Mar 26th 2019

The Trump Contagion

by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Bandy X. Lee, and Ruth Ben-Ghiat

 

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and an expert on violence, is President of the World Mental Health Coalition. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an expert on authoritarian regimes and their leaders. All made presentations at “The Dangerous State of the World and the Need for Fit Leadership,” a major interdisciplinary conference in Washington. 

NEW YORK – Mental health professionals and others have been trying to warn the public about the dangers of US President Donald Trump since his election. Trump’s extreme narcissism, sadism, lack of empathy, and admiration for despots are on daily display. Some may wish to see him as a self-absorbed clown, but he is a clear and present danger to the world who must be prevented from leading (or misleading) it to disaster.

With the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, the dangers have greatly multiplied. While we have not seen the actual text – only a version of it rendered by the president’s political ally, US Attorney General William Barr – Mueller’s purported conclusion that Trump did not collude with Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely embolden Trump to attack. What makes the Mueller claim especially disastrous is the reality of tacit collusion staring us in the face. Trump ran his 2016 campaign while secretly trying to score a real-estate mega-deal in Moscow (and, as usual, lying about it to the public). He publicly opined on canceling sanctions against Russia while pursuing this deal.

Trump will feel enabled in his vindictiveness and delusions of grandeur. In recent weeks, Trump repeatedly taunted a dead US senator and uttered not a word of regretfor the 50 Muslim worshipers slaughtered in New Zealand by a white supremacist who referred specifically to him in a manifesto justifying the massacre. When criticized, Trump spends days raging against his foes on Twitter. He uses rallies and other public occasions to model a politics that regards humanitarianism and compassion as weaknesses rather than fundamental human values.

Trump’s growing rages may partly be the result of cognitive decline. Over time, for example, his ability to form complete sentences, use complex words, and maintain a coherent train of thought appears to have eroded. There is documented history of his father’s dementia.

What is certain is that Trump is putting the world at risk. He has now withdrawn from two nuclear treaties, one with Iran that was agreed to by the entire UN Security Council, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, in place since 1988. His absurdly incompetent diplomacy with North Korea lies in tatters, with that country now warning of a new round of nuclear tests.

Under Trump, the US government, alone among all 193 United Nations member countries, has repudiated the global effort to combat climate change, leaving Americans without sane leadership as climate crises grow in intensity. His response to Hurricane Maria, which left more than 3,000 dead in Puerto Rico, was one of contempt for and neglect of the victims, as was his response to the mega-fires that ravaged California last year, claiming dozens of lives, and to the mega-floods now causing catastrophic losses throughout the Midwest.

Trump’s worldview is echoed by white extremists around the world. Data show a surge in hate crimes in the US since the day after his election, including a doubling in the number of killings by white supremacists, as well as widespread schoolyard bullying in his name and a record number of mass shootings and gun murders. The mass murderer in the Pittsburgh synagogue, the “pipe bomber” who sought to assassinate major Democrats, and the recent mosque shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, are all examples of the influence of Trump’s echo chamber of violence. During his campaign, he famously boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters.” Since then, he has repeatedly endorsed violent behavior through taunts, incitement, and, most recently, a warning that his armed followers could spring into action upon his command.

This type of sadistic leader-follower relationship has cost millions of lives in the past and plunged countries into war and ruin. But it has never before played out in a country with thousands of nuclear weapons and troops in more than 100 countries around the world. Yet, even now, many continue to mistake Trump’s attraction to violence as mere political tactics, rather than the product of a deranged mind.

Since the start of his administration, Trump has followed the authoritarian playbook by attempting to rule by decree, most recently through his reckless declaration of emergency powers to build a wall on the US border with Mexico. He must be stopped before he launches a war, perhaps with Venezuela or with Iran, or before his armed backers step up violence against his political opponents. The 2020 campaign could easily devolve into street violence at Trump’s instigation.

This assessment – and Trump’s own behavior – implies five steps that should be taken without delay.

