Mortal danger, when it presents itself, doesn't always oblige us with sufficient warning. We cannot count on outside deliverance, which may not be forthcoming. At such times of extreme peril, it takes uncommon and even previously unknown reserves of courage and resourcefulness to survive.
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When I was in journalism graduate school many years ago, a colleague once told me a harrowing personal story that I've never been able to forget.
Some months earlier, she had been alone in her apartment getting ready for work. Stepping out of the shower to get dressed, as she did every morning, on this occasion she unexpectedly confronted an intruder. A man she had never seen before had gained entry, undetected, into her home. She now found herself, nude and dripping wet, entirely defenseless against a total stranger clutching in his hand, she realized to her horror, a claw hammer.
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Throughout last year's campaign, many of us had the unnerving feeling that our entire political consciousness--all our comfortable assumptions about our fellow Americans, our governing institutions, our national character, our role in the world--has been at best a fleeting illusion and at worst a cynical sham.
In the months since the inauguration, we have gone from a country whose official welcome to immigrants is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, a country proudly self-identified as a "melting pot," to a mean and fearful place bent on excluding Muslim immigrants, walling off Mexico and insulting its leadership, walking away from Asian trade, alienating our European allies, retreating on global climate change reforms, threatening to renege on the international Iranian nuclear agreement, angering Chinese leaders by flirting with a two-China policy, confounding Middle East diplomacy by dismissing longstanding support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even offending Australia--Australia!--by slamming the phone down on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
President Trump's weird and worrisome bromance with Vladimir Putin continues, to the mounting alarm of American intelligence services, which he continues to disparage and undermine at every opportunity. And as he distracted himself with six taxpayer-subsidized golf trips, Russia, Iran, and North Korea all test-fired new ballistic missiles, the latter prompting an impromptu security briefing on the less-than-secure terrace at his Mar-a-Lago resort in full view of other diners and the wait-staff. Remember all his hyperventilating over Hillary's email cybersecurity? Well, neither does he.
Domestically, Trump has declared war on the free press, publicly attacking them as "the FAKE NEWS media" and "the enemy of the American People," and devoting more than half his recent news conference to a raging tirade against journalists, while the gathered reporters sat in stunned silence. In one tweet, he threatened to "send in the Feds" if Chicago didn't curb its street violence;in a leaked phone transcript, he threatened Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto with sending American troops into Mexico to stop "bad hombres" because the Mexican military was too "scared" to handle it themselves.
And of course, the administration's blizzard of lies continues about three million imaginary illegal voters, his fictitious electoral-college "landslide" (In fact, 45 of our 58 presidential elections had wider victory margins), his wildly exaggerated inaugural crowd and TV ratings, and a non-existent immigrant-driven Swedish crime wave. Spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway's fanciful "Bowling Green Massacre" and her defense of "alternative facts" have already passed into legend; press secretary Sean Spicer's truculent insults and raging fabulism were instant punchlines even before they were memorialized by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.
But it's not all fun and games. The Muslim immigration ban sent shock waves throughout the world, and disrupted thousands of families. Last year, anti-Muslim hate crime reports jumped 67%, and the FBI is now tallying anti-Arab hate crimes as well; this year alone, at least 60 Jewish community centers around the nation have been threatened with violence, and scores of headstones at a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis were recently vandalized. No surprise, since back in November Trump's and his consigliere Steve Bannon's ongoing dalliance with white nationalism had emboldened neo-Nazi celebrants in Washington to openly shout "Hail, Trump," accompanied by a stiff-armed Nazi salute. But at Trump's thoroughly surreal recent press conference, when a Jewish reporter from a conservative ultra-Orthodox publication asked about an administration response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism, the president pounced, telling the reporter to sit down and be quiet, accused him of lying about his question, and denounced the query as repulsive and insulting. Only now, in a routine statement, has he finally denounced it.
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What are we to make of this kind of behavior? Psychiatrists are ethically bound by the "Goldwater rule," a 1973 American Psychiatric Association ethics code section stemming from a libel suit by presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, that bars them from rendering professional opinions about public figures unless practitioners have personally examined them and been authorized to comment.
As citizens, however, not only are we unconstrained from expressing our opinions, I would argue that it's our civic duty. And by any objective measure, Donald Trump is emotionally unstable and dangerously unfit to hold the most powerful elected office in the world. Yes, we've heard it all before, because for months anyone willing to look has seen it all before: in his fundamental nature, the president is a pathological liar, a malignant narcissist, and a blustering bully who thoughtlessly fires off dozens of ill-considered social-media comments weekly, filled with misinformation, personal attacks, and reckless threats.
It seems like an eternity, but it's only his first month on the job, and based on all available evidence, it won't get any better. The majesty of the office, the gravitas of his responsibilities, the weight of history--no apparent effect. He's as "presidential" as he will ever be. How bad, then, must things get before he finally reaches a tipping point with the Republican Congress and tilts from an awkward asset into an intolerable liability? Or will he finally wig out so completely that a majority of his own cabinet, with vice-presidential concurrence, is obliged to invoke provisions of the 25th Amendment and remove him as incapable of discharging his presidential duties?
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My grad-school colleague was facing an imminent life-or-death situation with her armed intruder. She had nowhere to run, no means of summoning help, and no way to defend herself against a strange invader wielding a claw hammer. Yet she somehow managed to gather her wits and do the only possible thing she could: carefully wrapping herself in a towel, she casually engaged the man in conversation, trying to keep him calm as she stalled for time. She kept talking, he kept listening. Long minutes passed into hours. At some point, the phone rang. He allowed her to answer it. As she desperately tried to sound as normal as possible so as not to provoke the intruder into a fatal attack, her caller quickly picked up the tension in her voice and, sensing that something was wrong, asked if everything was all right. "No," she said, as casually as she could manage. The caller quickly concluded the conversation and immediately phoned the police. My friend resumed her conversation with the intruder, unsure how the catastrophe would ultimately play out. But a short time later, officers arrived at her home, and were able to take the man into custody. Nobody was harmed.
Now, you will object that it's absurdly inappropriate to compare the president of the United States to a home-invasion psychopath. And so it is. The man with the hammer, after all, was menacing only a single woman alone in her apartment. But with the mere stroke of a pen, the president can set policies in motion that threaten the lives and impinge on the freedom of thousands of people. He is the political leader of the free world, setting a tone and a standard for democratic self-government throughout the globe. And as the nation's commander-in-chief, he is directly responsible for the safety and survival of almost 326 million Americans, and indirectly many millions more of our allies and others around the world. He commands a nuclear arsenal comprising nearly 700 land- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers; they can deliver nearly 1400 nuclear warheads. He has more than enough power, as Winston Churchill put it, to make the rubble bounce.
Our question is not how to keep him calm, who will check up on us and potentially summon help, and what form that help could possibly take. It's more existential than that: Do we even recognize that we have a maniac loose in the house, and that we are at this moment in mortal danger?