Section 7.3 of the American Psychiatric Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics, known as the “Goldwater Rule,” deals with the psychoanalysis of public figures.
In full, Section 7.3 states: “On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
How did this rule come to be necessary? In 1964, a group of psychiatrists published an article in the erroneously-named Fact magazine claiming that Republican nominee Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president.
To give you an idea of how low these psychiatrists sunk in their attempts to cast aspersions on Goldwater’s character, the article (titled “The Unconscious of a Conservative” in mockery of Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative) claimed without basis that Goldwater was an anti-Semite who was ashamed of his “effeminate” Jewish father, and said that “On the free-for-all stage of American politics all his aggressions, hostility, all his fears and delusions of persecutions, all his infantile fantasies of revenge and dreams of total annihilation of his adversaries found a perfect platform.”
These public statements, written immediately before the 1964 election at a time when the Johnson campaign was doing all it could to portray Goldwater as an unpredictable right-wing extremist, were devastating to Goldwater’s campaign, and helped him lose the subsequent election in a landslide.
Coming from the Johnson campaign, these sorts of attacks are normal in American politics. What was not normal was for professional psychiatrists who had never met or psychoanalyzed Goldwater to join in the attack, and lend their professional credibility to Johnson’s claims.
In hindsight, we can say with relative confidence that Goldwater was probably not the raving lunatic that the Fact article portrayed him to be. Many of its claims (such as the allegation that Goldwater had had nervous breakdowns) were provably false, and a great many more were based in debunked Freudian theory. After the election Goldwater successfully sued Fact for libel.
If Fact had been willing to take an unbiased look at reality, it might have noticed that the less psychologically fit candidate for the presidency in 1964 was probably Lyndon Johnson, an insecure sex maniac and bully who would force his Cabinet members to follow him to the bathroom and watch him defecate if they challenged his authority.
As a result of this underhanded sabotage of the Goldwater campaign, the so-called “Goldwater Rule” was put into effect several years later. Since then, it has been followed by the psychiatric community only inconsistently, at best.
In 2004, for instance, right before the presidential election between John Kerry and George Bush, a psychoanalyst named Justin Frank wrote a book entitled Bush on the Couch. Much like “The Unconscious of a Conservative,” Bush on the Couch portrayed President Bush, whom Dr. Frank had never formally psychoanalyzed, as a dangerous narcissist who was unfit for office.
(Dr. Frank, a lifelong Democrat, later wrote Obama on the Couch, which portrayed President Obama as a man in “excellent mental health” whose greatest challenge was his inability to stand up to those damned Republicans in Congress. How convenient.)
All of this, on top of flying directly in the face of the Goldwater Rule, is pure sophistry. No honest psychologist would claim the ability to accurately psychoanalyze an individual whom they have never met, and of whom their only knowledge has been filtered through the news media.
If one were so inclined, one could write an equally strong case for why George Bush was in “excellent mental health,” and why Barack Obama is mentally unfit for office. This, too, would be sophistry, and a disgrace to the psychiatric profession.
However, modern mental health professionals lean far to the left. An informal show-of-hands study by Jonathan Haidt at the convention for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, for instance, found that the vast majority of the audience identified as liberal, and exactly three out of the thousand or so audience members identified as “conservative or right of center.”
A more formal 2012 study by Inbar and Lammers found much the same result. According to their study, 85% of psychologists identify as liberal, and only 6% identify as conservative… and “the more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate” against conservatives.
Because of this overwhelming left-wing bias in the mental health profession, the violations of the Goldwater Rule are almost exclusively one-way.
And, as you might imagine, in the time since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, any gasping remnant of the Goldwater Rule has been ground into dust.
Trump, with his famously grandiose and aggressive personality, provides the ultimate temptation for left-leaning mental health professionals to analyze him from afar. And, sure enough, they have overwhelmingly risen to the bait, and, in doing so, abandoned the basic ethical standards of their profession.
In a lengthy piece for The Atlantic, for instance, Dan P. McAdams concluded that Trump was a dangerous, self-absorbed, confrontational narcissist, summarizing his analysis by saying “I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost.”
In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, Matthew Goldenberg, after acknowledging the Goldwater Rule, nonetheless concluded that Trump is so dangerous that “remaining quiet about the upcoming election feels like an abdication of moral responsibility,” and argued that Trump is worse than a narcissist: “I know and treat plenty of people with narcissism, and none of them publicly incite violence or malign entire ethnic groups.”
This is the mindset of a great many psychologists and psychiatrists today: Trump is such a dangerous candidate that ordinary ethical standards do not matter.
Plenty of people believe that Trump is a danger to the United States, it is true. Eight years ago, plenty of people believed the exact same thing about Barack Obama. What is the difference between these two fears, except that one of them is shared by a larger number of psychologists? What political credentials do most of these psychologists have that qualify them to say with confidence that fear of Trump is more rational than fear of Obama?
Democrats have objected to Republicans who have speculated, without strong evidence, that Hillary Clinton may be physically unfit for the presidency. And yet few of them have any problem with the even more insidious claim, again made without strong evidence, that Clinton’s opponent may be mentally unfit for the presidency.
In fact, some psychologists go even further than to malign the mental health of Donald Trump himself. A few of them speak about Trump as a danger to the collective mental health of our nation.
Increasingly, psychologists are talking about the “Trump Effect,” a term that has become so ubiquitous that it was used by Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate. A Google search for the term turns up dozens of scare stories about the pernicious effect that Donald Trump is said to be having on our collective mental health.
As early as last March, for instance, a Washington Post article was bemoaning “Trump anxiety” among psychiatric patients. One individual was quoted as saying, “I literally can’t sleep because I just thought about how Trump may actually win the Presidency and now I’m having a panic attack.”
