American Paganism

It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.

Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.

Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public squareRod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.

Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularismis actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.

Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”

This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it

  1. rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
  2. Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.

In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion. 

Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.

More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.

Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.

Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.

But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”

For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.

Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”

The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.

The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”

For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”

Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.

To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.

A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.

First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.

Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.

Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as

  • unrestrained capitalist greed; as
  • authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
  • callous environmental degradation; as a
  • superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
  • petty “sanctimonious nationalism.” 

In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:

We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.

The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.

But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”

Schmitz’s analyses from April and August of 2016 really must be considered at length, given where they were published. Take this representative passage:

At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his ­fellow men.

And here’s another:

In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.

By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”

If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The  Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.

But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today. 

Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?

This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.

We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.

But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.

This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

Jason Stanley, “How Fascism Works”

Jason Stanley discusses his book, “How Fascism Works”, at Politics and Prose on 9/25/18.

In this clear and direct primer, Stanley, the award-winning author of How Propaganda Works, draws on a wide range of history, philosophy, sociology, and critical race theory to define fascism, explain its mechanisms, and help people identify its red flags. At its most basic level, fascism is simply a movement that achieves power by dividing a population. A country can have fascist strains without actually being fascistic, Stanley says, and he identifies myriad seeds of authoritarianism in U.S. history, from the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South—which inspired Hitler—to the more recent birther movement and the rise of Trump. More generally he cites ten hallmarks of fascism, such as the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, and unreality; on the rise today, these must be resisted if we are to stop fascism from gaining hold here.

https://www.politics-prose.com/book/9…

Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Before coming to Yale in 2013, he was Distinguished Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University. Stanley is the author of Know How; Languages in Context; Knowledge and Practical Interests, which won the American Philosophical Association book prize; and How Propaganda Works, which won the PROSE Award for Philosophy from the Association of American Publishers. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. Stanley lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his family.

21:00
so I you always hear to set it up you
always you I always hear people saying
well when when presidents a president
Trump take an example when his
supporters don’t realize they’re not
getting the material benefits they
expected they will throw you know he’ll
lose their support unfortunately that is
not how this kind of politics works it’s
not a politics of material benefit
it’s a politics of loyalty fascism is
about loyalty and power it replaces
material interests it replaces truth and
reality by loyalty and power ah as
Arendt says the fascists resemble Mafia
bosses they stock their administrations
with with family members and and and
people from their businesses because of
loyalty and that’s
Sisseton so I don’t look at people who
21:52
do that and say they’re being
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inconsistent I say no good you’re being
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consistent because loyalty is your thing
21:56
so uh so so what you what what in that
22:04
chapter I believe in him klemper is
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talking about how much the psychological
22:09
wages of German as’ tied your tied
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Germans to Hitler even well beyond the
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point at which they should of April 1945
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the Red Army is in the gates of Berlin
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and clampers trudging through the woods
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with a soldier missing an arm and he
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says to the soldier I guess it’s time to
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give up and the soldier says what do you
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mean Hitler’s got them trapped and
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klemper says what what the soldiers a
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young man he’s lost his arm you know
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what is he and Klemperer says uh and the
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soldier says yeah it’s Hitler’s
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birthday’s coming up and Hitler just
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meant to suck the Red Army in and trap
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them he’s never lied to us yet and
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klemper says he’d been lying
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consistently year after year after year
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after year I mean literally people would
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till the last moment I mean I’ve spent
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years of my life in Germany and I’ve met
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people who still believed in him so so
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you know the bond of loyalty
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what fascist politics tries to do is it
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tries to break down your any of your
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connection to your material interest and
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say well what you have is you have you
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national identity your ethnic identity
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and your bond with the leader and that’s
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why and and that bond is so powerful and
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so meaningful to people that they will
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you know they will just to see that they
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will like it will last through great
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trial and tribulation it will last you
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certainly the loss of their material
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interests and if you look at countries
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that suffer from fascist politics I
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would say Russia right now is one uh you
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can see that the leader becomes very
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popular even as people’s economic
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situation becomes worse so you can’t
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like wait around for oh you know when
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their health insurance gets taken away
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though no it doesn’t work like that I
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mean
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these are you know air Dewan in Turkey I
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mean these are leaders who win elections
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and they win elections by a politics of
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loyalty they win elections by lying so
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so so I’ll talk for five more minutes
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and then and then take questions so I’m
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going through so what I do in my book is
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I give you a template I give you a
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template of of sides I used to be I am
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an analytic philosopher but I’m not just
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one of the many things I am but I sort
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of like militantly did not pay attention
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to the world as my stepmother and my
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father would always remind me and so
until birtherism so my first New York
Times piece in 2011 was about birtherism
because I had read enough Arendt to
realize that was weird that shouldn’t
happen in a democracy and I recognized
the trap the trap is something that’s
familiar from the protocols of the
Elders design and my family both my
parents are Holocaust survivors my
mother and father two of my three
parents are Holocaust survivors and and
so obviously protocols the other design
is something you talk about in when
you’re very young and some advantages so
so so this trap of you know Hitler said
the the lying press the press is owned
by the Jews and you can tell because
they never talk about the prosperous so
very familiar I recognized it
immediately I mean it was like maybe I
should write something not on the left
parenthesis so so so in 2011 I wrote my
25:53
first New York Times piece about that
the trap always works like this mr.
Trump President Trump when he came to
political consciousness he went on an
interview in Fox News and he said CNN is
controlled by the leftists and Obama you
can tell because they’re not talking
about birtherism that’s the same move
was made in the 30s the delusion plasa
the mainstream press you
they’re controlled by the Jews because
they don’t say they’re controlled by the
Jews law and justice party in uh in
Poland the hilariously miss named law
and justice party comes to power in 2015
in a country that had been whose
economic whose GDP had been going up
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Civic Platform has done very well so it
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wasn’t economic anxiety it’s not
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economic anxiety in Bavaria either but
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they came they did this move to I’m
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emphasizing this because comic pizza is
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right here uh so I can’t not talk about
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the conspiracy theories as a sign so so
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so what Piz did what law and justice did
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is there was a Smolensk disaster when
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which was admittedly horrific when a
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plane carrying all of Poland’s political
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leaders and business leaders and
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military leaders crashed and and and
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everyone was killed and there were about
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between 20 and 25 conspiracy theories
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about that crash it was pilot error
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it was pilot error but admittedly it was
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hard to believe it was pilot error so so
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law and justice Road that to power you
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know it was all about the conspiracy and
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it was the Communists and it was
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d’Arnaud communists in Poland but it was
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the car just like there were no comic
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very no communists very few communists
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in the American South but the KKK still
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acted like there were it was the
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Communists it was the Russians
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it was the Liberals who were who were
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hiding out hiding the real facts of who
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brought that plane down and you could
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tell that the newspapers were owned by
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the people who did it because they
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didn’t report on it and when I saw
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birtherism I was like oh yeah that’s
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familiar and conspiracy theories work in
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a weird way and I’ll end with us only in
deference to comet pizza conspiracy
theories function they functioned to
break down the epistemological spaces
they functioned to break down to their
their simple narratives that make sense
of of panic fear in Poland’s case
– and loss paranoia they’re not meant to
be taken at face value so Edgar Madison

