Mental health professionals adopt Russian meddlers' tactics to remove Trump from office

Duty to Warn is fighting fire and fury with fire and fury. These are its members and their 2018 plans

Published January 15, 2018 5:30PM (EST)


You know the old saying. If you can’t beat the Russian election meddlers and right-wing political extremists, join ’em. Or at least use their tactics.

That’s more or less the idea behind what the founder of Duty to Warn, a national group of mental health professionals bent on getting President Trump out of office by helping Democrats gain control of the House, calls “phase two” of the organization’s action plan. The founder, psychologist and former assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School, John Gartner, elaborated: “What we’re planning to do is target voters who live in those swing districts . . . through social media. It’s really what the Russians did to swing the election.”

Except instead of feeding those districts “fake news and propaganda,” the psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists who make up Duty to Warn want to target those voters “with truth.” The truth will look like posters or t-shirts featuring a silhouette of Trump’s head in profile, surrounded by the words “Danger” and one of the President’s many “danger signs.” These include his compulsive lying and access to nuclear codes. DTW aims to get people to hold up literal signs as part of a social media campaign that Gartner hopes will gain ALS Ice Bucket Challenge status.

This is a tall order, and DTW’s mission is harder for voters to rally around than raising awareness for a degenerative disease. Even the American Psychological Association can’t officially back the group’s goals, though mental health professionals overwhelmingly believe Trump is unfit to be president.

Psychologist Danny Wedding, who spoke to me over FaceTime from St. Martin where he used to direct the local medical school’s behavioral sciences department, is supportive of DTW but finds it “inappropriate” to diagnose the president from afar. As an APA member, he fields calls from psychologists and psychiatrists who believe members of DTW have gone too far for this reason, citing the Goldwater Rule, which says psychiatrists can’t diagnose politicians from a distance. Meanwhile, a communications rep from the APA said DTW was problematic because it has partisan designs, and the APA is a nonpartisan organization.

At this point in the news cycle, you’ve likely heard about both the Goldwater Rule and Duty to Warn, if not the group then at least the idea. The idea is that mental health professionals have an obligation to warn others if their patients or people they’ve assessed pose a threat to themselves or to others. According to DTW activists, Trump is an imminent threat because since being elected he has behaved erratically and threatened use of the “Nuclear button.” DTW concludes that Trump is not mentally fit to serve because he displays symptoms of being a malignant narcissist. This is enough evidence, DTW asserts, to trigger the 25th constitutional amendment, which details how to fill the presidency due to “vacancy, disability, and inability.”

Alarmed by Trump’s behavior during and after his inauguration, Gartner started a petition decrying Trump’s lack of mental fitness. Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores saw the petition on and started volunteering for the group. She now organizes the Santa Rosa/Northern California chapter.

Licensed as a marriage and family therapist, Hirshfeld-Flores, who has the sort of soothing phone voice you’d expect from a therapist, said she felt obligated to do something after seeing the violence and divisiveness Trump incited at his rallies. For one, because she grew up hearing “never again” (in reference to Nazi Germany) at her Jewish day school. And also for the sake of her clients, many of whom felt targeted, triggered, and anxious by Trump’s rhetoric because they were female, Muslim, LGBTQ and/or Hispanic.

Since Hirshfeld-Flores signed on, nearly 70,000 people have signed the petition. Duty to Warn has appeared in over 100 articles, held marches — one to the beat of NYC chair/professional drummer/psychologist Dr. Peter Fraenkel’s large marching drum — and established 12 chapters across the country, from Honolulu to Boston. Gartner, the group’s leader, considers the first “phase” of its mission, to inform the public of Trump’s dangerousness, “accomplished.”

Which means it’s time for phase two.

“Phase two, though it’s a nonpartisan problem, there’s only one solution, and it’s partisan,” said Gartner, who is humble as the head of a national movement. Though he finds the Trump presidency emotionally disturbing — all of the DTW members I spoke to do — he’s able to make light of it. At one point during our talk, he compared it to the movie “Weekend at Bernie’s,” with “corrupt Republican party” members playing the parts of Richard and Larry and the president standing in for Bernie. The solution, explained Gartner, is to get Democrats to win as many of the “flippable” seats as possible in the 2018 congressional elections. Winning 24 would suffice. This would give Democrats control of the House and therefore power to enact the 25th amendment.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Democrats will do this. But perhaps lobbying for them to enact the 25th is phase three of DTW’s plan.

As far as phase two, the group will work to make it happen in two ways. One of them will rely on grassroots local politics, while the other will borrow from Russian election meddling tactics and conservative fear-mongering.

