The Signorile Report
The Signorile Report
Are the indictments helping to heal our collective PTSD?

Are the indictments helping to heal our collective PTSD?

Neuroscientist Seth Norrholm on Trump, the GOP, "contagious sociopathy" and mentally recovering from the national nightmare.

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When last I spoke with Wayne State University translational neuroscientist, psychologist and PTSD expert, Dr. Seth Norrholm, he explained how the entire country was suffering from a collective trauma.

We focused on how the GOP, following on Donald Trump, became the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos, and the psychological toll MAGA has had on us all. It was an illuminating discussion that made sense to so many listeners to my SiriusXM program and subscribers to The Signorile Report—putting it in the frame of PTSD and collective trauma—about what they’d been experiencing.

We discussed toward the end of the interview what would help people to recover. And the answer came down to one word: justice. This is so true, he’d said, of those who’d suffered physical and psychological abuse for so many other reasons—including many of the people he treats—and it’s true in this case as well.

“You need to have Trump face consequences for his role in the insurrection,” he told me. “So without some kind of sweeping accountability to remove what I've called the cancer that is in our political system, there's not going to be any meaningful healthy change.”

Now that we have seen Trump indicted four times I decided to check in with Dr. Norholm about we were stand now, and if people were viewing possible recovery and better mental heath. We also discussed a concept he wrote about in a recent article, “contagious sociopaths,” who include those politicians who know better—or once did—but who mirror Trump because of the benefit they see, like Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham and Josh Hawley.

Clearly we’re far from out of the woods, and the GOP has only gotten more extreme. But do the indictments give us hope and thus help us recover? Listen in and let me know your thoughts.

Below is a transcript lightly edited for clarity and space.

Michelangelo Signorile: When my guest last came on the program, we discussed PTSD that has lingered collectively since Trump's presidency that so many people were experiencing. 

And, of course, those who experienced the brunt of Donald Trump's brutality experienced that even more deeply. [And we discussed] what is the best the way that people could heal? 

Justice is what we talked about [as a way to heal]. And maybe we're starting to see that a little bit. So I thought it would be great to speak with Dr. Seth Norholm once again. Welcome back to the program. Dr. Norholm.

Seth Norrholm: Hi Mike. It's good to be here again.

MS: I invited you on the program [in January] and you talked about how Americans on the whole had really experienced PTSD, Trumpism, the Trump era, Covid, all of it, and what impact it had on them. And I just want to recap that before we go further. Talk a little bit about that.

SN: Well, when we think about traumatic stress, you know, you think about the events that lead up to somebody experiencing a post traumatic stress response. And these are things like, you know, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, obviously war time conflict. And we know that in the population, about 70 to 80% of us are going to experience a traumatic event in our lifetime. And then the question is whether or not that traumatic event leads to mental health problems, psychological distress and things like that. So what we discussed last time was in the face of these potentially traumatizing events like the pandemic and like the natural disasters like Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico and the hurricanes that have really devastated large parts of our Gulf Coast. 

These are all events that can lead to mental health problems. And if they're severe enough and impairing enough, post traumatic stress disorder. And so what we were seeing in that administration was that any kind of buffering against those traumatic effects that may be provided by the government, maybe provided by FEMA or the Red Cross was really being thwarted from the top. 

And so what we discussed was, rather than providing a lifeline or a support system for us as citizens, we were getting an antagonistic response. And this antagonistic response was really based on where you came from, where you lived, whether you were in a red state or a blue state, whether or not you were a female of color leading a particular place like Puerto Rico. And so suddenly there was a targeted approach as far as who we're going to protect and help and who we're just going to continue to traumatize and continue to do harm upon.

MS: And you talked about your concerns that Trump had ushered in so many other people, a Republican Party that had become a place for people who are engaging in pathological behavior, who were just exacerbating that PTSD, people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, people like George Santos, people who had the same kind of extremist tendencies and personality issues as Donald Trump.

SN: Correct. And if you look at the evolution of the Republican Party since 2015, you know, initially during the run up to the election, you had other candidates on the GOP side who were saying it like it was. They were telling you exactly who Trump the candidate was and who potentially Trump the president would be. 

And that he was somebody who was galactically unfit, who didn't have the temperament, who had criminal tendencies already, and had the qualities of what we call malignant narcissism. So at that time, the GOP was really calling that out. And then when it became clear that Trump was the frontrunner, you saw many of these same individuals fall into line behind him to the point where they became enablers. 