Welch when he walked in so this is a
point that my colleague at UConn Michael
Lynch had made which I think is very
powerful he pointed out that when Edgar
Madison Welch walked in and and fired
three shots in that restaurant um three
or four shots I’m not exactly sure how
many uh I he was acting rationally right
if you thought that the Democratic Party
was running a child sex ring in the
basement of commet pizza by all means go
and free the child the children but he
was immediately denounced by Alex Jones
and everybody else as a spy for the
Democratic Party
so Michael Lynch makes this point to
point out conspiracy theories you’re
doing the wrong thing if you believe
them
they’re just supposed to make you you
know hate the target more they’re just
supposed to make you hate the target
more they’re not supposed to be believed
like that so what I do in my book is I
give you ten properties of fascist
politics the book is not about fascist
government I’m not saying you know you
could it’s about fascist and key and and
the difference being fascist government
fascist politics is tricky anyway
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because fascism is our power so fascism
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is a method to come to power people are
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always like well do you really believe
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that that does do do such and such
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people like President Trump do do they
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really believe you really believe he
30:04
believes the things that other fascist
30:06
movements uh believe uh and my response
30:10
is it doesn’t matter because fascism
30:12
isn’t about belief it’s about power so
30:15
it doesn’t matter like its first hit me
30:20
when I was reading Richard Grune burgers
30:21
1975 work on fat banks thanks to my
30:25
father’s library I have a rich
30:26
collection of history sociology
30:28
philosophy and psychology of the Nazis
30:30
so much else but uh but he says many
people think of the Nazis as morally
pure anti-semites they were devoted you
know devoted to killing Jews and
definitely
believed in it and got up and were very
neat and but actually a lot of them were
just thugs
they were just mafia gangsters and they
didn’t care about killing Jews they
cared about money they cared about
Jewish art and property but they were
doing the devoted anti-semitism thing
they didn’t care about it what they
cared about was the profits they got
from it and that’s I think what we need
to focus on when we think about fascism
it’s a tactic it’s a way to delude us to
seize power and retain power and and and
it has it like the history in our own
31:23
country thank you right he did he
31:33
started his campaign in the in that in
31:38
that county for the missus what was it
31:41
Philadelphia Mississippi right then I
31:44
forgot the name of the County Fair um
31:45
but but we’re good we’re good men and
31:49
Chaney were near we’re on a journey and
31:52
certainly we have the welfare clean
31:54
trope that you know the racial coding
31:58
now I think that one thing you get so
32:02
you have these really tripling down on
32:07
on America’s racial history on America
32:12
ground American racism in that camp in
32:14
those campaigns you have militarism and
32:17
you have and you have the and you have
32:20
the aspect and you have something that
32:24
is last chapter of my book social
32:27
Darwinism which is connected in certain
32:30
ways to economic libertarianism although
32:33
it’s inconsistent in various ways but
32:34
the idea is I talk about Hitler’s speech
the industrialists you know fascists
talk about winners and losers makers and
takers it’s all about you know who wins
has value who loses has no value so that
whole way of going on the other hand
Reagan does not explicitly you know
fascists are harshly on to
anti-democratic you don’t
32:58
the enemy of the state you you have you
33:01
okay to go on the Reagan I mean look
33:03
there’s gonna be a lot of overlaps
33:05
between social conservatives between
33:07
various forms of conservativism and
33:09
fascist politics but we can’t condemn
33:12
everybody we can’t say it’s a spectrum
33:15
fascist politics is a spectrum and and
33:18
our familiar conservatives are gonna be
33:21
on that spectrum just like just like
33:23
Bernie Sanders is gonna be on the
33:25
spectrum to something much more extreme
33:27
I mean he’s on the spectrum to Denmark
33:29
but yeah there are certain things he
33:31
says that are too bad leftist
33:33
authoritarianism so there is this
33:35
spectrum and and I don’t mean to and we
33:39
have in a liberal democracy we have to
33:42
have social conservatives we have to
33:44
have libertarians we have to have we
33:47
have to have progressives and socialists
33:49
we have to have this spectrum we’re
33:51
gonna have this spectrum but what
33:52
happens when you get something really
33:54
worrisome which I don’t think you quite
33:56
had you didn’t have with Reagan is when
34:00
you have these different things I mean
34:01
look at Reagan on immigration for
34:03
instance I mean he isn’t demagoguing on
34:05
immigration
34:06
he isn’t when you have these overlaps
34:09
when you have you know social
34:11
conservatives business and corporate
34:13
elites libertarians all coming together
34:17
and nationalists coming together and
34:19
saying let’s have a group you know a
34:22
constellation and we might disagree on
34:25
certain things but let’s unify and then
34:28
you can get fascist constellations there
34:30
but I I think you know I think Reagan
34:34
had elements that are there like but
34:38
also we have to remember that lots of
34:40
Canuck just like you know you wouldn’t
34:42
want to say that oh very socially
34:46
progressive policies just because they
34:47
do that in communist countries that’s
34:49
communist
34:50
so I wouldn’t want to paint Reagan as
34:53
engaging in fascist politics he’s not
34:55
harshly anti-democratic in the way that
34:58
you you find with just respond really
35:02
quickly I guess my my thing was the
35:04
militarism and really the dangerous
35:06
militarism during his empire is yeah
35:09
but really the building of the empire
35:11
and like the really the strong anti on
35:14
this strong racist tone of things is
35:16
really right and the and though and and
35:18
those are overlaps and and i think a dis
35:21
analogy now is you don’t find President
35:23
Trump actually being as Empire oriented
35:28
I mean it’s tricky there people will say
35:30
I think now people use fascist politics
35:32
they used to use it in in the 30s it was
35:35
used to mobilize people for war
35:38
now it’s used to demobilize people so
35:41
it’s a tech it’s a set of techniques and
35:43
you know and it overlaps with techniques
35:45
and and and you know and people use some
35:48
of them you know there’s a spectrum
35:53
there’s a spectrum and and yeah I want
35:58
to thank you I think this is a very
35:59
important discussion and I’m from the
36:01
Caribbean grew up in the Netherlands and
36:04
it’s been a quite a significant amount
36:06
of time they’re in a different type of
36:08
Netherlands then it has become sadly
36:10
enough right when I was the Netherlands
36:11
if you had told him that characters I
36:15
mean these guys would be twenty to
36:17
thirty percent of the population
36:18
literally people would lock you up and
36:19
put you in a psychiatric institution say
36:21
thinking too much you literally are you
36:22
kind of lost it you know this is not
36:24
what the Netherlands about we are you
36:25
know civilized decent people although
36:27
you know they have a very we have a very
36:30
horrific history of colonialism which is
36:34
not talked about at home but the issue
36:36
is a few questions and these questions I
36:39
think are provoked by some of the things
36:43
you said I think you wanted something
36:45
quite profound when you said that what
36:47
we are dealing with now is a demobilized
36:50
depoliticize and the ideologized pop
36:54
population populations not only in
36:56
America see if this was only happening
36:58
in the United States okay okay but I’m
37:02
so called fringe Dutch I mean between
37:03
brackets right I’m from the Caribbean
37:05
but so-called French Dutch um this
37:09
France right the last elections right
37:11
people were panicked that marine lepen
37:13
walks into the White House right and we
37:15
know if she walks there what is going to
37:17
happen she’s not made she made it very
37:19
clear from well you know one of the big
37:21
problems I see is that in you
potentially the Muslims become the new
Jews absolutely you know the Muslims we
come to new Jews right
but the issue it at that I want to deal
37:30
with here is a more profound issue that
37:33
this type of fascism is indeed to
37:34
mobilize the demobilize in essence what
37:37
you have a mass talks about legitimize
37:39
the crisis of the West right and the big
37:40
problem is when you have a legitimate
37:41
Christ is not taking place on one level
37:43
alone right economic social political
37:45
legal right moral ethical domestic
37:48
international on all different levels
37:50
the white West and not is facing crisis
37:53
on crisis and crisis that are feeding
37:55
back in and creating problems another
37:57
problem that you have in a Western I
37:59
think this is a major problem me and I
38:01
didn’t think you touch on it is that if
38:03
you look at the populations here right
38:04
populations that are so-called
38:05
Democratic you know I mean I’m glad you
38:09
began claiming that the democracy always
38:11
never much of anything at all it was
38:13
much more a job to fool people and then
38:15
in democracy the issue is that in these
38:18
populations a long time twenty to thirty
38:20
percent of the population remain quite
38:22
fanatically right even look what
38:25
happened to Communist Party in France
38:26
right the communists moved move over to
38:28
the fascists they didn’t tell you how
38:35
how strong the Communist identity of
38:39
brotherhood and sisterhood of rattle and
38:41
stuff like that so I mean how do you see
38:44
and the big problem of your face is that
38:46
often these fascistic parties tend to be
38:49
the most mobilized part of the
38:50
population right right
38:51
why well well well the majority of the
38:54
party although somewhat against I mean
38:55
Hitler never got a majority he always
38:57
got forty percent but but they are
38:59
highly mobilized and you only need forty
39:01
in a small
39:03
organized minority to create have
39:05
everyone is scared I mean everybody’s
39:07
killed so how do you see and do you see
39:10
anywhere in the West at this point in
39:12
time really
39:13
they since the average trade unions are
39:16
gone the socialist and communist party
39:17
out are we and very few intellectuals in
39:20
academics are really really speaking out
39:22
as a really standing up here and say
39:24
wait a minute here guys right you people
39:26
in the Western or not you white people
39:27
in a western or not right now I’m saying
39:29
that’s kind of provocative because my
39:31
part you know your apps a most European
39:33
a most of the European descent but the
39:36
issue is you
39:37
white people in to not be very careful
what you’re doing right because you are
facing a massive influx of black and
brown people here because of global
warming what do you do when you across
that when you look at the Mediterranean
50 60 million Africans are about to come
genocide you fall back the default
position of genocide let me hear what
you guys said yeah let me just say one
39:57
quick thing I’m gonna get another
39:58
question there was a great series of
points that you raise the climate change
point Timothy Snyder talks about that at
the end of black earth he warns that
that’s our big and I talked about that
in my book as well picking up on Tim’s
on Snyder’s points that you know climate
change is gonna lead to immigration
crises that you know crises immigrant to
massive immigration that we’re gonna
have to deal with but let me say
something about the point of oh you know
40:27
the majority minority point that oh soon
40:29
the countries give me a
40:30
majority-minority president Trump and
40:32
his campaign always emphasized that you
40:36
know uh my colleague Jen Richardson the
40:39
great social psychologist she she has
40:42
done this experiment she’s on a number
40:44
of experiments on the on this she showed
40:46
she when you get she presents white
40:48
Americans with three three questions
40:52
three different groups of white
40:53
Americans the first she says in 2042 the
40:56
Netherlands will become majority
40:58
minority the second group she says in
41:00
2042 the United States will become
41:03
majority senior citizen and the third
41:06
group she says in 2042 the United States
41:09
will become majority minority and then
41:13
she asked him a series of political
41:15
questions the first two groups don’t
41:17
change their MA they did they their
41:19
politics doesn’t change that she gets a
41:21
test of them before what their political
41:23
leanings are the third group of white
41:25
Americans that’s presented with the
41:27
information in the United States is
41:28
gonna become majority minority becomes
41:30
more becomes again more against the firm
41:33
ative action more against the air for
41:35
immigration and interestingly because
41:38
Jen Richardson is a genius she added
41:40
this they become much more in favor of
41:43
increased defense spending so so that oh
41:47
we’re going to become majority minority
41:50
it it enables right-wing politics or a
41:55
certain kind of politics maybe not right
41:57
wing but that could you talk a little
41:59
bit more about what appears to be
42:02
increased white anxiety and white
42:05
feelings of white victimization and how
42:08
does how to talk a little bit about
42:10
Trump’s role is he a symptom of
42:15
something that’s going to continue after
42:17
him or what happens to fascist movements
42:20
when leaders disappear ah
42:22
you know that’s that’s that’s re they
42:25
always have succession crises but I but
42:27
I’d you know we have more Trump’s so
42:30
there so but he is an expert a real
skilled expert at milking white anxiety
there was that quote that he that he and
and the psychological wages of whiteness
point like remember that thing he said I
remember I don’t remember when he said
42:46
it but you know he said something about
42:48
poor white trash and someone someone
42:49
said what is that he said like me except
poor so that connect he’s I have great
respect for his rhetorical political
abilities
we’re always it we always have this
43:01
nascent the dominant group
I mean think of the men’s rights
movement I mean is there any more
aggrieved group on earth than men when
their representation in the Senate goes
from 98 to like 83 or whatever 75 you
know you know just look at how men act
and you know and you know and that’s
what’s going on and that’s what happens
it’s all look at France the example of
France there’s a good example you know
43:30
the the aggrieved the you know we’re
43:34
losing our culture we’re losing our so
that’s a big one chapter in my book is
called victimhood and it’s all about
this it’s a whole chapter just about
this could you wouldn’t would you agree
that an important benchmark for
43:49
authoritarian is in this country might
43:52
have its roots in Eisenhower’s farewell
43:55
address in 1960 I guess in which the
44:00
leading General in the world
44:01
representing the strongest country in
44:03
the world
44:03
I spoke about this fear and then
44:06
subsequent to that you had three of our
44:09
foremost civil rights leaders slain
44:11
under dubious circumstances the official
44:13
narrative which only thirty and thirty
44:15
percent of Americans believe and then
44:17
you had this Vietnam War and there were
44:20
protests all over the country or there
44:22
were cities burning there were people
44:24
killed at Kent State and now we have
44:29
multiple Wars and nobody says a word so
44:33
what’s your take on this so I have a lot
44:35
in my book on Nixon
44:36
so I’m when I talk give talks on that
44:39
people because Nixon is a model for
44:41
Trump President Trump of course I mean
44:44
law and order politics you know Nixon
misses miss rep you know there’s a whole
protest misrepresented as riots think of
Baltimore 2015 so I talk in my book
about how Fox News described uses the
word riot use the word riot seven out of
every 1000 words
in describing Baltimore what happened in
Baltimore and protests only two words
out of 1000 CNN used them roughly
equally around three and a half words
per 1000 riot and protest and MSNBC used
riot two words out of 1,000 and protests
almost four words out of 1000 to
describe Baltimore to this radical
partisan difference in descriptions of
political protests the sixties you
really saw that you know so much so that
someone of my age I’ve been 36 for 12
years ah is I can’t even say Detroit
protests cuz it doesn’t come out of my
mouth because I was raised in schools
that just taught me Detroit riots you
know but then you you have Kathryn
Bigelow’s movie then you realize an
actual history they were protests and
you know you just focused on like one
you know a few people doing bad things
and you paint them a certain way so the
sixties Nixon’s campaign you know again
my books not about fascist government is
about fascist politics I think you see
with Nixon a lot of use of fascist
politics and I’m sure you couldn’t go
back because as I’ve been saying this is
us it’s not them do
you think the history of the the take on
