The Trump Administration: Side Effects May Include Stockholm Syndrome

You’ve probably heard of Sweden, a Scandinavian country that President Trump suggested had suffered a major terror attack in February of this year. (It hadn’t, of course.)

In any event, that got me thinking about an actual crime that occurred there, namely the August 1973 robbery of one of its largest banks, Kreditbanken. In that robbery, Jan-Erik Olsson and an accomplice held four hostages inside the bank’s vault for six days, physically and mentally torturing their captives over that period.

After release, none would testify against their captors in court and, in fact, they began to raise money for their defense. This curious and counter-intuitive incident gave us the psychological term “Stockholm Syndrome” in which victims develop positive feelings toward their captors as well as sympathy for their causes.  Disney, probably inadvertently, recently contributed to the genre with its live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Here in the United States, our most famous victim of Stockholm Syndrome was Patty Hearst, a young heiress and California debutante who was kidnapped by urban guerillas – the Symbionese Liberation Army – and ended up adopting the nom de guerre Tania and helping the SLA rob banks.  While Stockholm Syndrome failed as a defense in her court case – imagine how hated those Hearsts must have been in California – President Clinton eventually pardoned her.

As you might imagine, law enforcement folks aren’t too fond of Stockholm Syndrome which they often see as a phony version of an insanity defense. The diagnosis, however, did make an appearance in the Fifth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual under the rubric “Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified.”  It is characterized by the strong emotional ties that develop between a victim and another person who “intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses or intimidates the other.”

How, you might reasonably ask, does this relate to the Trump Administration? While I don’t think we’re quite there yet, I do believe we have to be on the lookout for manifestations of Stockholm Syndrome among the American Public, at least figuratively held hostage by the Trumpites.  Not only that, the canaries-in-the-coal-mine victims are most likely to be found in our equivalent of the Swedish bank vault, namely the members of the media and especially those most vulnerable, the media’s pundit class.

The Syndrome first hit my radar screen with the recent reaction of some media figures to Trump’s Tomahawk missile strike in Syria. Because it looked like something that more conventional mainstream politicians – e.g., George W. Bush, Hilary Clinton, etc. – would do, it was viewed with relief and even embraced by some large segments of the media.  Forget about the fact that it didn’t seem to be related to any long-term strategy, a missile strike – of all things – was taken as evidence of Trump’s magnanimity, sanity and overall wholesomeness.

Next came the supposed feud between the Bannon and Kushner factions (apparently coming to a head because of the Syrian missile strikes). Now I completely get it that Bannon is a scary and horrible person and that his faction in the Trump White House is made up of the worst-of-the-worst.  Yet the media Stockholm Syndrome reaction was to act as if the President’s favoring of his entirely inexperienced mid-thirties son-in-law was the equivalent of hiring a resurrected Howard Baker as his chief of staff.

In normal circumstances, i.e., without the prospect of Bannon and his alt-right cronies running the show, putting Jared in charge of everything from Middle East peace to relations with China to reinventing government would be about as appalling as anything imaginable.  When suffering Stockholm Syndrome, though, it comes as something of a relief.

And it shouldn’t be a relief. We’re not Patty Hearst, tied up in a closet by the SLA and psychologically bonding with the captor who brings her a doughnut rather than the guy who beats her every day.  We’re Americans and our reaction should be something along the lines of “Bannon is horrible, but Jared is pretty freaking bad too.”

Instead, we got a lot of media crowing about how Jared is really a decent guy and needs to be given a chance and maybe if we’re nice to him he won’t wreck our country (and maybe he’ll bring a doughnut to the closet where we’re bound and gagged).

Again, that’s not the way it works. Criticizing the Trump Administration can’t become about defining these departures from American tradition and good sense according to degrees of egregiousness.

If it’s bad, call it bad.  And, so far, it’s been almost all bad.