And as you mentioned, you know, they began displaying these really—what we call sociopathic tendencies, which is inflicting harm upon your fellow man for some sort of gain without showing any kind of remorse. And so, what we saw over the last month now with these indictments and now the one that just came down last night [in Georgia] is you see glimmers of hope, right? So you saw a tweet or an X or whatever we're calling tweets now  from [Georgia Governor] Brian Kemp and from [former Lt. Governor] Jeff Duncan, saying, look, this this is criminal activity. The election was not stolen. This was all a big lie. 

So you're getting some glimmers from individuals who identified as Republicans and members of the GOP. But I really draw your attention to the responses of Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio and individuals who intellectually know better. Ted Cruz being another example, who intellectually know better, but are continuing to perpetuate the big lie; they’re pretending, continuing to act in this sociopathic manner. 

So I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago where I talked about this concept of “contagious sociopathy.” And the idea was they saw that it worked for this individual who was a frontrunner in Trump. They saw that this MAGA approach, this sociopathic approach, was working. And so they decided to mimic it. And so I make the point in this recent article: it doesn’t matter if you are a true sociopath with a personality disorder who's inflicting harm on on somebody else, or if you're pretending to be a sociopath for political gain. The end result is the same, which is bringing harm upon us as American citizens.

MS: It can be learned behavior and obviously people can see rewards that come with it in that party. And certainly, as you pointed out, that party has a long way to go. 

I wanted to ask you, though, about what we are seeing with the indictments and what it may be doing for the majority of Americans who have experienced this PTSD. Because when we spoke the last time, at the very end of our interview, I asked you, what is it that could help people heal from this collective post-traumatic stress? And you said justice one word, right? People need to see justice. And all people were seeing and this is back in January, it seems like not long ago, but really at that time, all people were seeing was you know, a lot of foot dragging or nothing happening in the Justice Department. We hadn't seen any real action and there was a lot of anxiety. 

People were talking about that. And now with these indictments coming down, and we were able to see how Jack Smith has operated and certainly Fani Willis and Georgia, people do seem to be feeling differently. And I'm wondering if you're seeing at least the beginning of that healing. And obviously it's going to depend on what happens next.

SN: Yeah, that's right. And I think the example I used last time we spoke, you know, I deal a lot in my field with individuals who have been victims of of abuse. And the analogy I gave was, you know, you've got this abused spouse who calls law enforcement and they come to the House and law enforcement says something to the effect of, you know, we spoke with your husband and, you know, we just don't see enough to do anything about it. And, the abused spouse watches out the window as law enforcement pulls away and just having this profound sense of dejection because of this injustice. 

And so what we had to observe for at least four years was, the Mueller report was a potential inflection point for accountability and justice. And that was watered down by Bill Barr. And then there was the first impeachment where there was compelling evidence provided that there were high crimes and misdemeanors, and he was acquitted in the Senate. And then another impeachment after inciting the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6th, which also did not provide any conviction by the Senate. 

And as you noted before I came on today, you know, Mitch McConnell gave a very spirited rebuke of Trump and said, let's leave it to the legal system. And so for that few minutes when McConnell gave that speech, there was this idea that, well, wait a second, maybe the tide has turned and we're moving towards accountability and justice. And then there really nothing happened. And like you said, there was foot dragging. So when you talk about what the response is to this latest round of indictments, I really look at it in terms of three camps, and these are loosely defined, but three general camps.

One is those of us who knew all along what was happening, you know, those of us who had been gaslit into thinking that, you know, we were we were crazy and we were, you know, “libtards” and all these other terms that were applied to us. And we were just, you know, we were the ones that were out of our mind and these things weren't happening. So for that camp, who knew the criminality and corruption was there all along? You know, this past month has been vindicating and validating in the sense that much like the abused spouse, somebody has called out what has been going on for years and we're finally starting to see some accountability. So for a lot of people, especially last night [when the Georgia indictment were handed down], there was this validation, this big collective, I told you so about what was going on. 

The second camp would be those who identify as Republican or GOP, who have been toeing the line and really closing their eyes and holding their nose at what's been going on to to stick to that party line. And I think it's that second group that is probably the most able to see the sea change that is occurring and potentially, you know, the more moderate Republicans to see as Jeff Duncan said yesterday, it's time to separate themselves from Trump.

 And then the third camp. I had described this a few weeks ago in an article as being really much like a cult. And I even went as far as to say it was, you know, the largest and most dangerous cult in American history.