Lyndon Johnson Lyndon Johnson might get
a more critical view because he kind of
laid the groundwork for Nixon and and
his involvement in the war his refusal
46:29
to get out of it the pressures that kept
46:32
in a minute so so in in in in a week in
46:35
October 12th at Harvard bookstore I’ll
46:37
be in discussion with Elizabeth Hinton
46:38
who’s who has written the greatest book
46:41
about the domestic policies of job
46:44
Johnson and and Nixon from the war on
46:48
poverty the war on crime the making a
46:50
mass incarceration in America and that’s
46:52
about the domestic policies so it’s a
46:54
different point you’re asking about the
46:55
foreign policy but I think on domestic
46:57
policy you know there are some issues
47:00
with Johnson that lead to Nixon as well
47:04
I mean John a lot of Johnson’s projects
47:07
in the in in cities were with minority
47:13
populations we’re sort of like here’s
47:15
how to learn to pull off here’s how to
47:17
act like someone with a job or something
47:19
like that rather than providing people
47:21
jobs you know which is like you know
47:24
trumpet was smart and you know could you
47:26
imagine Trump going to like rural
47:27
Michigan and being like I’m going to
47:29
teach you how to act like bankers no he
47:32
wasn’t doing that
47:34
so so right so so I Nixon I talk and so
47:38
those are interesting questions in the
47:39
Hinton book I think talks about the
47:42
hints of Nixon and Johnson while giving
47:45
him credit for certain things so first I
47:49
just want to say thank you for coming to
47:50
talk tonight who’s really interesting
47:52
and so my question is or first I’ll just
47:56
say on you mentioned that a key tactic
47:59
of fascists is to caricature the
48:01
center-left has been communists but I
48:05
feel like it seemed to me that you made
48:08
that same mistake when you talked about
48:10
how when you talked about opposition to
48:14
unions because that seems like a pretty
48:17
mainstream right dumb view to be opposed
48:20
to unions right I didn’t mean to I I
48:22
don’t mean to say that each so there’s
48:25
ten different aspects to fascism each
48:27
one of those aspects is going to be
48:29
familiar
48:30
from ordinary conservative father’s okay
48:31
it’s the combination but it just didn’t
48:35
occur to me that opposition to labor
48:37
unions is a uniform feature of all
48:40
fascism I learned that in doing the
48:42
research for my book so no you can have
48:45
good sound economic reasons you know
48:47
there are good for each of these things
48:49
you know for each of these properties
48:51
for you can be I mean some of the
48:55
hierarchy some of the chapters about
48:57
racial hierarchies okay that’s pretty
48:59
fascist but but you know as I say in my
49:02
book economic libertarianism overlaps
with fascism on social Darwinism like
winners have value losers don’t but
they’re different in other ways like
consistent libertarian will never
generalize to groups and say you know
white people have more value than
non-whites because they work harder and
win more you know so so there are these
overlaps and you know I just think it so
screams out from you from the literature
it’s just universal that’s you know you
go to Portugal and you go to their
49:33
Museum and Lisbon and they talk about
49:35
the attack and labor unions and you know
49:38
it’s so universal and you has to be
49:40
mentioned but of course you can
49:42
criticize labor unions and not be a
49:43
factor yeah thank you and for each of
49:45
these thank you we are your parents uh
49:50
well my stepmother is here and she
49:55
helped a lot with the book she gave me
49:59
she gave me and my brother-in-law’s is
50:01
there where you are profound and you are
50:04
brilliant and I think your parents your
50:07
family should and friend should be very
50:08
very proud of you
50:10
now I’m well read on reconstruction but
50:14
the issue that you spoke about with
50:16
respect to anti unions and wealthy
50:21
whites in the north coming down that I
50:25
have not read about and do not know
50:27
about I knew you know certainly with
50:29
Rutherford putting the nail in the
50:30
casket and you know wanting to a peace
50:34
to south and pulling the troops all
50:35
right so that he could win the election
50:37
I want you to talk a little bit more
50:39
about the north in
50:42
you know coming against the the labor
50:45
unions and I wanted to get your take on
50:49
what happened in Charleston with the
50:52
massacre at you know mother Emanuel
50:57
Church as well as what happened in
50:59
Charlottesville
51:00
because after listening to you you do
51:03
see a theme and when you know Trump come
51:06
you could say the most horrible thing
51:08
about McCain
51:09
I prefer winners in people who don’t get
51:12
duh you know yeah so so I’ve been
51:19
spending more time lately for my sins
51:22
with former members of Nazi parties and
51:26
I mean I was a so a friend of mine is
51:29
Tony Mack Lear the director of like
51:31
executive director of life after hate he
51:33
spent 20 or so years as a Nazi and
remarkable man and he’s very clear that
the law I mean I think we all know this
from David Duke the long-term goal of
the American Nazi Party was to to be
respectable and for that they had to
have people who were not respectable
so Tony Mack Lear said at one talk I won
symposium we’re out together he said the
first time I was on Montel Williams I
was a skinhead with combat boots and
tattoos the second time I wore a suit
and he explains that you need the
killers the radicals out there to say
that’s not us you’re seeing this all
over you’re up now you know the Austrian
Kurt Sebastian Kurtz all what happens is
that the right wing parties are like
we’re not not white supremacists the
white supremacists are the ones actually
killing people the ones marching on the
streets were respectable we’re in
government were in and but they need
each other so the in order for the for
the people in power who are pushing
white supremacy to plausibly deny that
they’re white supremacists they need
Charlotte’s VLEs because they need to
say no no those are
supremacists and Tony McLaren explain
that this is long been the strategy I
know of of the American Nazi Party and
it’s and and David black the former the
the son of the storm front founder is
also very clear about this he’s like he
says what we hear from our leadership is
the kind of things that we always he
said our target audience was always the
person who said I’m not a racist but dot
dot dot so you need you need the
charlottesville and the horror of
Charleston which is unspeakable horror
of Charleston because those provide
plausible deniability to white supremacy
and power and and we know those of us
who study history and and who are a
woman of color as I am and a descendent
of people who were enslaved both or
53:50
maternal returns so we always knew in
53:52
the communities and certainly in the
53:53
South when people when the KKK took off
53:56
those hoods they were your local doctor
53:58
you’ll put your Sheriff your policemen
54:01
your store owners you know not all of
54:04
them but these were the respectable
54:07
people and it was the hood that allowed
54:10
them to to you know to really crucify
54:14
and you know and hang people and uh so
54:17
we I mean the wisdom of the black
54:19
American tradition guides me in my book
54:21
I mean I to be wells oh absolutely
54:25
that’s Du Bois obviously I probably owe
54:30
boys today but it’s he earned yes so so
54:38
because that those it’s that literature
54:43
that you get the insight into the form
54:46
fascism takes here and so someone from
54:49
like me who’s from Europe the certain
54:52
sort of particular masks fascism wears
54:57
here that’s something you really need
54:59
the black American literature to
55:01
understand but thank you for your work
55:03
and thank your parents
55:07
and my brother finds out it earlier this
55:16
year I read another book by a
55:17
psychologist named Steven Pinker called
55:20
enlightenment now staring me in the face
55:22
right over there and in the book he
55:26
argues that the world is getting better
55:30
and better and this is the best time to
55:33
be alive the best time to be born and he
55:36
extolled the virtues of of the future
55:38
and so I want to you know ask you what
55:43
what you feel about that how what’s your
55:45
response to that and are you optimistic
55:48
about the future I mean you’re talking
55:49
about possible fascism in this country
55:52
so let me quote my my father’s book the
55:54
technological conscience where he says
55:58
pessimism is very much the humanistic
56:01
view he says I am a pessimist pessimism
56:04
is very much the humanistic view so so
56:09
that’s just to say that I think that I
56:12
think Pinker I mean we could go on about
56:14
Pinker I’m not going to I think that
56:16
when you count you know says err already
56:19
does a takedown of Pinker a long time in
56:23
in famiiy this is that what’s this is
56:29
our book I’m just blanking
56:31
well discourse on Colonials do you thank
56:34
you so uh so and discourse and
56:36
colonialism where he’s like you know you
56:37
count you tell us about the diseases
56:41
you’ve cured you tell us about the you
56:44
know the new food that we access from
56:46
Europe and yet what about the religion
56:49
you destroyed what about you know the
56:51
traditions you eliminated what about the
56:54
ways of life you laid waste to can you
56:57
count those you know so Pinker it’s just
57:01
like no it only matters if you can count
57:02
it dignity doesn’t count you can’t count
57:04
dignity so you’ll also find me
57:07
criticizing Pinker in recent years
57:09
Pinker is very as a Pinker has not all
57:12
to write himself but Pinker does have a
57:15
lot of all right fans if you look at
57:17
Pinker’s views about the IQ debate their
57:19
problem i mean
57:20
as you’ll find some stuff on Pinker
57:22
there um you know this idea of we have
57:26
to face you know we have to face the
57:28
facts of difference nature I mean I
57:31
think he’s right that you know I’m not
57:33
for banning discussions but the
57:35
fascination that he has with the IQ
57:37
debate is something that I think is kind
57:39
of worrisome so and I’m worried about
57:42
the sort of technocratic way of
57:44
measuring human value that said in any
57:47
country that had the civil rights
57:49
movement and I mean if I did had to do
57:52
the civil rights movement I definitely
57:53
would have done it in Vermont but they
57:55
chose like Alabama and Mississippi so
57:57
given that I feel quite safe in the
58:00
United States ultimately I feel
58:02
optimistic because this is a country
58:04
that did that so the labor movement you
58:09
know Jane Addams I just wanted to make
58:14
two brief comments one about giving
58:18
value to things and if we really just
58:21
take a quick scan of history going back
58:25
to as far as we can go back it seems
58:28
like human life does not have a lot of
58:30
value it in just that’s just a general
58:36
comment and if we look at capitalism and
58:42
the globalization of everything and all
58:46
these wars and like you said there’s two
58:49
wars going on Noma and I’ve said this to
58:51
myself why is no one talking about our
58:54
troops that we still have in Afghanistan
58:56
and Iraq and in these places then
58:59
they’re still getting blown to pieces
59:00
and I know because my first job out of
59:04
college I worked at the VA hospital in
59:06
the 70s when the guys were first coming
59:08
back from Vietnam so that’s just what I
59:13
want to say about the value of human
59:15
life now on a lighter side I would like
59:19
to say which you which you said about
59:23
Dubois and then you said about the new
59:27
push for Black Studies in colleges and
59:31
that it was going to replace Shakespeare
59:34
yeah yeah I know it’s just it’s just a
59:37
joke but I just wanted to play on that
59:40
because it from my experience and having
59:45
done like studies and everything else
59:50
there’s a lot of credit and study given
59:55
to Shakespeare people who write Ln Locke
59:59
Dubois a little bit too much yeah and
60:03
also I wanted to say that most of our
60:07
most appreciated african-american actors
60:12
studied Shakespeare to the hilt
60:16
you know the most excellent Shakespeare
60:21
no I mean I mean that God is ultimately
60:23
you know I mean the great Jeffrey
60:25
Stewart Alain Locke biography talks
60:28
about I mean Locke won the sort of
60:30
literary prize at Harvard for for
60:32
something on its hat on Irish Irish
60:35
poetry and he gave a talk in a black
60:37
church in Cambridge saying look the
60:40
Irish created the greatest were were
60:42
colonized and oppressed and their
60:44
revenge was to create the greatest
60:46
English language literature and poetry
60:48
and he’s obviously encouraging taking
60:51
that as a speaking Paul Dunlop I think
60:54
it was also electrode and Dunlop right
60:56
absolutely so right and of course Dubois
60:59
sort of takes that to extreme the
61:00
extreme with the talented tenth so I I
61:03
don’t mean to by the way Pinker is a
61:05
liberal Pinker and I have family
61:07
disputes ultimately he’s a technocratic
61:09
liberal of a certain kind I have family
61:11
disputes with him but he’s obviously
61:14
gent in some general sense on my side
61:18
what he’s all right he’s all tracked
61:23
know the alt are certain aspects of
61:25
Pinker that the alt-right pick up on
61:29
that you know the the stuff which is a
61:32
danger of the messaging so I’m not he’s
61:35
definitely not all right he’s it’s that
61:37
you got to be careful I mean one should
61:41
be sensitive to the messages that like
61:45
Pinker said recently
61:47
I think it was in Davos and a panel
61:50
where he said you know the alt-right are
61:52
really bright tech-savvy people who come
61:55
to college and realize there are certain
61:57
topics that you’re not allowed to talk
61:59
about and then they feel shocked and
62:02
then they become all trite that’s the
62:05
kind of I think that was an
62:06
irresponsible comment of course he’s on
62:08
my side but I just think that’s an
62:10
irresponsible comment of course that’s a
62:11
comment that makes some people you know
62:14
that he does not agree with it puts them
62:17
in so that’s that’s that’s that’s all
62:20
I’m saying ultimately we can’t have
62:22
these family disputes between different
62:24
stripes of liberals and so I don’t want
62:27
to do that though I do want to say I
62:29
don’t think that’s why people become
62:30
alright we are unfortunately out of time
62:36
for questions although if you want to
62:38
make a brief question make it really
62:40
quick them we can fit it in the question
62:46
is for you to elaborate maybe we don’t
62:48
have time for any more elaboration on
62:51
anti-intellectualism which was one of
62:53
the 10 I guess that you have and you
62:55
didn’t really say much about it and it’s
62:57
a case that I see certain parallels with
63:00
the sort of the were the Left
63:05
philosophies of I don’t know class
63:08
warfare and I mean I think it seems like
63:11
now was an anti-intellectual yeah many
63:14
respects yeah I mean I think I think
63:17
that I what you get in fascist ideology
63:23
is is like the straightforward fascist
63:28
ideology is about appealing to emotion
63:34
not that there’s some emotions can be
63:37
perfectly rational as Martha respond
63:38
others as many philosophers would tell
63:40
you but the idea is to cut off reasoning
63:44
by you know fear panic and and and just
63:47
and then just replace and show you and
63:50
then present yourself as like the
63:51
solution you got this very explicitly
63:54
discussing you know in in meine Kampf
63:56
Hitler talks about you know propaganda
63:58
should appeal to you know the least
64:00
educated
64:01
so you know the idea that it’s the least
64:03
educated your who’s your who your
64:06
audience or no talk you know essentially
64:08
that’s what you want to appeal to Bannen
64:10
said you know we want unlock her up
64:13
build a wall you know we won on that but
64:16
there’s a kind what why I talk about me
64:19
anti-intellectual chapter is this all
64:22
across the world right now we’re seeing
64:24
in these condo countries I discuss
64:26
attacks on universities for being
64:28
bastions of liberalism feminism European
64:33
University of st. Petersburg was closed
64:35
down because of gender studies Central
64:38
European University was was attacked
64:42
because they’re spreading liberalism so
64:45
this kind of thing when you find
64:46
universities harshly targeted as
64:48
bastions of leftism and you know now of
64:52
course sometimes they are not Yale but
64:55
the the yell is a great place it’s not
64:59
that but you know when you find this
65:03
hysteria about this area about communism
65:05
being being directed at universities and
65:10
the media you know and fanned now it
65:13
takes the form of Gender Studies panic
65:15
about Gender Studies because that’s just
65:18
like Masha Gessen is clear about that in
65:20
her 2017 book that Gender Studies just
65:24
seems to be and and you know Pat McCrory
65:26
in North Carolina did that he said we’re
65:29
not gonna have this tax governor in
65:30
North Carolina said they were not gonna
65:31
be taxpayers paying for gender studies
65:34
or Swahili so so the idea is is you know
65:41
so you target universities in your
65:43
politics now all authoritarians target
as you say target universities in our
politics because universities are places
where young people protest against older
people and so that’s gonna be something
65:56
that that as I get older I recognize the
65:59
wisdom of seeing that as a problem but
66:03
yeah thank you
66:05
[Applause]
66:20
you

