Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee: Trump infects his followers with a violence-inducing "sickness"

Trump's "attraction to and endorsement of violence will legitimize violence for all who are predisposed," Lee warns

Published August 7, 2019 5:30AM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on Raw Story

On Monday, Americans reeled after not one, but two, deadly mass shootings over the weekend, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The Texas gun man’s motives, posted to the website 8chan, seemed clearly inspired by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Raw Story spoke with Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and an expert on violence at Yale School of Medicine, about the link between Trump’s violent rhetoric and the wide array of violent that seem to occur with daily frequency in the U.S.

Lee has helped launch a public health approach to global violence prevention as a consultant to the World Health Organization and other United Nations bodies since 2002. She is author of the textbook, “Violence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Causes, Consequences, and Cures,” president of the World Mental Health Coalition, and editor of the New York Times bestseller, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.” She and her coauthors prepared a mental health analysis of the Mueller report and presented it in a national online town hall (for more information, visit: dangerouscase.org; you can also follow Lee on Twitter: @BandyXLee1).

Raw Story: You said on Twitter: “My research on violence revealed that cultural or societal violence is greater than ten times the threat of individual violence. The president is currently committing cultural violence through his stoking of white supremacist terrorism.” What did you mean by that?

Lee: My textbook, Violence, has a one-line summary, and it is that all forms of violence are interconnected. A violent society will have violent structures, and violent structures will produce violent individuals. A U.S. president sits atop all of this, as a product of the culture, certainly, but in his position as the most influential instigator of structural, cultural, and, by consequence, individual violence. His attraction to and endorsement of violence will legitimize violence for all who are predisposed, creating a far-reaching cultural change.

This is the dangerous side of Donald Trump’s racism; his racism will be different from any other individual’s racism because of his office, and it will also be different in quality because it comes from a place of disorder. Pathology in a leader has been shown to be far more contagious than a sane person doing or saying the same things. This is why comparisons to Ronald Reagan or even Richard Nixon are understandable but flawed.

Fear is no doubt behind the reticence to call out the president even as a racist when he is inflicting more damage than any other white supremacist terrorist.

Raw Story: Given your extensive experience of studying violence, how should we understand the shootings in El Paso and Dayton that killed 29 in less than 24 hours?

Lee: First, we should not merely react, and we should not be surprised. The causes of violence are well known, and the violent act is merely an end product of a long process. Social, cultural, economic, and environmental factors are far greater in influence than individual factors when it comes to violence. It should be telling that we are seeing mass shootings all around the country, from California to Ohio. It should also be telling that all forms of violence have escalated especially since this presidency—and we should not be afraid to point that out.

We saw this coming, which is what drove us to write the book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Yet what we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. Far more widespread will be the violence and victimization that are hidden from view. Mass shootings are about one percent of overall gun deaths. And we should also remember there are other dangers, too: we are inching toward war in Asia and in the Middle East.

North Korea has resumed missile tests while standing us up in Bangkok, after we frivolously gave away international legitimacy. Iran has claimed seizure of a third oil tanker, after we recklessly pulled out of a nuclear deal and attacked with “maximum pressure.” We should not be surprised when war actually breaks out, but prevent in advance, knowing that the same incapacity that led to global instability and failure is what will instigate violence when reality catches up with it.

We have plenty of hard evidence on the president’s dangerousness: the more than doubling of white supremacist killings since Mr. Trump has been in office, the 226 percent jump in hate crimes in counties that host his rallies, and the escalation in gun murders and suicides to a 25-year high, not to mention numerous terrorism and violent crime cases that trace directly to the president, even as subtler manifestos try to deny that link.

Raw Story: You did a study of Republican and Democratic presidents and violent death rates over 110 years. Can you explain what you found?

Lee: Yes. My mentor and colleague James Gilligan insisted that I add political party to the other environmental factors I was analyzing, even as I saw power struggles among factions to be irrelevant to actual policy. The results were astonishing. We discovered that Republicans had been handing over not only double the violent death rates they inherited but weakened or wrecked economies, to Democrats, who would then fix them, consistently for 110 years. We only did not notice because the parties largely alternated. These were the years 1900 through 2010, and so they were even before the Obama administration.

Since my interest is in health, and violence rates are a great barometer for gauging societal health, this was very telling. When death rates go up and life expectancy diminishes, we need to recognize that the difference is not merely opinion or ideology. We may live in a sick society (our health parameters are far lower than our counterparts in the rest of the developed world), but one faction is making us sicker. This makes sense from its gun policies, economic policies that worsen inequality, a rejection of science that removes any check on power, and climate policies that edge us ever closer to collective suicidality.

Raw Story:  Can you explain Donald Trump’s supporters? What causes them to follow him no matter what?

Lee: As long as we tolerate an impaired president and take his pathologies to be mere personal quirks, a malignant normality will prevail. We predicted that the longer he stays in office, the more his supporters will be drawn into sickness and be further detached from reality. Since this leads to choices that one would not make in a healthier state, allowing them to continue on this destructive course is not giving them respect. One of our authors, Harper West, explains how the abused “collude” psychologically with their abusers, at their own expense. Our job as mental health professionals is to extricate the abused from the dysfunctional relationship and to explain how this is different from normal relationships.

By Tana Ganeva

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