co-opt the suffering of other people, especially people whose suffering you’ve caused. If you stop coveting the sympathy others get and maybe actually examine the suffering they’ve endured to get it, you may experience another scary medical anomaly: growth.