A few thoughts on the concept of ‘Post Truth’

A couple of weeks ago, three excellent and interesting books came out in the same week with the same title. First was ‘Post Truth’ by Matthew D’ancona​. The second one was ‘Post Truth’ by James Ball. The third was ‘Post Truth’ by Evan Davis​. They are all responses to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to choose the word ‘post truth’ as their word for 2017 and the dangerous and growing phenomenon of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ etc. Here are a few thoughts of mine about the concept of ‘post truth’ based on these books and why the resultant erosion of trust is so dangerous for our society.

Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 11: Much More Than Collusion

08:02
we then see some tactics which are very
revealing about what Russia will do with
mr. Trump against the United States of
America so let me give you some examples
of some tactics the first is a head of
state who simply denies reality what I
call in the book in plausible
deniability so when mr. Putin sends the
Russian army to invade Ukraine he simply
denies that he’s doing so
which is a
little bit unusual but it’s a tactic
because if you stand up and you deny
something that every reporter knows is
true
you put the profession of journalism and
indeed the whole media into a difficult
position
because on the one hand you
could actually cover the facts of the
war which we are as money and effort and
it’s risky on the other hand you can
cover this fantastically charismatic
leader who seems to have mazing power to
bend real
to his will who can deny factuality
itself who can turn reality into a
television show that’s very tempting and
that’s what most of the Western media
actually did
instead of covering an
actually existing war in the real world
people preferred to watch a reality
television show
where a head of state basically created
an alternative world
now that should
sound familiar
because that is of course how mr. Trump
also governs he’s a head of state who
constantly generates unreality thereby
forcing reporters into this impossible
choice do you do you get into the the
television drama or do you actually
cover real issues which in the u.s.
would be things like wealth inequality
opioid abuse and and so on a second
example of a tactic in Ukraine which is
also now very familiar in the u.s. is
what I call in the book cacophony that
is something happens it’s out of your
control because where you don’t control
everything by lying about it something
happens it’s out of your control and the
way you react to it is you throw a whole
bunch of fictions around it so that
nobody’s then really sure what’s
actually happened
so in the Russian
invasion of Ukraine this is mh17 this is
the civilian airliner which Russian
forces shot down over Ukraine while they
were invading the country so what the
Russian media does is when this happens
this as it were irreducibly real thing
happens people die you attack it not by
directly denying it but from the flags
you come up with a whole bunch of
different versions like Ukrainians did
it by accident trying to shoot down mr.
Putin’s airplane the Ukrainians did it
because a certain Ukrainian Jewish
oligarch controls the airways Ukrainians
said it by accident from the ground NATO
did it from the air you come up with a
whole bunch of different variants none
of which you can pretend have any
factual basis but they serve as a kind
of discursive shrapnel they just cloud
everything up and at the end of the day
and I mean literally at the end of that
day because this starts on the day the
plane is shot down at the end of the day
no one is exactly sure what’s going on
and no initial who’s responsible even
for this very simple thing so in the
yes this happens during mr. Trump’s
campaign during the Access Hollywood
incident remember for a moment for half
an hour everybody thought that Access
Hollywood the tape where mr. Trump
advocates sexually assaulting women that
this would end his campaign mr. Trump
seemed to think that mr. pence seemed to
think it the Democrats seem to think it
the commentary it seemed to think it why
didn’t that happen it didn’t happen
because half an hour after that tape was
released Russian BOTS and Russian trolls
and others began to spread other
versions fictions like Hillary Clinton
is a pimp who sells sex with children or
John Podesta takes part in wild rituals
where he consumes human bodily fluids
and those things although completely
fictional surround the real event which
is mr. Trump thinks that it’s okay to
sexually assault women and confuse it to
the point where no one knows what
actually happened and in a way the whole
Access Hollywood event never takes place
because it never actually reaches the
people that it’s supposed to reach now
we experience that as a weird American
event Access Hollywood seemed it was
going to matter and then suddenly didn’t
matter at all
what I’m trying to explain here is that
if we keep in mind the whole background
the Russian philosophy about fiction
ality the Russian strategy about
strategic relativism and Russian tactics
which involved this kind of discursive
and propagandistic trick it all makes a
whole lot more sense it all it all falls
into place and and this is in a way a
plea for history right because what
history allows us to do a history even
of the 2010s of recent events allows us
to do is get out of this daily news
cycle where we’re how we think about
this framed in terms of the way our
leaders wanted to be framed collusion
not collusion um you know so what what
the book then does in the end is it runs
through 2016 with all of this in the
background and so we’re not surprised
then to see that mr. Trump only exists
at all as a public figure
thanks to Russian money from the 1990s
and the 2000s
people often ask I mean could did Rush
and influential II make a difference
well think about it this way if Russian
money and I go into this in great length
13:28
in the book doesn’t rescue mr. Trump who
13:31
is a total failure as a real estate
13:32
developer if Russian money doesn’t
13:34
rescue him he doesn’t even exist as a
13:36
public figure there’s no logical
13:38
possibility that he could have become
13:39
president without Russia and then the
13:42
next step is we think about the
13:43
personnel whether it’s Man afford or
13:45
Papadopoulos or Flynn or Kushner or Ross
13:49
it’s astonishing on the extent to which
13:52
the people around mr. Trump were morally
13:55
politically and financially connected to
13:57
the Russian Federation nothing like that
13:58
has ever happened before and then of
14:00
course when we get to the campaign
14:01
during 2016 Democrats and Republicans
14:04
alike marveled at the fact that mr.
14:06
Trump didn’t seem to have a traditional
14:07
campaign but what he did have was all
14:11
kinds of support from the rear for all
14:13
kinds of support in the world of cyber
14:15
the public opinion polls were in favor
14:17
of Secretary Clinton but the bots were
14:20
decidedly
14:20
on on the side of mr. Trump and that
14:23
turns out to matter whether it’s Russian
14:26
intelligence agencies hacking and
14:28
leaking emails as I mentioned or whether
14:30
it’s Russia’s internet research agency
14:32
working in social media to figure out
14:34
what what frightens and what motivates
14:37
America and going on a social media
14:39
offensive from September to early
14:41
November of 2016
14:43
either way mr. Trump had a campaign
14:45
which wasn’t his he was in a way just
14:48
kind of going along for the ride so the
14:50
idea that mr. Trump colluded doesn’t
14:53
really make a lot of sense because he
14:55
wasn’t an equal partner mr. Trump was
14:57
not an equal and this is the thing that
14:59
Americans I think we have really a hard
15:01
time understanding because we want to be
15:02
number one you know we’re in the worst
15:04
case we want to be cooperating with
15:05
someone else in this case there’s not
15:06
we’re not number one um we’re not
15:09
cooperate in this case we’re just being
15:11
brought along mr. Trump is just being
15:13
brought along he’s not capable of
15:16
colluding he’s not an important of
15:18
person to collude with the Russian
15:20
Federation he’s an instrument he’s a
15:23
tactic that makes sense with the
15:25
strategy
15:25
he’s an instrument that makes sense with
15:28
the philosophy in light of all that it
15:30
makes sense at the end of the day mr.
15:33
Trump can’t collude mr. Trump is the
15:36
pelo
15:36
of a Russian cyber weapon the payload of
15:39
a weapon doesn’t collude it just does
15:42
damage

Timothy Snyder, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The 20th Century”

13:42
there are very different ideas there are
still very different ideas the hypnosis
of the end of history is something that
we have to break ourselves out of the
fist thing that I think I’ve understood
is that the catalyst or if you want the
lubricant of regime change is mistrust

right the sense of uncertainty the sense
that nothing is real or nothing is true

if you are having that feeling now as
many Americans are you are right we’re
Russians were about a decade ago okay
they’re much further along now right
there they’re in a different place now
as people say but if you have that sense
that you don’t know who to trust as
journalism real as history real you know
should I listen to white men wearing
ties actually the answer is generally no
right and make it but but make an
exception right make an exception oh no
no I think I feel I feel like Sean
Spicer has totally ruined this look for
me but but i but i don’t know where else
to go so like maybe you know maybe you
can help you out afterwards anyway that
that mistrust is the rubric mistrust
makes it happen right because if you
don’t think anything’s true and you
don’t trust anyone then the rule of law
can’t work
and if the rule of law can’t
work then democracy is going to fall
right democracy depends on the rule of
law rule of law has depends on a certain
basic level of trust that basic level of
trust it’s not that we agree about
everything but that we agree there’s a
world in there facts in it if you lose
that then you lose rule of law then you
lose democracy right and the people who
are going after trusts the people who
are tweeting random things at 5:30 in
the morning right they are consciously
ripping out the heart of democracy it’s
not the skin right it’s not the muscle
that’s going to resigned it’s not the
bones it’s going right for the heart
it’s skipping the step of democracy
right it’s going right for the heart
it’s ripping out the thing which makes
democracy possible the final thing the

 

number 19
is the one about patriotism in general
the ones towards the end of the book are
meant to come later but you know
sometimes events outpace you or catch or
catch you up as Vic and I like to say
catch you up be a patriot set a good the
generations to come they will need it
what is patriotism let us begin with
what patriotism is not it is not
patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock
war heroes and their families
it is not patriotic to discriminate
against active duty members of the Armed
Forces and one’s companies or a campaign
to keep disabled veterans away from
one’s property it is not patriotic to
compare one search for sexual partners
in New York with the military service in
Vietnam that one has dodged it is not
patriotic to avoid paying taxes
especially when American working
families do pay it is not patriotic to
ask those working taxpaying American
families to finance one’s own
presidential campaign and then to spend
their contributions in one’s own in
one’s own companies it is not patriotic
to admire foreign dictators it is not
patriotic to cultivate a relationship
with Muammar Gaddafi or to say that
Bashar al-assad and Vladimir Putin are
superior leaders it is not patriotic to
call upon Russia to intervene in an
American presidential election
it is not patriotic to cite Russian
propaganda at rallies it is not
patriotic to share an advisor with
Russian oligarchs and is not patriotic
to solicit foreign policy advice from
someone who owns shares in a Russian
energy company it is not patriotic to
read a foreign policy speech written by
someone on the payroll of a Russian
energy company it is not patriotic to
appoint a national security advisor who
is taking money from a Russian
propaganda organ it is not patriotic to
appointed Secretary of State an oil man
with Russian financial interests who is
the director of a Russian American
energy company and has received the
order of friendship from Putin the point
is not that Russia and America must be
enemies the point is that patriotism
involves serving your own country the
president is a nationalist which is not
at all the same things a patriot a
nationalist encourages us to be our
worst and then tells us that we are the
best a nationalist quote although
endlessly brooding on power victory
defeat revenge wrote Orwell tends to be
quote uninterested in what happens in
the real world
unquote nationalism is relativist since
the only truth is the resentment we feel
when we contemplate others as the
novelist bunnyville keys put it
nationalism quote has no universal
values aesthetic or ethical a patriot by
contrast wants the nation to live up to
its ideals which means asking us to be
our best selves a patriot must be
concerned with the real world which is
the only place where his country can be
loved and sustained a patriot has
universal values standards by which he
judges his nation always wishing it well
and wishing that it would do better
democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s
1930s and 1940s and it is failing
not only in much of Europe but in many
parts of the world today it is that
history and experience that reveals to
us the dark range of our possible
futures a nationalist will say that it
can’t happen here which is the first
step towards disaster a patriot says
that it could happen here look that we
will stop it thank
41:03
I don’t I don’t have a silver bullet for
that but I do have some ways of trying
to get one’s mind around it the first is
that is is technological I mean it just
it just turns out that the Internet does
not open the broad you know the broad
sweep towards the positive globalization
that Al Gore was dreaming of right in
the 1990s that just isn’t true just like
it wasn’t true with a book which brought
us the Wars of Religion right just like
it wasn’t true a radio which brought us
fascism all of these new I mean not
alone right but all of these new
technologies are extremely unpredictable
for some like transition period that may
last a hundred years right there they’re
very unpredictable so art like our kind
of and this is something this is a
bubble that I think Hillary Clinton
herself was caught in her campaign was
caught in people on these coats were
thought and people did not realize what
the internet actually was right what it
was actually doing and this is I mean
there’s an empirical thing here there’s
a technical thing here the empirical
thing is people just did not realize how
how siloed off we had become I didn’t
realize it until I actually started
talking to real took when I was
canvassing and talking to Trump voters
in the Midwest and then I realized like
this is so dumb but it was at that
moment that I realized just how
different my facebook feed was from
other people’s because if you hear from
what seemed to be 25 independent sources
that Hillary Clinton is a murderer and
you’ve been hearing it for six months
you might well believe it
all right I mean that’s not surprising
which is the technical thing not enough
people again really a Clinton campaign
whatever realized that
Donald Trump actually had a campaign
advantage right we talked incessantly
about being a ground game ground game I
saw the ground game you know it’s like
it’s twice all agree I what the ground
game in the AK in the ground game which
is below the ground game right and what
the Russians called a psycho sphere
Trump had a tremendous advantage how
much of that was actually is campaigning
how much there was actually the Russians
I don’t know but in terms of the bots in
terms of the technical distribution of
the false news at the generation and
technical distribution he had a huge
advantage and what turned out almost
certainly be a decisive advantage these
are things that we have to understand
and get our mind around now in terms of
what we can do I mean obviously like you
know Zuckerberg can do a lot and people
who are in charge of news distribution
can can do a lot there are two little
things I mean one is kind of just a
declaration I think 2017 is already and
is going to be a heroic year for
journalism I mean and I be absolutely
mean heroic like if this is going to
turn around it’s going to be because of
people pursuing old fashioned stories
and old-fashioned ways and printing and
publishing very often in print journals
who can afford or at least try to try to
afford to be able to do such things and
and I mean it’s also generationally like
there are a lot of really interesting
young people who now see journalism as
edgy and they’re right right like the
whole threat like that the phrase
mainstream media that’s not like what’s
mainstream is the derision of the media
that’s the mainstream right being a
journalist is now edgy and dangerous and
interesting right and I think maybe
historically meaningful and you know the
little thing I say in the book which is
obvious I’m sure you all do it is that
we need to pay for a bunch of
subscriptions because if everybody pays
for subscriptions that will actually be
enough to subsidize investigations right
and that I mean even we know that people
like us often don’t do that right and if
we all did it that would make a huge
difference and then finally there’s like
there’s the internet self policing which
is it we have to think we have to
remember that we are all now publishers
right and so therefore we all every
every individual makes a difference in
terms of what is actually being
distributed right if we think about it
that way then each of us can make us
feel better to write like if you picked
reporters from the real world follow
their work
get to know them as it were and then
distribute their work online then you’re
being a publisher who’s doing a little
bit of good so let the day-to-day level
that’s something that we can do thank
that the cleat and actually the question
we just had the cleavages are going to
change they’re already changing and in
Europe they’re it’s further along than
than here because certain things are
further along in Europe and here but I
think the real dividing lines are fact
and post fact and and
anti-authoritarianism authoritarianism
and I think the anti I think I agree
with your premise the anti-authoritarian
case is unfortunately a case that has to
be made right it can lose but I think
that’s the case that has to be made and
it goes back to how one wins also the
anti-authoritarian z– have to include a
good deal of my view conservatives
people who vote Republican right people
who people who think there should be a
Constitution although they would have
they would disagree about policy you
know perhaps with me right the
anti-authoritarian camp is gonna have to
include a lot of folks like that as well
so so so my answer is that of course
you’re right I mean the Bill of Rights
is there for the reason you give that’s
why the Bill of Rights is there it’s not
there because it’s popular it’s there
because it would be unpopular right who
wants to separate church and state it’d
be so much more fun to have my you know
my church right I mean who’s not tempted
by that right few people okay so like
okay I was going to list all I want a
favor anyway there are a few
denominations who have maybe not beats
but in general like we you belong for
rare tradition if you belong to a
tradition which has never try to take
over the state at some point or found a
state right so how is dividing church
and state popular it’s not meant to be
popular it’s meant to be sensible these
things are not meant to be popular and
so that means they have to be defended
precisely but I think I think there is
enough of a consensus around
Constitution that one can at least start
there as a way of shaming people or
gathering people but I mean my basic my
basic notion is that you get yeah it
goes on very deep it’s whether you’re
going to authoritarian or
anti-authoritarian and the people who
are trying to change things already know
they’re authoritarians right so here we
just one of the comments when Hillary
Clinton stated at the time that Russia
was taking over Crimea and invading rule
and she compared it to sedating land
takeover and everybody scoffs better she
had to pull it back but I don’t know
whether you thought that was more apt
than some B’s well I mean on and
Elizabeth who was a very gifted and
conservative Russian historian made the
same comparison and lost his lost his
job for it no of course it’s apt right
so here’s like here’s how Americans join
you with history the Americans deal with
history as though history were an mp3
and if it doesn’t sound exactly the same
when you punch the button as it did the
previous time then you think something’s
wrong right that’s what American says if
it does if it doesn’t repeat perfectly
so if Americans will say oh well there
no there no swastikas so no jackboots
I’m changing the channel I’m afraid like
that’s our Nats our national response to
the history this whole taboo thing about
the 1930s is a way of saying well in the
in the naive view and the naive view
it’s a way of saying okay we don’t know
anything about history that’s fine right
because no analogies can be perfect
I mean Crimean sedate land is actually
an extremely good analogy it’s a very
close analogy right but none is going to
be perfect right and so saying oh that’s
just an analogy or that’s a way of just
not thinking about history and once you
don’t think about history you’re done
you’re finished because history is the
only thing which teaches you how people
have successfully resisted it’s also the
only thing we teaches you how
institutions are constructed right so
the moment you say oh no comparisons
you’re done forget it right it’s over so
it’s a very it’s a very dangerous very
dangerous move and in the dark version
the non naive version in the dark
version it’s quite deliberate you know
you say well I you know I am NOT exactly
like Hitler and therefore it’s okay
right and we’re getting to that point
right you know they’re nothing is wrong
I’m overstating this slightly but not
much
nothing is wrong because they’re on
concentration camps yet no no no no you
know and there weren’t you know the
wrong concentration camps in in January
1933 either right okay

