Don’t diagnose President Trump – respond to him

January 13, 2018 by Alan Dershowitz
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The 1964 presidential election was the second in which I voted.  Lyndon Johnson who had succeeded John Kennedy, was running against Barry Goldwater…writes Alan Dershowitz.

I didn’t like either candidate: Johnson’s personal characteristics were obnoxious, though he had achieved much, especially in the area of civil rights; Goldwater’s personal characteristics seemed fine, but I disapproved of his conservative political views.

I was shocked to read an article in Fact magazine based on interviews with more than 1,000 psychiatrists that concluded that Goldwater was mentally unstable and psychologically unfit to be president.  It was Lyndon Johnson whose personal fitness to hold the highest office I questioned.  Barry Goldwater seemed emotionally stable with excellent personal characteristics, but highly questionable politics.  The article was utterly unpersuasive, and in the end I reluctantly voted for Lyndon Johnson.  Barry Goldwater went back to the Senate, where he served with great distinction and high personal morality.  Lyndon Johnson got us deeply into an unwinnable war that hurt our nation. The more than 1000 psychiatrists, it turned out were dead wrong in their diagnosis and predictions.

Alan Dershowitz

Their misdiagnosis should surprise no one, since none of the psychiatrists had ever examined, or even met, Goldwater.  They just didn’t like his politics.  Indeed some feared that he would destroy the world if he had access to the nuclear button.  The most powerful TV ad against Goldwater showed a beautiful child playing with a flower.  Then the screen goes blank, presumably from a nuclear explosion, and the child, along with the world is blown up.  It was an effective ad.  It influenced me far more than the psychobabble in the Fact article.

Following the Goldwater-psychiatrist debacle, the American Psychiatric Association declared it to be unethical for a psychiatrist to offer any kind of a diagnosis on a public figure without having examined that person.

Now, more than half a century later, numerous psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are violating that sound ethical principle by diagnosis Donald Trump who they have never examined.  They are offering diagnoses, ranging from Alzheimer’s, to narcissistic personality, to paranoia and more.  A Yale psychiatry professor has suggested the possibility that Trump might be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.  Others have proposed that he be required to undergo psychiatric or psychological testing.  While still others have suggesting invoking the 25th Amendment and declaring the president incompetent.

For more than 25 years, I taught courses on Law and Psychiatry and related subjects at Harvard Law School.  I co-edited a basic text in the field. And I have written numerous articles regarding the ability and inability of psychiatrists to predict future conduct.  On the basis of my research and writing, I find it unprofessional, unethical and absurd for any mental health professional to offer a diagnosis or psychiatric prediction regarding President Donald Trump.  We are all entitled to our opinions regarding his political and personal qualification to be president.  I voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election, because I felt she was more qualified to be president than was Donald Trump.  That is my right as an American voter.  But psychiatrist and other mental health professionals have no more right to pathologise a President or a candidate because they disagree with his or her political views than do prosecutors or politicians have a right to criminalise political opponents.

I have been writing against the criminalisation of political differences for decades, because it is dangerous to democracy.  It is even more dangerous to pathologise or psychiatrise one’s political opponents based on opposition to their politics.  Using mental health professional health professionals to pathologise political opponents was a common tactic used by the Soviet Union, China and apartheid South Africa against political dissidents.  The American Psychological Association took a strong stand against the use of this weapon by tyrants.  I was deeply involved in that condemnation, because I understood how dangerous it is to diagnose a political opponent instead of responding to the merits or demerits of their political views.

It is even more dangerous when a democracy, like the United States, begins to go down the road of pathologising political differences.  So let us debate the merits and demerits of President Trump’s policies, personality and other factors that are relevant to his presidency.  But let’s leave diagnoses to doctors who have examined their patients.

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School and author of Trumped Up, How Criminalization of Political Differences endangers Democracy.

First published in Fox News


4 Responses to “Don’t diagnose President Trump – respond to him”
  1. Bill Rubinstein says:

    The voice of reason.

  2. Maurice May says:

    With the greatest respect to the writer, I believe that the world is entitled to form a view about Trump based on his words, behaviour and demeanour.

    • Terry Davis says:

      The writer isn’t saying otherwise. As citizens and voters, we all have the right to form a view about politician leaders. All the article says is that head doctors are defying their own ethical principles by diagnosing someone who isn’t their patient and whom they have never examined.

      Because, as the article points out, as soon as the head doctors are used by political opponents to commit people they disagree with to mental health prisons, democracy is dead. And then we all lose the right to form a view about Trump or any other politician whom we dislike.

      The article gives three examples of the use of mental health doctors to quell dissent, Russia, China and apartheid South Africa. Either you want to be associated with those regimes, or you agree with the article.

    • Lioudmila Levina says:

      Maurice, the world can have any opinion it wants to but the article is not about the world’s opinion it is about psychiatrist’s opinions which have nothing to do with the world in general. No medical doctors must to form their opinion without the thourough examinations!!!

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