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Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton on Duty to Warn: Trump’s “Relation to Reality” is Dangerous to Us All

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As Vanity Fair reports some of President Trump’s closest aides and advisers say he is “unstable” and “unraveling,” and that the White House is increasingly consumed by chaos, we speak with Robert Jay Lifton, a leading American psychiatrist and author of more than 20 books about the effects of nuclear war, terrorism and genocide.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour discussing what our next guest calls the “apocalyptic twins: nuclear and climate threats.” This week, NBC News reported President Trump called for a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal during a meeting with high-ranking military leaders. It was after this that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron.” On Wednesday, Trump lashed out at NBC on Twitter, suggested NBC’s broadcast license should be revoked as punishment for its reporting.

Today, Trump is slated to announce the U.S. will decertify the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, although it appears Trump has now backed away from his plans to withdraw the U.S. from the deal entirely. Instead, the White House is expected to instruct Congress to leave the agreement intact, for now, after he came under enormous domestic and international pressure not to unravel the landmark deal.

In the last week, Trump has also repeated threats of war against North Korea, tweeting, quote, “Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid...... …hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, making fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!” he tweeted. In brief comments to reporters Saturday, Trump was asked to clarify that remark, as well as a cryptic comment he made last week during a meeting with top generals in which he warned about “the calm before the storm.”

REPORTER: Can you clarify your “calm before the storm” comment?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nothing—nothing to clarify.

REPORTER: What is the “one thing” that will work regarding North Korea?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, you’ll figure that out pretty soon.

AMY GOODMAN: “You’ll figure that out pretty soon,” he said, when asked about “the calm before the storm,” what it was.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is struggling to recover from a series of hurricanes, and now wildfires, that climate scientists have linked to climate change. The 10th hurricane this year, Ophelia, has just been named. There have not been 10 hurricanes in one season since 1893.

Well, our next guest wonders if the storms have contributed to what he calls a shift in our awareness of climate truths. On Thursday, Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I sat down with Robert Jay Lifton, leading American psychiatrist, author of more than 20 books about the effects of nuclear war, terrorism and genocide. His new book is titled The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival. His past books, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, for which he received the National Book Award; The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide; and Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. Dr. Lifton is also a distinguished professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at the City University of New York. I began by asking him to talk about what is now happening between the U.S. and North Korea, and Iran, and President Trump's closest aides expressing concern that Trump is unraveling.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I also belong to a group called the Duty to Warn, which is a group of psychiatrists and psychologists who feel we have the right and the obligation to speak out about Trump’s psyche when it endangers the country and the world. And what we’re seeing—you mentioned the potential unraveling of the pact with Iran. There’s also the potential unraveling of Donald Trump, which seems to be occurring. It’s hard to read him, because his behavior, as I understand it, is completely solipsistic. He sees the world through his own sense of self, what he needs and what he feels. And he couldn’t be more erratic or scattered or dangerous.

So, the exchange with North Korea has to be terrifying to all of us. It’s not something that can be controlled. You have two leaders who are bent on hyperbole and intense threat to the other and have their own motivations, each of which is hard for us to read. But we can read the danger that they represent, particularly since we’ve learned recently that Trump is on record for demanding something like 10 times the number of nuclear weapons. And that’s what I call extreme nuclearism, a kind of embrace of the weapons to do everything that they can’t do. The only thing nuclear weapons can do is destroy countries, cities, destroy human beings. But since they came into being, there has been an impulse to embrace them and see them as saviors, that prevent war, keep the world going, maintain authority on the part of the nuclear weapons-possessing nations. So Trump is into that extreme nuclearism.

And at the same time, as you mentioned, with the other apocalyptic twin, the terrible and very real threat of climate change, global warming, he and his followers are blocking every reasonable effect that was put forward at Paris in 2015 and which the world—through which the world seeks to confront what may be the gravest danger it’s ever faced. That’s where we are.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: To go back to what you said initially, the group that you’re a part of, the psychiatric group, you’re a contributor to a book called The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. What are some of the key concerns about Trump that you and your colleagues raise?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, I wrote a letter, together with Judith Herman, to The New York Times, in which we raised two issues. One was his relation to reality, which is, I would say, solipsistic and untenable and very dangerous to everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “solipsistic”?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Solipsistic, from within the self. In other words, he only sees the world from within his sense of self. He can’t have empathy for others. He can’t really think into the future the consequences of his actions, because he’s totally preoccupied with the immediate event and how he can deal with it or manipulate it as emerging through the perception on the part of his sense of self. That’s very extreme. People who are psychotic behave that way. And yet, for the most part, Trump is not psychotic. That combination makes him really dangerous. So that relationship to reality is one thing.

And the other thing that Judith Herman and I wrote about was his difficulty with crises and his extreme behavior and attack mode, instead of any kind of—any kind of a balance, which a president needs to deal with a crisis. So those were two.