Unfit for Office

Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.

On a third-down play last season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith stood in shotgun formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. As he called his signals, a Houston Texans cornerback, Kareem Jackson, suddenly sprinted forward from a position four yards behind the defensive line.

Jackson’s timing was perfect. The ball was snapped. The Texans’ left defensive end, J.J. Watt, sprinted to the outside, taking the Redskins’ right tackle with him. The defensive tackle on Watt’s right rushed to the inside, taking the offensive right guard with him. The result was a huge gap in the Redskins’ line, through which Jackson could run unblocked. He quickly sacked Smith, for a loss of 13 yards.

Special-teams players began taking the field for the punt. But Smith didn’t get up. He rolled flat onto his back, pulled off his helmet, and covered his face with his hands. He was clearly in excruciating pain. The slow-motion replay immediately showed the television audience why: As Smith was tackled, his right leg had buckled sharply above the ankle, with his foot rotating significantly away from any direction in which a human foot ought to point. The play-by-play announcer Greg Gumbel said grimly, “We’ll be back,” and the network abruptly cut to a break. There was nothing more to say.

Even without the benefit of medical training, and even without conducting a physical examination, viewers knew what had happened. They may not have known what the bones were called or what treatment would be required, but they knew more than enough, and they knew what really mattered: Smith had broken his leg, very badly. They knew that even if they were not orthopedists, did not have a medical degree, and had never cracked open a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. They could tell—they were certain—something was seriously wrong.

And so it is, or ought to be, with Donald Trump. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need to be a mental-health professional to see that something’s very seriously off with Trump—particularly after nearly three years of watching his erratic and abnormal behavior in the White House. Questions about Trump’s psychological stability have mounted throughout his presidency. But those questions have been coming even more frequently amid a recent escalation in Trump’s bizarre behavior, as the pressures of his upcoming reelection campaign, a possibly deteriorating economy, and now a full-blown impeachment inquiry have mounted. And the questioners have included those who have worked most closely with him.

No president in recent memory—and likely no president ever—has prompted more discussion about his mental stability and connection with reality. Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly is said to have described him as “unhinged,” and “off the rails,” and to have called the White House Crazytown because of Trump’s unbalanced state. Trump’s former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, once reportedly discussed recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, the Constitution’s provision addressing presidential disability, including mental disability.

Rosenstein denies that claim, but it is not the only such account. A senior administration official, writing anonymously in The New York Times last September, described how, “given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment”—but “no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” And NBC News last week quoted someone familiar with current discussions in the White House warning that there is “increasing wariness that, as this impeachment inquiry drags out, the likelihood increases that the president could respond erratically and become ‘unmanageable.’” In September, a former White House official offered a similar assessment to Business Insider reporter: “No one knows what to expect from him anymore,” because “his mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know his entire schedule gets tossed out the window. He’s losing his shit.”Even a major investment bank has gotten into the mix, albeit in a roundabout way: JPMorgan Chase has created a “Volfefe Index—named after Trump’s bizarre May 2017 “covfefe” tweet—designed to quantify the effect that Trump’s impulsive tweets have on interest-rate volatility. The bank’s press release understatedly observed that its “volatility fair value model” shows that “the president’s remarks on this social media platform [have] played a statistically significant role in elevating implied volatility.”
The president isn’t simply volatile and erratic, however—he’s also incapable of consistently telling the truth. Those who work closely with him, and who aren’t in denial, must deal with Trump’s lying about serious matters virtually every day. But as one former official put it, they “are used to the president saying things that aren’t true,” and have inured themselves to it. Trump’s own former communications director Anthony Scaramucci has on multiple occasions described Trump as a liar, once saying, “We … know he’s telling lies,” so “if you want me to say he’s a liar, I’m happy to say he’s a liar.” He went on to address Trump directly: “You should probably dial down the lying because you don’t need to … So dial that down, and you’ll be doing a lot better.”That was good advice, but clearly wishful thinking. Trump simply can’t dial down the lying, or turn it off—even, his own attorneys suggest, when false statements may be punished as crimes. A lawyer who has represented him in business disputes once told me that Trump couldn’t sensibly be allowed to speak with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, because Trump would “lie his ass off”—in effect, that Trump simply wasn’t capable of telling the truth, about anything, and that if he ever spoke to a prosecutor, he’d talk himself into jail.Trump’s lawyers in the Russia investigation clearly agreed: As Bob Woodward recounts at length in his book Fear, members of Trump’s criminal-defense team fought both Trump and Mueller tooth and nail to keep Trump from being interviewed by the Office of Special Counsel. A practice testimonial session ended with Trump spouting wild, baseless assertions in a rage. Woodward quotes Trump’s outside counsel John Dowd as saying that Trump “just made something up” in response to one question. “That’s his nature.” Woodward also recounts Dowd’s thinking when he argued to Trump that the president was “not really capable” of answering Mueller’s questions face to face. Dowd had “to dress it up as much as possible, to say, it’s not your fault … He could not say what he knew was true: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’ That was the problem.” (Dowd disputes this account.) Which raises the question: If Trump can’t tell the truth even when it counts most, with legal jeopardy on the line and lawyers there to help prepare him, is he able to apprehend the truth at all?
Behavior like this is unusual, a point that journalists across the political spectrum have made. “This is not normal,” Megan McArdle wrote in late August. “And I don’t mean that as in, ‘Trump is violating the shibboleths of the Washington establishment.’ I mean that as in, ‘This is not normal for a functioning adult.’” James Fallows observed, also in August, that Trump is having “episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting,” and that if he “were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role.”

Trump’s erratic behavior has long been the subject of political criticism, late-night-television jokes, and even speculation about whether it’s part of some incomprehensible, multidimensional strategic game. But it’s relevant to whether he’s fit for the office he holds. Simply put, Trump’s ingrained and extreme behavioral characteristics make it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires. To see why first requires a look at what the Constitution demands of a president, and then an examination of how Trump’s behavioral characteristics preclude his ability to fulfill those demands.

The Framers of the Constitution expected the presidency to be occupied by special individuals, selfless people of the highest character and ability. They intended the Electoral College to be a truly deliberative body, not the largely ceremonial institution it has become today. Because the Electoral College, unlike Congress and the state legislatures, wouldn’t be a permanent body, and because it involved diffuse selections made in the various states, they hoped it would help avoid “cabal, intrigue and corruption,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in “Federalist No. 68,” and deter interference from “these most deadly adversaries of republican government,” especially “from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”

Though the Constitution’s drafters could hardly have foreseen how the system would evolve, they certainly knew the kind of person they wanted it to produce. “The process of election affords a moral certainty,” Hamilton wrote, “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” might suffice for someone to be elected to the governorship of a state, but not the presidency. Election would “require other talents, and a different kind of merit,” to gain “the esteem and confidence of the whole Union,” or enough of it to win the presidency. As a result, there would be “a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” This was the Framers’ goal in designing the system that would make “the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”Hamilton’s use of the word trust in The Federalist Papers to describe the presidency was no accident. The Framers intended that the president “be like a fiduciary, who must pursue the public interest in good faith republican fashion rather than pursuing his self-interest, and who must diligently and steadily execute Congress’s commands,” as a recent Harvard Law Review article puts it. The concept is akin to the law of private fiduciaries, which governs trustees of trusts and directors and officers of corporations, an area that has been central to my legal practice as a corporate litigator. “Indeed,” as the Harvard Law Review article explains, “one might argue that what presents to us as private fiduciary law today had some of its genesis in the law of public officeholding.” The overarching principle is that a fiduciary—say, the CEO of a corporation—when acting on behalf of a corporation, has to act in the corporation’s best interests. Likewise, a trustee of a trust must use the assets for the benefit of the beneficiary, and not himself (a fundamental rule, incidentally, that Trump apparently couldn’t adhere to with his own charitable foundation).
In providing for a national chief executive, the Framers incorporated the very similar law of public officeholding into his duties in two places in the Constitution—in Article II, Section 3 (the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”), and in Article II, Section 1, Clause 8, which requires the president to “solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” That language—particularly the words faithfully execute—was in 1787 “very commonly associated with the performance of public and private offices,” the Harvard Law Review article points out, and “anyone experienced in law or government” at that time would have recognized what it meant, “because it was so basic to … the law of executive officeholding.” In a nutshell, while carrying out his official duties, a president has to put the country, not himself, first; he must faithfully follow and enforce the law; and he must act with the utmost care in doing all that.

But can trump do all that? Does his personality allow him to? Answering those questions doesn’t require mental-health expertise, nor does it really require a diagnosis. You can make the argument for Trump’s unfitness without assessing his mental health: Like James Fallows, for example, you could just ask whether Trump would have been allowed to retain any other job in light of his bizarre conduct. At the same time, the presence of a mental disorder or disturbance doesn’t necessarily translate to incapacity; to suggest otherwise would unfairly stigmatize tens of millions of Americans. Someone battling a serious psychological ailment can unquestionably function well, and even nobly, in high public office—including as president. The country, in fact, has seen it: Abraham Lincoln endured “no mere case of the blues”; he suffered such “terrible melancholly,” said one of his contemporaries, that “he never dare[d] carry a knife in his pocket.” Many historians speculate that he suffered from what we would now diagnose as clinical depression. Yet Lincoln’s mechanisms for coping with his lifelong affliction may have supplied him with the vision, the creativity, and the moral fortitude to save the nation, to achieve for it a new birth of freedom. As a writer in this magazine once put it: Lincoln’s “political vision drew power from personal experience … Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition. And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society.”