First, the House of Representatives should start impeachment hearings. Trump is responsible for the same campaign finance illegalities that are sending his erstwhile lawyer, Michael Cohen, to prison. He has repeatedly and recklessly broken finance and tax laws through money laundering, the false valuations of assets, and chronicunderpayment of taxes. The public release of the full Mueller report may add further grounds for impeachment.

Second, Congress should urgently reclaim the clear and unambiguous constitutional right to declare war. Sadly, Congress has effectively ceded this authority to the executive branch. Yet the authority to launch a war, especially in the case of a nuclear-armed power, must never be entrusted to only one person. That would be true even if the US had a sane president.

Third, mental health experts must fulfill their responsibility to protect society’s health and safety by explain publicly, where necessary, that Trump is not just a conniving politician, or a forceful leader, but a mentally unstable individual capable of creating widespread harm. It is both their right and their professional obligation to bring critical information that enables lawmakers to protect the country.

Fourth, the media need to go beyond covering Trump’s mood of the day to covering his mental instability. The real story is not just that Trump lies relentlessly, or that he is cruel and bigoted, but that he is a threat to others.

Lastly, Americans need to organize politically to prevent another election debacle in 2020, perhaps one that Trump will try to stoke through cries of fraud and calls to his followers to violate the rules of democracy. If Trump is not impeached (as he should be), every effort must be made to preserve democracy and protect society from his destructiveness.


Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and an expert on violence, is President of the World Mental Health Coalition. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an expert on authoritarian regimes and their leaders. All made presentations at “The Dangerous State of the World and the Need for Fit Leadership,” a major interdisciplinary conference in Washington. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, in order to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner.  More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against US Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus-mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post."
Apr 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "These ten risks, already looming large before COVID-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimize many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression."
Apr 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Federal Reserve will buy unlimited quantities of Treasury bonds, the Bank of England will purchase £200 billion ($250 billion) of gilts, and the European Central Bank up to €750 billion ($815 billion) of eurozone bonds. Almost certainly, central banks will end up providing monetary finance to fund fiscal deficits. The only question is whether they should make that explicit."
Apr 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Even if you’re not enamoured with creepy crawlies, their gradual disappearance from the places they were once numerous is an ongoing crisis for the natural world. Insects and small invertebrates occupy the bottom rungs of most terrestrial ecosystems. As ecologist E.O. Wilson once observed, if you take away the “little things that run the world” then most of the creatures occupying niches further up the food chain will disappear too, and that includes humans. That’s why a 2017 study in Germany rang so many alarm bells – it reported a 75% decline over 27 years in the local biomass of all kinds of flying insects."
Apr 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "By 2000, China had already established near monopoly status on the manufacture of a whole range of products that the world rapidly consumes. Just a decade ago, 91% of all personal computers, 80% of all air conditioners, 74% of global solar cells, 71% of cell phones, and 60% of all cement were being manufactured in China. The world was hooked on Chinese-made products and the Chinese government had its way with foreign companies choosing to manufacture goods there, enforcing many draconian operating requirements in an environment that most companies would never have agreed to endure anywhere else."
Apr 20th 2020
Extracts: "Long before people and goods were traversing the globe non-stop, pandemics were already an inescapable feature of human civilization.........Nearly two millennia before London’s Great Plague, during the epidemic that killed at least one-third of Athenians near the end of the Peloponnesian War.............Epidemics not only ravage economies, but also throw societal inequalities into sharp relief, deepening deepen mistrust in the status quo........... Machiavelli, who witnessed – and probably died in – the plague in Florence in 1527, viewed the outbreak as the direct result of misrule. Criticisms of China, Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and others have echoed this sentiment....Others view epidemics through the lens of conspiracy theories. Marcus Aurelius blamed the Christians for the Antonine Plague. In Christian Europe, the fourteenth-century Black Death was blamed on the Jews......Despite these similarities, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to stand out in a crucial way: it is unlikely to upend the established order. The Antonine and Justinian Plagues encouraged the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. The Black Death drove people toward a less religious, more humanistic view of the world – a shift that would lead to the Renaissance. The Spanish flu prompted uprisings, massive labor strikes, and anti-imperialist protests; in India, where millions died, it helped to galvanize the independence movement."
Apr 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "From peddling disinformation about the virus to disbanding the National Security Council directorate overseeing pandemic threats, Trump has squandered multiple opportunities to get ahead of the COVID-19 crisis. The health and economic consequences that we are now experiencing have long been predicted. US intelligence analysts were warning about precisely this scenario for at least 12 years. But even they could not foresee that America would end up with a president willing to sacrifice so many lives on the altar of his ego."
Apr 9th 2020
EXTRACTS: ".........[1] The average bankruptcy takes 260 days to work out. During that period, businesses will have a hard time rebuilding.......[2]...consider the complexity of the global supply chain. More than 90% of Fortune 1,000 companies have at least one tier-2 (secondary) supplier in Hubei, the Chinese province around Wuhan.........[3]...disturbingly, 40% of all US corporate debt was rated BBB, just above junk, going into the crisis, while only 30% of the world’s outstanding stock of non-financial corporate bonds were rated A or above..........[4] Despite central bank interest-rate cuts, borrowing costs for companies are now rising dramatically. With further downgrades from credit ratings agencies all but guaranteed, especially with many big earnings announcements due after Easter, some companies will lose access to credit altogether. Moody’s estimates that the default rate for junk-rated companies could hit an astounding 10%, compared to a historical average of 4%......[5]...flu vaccines are relatively ineffective. They reduce your risk of becoming ill by 40% to 60%, compared to 97% for measles vaccines and 88% for mumps........[6] Lockdowns might end, while other measures like social distancing, limits on gatherings and travel restrictions continue – perhaps on a seasonal basis......[7] South Korea could be a glimpse into the future. It has so far avoided an Italian-style health crisis without a lockdown, but has still imposed various restrictions on the economy."
Apr 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "A recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, suggested that 78% of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms. The findings are in line with research from an Italian village at the epicentre of the outbreak showing that 50%-75% were asymptomatic, but represented “a formidable source” of contagion. A recent Icelandic study also showed that around 50% of those who tested positive to COVID-19 in a large-scale testing exercise were asymptomatic. Meanwhile, a WHO report found that “80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infections and 5% are critical infections................The new BMJ study is seemingly different to the findings of studies from earlier in the pandemic, which suggested that the completely asymptomatic proportion of COVID-19 is small: 17.9% on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship and 33.3% in Japanese people who were evacuated from Wuhan.”
Apr 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Spooked by COVID-19, Americans not only stripped supermarket shelves of toilet paper and pasta, but also drove gun sales higher than ever. Apparently, many of these recent gun buyers never purchased a firearm before. Lobbyists for the US gun industry want gun stores to be counted as “essential” businesses, like food shops and pharmacies. A number of states have readily complied, as has the Department of Homeland Security. Jay Pritzker, Governor of Illinois, declared that “firearm and ammunition suppliers and retailers, for purposes of safety and security” should indeed be allowed to continue supplying these alleged necessities."
Apr 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "........until the health crisis is resolved, the economic situation will look exceedingly grim. And even after an economic restart, the damage to businesses and debt markets will have lingering effects, especially considering that global debt was already at record-breaking levels before the crisis began..............Given that the 2008 financial crisis produced deep political paralysis and nurtured a crop of anti-technocratic populist leaders, we can expect the COVID-19 crisis to lead to even more extreme disruptions. ............it is possible that stock-market losses so far have been less than those of 2008 only because everyone remembers how values shot back up during the recovery. But if that crisis does turn out to have been a mere dry run for this one, investors shouldn’t expect a quick rebound."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "We are feeling the anxiety effects of not one pandemic but two. First, there is the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes us anxious because we, or people we love, anywhere in the world, might soon become gravely ill and even die. And, second, there is a pandemic of anxiety about the economic consequences of the first. These two pandemics are interrelated, but are not the same phenomenon......................a contagion of financial anxiety works differently than a contagion of disease. It is fueled in part by people noticing others’ lack of confidence, reflected in price declines, and others’ emotional reaction to the declines. A negative bubble in the stock market occurs when people see prices falling, and, trying to discover why, start amplifying stories that explain the decline. Then, prices fall on subsequent days, and again and again."