And in this regard, I write about what we call malignant normality. So, he’s the president. A president takes actions. There’s a tendency to normalize them, because, after all, he is the president, he’s in charge, when what is called normality is completely malignant and harmful. And I came to that idea through work on Nazi doctors. They were expected to reverse healing and killing, and really take the lead in killing in Auschwitz. I’m not accusing any Americans of being Nazi doctors. I’m saying that this is a model of malignant normality, and we now face it with Trump and his administration.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about your group Duty to Warn. Vanity Fair has a piece where Steve Bannon, the disgraced White House aide, said he told President Trump that his concern should be the 25th Amendment—not being impeached, but the Cabinet voting him out. He says something like Trump has a 30 percent chance of making it through his term. You are a psychiatrist. Can you talk further about what it would take, if it wasn’t an impeachable crime, for—to remove President Trump, why you believe he is a danger right now?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: It’s unclear whether or how Trump will be removed from or resign from the presidency before the completion of his term. One doesn’t know that. It will probably, in my judgment, be a political rather than a psychological act. I mean, one could take the 25th Amendment, and his Cabinet and vice president could attest to his unfitness for being president. That doesn’t—

AMY GOODMAN: But the Cabinet are his appointees.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yeah, it doesn’t seem very likely, does it? But rather, what’s happening now is that there’s a dialogue between this psychological-psychiatric group and congresspeople in which they—we are bringing information about Trump’s unfitness, which becomes part of the political dialogue. It will probably be—

AMY GOODMAN: Are you talking to congressmembers?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes, yes, people from this group are talking to congresspeople. And it will probably be a political decision that removes Trump. And that means an election process and the issue of whether you get a Democratic House or Senate, and other political issues that will become very important. But this is now part of the dialogue. Everybody knew that Trump was bizarre, strange, was unreliable, unfit to be president. It’s been known by the hypocritical Republicans for a very long time. But putting it forward by psychologists and psychiatrists gives it a certain greater authority and becomes part of that dialogue and recognition. That’s the way that I see it, rather than a clear-cut removal through the 25th Amendment. Though one doesn’t know, because there’s more and more evidence about Trump’s campaign’s collusion in Russia and potentially about obstruction of justice, and all these could play a part. He could attempt to fire Mueller, as he’s threatened to do, and that could bring about a constitutional crisis. So, we don’t know. We can’t predict what process will occur. The psychological now is in dialogue with the political.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read to you The New York Times editorial on Thursday, “One Finger on the Button is Too Few.” And they write, “The broad debate over President Trump’s fitness for the difficult and demanding office he holds has recently been reframed in a more pointed and urgent way: Does he understand, and can he responsibly manage, the most destructive nuclear arsenal on earth?

“The question arises for several reasons. He has threatened to 'totally destroy' North Korea. He has reportedly pressed for a massive buildup in the American nuclear arsenal, which already contains too many—4,000—warheads. And soon he will decide whether to sustain or set a course to possibly unravel the immensely important Iran nuclear deal.”

It goes on to cite Corker, who said he’s leading to World War III, and Rex Tillerson, who reportedly called him a “moron.”

And he says—and the Times goes on to say, “Mr. Trump’s policy pronouncements during the campaign betrayed either profound ignorance or dangerous nonchalance: At one point he wondered why America had nuclear weapons if it didn’t use them; at another he suggested that Japan and South Korea, which have long lived under the American security umbrella, should develop their own nuclear weapons. But nothing he said has been quite as unsettling as his recent tweetstorms about North Korea, … 'fire and fury' … 'the calm before the storm.'”

And so, they are saying—they’re calling for—”Many have hoped, and still hope, … Trump’s aggressive posture is mostly theater, designed to slake his thirst for attention, keep adversaries off guard … But there is no underlying strategy to his loose talk, and whatever he means by it, Congress has been sufficiently alarmed to consider legislation that would bar the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. It wouldn’t take away the president’s ability to defend the country.”

They say, “That’s a sound idea, and could be made stronger with a requirement that the secretaries of defense and state also approve any such decision. As things stand now, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, passed when there was more concern about trigger-happy generals than elected civilian leaders, gives the president sole control. He could unleash the apocalyptic force of the American nuclear arsenal by his word alone, and within minutes.”

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, any restriction on the president—any president, but especially Trump—on his capacity to initiate a nuclear war, any restriction on that is profoundly desirable. It’s a strange world, to say the least, when the generals are there to restrain the civilian. The generals aren’t, on the whole, known for their military restraint. There are exceptions. With the Vietnam War, as you know, it was initiated by civilians, “the best and the brightest,” as it was called. The military was at first a little reluctant, then entered it and became corrupted by it, and created what I came to call atrocity-producing situations. That could happen here, too, with the generals, who are ostensibly restrainers, allowing him, being unable to prevent him from initiating some form of war, being themselves drawn in and then corrupted by it. That’s a really dangerous sequence. Anything that holds that back or in check is desirable.

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Robert Jay Lifton on the Apocalyptic Twins of Nuclear and Climate Threats & Reflections on Survival

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