During the 2016 presidential election, Russians spent roughly $100,000 on Facebook ads that aimed to deepen the divide between Republicans and Democrats. Some compared Hillary Clinton to Satan, others praised the Black Panthers. These ads deliberately targeted swing states, like Michigan and Wisconsin, and some of the (Russian-made) Facebook pages that posted them also organized rallies and protests in specific U.S. locations.

The way Gartner sees it, “The Russians apparently stole our presidency for just $100,000.” It’s only practical to use this same, “particularly cheap” method to get it back. “We’re going to have a team . . . using paid boosts to micro-target people in swing districts.”

This brings up another major obstacle for DTW. They’re late to the game when it comes to paid Facebook ads, thanks to the company’s recent pivot to prioritize friends’ posts over publishers’ and brands’. The DTW ads that make it to Facebook users’ feeds will feature both experts like doctors and the friendly voter-next-door expounding Trump’s dangerousness. They will make swing voters afraid of what Trump could do and present voting for the district’s Democrat as the “only way to stay safe.”

Frank George, who heads DTW’s Colorado chapter in Denver, hopped on board when Gartner told him about his plan to “hijack” the Republican party’s ability to galvanize supporters through fear. A cognitive neuroscientist by training, George shifted his focus to borderline personality disorders and narcissism “as Trump was rising.” He’d needed to find a productive way to focus his “negative energy” at the time, and it wasn’t far off from his past work as an addiction specialist (“Some theorists would say victims of a narcissist suffer from a form of addiction to the narcissist,” George said, alluding to Trump’s core supporters, those who rationalize his irrational behaviors in the way that members of bonafide cults find themselves forgiving their leaders for horrible abuses). He knew Gartner from running in similar professional circles, got involved with DTW, and now here George was, ready to fight fear with fear beside his colleague.

To be fair, the “fear with fear” tactic momentarily gave George pause. “You want to keep the high ground,” he explained, “but on the other hand, if you’re getting your butt kicked on the low ground . . . I think that the situation right now is at a level of seriousness that pragmatism is very relevant.”

Fortunately, George’s pragmatism extends to his career history. He also has an audio and video production background, so he’ll be editing DTW’s social videos using “industry techniques” he picked up during the producer portion of his eclectic career. Recently, he sat down with Gartner, and the men talked for two hours about how to make DTW’s commercial videos snappy “in the hopes they go more viral.” That means they’ll have to stand out among some stiff online video competition, George explained — “cat videos and memes.”

The plan is that grassroots organizing will contribute to the videos’ content. To get the “voter-next-door” in its videos, DTW has to go out and convince voters in congressional districts where Republican seats are up for grabs, like Michigan’s eleventh district and Colorado’s sixth, to participate in the #dangersigns campaign. Ideally, those voters will hold up the signs or wear the t-shirts and talk about why they fear President Trump. Where experts can’t convince laypeople to vote Democrat for their safety, regular folk will.

A suburban area outside of Denver, District Six is home to the likes of “soccer moms” who, as Gartner puts it, basically don’t like danger because they have kids. Hopefully, Republican soccer moms will see Duty to Warn’s ads on Facebook (that may feature other suburban moms) and get scared enough to vote for a Democrat.

If the ads aren’t convincing enough, there’s at least one Duty to Warn member in each of the flippable districts connecting on the ground with other Trump resistance groups, like Indivisible. Together, they’ll work to capture more Democratic votes at the local level through community organization and events like town halls. Hirshfeld-Flores plans to host one later this month, featuring Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, either in person or via video. (Speier is cosponsoring  House bill 1987, which, if passed, will require the establishment of a legislative commission to evaluate the president’s physical and mental health. Democrat Jamie Raskin introduced the bill in April, around when Trump fired James Comey as FBI Director.)

Like-minded Democrats participating in DTW events makes the group’s goal of ousting Trump appear more attainable, but not all members are convinced. Fraenkel (the drummer) is one of them. Currently in India doing couples therapy, he sent me a PowerPoint outlining the various objections DTW faces, from the Goldwater Rule to the argument that the Republican-dominated Congress will never activate the 25th amendment. But he also included the retorts to those objections, and they all seem logical, if overly wishful in the case of Republican Congress members deciding to get rid of Trump. “We have to try,” Fraenkel said.

Even if the group’s main objective isn’t effective, it serves another important purpose. It acts almost like a therapy group for the many mental health professionals who’ve had to sit by and watch as someone they consider dangerously diagnosable steer their country, possibly toward nuclear war.

“I’m concerned about my country, the world, the planet,” said APA member Wedding. At the end of our FaceTime call about DTW, Wedding smiled through his big, white beard and said, “Maybe I will join.”

By Jessica Klein

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