Prof. Louis René Beres
After enduring four years of a soiled and dissembling presidency, US voters are entitled to raise a once inconceivable question. Before voting in the 2024 presidential election, they should inquire with appropriate seriousness: “Are these candidates “normal?” Any such query would be many-sided and exceedingly complicated. After all, Americans will have to recall that when he was first introduced as a plausible political candidate back in 2016, Donald J. Trump seemed to many more charmingly “original” than genuinely dangerous or sinister.
At that time, at least for many Americans, Donald J. Trump was even presumed “refreshingly eccentric” or “reassuringly honest.”
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But that was before The Horror.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”
Looking ahead, however, to be purposeful and decent, the selection of the next US president ought not become a psychiatric task per se. In essence, such selection should not be directed by any deliberate search for “abnormality.” This means, inter alia, looking for all of the traditionally-valued qualities of intellect and integrity, but dispensing with any stark assessment differentiations between “normal” and “abnormal.” This is not because “abnormality” would be insignificant, but because it could “present” in unforeseeable ways or be no more portentous than “normalcy.”
The world is complicated, Among other things, US voters will need to learn that seemingly “normal” individuals could sometimes pose a manifestly grave threat to American democracy. In certain circumstances, a presumptively “normal” candidate – “eccentric,” “refreshing,” and “charming” – could disguise even greater peril than a glaringly “abnormal” one.
In all such bewildering assessments, nuance will be critical. At first glance, designations of “normal” and “abnormal” could appear to be sharply delineating and mutually exclusive. Still, upon more subtle and careful examinations, we could all discover that these qualities are more correctly thought of as different points along a common continuum than as discernible analytic alternatives. The real task is not to make this important discovery too late in the “game.”
There is more. Sigmund Freud wrote imaginatively about the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914) while tracing various connections between “abnormal” and “normal.” In consequence, he was surprised to learn just how faint the supposed line of conceptual demarcation could actually be. Exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now popularly call “Freudian slips,” Freud concluded, somewhat counter-intuitively, that specific psychopathologic traits could often be identified in apparently “normal” persons.
Such identifications, moreover, could prove to be entirely routine.
After World War II and the Holocaust, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi (SS) doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that monstrous Nazi crimes had been justified as “hygiene,” and medicalized murders designated “therapeutic,” Lifton was determined to answer some very basic questions. Most elementary of his pertinent queries was this one: How could Nazi doctors have managed to conform the large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with an otherwise normal/civilized private life?
Some of Lifton’s findings were markedly unexpected. It was not unusual, for example, that Nazi doctors had remained good fathers and husbands while simultaneously murdering Jewish children. Like some of the most heinous concentration camp commandants, these defiling physicians (doctors who were sworn by Hippocrates to “do no harm”) were capable of supervising systematic mass murders six days a week.
On the seventh day, properly, conventionally and sometimes even religiously, they went off to church with their families.
Polite and nicely groomed for the occasion.
In Auschwitz, on Sunday, SS prayers were commonly uttered in liturgical chorus. How could this be? More importantly, for us to inquire, how can Professor Lifton’s scholarly insights and answers from this earlier era of mass criminality help us to better understand the future selection of an American president?
Lifton carried on his examination of the Nazi “biomedical vision” as a Yale Professor and as Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy. For the American-Jewish physician, this examination was not just some random undertaking of unstructured curiosity. Rather, adhering to widely-accepted and intellectually impressive protocols, Dr. Lifton embarked upon a carefully rigorous scientific study.
To the physician, the Oath of Hippocrates pledges that “I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art.” When asked about this unwavering duty, most of the interviewed SS doctors had felt no contradiction. In Nazi ideology, “The Jew,” after all, was “a source of infection.” Ridding society of the Jews, it follows, was a properly “anti-infective” medical goal. Moreover, they saw such murderously irrational “excisions” as an “obligation” of “healing” and “compassion.”
Credo quia absurdum, we might recall. “I believe because it is absurd.”
However seemingly inane, Americans must prepare to consider mass murder as a heinous crime sometimes justified by metaphor. Millions of Holocaust murders offer irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to fully subordinate science and reason to the most preposterous forms of doggerel. With such a willful subordination, otherwise normal human behavior could give way to once unimaginable levels of human predation.
Now, variously underling explanatory themes arise, several which may shed light on the conspicuously dark and untruthful Trump Era. To wit, the duality of good and evil within each individual person is a very old idea in western thought, most notably in German literature, from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in studying this clarifying literature, we may learn that the critical boundaries of caring and compassion are most genuinely not between “normal” and “abnormal” persons, but instead, within each individual person. Ordinarily, it is time to recognize, the generally porous walls of human normalcy and abnormality allow each single individual to oscillate more or less freely between cruelty and altruism, between violence and calm, between right and wrong, between reason and anti-reason.
