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A Yale psychiatrist explains the dangerous mental pathology behind Trump’s unhinged ‘Sharpiegate’ fiasco

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Over the past week, as Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas and parts of the U.S., the news cycle was roiled by the so-called “Sharpie-gate.” On the one hand, President Donald Trump’s original offense—using a map doctored with a pen to suggest, falsely, that Alabama was in the path of the storm—was relatively minor. But the president’s refusal to admit he was wrong—he doubled down on Twitter and elsewhere—kept the story in the news all week.

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“As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies!” he declared triumphantly.

“Just as I said, Alabama was originally projected to be hit. The Fake News denies it!” he declared a day later.

The president’s refusal to admit wrongdoing was tailor-made for the age of social media, where users generated endless sharpie-themed memes. The president has yet to admit that he made a mistake.

Raw Story spoke Dr. Bandy X. Lee about why Trump is incapable of backing down no matter how wrong he is, in a sense becoming his own worst enemy—and the ramifications for the country beyond one silly viral moment.

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Lee is a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine. She has consulted with the World Health Organization on its public health approach to global violence prevention since 2002, has taught at Yale Law School since 2003, and is author of the textbook, “Violence.” In 2017, she held an ethics conference on the importance of mental health professionals to speak up and compiled the public-service book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” She also convened a panel to assess the president’s mental capacity as well as a working group on an expert panel for performing independent fitness-for-duty tests. Now, she is authoring a “profile of the nation” as a primer for psychiatric diagnosis and treatment at the societal level.

Raw Story: Manifestations of Donald Trump’s mental problems do not seem to be abating. Can you comment on the latest “Sharpiegate”?

Bandy X. Lee: Altering the course of a hurricane with a pen, heedless of the lives he may affect, shows the degree to which the president will go to avoid admitting he is wrong. The absurdity to which he will try to alter reality to fit his idealized self-image, going as far as to enlist his top homeland security adviser to back him up, is staggering. We have seen him lie to pathological levels and behave without boundaries as to criminality or cruelty to cover up his mistakes multiple times. He is a danger to national security.

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Further, on our standardized mental capacity evaluation of him, he failed every criterion. This is incontrovertible: he could not be a pilot, a police officer, or a private in the military, and yet he is president of the United States.

We based this assessment on the sworn testimony of his close associates at work, which is the most ideal information for this type of exam. Not only that, we have direct interviews with those who have interacted with him, including his ghost writer Tony Schwartz and several members of New York high society. Congress members, White House officials, and his family friend have spoken to us directly. And then there were the reports of public record that are consistent with our assessment, not to mention that he has been deemed unfit in political circles, by members of both parties. He has demonstrated dangerousness in real domestic and geopolitical situations. To make matters worse, he appears to be rapidly deteriorating.

Raw Story: So do you think he can last until 2020?

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Lee: Mentally, he has already not lasted. However, he and his supporters seem prepared to do anything they can to force him to continue. Donald Trump’s own psychological patterns indicate that annihilating the world would be far preferable to exposing himself to humiliation—and he has the power to do it. Since he is unlikely to win the 2020 election legitimately, we must beware of what he would be willing to do to our democracy, our nation, since he knows that a loss would make him vulnerable also to prosecution.

Raw Story: I keep asking you this, but when would it be time for the 25th amendment?

Lee: As a medical professional, this is outside my expertise. But what I can say medically is that the dangers need to be removed—imminently—and since they do not seem removable while he is in office, his removal seems necessary. I wish the authorities would consult us, before a truly emergent intervention becomes inevitable. Meanwhile, we have an independent, professional responsibility to warn and to protect society, and so we will redouble our educational efforts.

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Raw Story: Do you think that his followers might come around?

Lee: Currently, Mr. Trump is treated as a supreme being who should not be questioned but only adored. When he tweeted that he was “king of Israel” and called himself “the chosen one,” he was also meeting the needs of his followers. He and his followers demonstrate a similar, wounded psychology that fits like lock and key, as former CIA psychiatrist Dr. Jerrold Post aptly describes in our book. This is a submissive disposition: his followers are psychologically enslaved to him, while he keenly senses what appeals to them, responding to cues from Fox News or conspiracy theories.

Raw Story: It seems like a pretty toxic dynamic…

Lee: This dynamic is already pathological, and so it is not solvable through logic or persuasion. There needs to be a change of conditions, the most immediate one being removal of Mr. Trump from a power position. Secondarily and more long-term, there is widespread damage being done to our collective mental health by what I call “mind-numbing” media. Coupled with deprivation of education, health care, and dignified living standards, these create toxic conditions for mental health.

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Raw Story: What’s the role of right-wing media?

Extreme right-wing media actively take away the ability to think freely; studies since early on have shown that those who watch Fox News, for example, know less about what is happening than those who watch no news at all. Many more, worse outlets have arisen since, following its lead. Even in my short public appearances, I have been falsely accused of being “unlicensed” and “not a psychiatrist” by Rush Limbaugh, but these are repeated as if fact. The constant feeding of misinformation impairs the population’s reality testing, causing it to behave psychotically even when it is not.

Exactly what mechanisms these media outlets employ, and how things have gotten this severe, I inadvertently discovered in a chance, close dissection of a right-wing radio talk show. It practiced all eight of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s criteria for thought reform. I will not go into all, but the first is “milieu control,” tightly controlling what the listeners hear, even from the guest, and “immunizing” them against outside information. Another is mystical manipulation; the host planned a highly orchestrated interaction that was intended to demonstrate his superiority and to inculcate in his audience what to think. Still another is demand for purity, where you are either with them or against them, and if with them you must conform to a prescribed ideology of the group. There was use of code words that terminate thought, such as “Democrat” or “liberal,” which seemed to them to denote “evil” or “sinful.” Finally, they are programmed to accept authority over facts, such as referring to the host as “the Great One.”

We have accepted methods for reality testing. In science we have the scientific method, in philosophy logic, in journalism a system for fact-checking, and in a democracy fairness of procedure. These are rational approaches, which pathology always seeks to undermine, making it a contest of “equal opinions.” It is “winning” that pathology wants, not fairness of process, facts, or truth. This is why allowing pathology to persist is destructive to our nation’s sanity, whether one is “for” or “against” Mr. Trump.

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