Evil is Not a Psychiatric Illness
A reflection on Dr. Steven Reisner's message
Since the earliest days of Trump’s candidacy, media has been glutted with op-eds suggesting he is unfit for the role of presidency because he is “mentally ill,” with doctors and psychiatrists intentionally violating the Goldwater Rule by attempting to diagnose the new president without having had any clinical contact. At a talk sponsored by the New School Psychotherapy Program 11 days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, Dr. Steven Reisner asked his audience to throw out a few features that might characterize the new president. Words were readily flung from different corners of the room with confidence, consisting primarily of pathological symptoms such as narcissism, grandiosity, impulsivity, lack of compassion, denial of reality — the list went on.
It is argued that Trump holds beliefs that are out of touch with reality; but whose reality are we referring to? Reisner drew on Freud’s metaphor of The Artist; for Freud, it is the artist’s unique capacity to make his vision of reality real. Artists fulfill their own desires through their art and are able to transform reality through the conversion of the observer’s fantasy into real life. Similarly, Trump has the ability to assess the fears and imagination of the masses, and then — with a tweet or an executive order — pronounces it into reality. According to Reisner, Trump is the great Freudian artist of our time.
His point is well taken, when we consider that the horror we are living is real. In fact, according to Reisner, those of us who claim Trump is delusional are ourselves living a delusion, as he later elaborated in Slate. Reisner instructs that we must not take Trump on in the arena of mental health, but rather in the realm of values. Setting aside Trump’s possible diagnoses, Reisner pushes his audience to instead reflect on the contextual circumstances which led to his inauguration. One explanation is the idea of American Exceptionalism. The world has praised America’s greatness for many years. This ideology is based in the democracy and financial success which brought about Neoliberalism, a full-blown cultural phenomenon of which most citizens are not even aware. Neoliberalism is a modified form of liberalism that favors capitalism, ultimately leading to the grossly unequal distribution of wealth that we see in our world today. We live in a time where academic faculty are not hired for their skills in teaching, but for the grants that their research may produce. Medical leaders create tests which will bring more money, rather than find cures for the deadly diseases of our time. The way capital is distributed in our society has created subjects that are suffering shame and alienation. Such emotions inevitably cultivate a strong desire for a savior who promises to restore wealth and to re-codify a shattered world. People are frightened and looking for a solid austere leader to save them. While Trump could hardly be described as solid, let alone austere, he promises the people this safety because they ask for it; however, he manipulates. How should we respond?
Reisner offers three basic concepts with which we can play in order to develop a strategy to fight a good fight. The first of the three is the concept of The Third, a psychoanalytic concept in relational analysis which often means something like ‘that which emerges within and between the intersubjective field of the patient and the analyst.’ It is dynamic and responsive to changes between and within the people involved. Reisner then employs the idea of The Third to invoke questions of power relations among people. We’ve come to accept that the one in power makes all the rules; however somewhere along the line there comes the idea that, actually, power relations should be determined not simply by authority but by some kind of moral, ethical, legal Codes. For Reisner, the Code is much like the field of the Third. We act on it, socially create it, and it acts on us, and creates us. Examples include The 10 commandments, the Hammurabi Code, the Magna Carta. The basic idea is that there is a transcendent law for the way things should be, but we should understand it to be dynamic rather than static and absolute. We judge those in power not only by what they do but by the way they’re supposed to behave. Even the king is beholden to the law. Even the president is beholden to the constitution. Even the psychoanalyst is beholden to the basic rules of psychoanalysis; these are ethical codes. And yet people act in resistance to these norms, and indeed change them. Reisner argues that hope only exists under tyranny because there is an idea of an independent Code; the idea of an alternative that says this is wrong. In the same way as ‘the Third’ the Codes are dynamic and intersubjectively constituted, so they can and must be accessed and rethought throughout history if they are to be reflective of the real needs, wishes, and contingencies of a populace.
The second concept is the State of Exception. This idea presumes that in certain emergencies, under actual or imminent threat, The Codes are suspended, and those in authority become the law. Such circumstances were seen repeatedly throughout history; in the U.S. on September 11 th, in France after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, during the civil war when Lincoln suspended the Habeas Corpus. Reisner’s argument comes to a head to distinguish mental illness from evil: Evil, he says, is he who manipulates the State of Exception for increased power and wealth; when humanitarian codes are cast aside in the preference of personal monetary gains. It is the country’s National Security Council which ideally holds the power of the State of Exception, and when this group is meddled with,, this is when we should fear a real threat. We are now faced with the possibility that the State of Exception is expanded to nightmarish proportions. Reisner suggests that “Trump can be likened to the magician who waves one hand in the face of the observer while fabricating the true hoax through his manipulations with the second unseen hand. These are not the machinations of a madman, but the highly orchestrated tactics of the one who wishes to deceive. This is precisely what elucidates the distinction between the two.” This is Evil, he believes, and I agree.
The third of the three concepts is Resistance. This eventually comes up in the face of a concentration of power when people are trying to uphold a Code. Through resistance it becomes possible to separate oneself from the looming imposition of an authority that seems to be everywhere and to see everything. Reisner likens this to the first lie told by a child, after which she realizes that she is separate from her authority figure; it is with this realization that the young child finds that her mind is not transparent, and that there is a world inside of her which is different than that which overwhelms from the outside. The day one gets away with the first lie results in a significant mental achievement: the capacity for resistance. The degree of surveillance and the collapse of privacy in our present historical moment threatens to collapse the space necessary for resistance, the space necessary for the moral deliberation that fuels resistance. Thus part of the project is to take back and expand that space.
Reisner describes the three groups of people in a tyrannical situation: those who take pleasure in the aggression, those who resist it, and those who freeze. He begs us to not blame the latter, as to freeze is the normal reaction in the face of adversity and trauma. Fight or flight is the natural response in the face of an emergency, and it is not the more common reaction to fight, but rather, to flee in fright. It is important for us as scholars and doctors and laypeople to search for the catalyst of mobilization. What does it take to resist? The colossal numbers on the streets today are ever promising, and this is the direction we must continue to travel on.