American voters take heed. Truth is never just a political contrivance, as has been supposed by Donald J, Trump and his continuously obedient enablers. In short, truth is exculpatory, in psychiatry as well as in politics. At any moment of human history, the veneer of human civilization remains thin, markedly thin. Always, it is grievously fragile, ready to crack.
When, finally, it does begin to fracture, as in the case of the marooned children in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a ubiquitous human nature imperils even the most well bred British schoolboys. It is a predatory nature exposing darkly primal and variously intersecting layers of pure barbarism.
Thomas Mann reminds, though in generic terms, this destructive nature will “dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed.”
After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt advanced the sobering hypothesis that evil can be stunningly ordinary or “banal;” that it can be generated by the literal and seemingly benign absence of authentic thought. Unsurprisingly, this novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and disputed following the actual trial, but it was nonetheless rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly Goethe’s Faust. Hannah Arendt’s resurgent idea of evil as mundane was further reinforced by still-earlier studies of nefarious human behavior in the crowd, the herd, or the mass, especially the variously overlapping works of Soren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gustave LeBon, Carl G. Jung, Elias Canetti, and Sigmund Freud.
In all of these thematically-related writings, a common focus is placed upon the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity on individual human behavior. In this authentically vital genre, Freud’s own best contribution remains his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). The seminal psychologist-philosopher already knew that Reason is at perpetual war with Anti-Reason, and that political dictatorships will inevitably favor the latter.
Robert Lifton also likely knew all this. Still, he sought something more, some other isolatable mechanism by which the ordinary or “normal” evildoer could render himself or herself “abnormal.” Ultimately, he discovered this esoteric mechanism in an intra-psychic process labeled as “doubling.”
Different from the traditional psychoanalytic concept of “splitting,” or what Freud preferred to call “dissociation,” doubling, said Lifton, is the means whereby an “opposing self” begins to replace portions of the “original self,” in effect usurping and overwhelming that original self from within. When this happens, we learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil-doing without restraint and even while the original self seeks to remain “good.”
Significantly, for optimum understanding of the outgoing Trump presidency, doubling permits pertinent evil doers to avoid personal guilt, and thus to live simultaneously within two discrete and adversarial levels of human consciousness.
As a “maneuver,” however unwitting, doubling allowed the Nazi doctors to become murderers and decent family men at the same time. In similar fashion, doubling is likely the way that shameless Trump-sycophants are able to reconcile the apparent ordinariness of their public lives with derivative expressions of personal cruelty. Timely examples here would be Trump’s “Darwinian” attitude toward the exploding Covid19 pandemic and his sustained indifference to massive mistreatment of Hispanic refugee children along US southern borders.
As with the Nazi doctors and the Jews, it is plausible that “know nothing” Trump-followers regard the harms inflicted upon certain “others” (de facto, “sub-humans”) as not merely pleasing, but as a welcome form of national “healing.”
Sometimes, truth emerges through paradox. Accordingly, there can be an abnormal side to normalcy. For the future, in thinking about how best to continuously protect ourselves from another sordid and toxic president, Americans would be well-advised not to think of their prospective leader in narrowly polar terms – that is, normal/abnormal; good/evil.
In the Third Reich, doubling was not the only reason certain “normal” individuals were able to be complicit in crimes against humanity. Elements of “groupthink,” especially an overwhelming need to belong, have always been a dominant decisional influence on human behavior. Clinically, at least, whatever sorts of explanation might ultimately emerge as most persuasive, we Americans may still have to accept that the most odious and contemptible political leaders have sometimes been clinically “normal.”
Such conclusions ought to be kept in mind as future US voters prepare to better understand the “psychopathology of normalcy.” In support of such necessary preparations, citizens ought to focus more diligently on tangible fact-based explanations than on narrowly simplistic or corrosively conspiratorial ones. And just as important, Americans should prepare to reject future candidates who display any darkly visible affections for prejudice and rancor, the sort of hatreds that have been nurtured so systematically by Donald J. Trump at home and abroad.
There is more. When violence-stoking hatreds are channeled by President Trump into the crudely belligerent nationalism of “America First,” they could result in catastrophic international war. In this regard, Americans won’t be out of the woods (not even tentatively or partially) until January 20th, 2021. At that point, the full consequences of the Trump presidency should reveal themselves not as just a passing “abnormality,” but as the plausible result of a political selection process that can overlook or understate the “banality of evil.”
Should this flawed process ignore interrelated considerations of law, intellect and ethics once again in 2024, the lethal consequences could then prove irremediable. Why does the famous Edvard Munch “scream” (above) resonate so tellingly across the world? It is because so many “normal” human beings are able to grasp intuitively a very sobering awareness: In a world that is so conspicuously mad, not to be mad could represent just another form of madness.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy
PHOTO: Past, present, and future in one picture: President Donald J. Trump shakes hands with the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, and future president Joe Biden during the Presidential Inauguration 2017. Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cristian L. Ricardo