Folie en Masse at the Capitol

Mobsters With Shared Delusions

Folie en masse is a French term that literally means “mass insanity.” The psychiatric condition folie en masse — and its congeners folie à deux, folie à trois, etc. — refers to the transfer and sharing of delusional ideas from one person to one or more others who have been closely associated with the principally deluded individual. The diagnosis “shared delusional disorder” was dropped from the most recent (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), although delusional disorder, which forms the foundation of folie en masse, is still well recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM.

The essential feature of delusional disorder is the presence of one or more delusions — fixed, false beliefs — that persist for at least one month, a criterion that Donald Trump clearly meets. If Trump had been removed from office under the 25th Amendment of the Constitution on the grounds that he was “unfit” to serve as president, delusional disorder could have easily been invoked as a psychiatric diagnosis and reason to relieve him. To be sure, Trump also has a narcissistic personality disorder, but delusional disorder qualifies Trump as a psychotic individual, affirming his break with reality.

The dynamics of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol building are best explained in terms of mass insanity caused by the transfer and sharing of delusions between Donald Trump and his followers. Many rioters were under Trump’s spell and felt “instructed” by him to rush the Capitol and somehow overturn the election results. Trump’s primary delusion was a psychotic fixation on the 2020 presidential election, which he believed he won but was stolen from him due to widespread voting fraud and irregularities.

“We beat them four years ago. We surprised them. We took them by surprise and this year, they rigged an election. They rigged it like they’ve never rigged an election before.”

The imposition of Trump’s delusion on his followers manifested as a call to action and incited them to storm the Capitol on his command:

“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Before Trump delivered his now infamous 74-minute speech at the “Save America” rally on the Ellipse near the White House — a defiant speech given to throngs of loyal “patriots” — Trump, his family, and senior White House members were in a jovial mood and partying in a makeshift tent equipped with monitors showing the crowds gathering around the Capitol.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Junior’s girlfriend, was enjoying the moment dancing to the song “Gloria” (the Laura Branigan disco-inspired version). She encouraged the crowd to “fight” for Trump. Trump, himself, used the word “fight” about a dozen times during his speech, emphasizing the need for strength and repeatedly asking the crowd to fight on his behalf. He even demonstrated how to fight using boxing motions.

“We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

The crowd was highly receptive to Trump, in part, because they had already been fired up by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who called for “trial by combat.” And Donald Trump, Jr. said “we’re coming for you,” targeting Republicans unsympathetic to his father’s efforts to remain in office. Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama opened the rally with a fiery speech proclaiming “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

The ensuing mob violence at the Capitol was entirely predictable, perhaps premeditated. Representative Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming, best summarized how the events unfolded. She told Fox News: “There is no question that the President formed the mob, the President incited the mob, the President addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”

But Trump dismissed Cheney just as he has dismissed and discredited so many of his rivals and dissenters.

“We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them. We got to get rid of them.”

The psychological groundwork for the incendiary actions of those who swarmed the Capitol was laid months to years in advance, fueled by Trump’s relentless stream of fantasy and falsehoods. That’s how shared delusional systems develop — not overnight, but by prolonged exposure of emotionally vulnerable people to the rants of delusional and deranged people — people who tend to be admired and revered by lost souls.

Trump’s delusions were primarily grandiose in nature. They also contained themes of jealousy and persecution. And the delusions he spewed were highly contagious — his unwavering belief that he won the election was cause enough for his followers to attack the Capitol in an effort to prevent the election results from being certified.

“We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated.”

Trump’s contempt for democracy imbued hatred in his followers and created a mob mentality and platform for seditious and violent behavior. Don’t think for a minute that death wasn’t the end game for protestors who showed up in tactical gear with weapons, explosives and zip ties. They sought out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and chanted “hang Mike Pence,” roaming the Capitol bent on hostage-taking and murder.

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

History is replete with examples of collective mental disorders turned violent under the umbrella of folie en masse. Many of these occurrences are historic, such as the Salem witch trials, lynching and looting mobs, and the “Manson family” slayings.

And who can forget Jim Jones, the self-proclaimed messiah who oversaw the murder-suicide of 918 of his communal followers in the jungles of Guyana (they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid). The Jonestown Massacre of 1978 occurred because cult members believed in their leader and his irrational ideas—Jones promised his followers utopia, but he delivered carnage.

Trump promised law and order, but he delivered a terrorist attack. Even Al Qaeda could not succeed at destroying the Capitol building on 9/11.

Trump promised to drain the swamp. Following the January 5, 2021 Georgia Senate run-off elections, dredging the swamp removed two Re-Trumplicans, providing a Democratic stronghold in the Senate.

“I spoke to David Perdue, what a great person, and Kelly Loeffler, two great people, but it was a setup.”

What especially makes the Trump insanity similar to other cases of folie en masse is the conflation of politics, religion, and ideology. A noose was erected on the West Front of the Capitol, attached to a wooden beam. A man wearing a sweatshirt reading “Camp Auschwitz” was among the violent mob, as were QAnon cultists and several notorious white supremacists. Confederate battle flags waved, as did the Proud Boys flag. Very few at the gathering wore masks to protect themselves and others against COVID-19. Some insurgents professed that Trump was an agent of God and his son, Jesus Christ.

However, Trump’s failure to march with his troops to the Capitol, as promised, was an ultimate act of cowardice and a path Jesus would have rejected. Leaders who orchestrate folie en masse usually walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. After provoking his supporters, Trump retreated to the White House, preferring the televised version of the insurrection.

Trump was fixated on the election rather than the safety of those inside the building. As his supporters raged a riot at the Capitol, Trump tried to call football coach turned senator Tommy Tuberville to implore him to raise objections to the electoral vote count (the call went to Utah Senator Mike Lee by mistake).

Trump even attempted to rationalize the insurrection.

“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

However, Trump was reportedly displeased with the low-class appearance of his “base” as video captured their ascent into the Capitol. As a narcissist, Trump is accustomed to associating only with beautiful people who reflect a polished image resembling himself. Who did he expect would turn out to demonstrate? Businessmen in $2,500 silk suits?

Perhaps Trump’s withdrawal to the White House during the insurrection and in its aftermath was a good thing. The commonly recommended treatment for shared delusional disorder it to separate the leader from his followers. The only hope of curing individuals afflicted by Trump’s madness is to permanently silence the source of the inflammatory and delusional rhetoric. A total and complete ban from social media is a good first step.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the underlying psychological vulnerability of individuals who are attracted to disturbed leaders and absorb their delusions. It’s roots may lie in acts of deception. Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur, a Latin phrase, means “The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.” Who would know better than the author of The Art of the Deal?

Another explanation, one I find more compelling, can be found in James Baldwin’s classic essay, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin writes, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

You could substitute “delusions” for “hate” and still be correct.

Physician, author, speaker, wellness advocate