And it is because it is tearing at the fabric of our democracy and really jeopardizing what has been built for over 230 years. And I describe it in this these cult terms, because what you'll see in this third group after these indictments and again, call your attention to the Lindsey Grahams and the Ted Cruzes, they're going to dig their heels in to this cult like thinking. 

And they’re, regardless of the objective evidence that's presented in front of them, they're going to dig in their heels. They're still going to cry foul. They're still going to cry rigged election. And, you know, you might ask, well, how can they still cling to this in the face of all these indictments? And all of this evidence? All they need is a just a shred of some possibility that there was wrongdoing or there was some malfeasance with the election to to cling to the overall big lie. So it really is a matter of closing off whatever remnants remain. As far as you know, I think Trump put on his his Truth Social today that, you know, he's going to have a big press conference on Monday to present all this evidence of how it was a rigged election. And we know that's a lie and there is no evidence otherwise it would have been presented. But that still provides red meat to the cult following that we still have hope in our our lord and savior who's going to, you know, show us the the way, even though he's hit some obstacles along the way.

MS: They are not getting out of this anytime soon. I ask you this as somebody who's a member of the first group, as you are, too, and many of our listeners. I've seen in the media and I've not  been someone who has believed we've been served well by our media in covering a lot of this. But I've seen this line, in the last indictment and this one ,that Americans are becoming immune to it all. You know, they're becoming numb to these indictments. They can't tell the difference, this or that. And, you know, I think each time [there’s an indictment] we see something unique and different and new allegations and certainly the way Jack Smith went about it and certainly what we learned now in Georgia. [The media] are not using any empirical evidence. They're just claiming this. I feel like it's probably illuminating for a lot of people. But I wonder if am I overplaying that? So I just wanted your thought.

SN: You know, the fact that they've come, you know, sequentially in a rapid fire fashion, can be overwhelming. But I think you're right. I think the details are different enough. You know, one was classified documents. One was, you know, business fraud, one was the insurrection. And now we have specifically the efforts that were done in Georgia. So I think they're different enough that if you're paying attention and you're digesting, you know, the media reports as they come out, you can make that distinction.

I think what is really more of a danger than that first group becoming numb and immune to it is that third group becoming numb to immune to it and or not necessarily numb and immune, but avoiding the topic altogether and kind of lumping all of these indictments into, you know, political persecution and election interference by the left against the right. And so I think there's a tendency more to lump them together and have them be kind of this amorphous thing on the the extreme right and then on the more left leaning individuals. I agree.

MS: And I think sometimes the media is paying attention only to those people. Obviously, to heal further we need more justice. We need closure. We need to see convictions. And nobody knows if that will happen. Nobody knows if Donald Trump will actually serve time or if he will go to jail. And of course, if he does and this does bring him down, that third group that you're talking about is really going to have a complete and total meltdown. So just give us a thought about where we go from here and and what happens with regard to what may happen.

SN: Well, I would agree with you that that third group would have a meltdown. But I do want to point out that, you know, the law enforcement in Atlanta are really preparing for much more than what is transpired so far since this fourth indictment came down. I mean, they had barricades erected and they were, you know, priming for some smaller version of January 6th. And the honest thing is we just haven't seen that. So getting back to what you were saying a second ago, there is some, again, numbness and and lack of reactivity on that far right group because they're not responding the same way. Some of that has to do with the fact that time has elapsed. I mean, it's been two and a half years since January 6th, and they've heard a lot of the same rhetoric but seen no differences in terms of results. So I think they'll have a meltdown of sorts, but I honestly don't think it's going to be as extreme as anything we've seen before. Now, if there is some sort of incarceration, maybe that changes. You know, there's the real possibility because of Trump's continuing to badger witnesses and intimidate prosecutors and DA's, that maybe he's remanded into custody in Georgia because of the risk that he poses to the case and to the security of witnesses and and grand jurors who will be identified.

Maybe an incarceration or jailing him will tip the scale. But again, if you read the comments and if you read the revelations of those who have been indicted following January 6th, you'll see a lot of them have come to the realization that we would hope they would come to, which is, you know, “we believed the big lie. We thought we were the ones being patriots.” And then when they're slapped with prison time, they're slapped with fines, they're slapped with court cases. That realization becomes that much clearer. So I think you're right. I think there is going to be some element that loses their mind and tries to act out. But I also think there's going to be some element that says, “wait a second, you know, court cases and prison time are real. We can no longer live in this fantasy world because look at these real world consequences.”

MS: Obviously, that’s why we need justice, and closure.