More than a diagnosis, what truly matters, as Lincoln’s case shows, is the president’s behavioral characteristics and personality traits. And understanding how people behave and think is not the sole province of professionals; we all do it every day, with family members, co-workers, and others. Nevertheless, how the mental-health community goes about categorizing those characteristics and traits can provide helpful guidance to laypeople by structuring our thinking about them.And that’s where the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes into play. The DSM, now in its fifth edition, “contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders,” and serves as the country’s “authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.” What’s useful for nonprofessionals is that, for the most part, it’s written in plain English, and its criteria consist largely of observable behaviors—words and actions.That’s especially true of its criteria for personality disorders—they don’t require a person to lie on a couch and confess his or her innermost thoughts. They turn on how a person behaves in the wild, so to speak. If anything, a patient’s confessions in an office may disadvantage a clinician, because patients can and do conceal from clinicians central aspects of their true selves. If you can observe people going about their everyday business, you’ll know a lot more about how they act and behave.
And Donald Trump, as president of the United States, is probably the most observable and observed person in the world. I’ve personally met and spoken with him only a few times, but anyone who knows him will tell you that Trump, in a way, has no facade: What you see of him publicly is what you get all the time, although you may get more of it in private. Any intelligent person who watches Trump closely on television, and pays careful attention to his words on Twitter and in the press, should be able to tell you as much about his behavior as a mental-health professional could.One scholarly paper has suggested that accounts of a person’s behavior from laypeople who observe him might be more accurate than information from a clinical interview, and that this is especially true when considering two personality disorders in particular—what the DSM calls narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These two disorders just happen to be the ones that have most commonly been ascribed to Trump by mental-health professionals over the past four years. Of these two disorders, the more commonly discussed when it comes to Trump is narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD—pathological narcissism. It’s also more important in considering Trump’s fitness for office, because it touches directly upon whether Trump has the capacity to put anyone’s interests—including the country’s and the Constitution’s—above his own.

Narcissus, the greek mythological figure, was a boy who fell so in love with his own reflection in a pool of water that, according to one version of the story, he jumped in and drowned. Psychiatrists and psychologists now use the term narcissism to describe feelings of self-importance and self-love. As Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively on the subject, has explained, narcissism is a trait that, to some extent, all human beings have: “the drive to feel special, to stand out from … other[s] … to feel exceptional or unique.”

A certain amount of narcissism is healthy, and helpful—it brings with it confidence, optimism, and boldness. Someone with more than an average amount of narcissism may be called a narcissist. Many politicians, and many celebrities, could be considered narcissists; presidents seem especially likely to “rank high in extroverted narcissism,” Malkin writes, although they have varied greatly in the degree of their narcissism. But extreme narcissism can be pathological, an illness—and potentially a danger, as it was for Narcissus. “Pathological narcissism begins when people become so addicted to feeling special that, just like with any drug, they’ll do anything to get their ‘high,’ including lie, steal, cheat, betray, and even hurt those closest to them,” Malkin says.

The “fundamental life goal” of an extreme narcissist “is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see,” the psychologist Dan P. McAdams wrote in The Atlantic. To many mental-health professionals, Donald Trump provides a perfect example of such extreme, pathological narcissism: One clinical psychologist told Vanity Fair that he considers Trump such a “classic” pathological narcissist that he is actually “archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of the characteristics of the disorder he displays. “Otherwise,” this clinician explained, “I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.” Another clinical psychologist said that Trump displays “textbook narcissistic personality disorder.”

Not everyone agrees that Trump meets the diagnostic criteria for NPD. Allen Frances, a psychiatrist who helped write the disorder’s entry in the DSM, has argued that a mental “disturbance” becomes a “disorder” only when, as the DSMputs it, the affliction “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” The idea behind this threshold is to separate “mild forms” of problems from pathological ones, “in the absence of clear biological markers or clinically useful measurements of severity for many mental disorders.”In Frances’s view, that dividing line disqualifies Trump from having a disorder, particularly NPD. Trump “may be a world-class narcissist,” he has written, “but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder. Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.”But from the perspective of the public at large, the debate over whether Trump meets the clinical diagnostic criteria for NPD—or whether psychiatrists can and should answer that question without directly examining him—is beside the point. The goal of a diagnosis is to help a clinician guide treatment. The question facing the public is very different: Does the president of the United States exhibit a consistent pattern of behavior that suggests he is incapable of properly discharging the duties of his office?
Even Trump’s own allies recognize the degree of his narcissism. When he launched racist attacks on four congresswomen of color, Senator Lindsey Graham explained, “That’s just the way he is. It’s more narcissism than anything else.” So, too, do skeptics of assigning a clinical diagnosis. “No one is denying,” Frances told Rolling Stone, “that he is as narcissistic an individual as one is ever likely to encounter.” The president’s exceptional narcissism is his defining characteristic—and understanding that is crucial to evaluating his fitness for office.The DSM-5 describes its conception of pathological narcissism this way: “The essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” The manual sets out nine diagnostic criteria that are indicative of the disorder, but only five of the nine need be present for a diagnosis of NPD to be made. Here are the nine:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

4. Requires excessive admiration.

5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).

6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)

7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

These criteria are accompanied by explanatory notes that seem relevant here: “Vulnerability in self-esteem makes individuals with narcissistic personality disorder very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat.” And “criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.” The manual warns, moreover, that “interpersonal relations are typically impaired because of problems derived from entitlement, the need for admiration, and the relative disregard for the sensitivities of others.” And, the DSM-5 adds, “though overweening ambition and confidence may lead to high achievement, performance may be disrupted because of intolerance of criticism or defeat.”

The diagnostic criteria offer a useful framework for understanding the most remarkable features of Donald Trump’s personality, and of his presidency. 
(1) Exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements?
(2) Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance
(3) Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and should only associate with other special or high-status people? 
That’s Trump, to a T. As Trump himself might put it, he exaggerates accomplishments better than anyone. In July, he described himself in a tweet as “so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!” (Exclamation point his, of course.) That “stable genius” self-description is one that Trump has repeated over and over again—even though he has trouble with spellingdoesn’t know the difference between a hyphen and an apostrophe, doesn’t appear to understand fractions, needs basic geography lessonsspeaks at the level of a fourth grader, and engages in “serial misuse of public language” and “cannot write sentences,” and even though members of his own administration have variously considered him to be a “moron,” an “idiot,” a “dope,” “dumb as shit,” and a person with the intelligence of a “kindergartener” or a “fifth or sixth grader” or an “11-year-old child.” Trump wants everyone to know: He’s “the super genius of all time,” one of “the smartest people anywhere in the world.” Not only that, but he considers himself a hero of sorts. He avoided military service, yet claims he would have run, unarmed, into a school during a mass shooting. Speaking to a group of emergency medical workers who had lost friends and colleagues on 9/11, he claimed, falsely, to have “spent a lot of time down there with you,” while generously allowing that “I’m not considering myself a first responder.” He has spoken, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, about awarding himself the Medal of Honor.
Trump claims to be an expert—the world’s greatest—in anything and everything. As one video mash-up shows, Trump has at various times claimed—in all seriousness—that no one knows more than he does about:
  • taxes,
  • income,
  • construction,
  • campaign finance,
  • drones,
  • technology,
  • infrastructure,
  • work visas,
  • the Islamic State,
  • “things” generally,
  • environmental-impact statements,
  • Facebook,
  • renewable energy,
  • polls,
  • courts,
  • steelworkers,
  • golf,
  • banks,
  • trade,
  • nuclear weapons,
  • tax law,
  • lawsuits,
  • currency devaluation,
  • money,
  • “the system,”
  • debt, and
  • politicians.

Trump described his admission as a transfer student into Wharton’s undergraduate program as “super genius stuff,” even though he didn’t strike the admissions officer who approved his candidacy as a “genius,” let alone a “super genius”; Trump claimed to have “heard I was first in my class” at Wharton, despite the fact that his name didn’t appear on the dean’s list there, or in the commencement program’s list of graduates receiving honors. And Trump, through an invented spokesman, even lied his way onto the Forbes 400.

(4) Requires excessive admiration? Last Thanksgiving, Trump was asked what he was most thankful for. His answer: himself, of course. A number of years ago, he made a video for Forbes in which he interviewed two of his children. The interview topic: how great they thought Donald Trump was. When his own father died, in 1999, Trump gave one of the eulogies. As Alan Marcus, a former Trump adviser, recounted the story to Timothy O’Brien, he began “more or less like this: ‘I was in my Trump Tower apartment reading about how I was having the greatest year in my career in The New York Times when the security desk called to say my brother Robert was coming upstairs’”—an introductory line that provoked “‘an audible gasp’ from mourners stunned by Trump’s self-regard.” According to a Rolling Stone article, other eulogists spoke about the deceased, but Trump “used the time to talk about his own accomplishments and to make it clear that, in his mind, his father’s best achievement was producing him, Donald.” The author of a book about the Trump family described the funeral as one that “wasn’t about Fred Trump,” but rather “was an opportunity to do some brand burnishing by Donald, for Donald. Throughout his remarks, the first-person singular pronouns—I and me and mine—far outnumbered he and his. Even at his own father’s funeral, Donald Trump couldn’t cede the limelight.”

And he still can’t. Here’s a man who holds rallies with no elections in sight, so that he can bask in his supporters’ cheers; even when elections are near, and he’s supposed to be helping other candidates, he consistently keeps the focus on himself. He loves to watch replays of himself at the rallies, and “luxuriates in the moments he believes are evidence of his brilliance.” In July, after his controversial, publicly funded, campaign-style Independence Day celebration, Trump tweeted, “Our Country is the envy of the World. Thank you, Mr. President!” In February 2017, Trump was given a private tour of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, and paused in front of an exhibit on the Dutch role in the slave trade. He turned to the museum’s director and said, “You know, they love me in the Netherlands.”(5) A sense of entitlement(9) Arrogant, haughty behaviors? Trump is the man who, on the infamous Access Hollywood tape, said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything you want”—including grabbing women by their genitals. He’s the man who also once said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”(8) Envious of others? Here’s a man so unable to stand the praise received by a respected war hero and statesman, Senator John McCain, that he has continued to attack McCain months after McCain’s death; his jealousy led White House staff to direct the Pentagon to keep a destroyer called the USS John S. McCain out of Trump’s line of sight during a presidential visit to an American naval base in Japan. And Trump, despite being president, still seems envious of President Barack Obama(6) Interpersonally exploitative? Just watch the Access Hollywood tape, or ask any of the hundreds of contractors and employees Trump the businessman allegedly stiffed, or speak with any of the two dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, or rape. (Trump has denied all their claims.)
Finally, (7) Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings or needs of others? One of the most striking aspects of Trump’s personality is his utter and complete lack of empathy. By empathy, psychologists and psychiatrists mean the ability to understand or relate to what someone else is experiencing—the capacity to envision someone else’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.The notorious lawyer and fixer Roy Cohn, who once counseled Trump, said that “Donald pisses ice water,” and indeed, examples of Trump’s utter lack of normal human empathy abound. Trump himself has told the story of a charity ball—an “incredible ball”—he once held at Mar-a-Lago for the Red Cross. “So what happens is, this guy falls off right on his face, hits his head, and I thought he diedHis wife is screaming—she’s sitting right next to him, and she’s screaming.” By his own account, Trump’s concern wasn’t the poor man’s well-being or his wife’s. It was the bloody mess on his expensive floor. “You know, beautiful marble floor, didn’t look like it. It changed color. Became very red … I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s disgusting,’ and I turned away. I couldn’t, you know, he was right in front of me and I turned away.” Trump describes himself as saying, after the injured man was hauled away on a makeshift stretcher, “‘Get that blood cleaned up! It’s disgusting!’ The next day, I forgot to call [the man] to say is he okay … It’s just not my thing.”
And then there was 9/11. Trump gave an extraordinary call-in interview to a metropolitan–New York television station just hours after the Twin Towers collapsed. He was asked whether one of his downtown buildings, 40 Wall Street, had suffered any damage. Trump’s immediate response was to brag about the building’s brand-new ranking among New York skyscrapers: “40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and it was actually, before the World Trade Center, was the tallest—and then when they built the World Trade Center, it became known as the second-tallest. And now it’s the tallest.” (This wasn’t even true—a building a block away from Trump’s, 70 Pine Street, was a little taller.)That human empathy isn’t Trump’s thing has been demonstrated time and again during his presidency as well. In October 2017, he reportedly told the widow of a serviceman killed in action “something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’” (Trump later claimed that this account was “fabricated … Sad!” and that “I have proof,” but of course he never produced any.) On a less macabre note, on Christmas Eve last year, Trump took calls on NORAD’s Santa Tracker phone line, which children call to find out where Santa Claus is as he makes his rounds. Trump asked a 7-year-old girl from South Carolina: “Are you still a believer in Santa? Because at 7, it’s marginal, right?”
According to Woodward’s Fear, when Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, resigned, he found out about his replacement when he saw a tweet from Trump saying that he had appointed John Kelly as the new chief of staff—moments after Priebus and Trump had spoken about waiting to announce the news. Kelly was appalled, and that night apologetically told Priebus, “I’d never do this to you. I’d never been offered this job until the tweet came out. I would have told you.” His predecessor, though, wasn’t surprised. “It made no sense, Priebus realized, unless you understood … ‘The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way.’”Priebus apparently isn’t the only White House staffer to have learned this; in February 2018, when Trump met with survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and their loved ones, his communications aide actually gave him a note card that made clear that “the president needed to be reminded to show compassion and understanding to traumatized survivors,” as The New York Times put it. The empathy cheat sheet contained a reminder to say such things as “I hear you.” One aide to President Obama told the Times that had she and her colleagues given their boss such a reminder card, “he would have looked at us like we were crazy people.”Most recently, in July of this year, in a stunning scene captured on video, Trump met in the Oval Office with the human-rights activist Nadia Murad, a Yazidi Iraqi who had been captured, raped, and tortured by the Islamic State, and had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for speaking out about the plight of the Yazidis and other victims of genocide and religious persecution. Her voice breaking, she implored the president of the United States to help her people return safely to Iraq. Trump could barely look her in the eye. She told him that ISIS had murdered her mother and six brothers. Trump, apparently not paying much attention, asked, “Where are they now?” “They killed them,” she said once again. “They are in the mass grave in Sinjar, and I’m still fighting just to live in safety.” Trump, who has publicly said that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, seemed interested in the conversation only at the end, when he asked Murad about why she won the prize.
Another equally unforgettable video documents Trump visiting Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria, tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of victims. He later responded vindictively to charges that his administration hadn’t done enough to help the island, prompting the mayor of San Juan to observe that Trump had “augmented” Puerto Rico’s “devastating human crisis … because he made it about himself, not about saving our lives,” and because “when expected to show empathy he showed disdain and lack of respect.”In October 2018, a gunman burst into Shabbat morning services at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh and sprayed worshippers with semiautomatic-rifle and pistol fire. Eleven people died. Three days later, the president and first lady visited the community, and the day after that, the first thing Trump tweeted about the visit was this: “Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh. The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite—Disgraceful!” Similarly, after gunmen killed dozens in the span of a single August weekend in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Trump went on a one-day sympathy tour that was marked by attacks on his hosts and on political enemies, and an obsessive focus on himself.

