Judith L. Herman M.D.

Decoding Trauma

Interview With Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton

A Call For "Witnessing Professionals."

Posted Jul 09, 2018

Introduction:  Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, colleague, author, role model and inspiration, has been a pre-eminent scholar of the psychology of totalitarian systems, both in state tyrannies and in small cults.   He explores the psychological mechanisms that enable ordinary people to become accomplices in carrying out atrocities, as well as the psychology of resistance.  He is a co-author of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Professionals Assess a President (Bandy X Lee, Ed.).   Recently, he agreed to be interviewed regarding the role of mental health professionals in our current political situation.

Part One:

JH: In recent work you have called on psychiatrists and others in the medical profession to step up and become witnessing professionals. Can you explain what that means?

RJL: Yes, let me first say something about what I call the malignant normality that professionals must bear witness to. In connection with my study of Nazi doctors, I came to the idea of a malignant normality that despotic leaders can impose upon their country. In the case of the Nazis it included destructive behavior of all kinds and mass murder rendered normal and acceptable. The Nazi camp doctor at Auschwitz was expected to do the selections that sent Jews to the gas chamber. That was his job and it wasn’t illegal, it was normal.

Now, the malignant normality of the Trump presidency is not Nazism. I’m in no way saying that they are the same.  But there is a malignant normality that Trump imposes on this country and demands that everybody follow.  It has to do with his disdain for reality. When we psychiatrists and psychologists speak up about Trump’s psychological unfitness, and the malignant normality he is creating, we become witnessing professionals. And we refuse to allow the vast influence of the presidency, its enormous reach and power, to impose malignant normality as that which we are to live by.  When we bear witness, we don’t abandon our professionalism; we call upon it.

I think that people in every profession can say something drawn from their specialized knowledge to counter malignant normality.  Climate scientists, political theorists, historians, working people can all expose certain aspects of the malignancy of the normality Trump and his followers seek to impose on us.

We have an immediate example of this in the malignant normality of separating parents from children when they cross our borders. Among those professionals who have spoken out are flight attendants, caretakers of the children, pediatricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists. They are bearing witness to the child abuse resulting from this policy. In that way they become witnessing professionals.

JH: Psychiatrists and psychologists who have been speaking out about Trump’s psychological unfitness for his office have been accused of politicizing psychiatry. Isn’t that dangerous? Hasn’t that gotten our profession into disrepute in the past?

RJL: Actually, what we are doing is the reverse of that.  For instance, the politicized psychiatry in Nazi Germany, which I studied closely, put psychiatrists in the lead in carrying out the so-called  “euthanasia” program which was really the medical killing of mental and neurological patients and others considered “life unworthy of life.” In Soviet Russia, psychiatrists developed the concept of “sluggish schizophrenia,” a manipulative diagnosis they made on those who opposed the regime, who could then be incarcerated in mental hospitals. And in Communist China there was similar behavior of psychiatrists who cooperated with a widespread program of “thought reform.” In my work on this subject, I found that millions of people were subjected to imposed changes in belief and even identity.

When psychiatry is politicized, psychiatrists become agents of the state, accommodating to malignant normality. When American psychiatrists emphasize the psychological unfitness of our head of state, it is the antithesis of politicized psychiatry. Rather it is the expression of mental health professionals who see an ethical requirement to make use of our knowledge to warn of danger to our country and our people.

JH: So, in other words, instead of acting as agents of the state we are free agents in a free society. And we act not as partisans but as psychological professionals.

RJL: Exactly. We’re speaking out against the imposed falsehoods of the state by locating many of them in the psychological aberrations of our president. As responsible professionals, we refuse to go along with the malignant normality imposed on us.

Part Two:

JH: As a witnessing professional, you have called the president psychologically unfit for the responsibilities of office.   Why?

RJL: I believe he is unfit for two very strong reasons. One has to do with what I call his solipsistic reality and the other with his automatically belligerent response to any challenge to what he does or says. In saying this I am not making a diagnosis or even using clinical terms, but rather identifying two readily observable psychological patterns.

Let me first say something about what I mean by solipsistic reality, because that, I think, is the heart of the matter.  Solipsistic reality means looking at any situation from the standpoint of what the self requires as truth. Trump creates reality from the needs of his own self. That’s a remarkable tendency because it means eliminating all responsibility to actual truth and experienced reality on the part of all others, and also a lack of commitment to any kind of standards of evidence. For a president to do this as extensively as he does is disastrous to the country and to the world.  And he follows up his declarations of solipsistic reality with a demand that others believe the falsehoods.  That takes up the energy of the people around him and eventually of the whole nation.  It’s had a disturbingly effective kind of impact, but in my view may eventually destroy his presidency. The question is what damage will be done along the way?

JH: Does his solipsistic reality seem psychotic to you? Does it seem paranoid?

RJL: I don’t think Trump is psychotic. He certainly has paranoid tendencies, as people can do without being psychotic.  And in the absence of psychosis, he can effectively combine partial belief and partial awareness of his own falsehood and manipulation.

JH: So that was the first reason. And the second reason?

RJL: Yes, automatic belligerence on the part of an American president is very dangerous. Trump experiences any questioning of the falsehoods that emerge from his solipsistic reality as an attack on him and he attacks back. In that mode, Trump creates a narrative of himself and the country victims, unfairly treated by bad people. The American president is a world leader and needs steady and self-aware relationships with other world figures. The attack mode undermines these relationships and leads to destructive domestic and international polices.

JH: —All the allies who are supposedly taking advantage of us—

RJL: —Yes, that’s right. Our closest allies who he sees as taking advantage of America and therefore can become the object of his criticism and scorn. So this unremitting belligerence is a really serious impairment.

JH: What do you make of the fact that his attack mode spares most notably Russian President Putin and other tyrants and autocrats?

RJL:  Trump’s attraction to tyrants and dictators undoubtedly has a number of different sources.  In what he called a joke, but didn’t really seem like a joke to me, he emphasized how Kim Jong-un’s people love him and “stand up at attention” when their leader speaks, and added, “I want my people to do the same.” One might call this a form of “dictator envy”. In other words, he expresses his desire to have his solipsistic version of reality  unconditionally affirmed by Americans as a whole. As witnessing professionals we expose the malignance of this pattern and its threat to democracy.


Lifton, RJ: The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide.

Lifton, RJ: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China.