Robert Jay Lifton discussed his book The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival with Michael Gerrard at Book Culture Bookstore in NYC on October 18, 2017. See the C-SPAN recording of the event here.
On December 5th, 2017, Robert Jay Lifton was the first recipient of the Raphael Lemkin Engaged Scholar Award given by the Rutgers Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR). At the award event Dr. Lifton gave a lecture entitled, “Research as Witness: What I’ve Learned from Hiroshima Survivors, Vietnam Veterans, and Nazi Doctors.” The award is “meant to recognize leading public intellectuals who have produced exemplary scholarship while grappling with the most pressing global challenges.”
Robert Jay Lifton appeared in a two-part interview on the progressive news show “Democracy Now!” on October 13, 2017.
The interview begins with a discussion of the Duty to Warn movement, “a group of psychiatrists and psychologists who feel we have the right and the obligation to speak out about Trump’s psyche when it endangers the country and the world.” In particular, Lifton describes Trump’s problematic relationship to reality, his potential unraveling, and the risk of malignant normality, which are just a few of the topics addressed in the recently published volume The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.
The second part of the interview shifts to subject matter from Dr. Lifton’s most recent book, The Climate Swerve, and specifically the argument that climate change is the “apocalyptic twin” of nuclear war, since “only these two threats, these two developments, can destroy the human species.”
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I belong to a group called the Duty to Warn, which is a group of psychiatrists and psychologists who feel we have the right and the obligation to speak out about Trump’s psyche when it endangers the country and the world. And what we’re seeing—you mentioned the potential unraveling of the pact with Iran. There’s also the potential unraveling of Donald Trump, which seems to be occurring. It’s hard to read him, because his behavior, as I understand it, is completely solipsistic. He sees the world through his own sense of self, what he needs and what he feels. And he couldn’t be more erratic or scattered or dangerous.
So, the exchange with North Korea has to be terrifying to all of us. It’s not something that can be controlled. You have two leaders who are bent on hyperbole and intense threat to the other and have their own motivations, each of which is hard for us to read. But we can read the danger that they represent, particularly since we’ve learned recently that Trump is on record for demanding something like 10 times the number of nuclear weapons. And that’s what I call extreme nuclearism, a kind of embrace of the weapons to do everything that they can’t do. The only thing nuclear weapons can do is destroy countries, cities, destroy human beings. But since they came into being, there has been an impulse to embrace them and see them as saviors, that prevent war, keep the world going, maintain authority on the part of the nuclear weapons-possessing nations. So Trump is into that extreme nuclearism.
And at the same time, as you mentioned, with the other apocalyptic twin, the terrible and very real threat of climate change, global warming, he and his followers are blocking every reasonable effect that was put forward at Paris in 2015 and which the world—through which the world seeks to confront what may be the gravest danger it’s ever faced. That’s where we are.
Full transcripts of both interviews are available on the Democracy Now! website:
Bill Moyers interviewed Robert Jay Lifton last week on the concerns expressed about the current president by a number of mental health professionals.
The central point is that a psychiatrist has a “duty to warn” when they perceive a risk of harm, but this duty is balanced by the Goldwater Rule, which warns against diagnosis outside of a clinical setting.
Dr. Lifton has written the foreword to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, a collection of essays by psychiatrists assessing the mental health of Donald Trump. It will be published October 3 by St. Martin’s Press.
To the Editor:
Soon after the election, one of us raised concerns about Donald Trump’s fitness for office, based on the alarming symptoms of mental instability he had shown during his campaign. Since then, this concern has grown. Even within the space of a few weeks, the demands of the presidency have magnified his erratic patterns of behavior.
In particular, we are struck by his repeated failure to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and his outbursts of rage when his fantasies are contradicted. Without any demonstrable evidence, he repeatedly resorts to paranoid claims of conspiracy.
Most recently, in response to suggestions of contact between his campaign and agents of the Russian government, he has issued tirades against the press as an “enemy of the people” and accusations without proof that his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, engaged in partisan surveillance against him.
We are in no way offering a psychiatric diagnosis, which would be unwise to attempt from a distance. Nevertheless, as psychiatrists we feel obliged to express our alarm. We fear that when faced with a crisis, President Trump will lack the judgment to respond rationally.
The military powers entrusted to him endanger us all. We urge our elected representatives to take the necessary steps to protect us from this dangerous president.
JUDITH L. HERMAN
ROBERT JAY LIFTON, NEW YORK