Yet pathological narcissism is not the only personality disorder that Trump’s behavior clearly indicates. A second disorder also frequently ascribed to Trump by professionals is sociopathy—what the DSM-5calls antisocial personality disorder. As described by Lance Dodes, a former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “sociopathy is among the most severe mental disturbances.” Central to sociopathy is a complete lack of empathy—along with “an absence of guilt.” Sociopaths engage in “intentional manipulation, and controlling or even sadistically harming others for personal power or gratification. People with sociopathic traits have a flaw in the basic nature of human beings … They are lacking an essential part of being human.” For its part, the DSM-5 states that the “essential feature of antisocial personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”

The question of whether Trump can serve as a national fiduciary turns more on his narcissistic tendencies than his sociopathic ones, but Trump’s sociopathic characteristics sufficiently intertwine with his narcissistic ones that they deserve mention here. These include, to quote the DSM-5, “deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others.” Trump’s deceitfulness—his lying—has become the stuff of legend; journalists track his “false and misleading claims” as president by the thousands upon thousands. Aliases? For years, Trump would call journalists while posing as imaginary PR men, “John Barron” and “John Miller,” so that he could plant false stories about being wealthy, brilliant, and sexually accomplished. Trump was, and remains, a con artist: Think of Trump University, which even Trump’s own employees described as a scam (and which sparked a lawsuit that resulted in a $25 million settlement, although with no admission of wrongdoing). There’s ACN, an alleged Ponzi scheme Trump promoted, and from which he made millions (he, his company, and his family deny the allegations of fraud); and the border wall that hasn’t been built and that Mexico’s never going to pay for. Trump is a pathological liar if ever there was one.
Other criteria for antisocial personality disorder include
  • “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”;
  • impulsivity or failure to plan ahead”; and
  • lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.” Check, check, and check:

As for social norms and lawful behaviors, there are all the accusations of sexual misconduct. Also relevant is what the Mueller report says about Trump’s efforts to derail the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the last presidential election. And given what federal prosecutors in New York said about his role in directing hush money to be paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels, a strong case can be made that Trump has committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice and criminal violations of campaign-finance laws. Were he not president, and were it not for two Justice Department opinions holding that a sitting president cannot be indicted, he might well be facing criminal charges now.

As for impulsivity, that essentially describes what gets him into trouble most: It was his “impulsiveness—actually, total recklessness”—that came close to destroying him in the 1980s. In “response to his surging celebrity,” Trump, “acquisitive to the point of recklessness,” engaged in “a series of manic, ill-advised ventures” that “nearly did him in,” Politico reported. His impulsiveness has buffeted his presidency as well: Think of his first ordering, then calling off, the bombing of Iran in June, and his aborted meeting with the Taliban at Camp David just last month. And remember the racist tweets he sent in mid-July in which he told four nonwhite representatives—three of whom were born in the United States—to “go back” to the “countries” they “originally came from.” Those tweets were apparently triggered by something he saw on TV.

Or consider his impetuous, unvetted personnel decisions, such as his failed selection of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician, as Veterans Affairs secretary, and his choice of Representative John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence. It was just so on The Apprentice, where editors and producers found that “Trump was frequently unprepared” for tapings, and frequently fired strong contestants “on a whim,” which required them “to ‘reverse engineer’ the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage … in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.” One editor remarked that he found “it strangely validating that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.” Trump sees none of this as a problem; to the contrary, he prides himself on following his instincts, once telling an interviewer: “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody’s brain can ever tell me.”

And lack of remorse? That’s a hallmark of sociopathy, and goes hand in hand with a lack of human conscience. In a narcissistic sociopath, it’s intertwined with a lack of empathy. Trump hardly ever shows remorse, or apologizes, for anything. The one exception: With his presidential candidacy on the line in early October 2016, Trump expressed regret for the Access Hollywood video. But within weeks, almost as soon as the campaign was over, Trump began claiming, to multiple people, that the video may have been doctored—a preposterous lie, especially since he had acknowledged that the voice was his, others had confirmed this as well, and there was no evidence of tampering. “We don’t think that was my voice,” he said to a senator. The “we,” no doubt, was a lie as well.

Again, as with his narcissism, all this evidence of Trump’s sociopathy only begins to tell the tale. The bottom line is that this is a man who, over and over and over again, has indifferently mused about the possibility of killing 10 million or so people in Afghanistan to end the war there, while allowing that “I’m not looking to kill 10 million people”—as though this were a realistic but merely less preferred option than, say, raising import tariffs on chewing gum. As a 1997 profile of Trump in The New Yorker put it, Trump has “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”

In a way, Trump’s sociopathic tendencies are simply an extension of his extreme narcissism. Take the pathological lying. Extreme narcissists aren’t necessarily pathological liars, but they can be, and when they are, the lying supports the narcissism. As Lance Dodes has put it, “People like Donald Trump who have severe narcissistic disturbances can’t tolerate being criticized, so the more they are challenged in this essential way, the more out of control they become.” In particular, “They change reality to suit themselves in their own mind.” Although Trump “lies because of his sociopathic tendencies,” telling falsehoods to fool others, Dodes argues, he also lies to himself, to protect himself from narcissistic injury. And so Donald Trump has lied about

  1.  his net worth,
  2. the size of the crowd at his inauguration, and
  3. supposed voter fraud in the 2016 election.

The latter kind of lying, Dodes says, “is in a way more serious,” because it can indicate “a loose grip on reality”—and it may well tell us where Trump is headed in the face of impeachment hearings. Lying to prevent narcissistic injury can metastasize to a more significant loss of touch with reality. As Craig Malkin puts it, when pathological narcissists “can’t let go of their need to be admired or recognized, they have to bend or invent a reality in which they remain special,” and they “can lose touch with reality in subtle ways that become extremely dangerous over time.” They can become “dangerously psychotic,” and “it’s just not always obvious until it’s too late.”

Experts haven’t suggested that Trump is psychotic, but many have contended that his narcissism and sociopathy are so inordinate that he fits the bill for “malignant narcissism.” Malignant narcissism isn’t recognized as an official diagnosis; it’s a descriptive term coined by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and expanded upon by another psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg, to refer to an extreme mix of narcissism and sociopathy, with a degree of paranoia and sadism mixed in. One psychoanalyst explains that “the malignant narcissist is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioural regulation with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.” In the view of some in the mental-health community, such as John Gartner, Trump “exhibits all four” components of malignant narcissism: “narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personality and sadism.”

Mental-health professionals have raised a variety of other concerns about Trump’s mental state; the last worth specifically mentioning here is the possibility that, apart from any personality disorder, he may be suffering cognitive decline. This is a serious matter: Trump seems to be continually slurring words, and recently misread teleprompters to say that the Continental Army secured airports during the American Revolutionary War, and to say that the shooting in Dayton had occurred in Toledo. His overall level of articulateness today doesn’t come close to what he exhibits in decades-old television clips. But that could be caused by ordinary age-related decline, stress, or other factors; to know whether something else is going on, according to experts, would require a full neuropsychological work-up, of the kind that Trump hasn’t yet had and, one supposes, isn’t about to agree to.

But even that doesn’t exhaust all the mental-health issues possibly indicated by Trump’s behavior. His “mental state,” according to Justin A. Frank, a former clinical professor of psychiatry and physician who wrote a book about Trump’s psychology, “include[s] so many psychic afflictions” that a “working knowledge of psychiatric disorders is essential to understanding Trump.” Indeed, as Gartner puts it: “There are a lot of things wrong with him—and, together, they are a scary witch’s brew.”

This is a lot to digest. It would take entire books to catalog all of Trump’s behavioral abnormalities and try to explain them—some of which have already been written. But when you line up what the Framers expected of a president with all that we know about Donald Trump, his unfitness becomes obvious. The question is whether he can possibly act as a public fiduciary for the nation’s highest public trust. To borrow from the Harvard Law Review article, can he follow the “proscriptions against profit, bad faith, and self-dealing,” manifest “a strong concern about avoiding ultra vires action” (that is, action exceeding the president’s legal authority), and maintain “a duty of diligence and carefulness”? Given that Trump displays the extreme behavioral characteristics of a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, or a malignant narcissist—take your pick—it’s clear that he can’t.

To act as a fiduciary requires you to put someone else’s interests above your own, and Trump’s personality makes it impossible for him to do that. No president before him, at least in recent memory, has ever displayed such obsessive self-regard. For Trump, Trump always comes first. He places his interests over everyone else’s—including those of the nation whose laws he swore to faithfully execute. That’s not consistent with the duties of the president, whether considered from the standpoint of constitutional law or psychology.

Indeed, Trump’s view of his presidential powers can only be described as profoundly narcissistic, and his narcissism has compelled him to disregard the Framers’ vision of his constitutional duties in every respect. Bad faith? Trump has repeatedly used executive powers, threatened to use executive powers, or expressed the view that executive powers should be used to advance his personal interests and punish his political opponents. Thus, for example, he has

And now, in just the past two weeks, we’ve seen the pièce de résistance of bad faith, the one that’s brought Trump to the verge of impeachment: Trump’s efforts to use his presidential authority to strong-arm a foreign nation, Ukraine, into digging up or concocting evidence in support of a preposterous conspiracy theory about one of his principal challengers for the presidency, former Vice President Joe Biden. As one political historian has put it, Trump’s use of his Article II authority to pursue vendettas is “both a sign of deep insecurity … and also just a litany of abuse of power,” and something no president has done “as consistently or as viciously as Trump has.”

ProfitSelf-dealing? Look at the way Trump is using the presidency to advertise his real-estate holdings—most notably and recently, his apparent determination to hold the next G7 summit at the Trump Doral resort in Florida. Ultra vires? Trump has made the outrageous claim that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” Consistent with that view, he has repeatedlysuggested that, by executive order, he can overturn the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship—an utterly lawless assertion. His core constitutional obligations flow from Article II’s command that he faithfully execute the laws, yet he has told subordinates not to worry about violating the laws. According to one former senior administration official quoted in The New York Times, Trump’s “constant instinct all the time was: Just do it, and if we get sued, we get sued … Almost as if the first step is a lawsuit. I guess he thinks that because that’s how business worked for him in the private sector. But federal law is different, and there really isn’t a settling step when you break federal law.” Federal law is also different, one might add, because he’s in charge of upholding it.

Facing the approach of the 2020 election with not a single new mile of his border wall having been built, Trump, as reported in The Washington Post, has urged his aides to violate all manner of laws to expedite construction—environmental laws, contracting laws, constitutional limitations on the taking of private property—and “has told worried subordinates that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing” they commit along the way.

A duty of diligence and carefulness? Trump is purely impulsive, and incapable of planning or serious forethought, and his compulsion for lying has enervated any capacity for thoughtful analysis he may have ever had. He apparently won’t read anything; he himself has said, in regard to briefings, that he prefers to read “as little as possible”—despite occupying what David A. Graham calls “one of the most demanding jobs in the world” precisely because its “holder is expected to consume, digest, and absorb prodigious amounts of information via reading.”

And then there’s the question of honesty. Fiduciaries must be honest. The Framers understood, based upon the law of public officeholding in their time, that “faithful execution” of the laws requires “the absence of bad faith through honesty.” In the private realm, fiduciaries owe a duty of candor, of truth-telling; the standard of behavior was once memorably described by the renowned jurist Benjamin Cardozo as “not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.” Today, in my own practice area of corporate litigation, corporate officers and directors, as fiduciaries, owe duties that include a duty to disclose material information truthfully and completely. Trump, whose lawyers wouldn’t dare allow him to speak to the special counsel lest he make a prosecutable false statement, couldn’t pass this standard to save his life.

