Psychiatrists enter the crossfire: Yesterday, on Reliable Sources, CNN's Brian Stelter finally did it.
Stelter interviewed two psychiatrists about issues of Donald J. Trump's mental health—or at least, he gave it a half-hearted try.
At the start of the segment, Stelter offered a lengthy justification for the fact that he was the raising the issue at all. Here's part of what he said:
STELTER (8/25/19): Now, I get it that Trump opponents have been saying he's sick since before Election Day. I think some folks threw out terms like "cognitive decline" way too casually. They dream about the 25th Amendment."Let's do it," Stelter enthused, perhaps reassuring himself.
But it is possible to have a fact-based conservation about this. In fact, it's not just possible, it's necessary. Look at the New York Times reporting that some former Trump aides are, quote, increasingly worried about his behavior. Most people who cover this world for a living know that.
So something is wrong. There are lots of theories about what it is. There are some doctors who think they know. Others say we shouldn't speculate.
There are ethical questions about having this conversation at all, but we can't tiptoe around it anymore. We've got to talk about this. So let's talk about it. Let's do it!
So far, almost so good! Stelter then introduced two psychiatrists. As in the old Crossfire days, they held "opposing views:"
STELTER (continuing directly): Let me bring in two guests, two psychiatrists with different views about this.The contestants were in place. From that point on, we'll admit we don't exactly understand what either of Stelter's guests said.
Dr. Bandy X. Lee is a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. She co-authored a book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. It originally came out two years ago, started this conversation in many ways about Trump's mental health.
And Dr. Allen Frances is in Philly for us. He's a professor emeritus and former chair of psychiatry at Duke University Medical College. And he authored the book, Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump.
The alleged conversation made little sense, and it didn't last long. Here, for example, is a statement by the guest who seems to think that we shouldn't be discussing Trump's mental health:
FRANCES: I think that medicalizing politics has three very dire consequences. The first is that it stigmatizes the mentally ill. I've known thousands of patients, almost all of them are well-behaved, well-mannered, good people.We have no idea why a competent suggestion that Trump may be mentally ill in some serious way would "stigmatize the mentally ill." Just as most people who are physically ill aren't suffering from terminal cancer, most people with some sort of mental health problem aren't the most severe type of sociopath, the equivalent of Hitler or Stalin.
Trump is none of these. Lumping the mentally ill with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill, and they have enough problems and stigma as it is.
The second issue is that calling Trump crazy hides the fact that we're crazy for having elected him, and even crazier for allowing his crazy policies to persist.
Trump is as destructive a person in this century as Hitler, Stalin and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were. He needs to be contained, but he needs to be contained by attacking his policies, not his person.
It's crazy for us to be destroying the climate our children will live in. It's crazy to be giving tax cuts to the rich that will add trillions of dollars to the debt our children will have to pay. It's crazy to be destroying our democracy by claiming that the press and the courts of the enemy of the people. We have to face these policies, not Trump's person.
Now, it's absolutely impossible, you can bet the house, that the Congress, that Pence, that the cabinet will never ever remove Trump on grounds of mental unfitness. That will never happen. Discussing the issue in psychological name-calling terms distracts us from getting out the vote.
We have no idea if Donald Trump is "mentally ill" in some serious way. But if he is, it doesn't make sense to say we mustn't discuss the possibility because it would "stigmatize" others with mild conditions.
Beyond that, has some responsible psychiatric observer diagnosed Trump as "crazy?" In what sense have such people engaged in "psychiatric name-calling?"
To our ear, it was Frances who was starting to sound a bit unhinged this day. At times, he sounded less like a psychiatrist and more like a old-style ward-heeler trying to get out the vote.
This strangeness continued later, near the end of the segment:
STELTER: And Dr. Frances, your advice to the press? How do you feel the press should handle these situations, these ongoing questions about the president's health?Needless to say, "everyone" doesn't believe, let alone "know," that Donald J. Trump is dangerous. Meanwhile, Frances was never asked to explain how he knew that Trump isn't mentally ill, if that's what he was saying. These were his final remarks:
FRANCES: Well, the problem is, I thought [Lee's] book was really silly. The people most willing to offer diagnoses know the least about it, have never contributed to discussions about diagnosis.
There is absolutely no doubt that Trump is dangerous. Everyone knows that. Everyone should have known that before the election. The question is, is he dangerous because he's a bad, evil con man or is he dangerous because he's mentally ill?
And on that issue, I think it's very clear he's dangerous because he's evil. He's not dangerous because he's mentally ill.
FRANCES: I think Trump is best characterized as a spoiled brat, as a baby having temper tantrums, as a completely unfit person unable to meet the challenges and the responsibilities of his office, as a con man, as a—the most narcissistic person maybe in our time, a narcissist for all times.We're puzzled. If Trump is "the most narcissistic person maybe in our time, a narcissist for all times," doesn't that suggest a possible issue of mental health? Does it help that he may end up killing millions more people than Hitler, Stalin and Mao?
Alas! Stelter didn't seem ready to field these peculiar remarks in this Crossfire-style discussion, for which a limited amount of time had been scheduled and a slightly strange guest had been booked. We weren't even entirely clear about what Lee was trying to say, but the statements by Frances made little sense for us at all.
In the past, we've said two things about this long-forbidden topic. We've said the topic should be discussed. We've also said there's little chance that the mainstream press would be able to conduct that discussion in a competent manner.
It's been a long time since cable news hosts were ever really asked to try to figure anything out. Stelter seemed to be in way over his head. Beyond that, he'd been allotted a limited amount of time for this tricky discussion with, perhaps, a poorly selected guest.
After thanking his two psychiatrists, Stelter took a commercial break. He then moved to a more familiar question:
Should Sean Spicer have been picked for Dancing With the Stars?
One last very basic point: The fact that important discussions unfold this way is an anthropological problem. That said, this is the way our "national discourse" has worked for the past thirty-plus years.
This seems to be the best we can do, at least on the "elite" level.