Recently, in what, in other times, would have been considered a sensational development, news media published a leaked account of an editorial meeting at the New York Times at which that newspaper’s top editor, Dean Baquet, essentially explained to his colleagues that since the Gray Lady’s all-out effort over the past couple of years to paint President Trump as a tool of Vladimir Putin had failed ignominiously, the paper’s new approach would be to intensify efforts to smear Trump as a racist. The account of the meeting underscored the already obvious fact that in the age of Trump, actual journalism, in many of the nation’s formerly most respected news media, has increasingly given way to the systematic distortion, suppression, and invention of facts in pursuit of a partisan agenda.
If the Times and the Washington Post, under the ownership of Silicon Valley mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos, have both been accused in recent years of choosing this kind of radical activism over reportage, so has CNN. In what may well be the most egregious example yet of CNN’s over-the-top approach to the Trump presidency, Brian Stelter, on last Sunday’s edition of his laughably named program Reliable Sources, had as his guests two psychiatrists who had been invited on to discuss the supposed problems with Trump’s psychiatric health. This topic seemed a particularly curious choice, especially at a time when 76-year-old Joe Biden, at present the leading candidate to challenge Trump for the presidency on behalf of the Democratic Party, seems daily to be showing signs of possible senile dementia, giving speeches in which, among much else, he has stated his preference for “facts over truth,” placed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy in the “late 1970s,” and misidentified New Hampshire as Vermont. Admittedly, Biden has always been a gaffe machine (and a serial plagiarist of other hack politicians’ speeches), but the frequency and weirdness of his misstatements seems to have undergone a serious uptick during his current campaign. But the psychiatrists weren’t there to discuss Biden, of course; they were there to talk Trump. And to bury him, not praise him.
Both headshrinkers were highly credentialed. Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatry professor at Yale School of Medicine, complained sourly that “concerns” expressed by her and other psychiatrists about the mental state of President Trump had been routinely ignored by the news media and charged that the American Psychiatric Association, in its refusal to entertain diagnoses of Trump by professionals who had never met him – a violation of the so-called “Goldwater rule” – had become more or less a tool of the state. You would think that the news media had been walking on eggshells to avoid criticizing Trump’s often bumptious conduct, rather than highlighting it at every opportunity.
What was stunning was that the other psychiatrist, Dr. Allen Frances, former chair of psychiatry at Duke University, who had been brought on purportedly to provide “balance” to Lee’s readiness to psychoanalyze the president, turned out to have an even more outrageous take on the issue. His line was that we shouldn’t call Trump crazy, because “medicalizing politics…stigmatizes the mentally ill.” Frances said that he had known thousands of such patients, and that most of them had been “well-behaved, well-mannered, good people. Trump is none of these. Lumping the mentally ill in with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill.” A couple of points. First, to say that most people with serious psychiatric issues are “well-behaved” and “well-mannered” is to sentimentalize mental illness: a full-blown psychotic, for example, is rarely either “well-behaved” or “well-mannered.” Second, has Frances ever met Trump? If not, what business does he have pronouncing on his virtues or lack thereof?
But Frances had more to say. “Calling Trump crazy hides the fact that we’re crazy for having elected him and even crazier for allowing his crazy policies to persist.” Some psychiatrist! We thought the word “crazy” was a no-no in the psychiatric game. But not, apparently, when you’re describing the millions of deplorables across the United States who put this reprehensible creature in office. Apparently in Frances’s view, actually calling actual crazy people crazy is insensitive, but calling people whose politics you disapprove of is not.
But Frances’s most extraordinary assertion was yet to come: “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 needs to be contained by attacking his policies and not his person.” To call this hyperbole is to realize that sometimes even the word hyperbole isn’t strong enough. All told, Hitler, Stalin, Mao took over a hundred million lives. You can like or dislike Trump’s politics or his personal style, but to compare him to these three is, in a word, crazy. And to follow this flagrant personal attack by saying that we should attack Trump’s “policies and not his person” sounds, if we may join the club and start handing out diagnoses, like a contradiction that only some kind of schizoid wacko would be capable of.
But insulting though all this nonsense is to the president of the U.S., we’re not offended on his behalf. He’s a big boy and this sort of thing rolls off his back like water off the back of a duck. No, what appalls us about Frances’s comparison of Trump to the three most murderous creatures of the twentieth century immeasurably diminishes the scale of their evil and destructiveness. At a time when so many Americans, especially younger Americans, know little about Hitler except that he was a bad guy who killed Jews, who know nothing about Mao, and who have perhaps been told by their history teachers and professors that the Soviet Union was a good idea and Stalin a well-meaning socialist who perhaps got a bit too carried away, nothing could be more irresponsible than Frances’s glib equation of Trump with this villainous trio.
To top it all off, Brian Stelter, who is, frankly, a buffoon, sat through Frances’s whole nutty rant without so much as offering up a mild challenge to Frances’s kooky claims. Later, when attacked widely for sitting there with his mouth shut, Stelter blamed his silence on some technical goof. Whatever. The mistake was inviting these two shrinks on in the first place to discuss such a topic. The whole thing was yet another a black mark on CNN’s record, and it must have caused many discerning viewers to wonder, and worry, about the kind of “education” in matters psychiatric being provided to med students at Yale and, especially, Duke.