Trump’s incapacity affects all manner of subjects addressed by the presidency, but can be seen most acutely in foreign affairs and national security. Presidential narcissism and personal ego have frequently displaced the national interest. Today, the most obvious—and stunning—example is his conduct toward Ukraine: While trying to pressure the Ukrainian president to restart an investigation against Biden, Trump ordered the withholding of vital military aid to that country, thus weakening its ability to withstand Russian aggression and undermining the interests of the United States. But the list goes on: Last summer, in a narcissistic effort at self-aggrandizement, Trump told the Pakistani prime minister about a conversation he had with the Indian prime minister—leading India to deny, indignantly, that any such conversation had ever taken place. Trump reportedly even lied about trade talks with China—announcing that phone calls had occurred that never occurred and that the Chinese denied took placein an apparent attempt to pump up the stock market and take credit for it.

Trump’s penchant for vendettas also doesn’t stop at the water’s edge—American interests be damned. When confidential cables sent by the United Kingdom’s ambassador to his government were leaked, and were revealed to contain uncomplimentary (but obvious) observations about Trump’s ineptitude and emotional insecurity, and the dysfunction of his administration, Trump went on an extended Twitter tirade against the ambassador, calling him “wacky” and “a very stupid guy,” “a pompous fool,” and ultimately declared: “We will no longer deal with him.” When reports surfaced that Trump was interested in having the United States purchase Greenland from Denmark, and the Danish prime minister understandably described talk about such a purchase as “an absurd discussion” in light of Greenland’s position on the matter, Trump canceled a visit to Denmark, and then attacked the prime minister, calling her comments “nasty”; for good measure, he also attacked some of America’s NATO allies.

At the same time, Trump happily succumbs to flattery from America’s enemies; he received “beautiful … great letters” from North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, and therefore “fell in love” with him, and rewards him with kind words and meetings even as North Korea continues to develop new nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Trump once said on television: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”

Putin, of course, did more than say great things about Trump, which brings up what was, until the Ukraine scandal surfaced, the most significant way in which Trump’s extraordinary narcissism influenced his presidency—the Russia investigation. Trump made that investigation about himself, and in the course of doing so, committed what appear to be unmistakably criminal acts. At the outset, the Mueller investigation wasn’t about what Donald Trump had done during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. It was primarily an investigation about what the Russians had done to interfere with that election and to help the Trump campaign. At its core, it was a counterintelligence investigation—an effort to protect the country, to defend our democracy. An effort to find out exactly what a hostile foreign power had done to attack the United States, so that our nation could fight back, and so that it could take measures to ensure that such an attack never happened again.

But Trump didn’t see it that way. The Mueller report repeatedly describes Trump’s self-obsession, and his disregard for the national interest. Trump viewed “the intelligence community assessment of Russian interference as a threat to the legitimacy of his electoral victory.” He is said to have “viewed the Russia investigation as an attack on the legitimacy of his win.” He thought it would “tak[e] away from what he had accomplished.” The Washington Post has now reported, moreover, that in the Oval Office in May 2017, Trump told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador that he was unconcerned with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

And so, contrary to his obligation to act in the nation’s interests rather than his own, and contrary to the criminal code, he repeatedly tried to obstruct the investigation—and therefore, ironically, put himself in the crosshairs of the investigation. Thanks to Trump’s narcissism, the special counsel was forced to devote an entire volume of his report—some 182 pages of single-spaced text—to Trump’s repeated and persistent efforts to derail the investigation. And persistent, Trump was. He tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the investigation, to violate ethics rules and unrecuse himself, so that he could get rid of the special counsel and limit the investigation to future election interference only. Trump tried to get his White House counsel to have the acting attorney general remove Mueller on a ridiculous pretext, prompting the counsel to threaten to resign. Trump tried to encourage witnesses to refuse to cooperate with the very government that Trump himself heads. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in his efforts to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump “did much more than this, but all of this is more than enough: He committed the crime of obstructing justice—multiple times.” Trump even obstructed justice about obstructing justice when he tried to get the White House counsel to write a false account of Trump’s efforts to remove Mueller.

All in all, Trump sought to impede and end a significant counterintelligence and criminal investigation—one of crucial importance to the nation—and did so for his own personal reasons. He did precisely the opposite of what his duties require. Indeed, he has shown utter contempt for his duties to the nation. How else could one describe the attitude Trump expressed when, sitting next to Vladimir Putin in late June, he was asked whether he would tell Putin not to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election? Trump smirked, wagged his finger playfully at Putin, and said, “Don’t meddle in the election.” Putin smirked too. The Russian president was in on the joke—the punch line being how Trump treats America’s interests versus his own.

What constitutional mechanisms exist for dealing with a president who cannot or does not comply with his duties, and how should they take the president’s mental and behavioral characteristics into account? One mechanism discussed with great frequency during the past three years, including within the Trump administration, is Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. That provision allows the vice president to become “Acting President” when the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But it doesn’t define what such an inability entails; essentially, it lets the vice president and the Cabinet, the president himself, and ultimately two-thirds of both houses of Congress decide.

Certainly it would cover a coma. Had the amendment been in effect in 1919 through 1921, it presumably could have been used to deal with President Woodrow Wilson. A severe stroke had rendered Wilson paralyzed on the left side, but he could still speak, and he could still sign documents with his right hand. Nevertheless, although Wilson had “relatively well preserved intellectual function,” the stroke rendered him “subject to ‘disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, and defective judgment.’”

Sound judgment, of course, is what a president’s job is all about. And as Jeffrey Rosen has explained, “nothing in the text or original understanding of the amendment” would prevent the vice president, the Cabinet, or Congress from deciding that Trump has disorders of emotion, impaired impulse control, defective judgment, or other behavioral or psychological issues that keep him from carrying out his constitutional duties the way they were meant to be carried out.

The problem is one of mechanics. Section 4, quite understandably, was designed to be extremely difficult to implement. The vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can determine that the president isn’t able to carry out his duties; if so, the vice president immediately becomes acting president. But if the president doesn’t agree—and you know what Trump’s view will be, no matter what—then a constitutional game of ping-pong starts: The president can certify that he is capable, and he can reassume his authority after a four-day waiting period, unless the vice president and the Cabinet, within that period, recertify that the president can’t function. (As a new book on Section 4 explains, this waiting period exists in part because “a deranged President could do a lot of damage if he could retake power immediately,” and, in particular, he “would also be able to fire the Cabinet, which would prevent it from contesting his declaration of ability.”) If that happens, the vice president continues as acting president, and the whole matter gets kicked to Congress, which must assemble within 48 hours and decide within 21 days: If two-thirds of both houses agree that the president can’t function, then the vice president continues as acting president; if not, the president gets his authority back.

No matter how psychologically incapable of meeting his constitutional obligations Trump may be, that route is virtually certain not to work in this case. Would a vice president and department heads who have shamelessly slaked Trump’s narcissistic thirst at Cabinet meetings by praising his supposed greatness, and who of course owe their jobs to Trump, dare incur his wrath by sparking a constitutional crisis on the basis of what they must surely know about his unprecedented faults? Doubtful, to say the least. They would know full well that, if their decision weren’t sustained by Congress, the first thing that Trump would do after reassuming power would be to fire every department head who sought to have him sidelined. (He can’t fire Vice President Mike Pence, of course.) Which brings up the ultimate question upon which successful invocation of Section 4 would turn: whether two-thirds of both houses of Congress would vote to remove Trump. That’s harder than impeachment, which requires only a simple majority of the House in order to bring charges of impeachment to a trial in the Senate (which in turn can convict on a two-thirds vote).

And so it turns out that impeachment is a more practical mechanism for addressing the fact that Trump’s narcissism and sociopathy render him unable to comply with the obligations of his office. It’s also an appropriate mechanism, because the constitutional magic words (other than Treason and Bribery) that form the basis of an impeachment charge—high Crimes and Misdemeanors, found in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution—mean something other than, and more than, offenses in the criminal-statute books. High Crimes and Misdemeanors is a legal term of art, one that historically referred to breaches of duties—fiduciary duties—by public officeholders. In other words, the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense for a president coincides precisely with whether the president can execute his office in the faithful manner that the Constitution requires.

The phrase high Crimes and Misdemeanors was dropped into the draft Constitution on September 8, 1787, during the waning days of the Constitutional Convention. The discussion before the Convention’s Committee of Eleven was extremely brief. The extant version of what became Article II, Section 4 provided for impeachment merely for treason and bribery. George Mason objected, and proposed adding “maladministration.” Elbridge Gerry seconded Mason’s proposal, but James Madison objected that it was too vague. Gouverneur Morris chimed in, arguing that having a presidential election “every four years will prevent maladministration.” Mason moved to add, according to Madison’s notes, “other high crimes & misdemeanors (against the State).” The motion passed, eight to three. And so, as a result of that brief exchange, Article II of the Constitution of the United States provides that “the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

As Yoni Appelbaum has observed in this magazine, “constitutional lawyers have been arguing about what counts as a ‘high crime’ or ‘misdemeanor’ ever since.” One of the most compelling arguments about the meaning of those words is that the Framers, in Article II’s command that a president faithfully execute his office, imposed upon him fiduciary obligations. As the constitutional historian Robert Natelson explained in the Federalist Society Review, the “founding generation [understood] ‘high … Misdemeanors’ to mean ‘breach of fiduciary duty.’” Eighteenth-century lawyers instead used terms such as breach of trust—which describes the same thing. “Parliamentary articles of impeachment explicitly and repetitively described the accused conduct as a breach of trust,” Natelson argues, and 18th-century British legal commentators explained how impeachment for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” was warranted for all sorts of noncriminal violations that were, in essence, fiduciary breaches.

Just as the Framers viewed the presidency as fiduciary, they understood the offenses that might disqualify the incumbent as breaches of that fiduciary duty. And that may well be why the discussion of Morris’s suggestion was so brief—the drafters knew what the words historically meant, because, as a House Judiciary Committee report noted in 1974, “at the time of the Constitutional Convention the phrase ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ had been in use for over 400 years in impeachment proceedings in Parliament.” Certainly Alexander Hamilton knew by the time he penned “Federalist No. 65,” in which he explained that impeachment was for “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

What constitutes such an abuse or violation of trust is up to Congress to decide: First the House decides to bring impeachment charges, and then the Senate decides whether to convict on those charges. The process of impeachment by the House and removal by trial in the Senate is thus, in some ways, akin to indictment by a grand jury and trial by a petit jury. In other ways, it is quite different. As Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz explain in their recent book on impeachment, “the Constitution explicitly states that Congress may not end a presidency unless the president has committed an impeachable offense. But nowhere does the Constitution state or otherwise imply that Congress must remove a president whenever that standard is met … In other words, it allows Congress to exercise judgment.” As Tribe and Matz argue, that judgment presents a “heavy burden,” and demands that Congress be “context-sensitive,” and achieve “an understanding of all relevant facts.” A president might breach his trust to the nation once in some small, inconsequential way and never repeat the misbehavior, and Congress could reasonably decide that the game is not worth the candle.

So the congressional judgment in the impeachment process necessarily includes the number and seriousness of offenses, and even extends well beyond those calculations. Congress must also, in particular, weigh the chances of recidivism; that possibility is precisely why the Constitution provides for removal as the principal sanction upon conviction on impeachment charges. As Charles Black Jr. explained in his classic 1974 book on impeachment, “We remove him principally because we fear he will do it again.” Or as George Mason put it during the Constitutional Convention, “Shall the man who has practised corruption … be suffered to escape punishment, by repeating his guilt?

In short, now that the House of Representatives has embarked on an impeachment inquiry, one of the most important judgments it must make is whether any identified breaches of duty are likely to be repeated. And if a Senate trial comes to pass, that issue would become central as well to the decision to remove the president from office. That’s when Trump’s behavioral and psychological characteristics should—must—come into play. From the evidence, it appears that he simply can’t stop himself from putting his own interests above the nation’s. Any serious impeachment proceedings should consider not only the evidence and the substance of all impeachable offenses, but also the psychological factors that may be relevant to the motivations underlying those offenses. Congress should make extensive use of experts—psychologists and psychiatrists.

  • Is Trump so narcissistic that he can’t help but use his office for his own personal ends?
  • Is he so sociopathic that he can’t be trusted to follow, let alone faithfully execute, the law?

Congress should consider all this because that’s what the question of impeachment demands. But there’s another reason as well. The people have a right to know, and a need to see. Many people have watched all of Trump’s behavior, and they’ve drawn the obvious conclusion. They know something’s wrong, just as football fans knew that the downed quarterback had shattered his leg. Others have changed the channel, or looked away, or chosen to deny what they’ve seen. But if Congress does its job and presents the evidence, those who are in denial won’t be able to ignore the problem any longer. Not only because of the evidence itself, but because Donald Trump will respond in pathological ways—and in doing so, he’ll prove the points against him in ways almost no one will be able to ignore.