For the last eight years, conservatives who have expressed fear of President Obama and his political agenda have been publicly mocked as incoherent, hysterical, and needlessly paranoid. It is a safe bet that if a Republican said they were “having a panic attack” about Obama destroying the country in 2008 or 2009, they would have quickly become a laughingstock for liberal comedians like Jon Stewart.
Conservatives’ fear for the future of the country is treated as laughable, while liberals’ fear for the future of the country is legitimized by the psychiatric establishment.
From a strictly unbiased psychological standpoint, in which all political values are treated as neutral, why should one fear be any more or less legitimate than the other?
Barack Obama did not destroy America, like some people said he would. If Donald Trump is elected, he probably will not destroy America, either. His policies, like Obama’s, might arguably be bad for the country, but the United States has so far been able to survive a great many bad politicians.
Why do no psychologists have the presence of mind to point this out to their patients?
Perhaps because their goal is not to alleviate anxiety, but to channel it for their own purposes.
A recent article in Politico entitled “America’s Therapists Are Worried About Trump’s Effect On Your Mental Health” talked about psychologists figuring out ways “how patients who feel threatened by Trump can take action as citizens rather than feeling helpless—for instance, by registering new voters—rather than turning to passive coping mechanisms.”
If this sentence does not disturb you, then you should read it again.
This is an open admission that the mental health profession is openly transforming itself into an activist wing of the Democratic Party. Patients suffering from “Trump Anxiety” are encouraged to seek out positive coping mechanisms such as “registering new voters.”
For these individuals who are experiencing anxiety, anti-Trump political activism is being presented to them as the pathway back to good mental health. Vulnerable people are being told in their moments of weakness that helping the Democratic Party win will help vanquish their personal demons.
This is a clear violation of ethics, and it deserves to be condemned from the highest levels of the psychiatric establishment.
The Politico article extensively cites “A Public Manifesto: Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism,” which was written by William J. Doherty at the University of Minnesota.
Doherty’s manifesto skirts around the (now long dead and decomposing) Goldwater Rule by stopping just short of directly attacking Trump’s mental health, but nonetheless it is dripping with politically charged language. Citing such scientifically valid sources as Urban Dictionary, the manifesto describes “Trumpism” as “an emerging form of American fascism” which “is inconsistent with emotionally healthy living.”
Doherty describes Trumpism as encouraging “the tendency to blame others in our lives for our personal fears and insecurities” and “a kind of hyper-masculinity that is antithetical to the examined life and healthy relationships that psychotherapy helps people achieve.”
I cannot rebut every single politically and psychologically dubious claim in Doherty’s manifesto, for the simple reason that he makes far too many such claims for me to address in a single column.
Suffice to say this, his manifesto, once again, is an example of the worst sort of psychiatric sophistry.
Using Doherty’s exact words, one could just as easily argue that Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which blamed Wall Street and the super-rich for the plight of middle Americans, was rooted in “the tendency to blame others in our lives for our personal fears and insecurities,” and representative of “the illusion that real Americans can only become winners if others become losers” (another quote from Doherty).
Under a free market capitalist system, after all, individuals are considered largely responsible for their own success or failure, and a rising tide is said to lift all boats, the middle class as well as the wealthy.
In fact, far from arguing that Donald Trump poses a threat to the collective mental health of our nation, one could argue that Trump’s campaign has brought about many positives for mental health.
I have spoken to many people who feel so silenced by the culture of political correctness in our country that they can be said to have developed a sort of social anxiety. They watch their words carefully, and they try to avoid saying anything that could be construed as offensive… or at least they used to do so.
Since Trump began his campaign, however, several of my friends have told me that they feel much more confident expressing themselves in unpopular ways, and less worried about what other people might think of them. Over the past year, Trump has proven to ordinary Americans that you can say politically incorrect things and live to tell the tale.
If Trump is potentially helping millions of Americans overcome a deep sense of shame and self-doubt foisted upon them by the political left, is that not a positive step forward for mental health?
My point is not to argue that Donald Trump is actually an expert shrink, or that Bernie Sanders encourages poor mental health. However, such arguments could be made. One could make a mental health argument for or against Trump, Sanders, Clinton, or any other politician on the left or the right.
The language of mental health, after all, should not be used as a tool to reinforce political ideology. To try to argue that one particular political movement, such as “Trumpism,” embodies good or bad mental health, is a misuse of the basic concepts of psychology.
By abandoning their ethical principles, psychologists and psychiatrists are also abandoning their credibility. Millions of Americans are conservative, and some of them (shocker!) even support Trump. These individuals are just as prone as anyone else to suffer from mental health issues. If they are made to feel that their political views are a pathology, then they may be discouraged from seeking help when they truly need it.
Trump’s unorthodox presidential campaign has come as such a shock to some sectors of this nation that they feel the need to do everything in their power to stop him, including abandoning basic ethical standards. The mainstream media is one such sector. The mental health industry, apparently, is another.
Such professionals justify themselves by saying that “this is no ordinary election,” and that Trump poses such a danger to this nation that they are obligated to stop him by any means necessary. But if Trump represents the ultimate test of one’s commitment to unbiased practice and adherence to ethical standards, then they have failed. And this failure is to their detriment as much as Trump’s.
Already, the news media has lost credibility in the eyes of millions of Americans for its clear and openly expressed bias in this election cycle. And if the mental health profession is not careful, it may do the same. When this election cycle is over, Trump may or may not be in the White House – but the self-inflicted damage done to the mental health profession by their open abandonment of the Goldwater Rule may be irreparable.
In my next piece, I plan to further explore the ramifications of bias in the mental health industry.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonGarshfield