Tyrannical leaders share certain qualities. In essence, they live under a tremendous fear of being overthrown. Through their actions, almost without exception, they inadvertently make this fear a reality.
I know how fortunate I am to live in a free country. I will never forget my first experience of no longer having the freedom to question the government under which I was living. As a university student, I lived in the Philippines toward the end of the Ferdinand Marcos era. The fear of the majority of his citizens was palpable, as was the defiance lying just below the surface.
Dictators don’t think like other people. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is often criticized for giving in to concessions with Adolf Hitler, claiming “We have achieved peace for our time.” Give and take is normal in international diplomacy. Chamberlain was clearly not dealing with someone who was normal. Had he known this, perhaps he wouldn’t have signed a deal with the man who started the Second World War a year later.
As a result of the rise of Nazism, in 1948 the Declaration of Geneva mandated health professionals speak up when they recognize the rise of a destructive regime. This doesn’t mean that they diagnose public figures, as one can’t diagnose someone who isn’t a patient. An informed and honest warning from an impartial professional, however, is far different from a diagnosis.
Though we don’t know the mind of Donald Trump, his actions have raised many red flags among mental health professionals. It’s not normal for a leader to call their political opponents silly names like “Crooked Hillary,” or to incite crowds to chant, “Send her back,” when discussing an elected member of the U.S. Congress. It’s not normal for a democratically-elected leader to publicly admit that he would like to have dictatorial powers.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration as the president of the United States, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) put strict restraints on what its members could say about a public figure. A forensic psychologist on the faculty of Yale Medical School, Dr. Bandy Lee points out that this puts people in her field in a precarious ethical position, having to either violate the directives of their professional association or the ethics of the Declaration of Geneva.
Regardless of the restrictions of the APA, Lee and others compiled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Lee has received many invitations to speak about this book from major American news programs, only to have them cancelled every time, possibly because those in high offices don’t want the topic discussed on the networks.
I will readily admit I don’t have the capacity to determine who could be dangerous if they were placed in a position of authority. I also don’t know how to effectively respond to these people when they’re in power. Mental health professionals offer a great public service in helping us to recognize the danger signs, the risks of having a tyrant in office and the most effective means to disarm them.
Trump may be as wonderful and brilliant as he claims to be. But when we question the truth of his claims, we’re not doing anything wrong.
Academic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and professional ethics are vital to the proper functioning of a democratic society. They’re our safeguards from tyranny.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.