The Trump Contagion
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 He has now withdrawn from two nuclear treaties, one with Iran that was agreed to by the entire UN Security Council, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, in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.
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