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Yale psychiatrist: Trump’s convention lies and fear-mongering may “provoke a lot of violence”

Igor Derysh
Donald Trump
Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump gestures after delivering his acceptance speech for the Republican Party nomination for reelection during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC on August 27, 2020. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

A Yale psychiatrist who has sounded the alarm on President Donald Trump's mental health for years warns that the party's attempt to stoke fear in the electorate at the Republican National Convention could lead to violence against the president's opponents.

The convention featured an unprecedented number of false claims and downright liesunhinged conspiracy theories, and hours of racial fear-mongering. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine who taught at Yale Law School, told Salon that the stoking of fear was so coordinated that pushing back could provoke a violent response.

Lee has studied violence for years. She is the author of the textbook "Violence," editor of "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President," and president of the World Mental Health Coalition, which recently issued a "Prescription for Survival Refill" and is releasing a new collection of statements, conference transcripts, and columns called "Documents." She recently interviewed Mary Trump at her new website about the president's mental health.

Lee said that the American Psychiatric Association, which warned against mental health professionals offering their opinions of the president's mental health, had denied the public a full view of what is happening in the White House.

"The public has been deprived of expert knowledge for too long, as it misunderstood and normalized serious pathology to a level of profound danger," she told Salon. "Professional institutions should not function as lackeys of the government but do their public function. I have criticized from the very start the way the American Psychiatric Association intervened to mislead the public into believing that they cannot hear from mental health experts about the mental health of a president. Imagine the American Bar Association prohibiting all legal professionals from commenting on societally relevant legal matters, unless they personally represent the public figures and obtain consent from them to speak about them. It is absurd, and it is about time we stop treating mental health issues so differently and esoterically, when science demands the exact opposite."

Other experts suggest a cautious, precedent-setting approach. "I think the same way that candidates have their physical health scrutinized, they could have their mental health scrutinized," Amy Barnhorst, a psychiatry professor and the vice-chair for clinical services at UC Davis, told Salon in January. "But we have to ask ourselves: What would we do with that information?"

Lee spoke to Salon about the convention and how it could affect the electorate heading into November.

As a psychiatrist who has been sounding the alarm on this presidency for years, what were your takeaways from the convention? Did anything surprise you?

It has not been surprising, but impressive in how well-orchestrated and coordinated the convention was, starting with holding the event on the White House lawn. No breach of rules or actual harm matters, as long as there is impression management, which is the key to psychological conditioning, manipulation and control. Republicans understand this power of the mind and use it perversely. Democrats do not even inform themselves of it to achieve their political goals, let alone protect the population, as we learned from our attempts to obtain consultation. This election will be more difficult than 2016, since Donald Trump has infected his followers with his symptoms, by sheer duration in office. He will also no doubt use the full powers of the presidency now to choreograph his remaining in office, regardless of the means — and I believe people realize by now that there is no limit to what he will do to "win."

Many of the speakers described a very different presidency than we've seen, one that successfully accomplished many things and beat back the coronavirus. Kamala Harris said the goal of the convention was to "soothe Trump's ego." Do you think that's accurate?

That would be the most minimal description, falling far short of what the situation demands. Politics, without grounding in reality, seems to have become a circular enterprise that has to do with nothing but power: this side impeaching only because the other side has in the past, or hesitating with a valid intervention "in case" it backfires. Journalists need to offer grounding in facts, and experts must give evidence based on the best available knowledge. Politics should be based on facts and evidence. Our system is unusual in that we not have freestanding scholarly advisory boards or other means for scientists and other intellectuals to give independent input into governance. This was criticized in the 1970s, and now it is far worse: experts convene only when politicians invite us, for their purposes, and the end result for mental health is that administrations that need consultation the most will be the least likely to seek it.

The president and other speakers repeatedly lied throughout the event. How does that affect the psychology of the overall electorate, to have a four-day stream of lies broadcast by all the major networks for four straight days?

This has now become a societal phenomenon. We do not think of mental symptoms as infectious, but they are potentially far more so than Ebola or coronavirus, since you do not need physical contact for the symptoms to transmit to millions, as long as you have emotional bonds. The end result is dramatic, as we now see before our eyes.

In our individual-oriented culture, not even psychiatrists consider this phenomenon sufficiently, but contagion is well-documented in the literature, and especially my colleague at the World Health Organization, Dr. Gary Slutkin, has long advocated approaching violence as a contagious disease. [Editor's note: Other experts have pushed back on this model.]

It is rather a mistake to believe that mental symptoms cannot transmit, when we have set up the perfect conditions for it. Those who do not succumb also generally grow exhausted and acquiesce. The good news is, like the pandemic, we can contain it if we intervened intelligently and scientifically.

How can Democrats counter Trump's lies? Is it possible to counter this non-stop narrative with facts and reality?

When lies are of a pathological degree, they may arise from delusions, which means they are resistant to facts and reality—all you will likely do is arouse defensive "doubling down." This is what you see with the growing detachment from reality and embracing of conspiracy theories like QAnon. As evidence of the president's incapacity and criminal-mindedness mounts, increasingly outlandish explanations are necessary to hold onto cherished fixed beliefs: such as that the person one supports is a savior figure who can do no wrong. Donald Trump is masterful at cultivating and stoking this need, since his presidential—or more importantly his psychic—survival depends on it. This level of denial can be dangerous, as challenging it could provoke a lot of violence.

How to intervene? The situation has gotten so serious, we are at a point where we need specialists. You would not order heart surgery by a politician, just because it is occurring in another politician, would you? And so why do we attempt to tackle a serious mental health problem politically? My colleagues and I have issued a "refill" to our "Prescription for Survival." People will see that what we issued in March of this year, when we had about 1,000 COVID-19 deaths, is all the more applicable now.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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A 'divine' sisterhood: Kamala Harris' historic run hailed as HBCU triumph

Members of the Divine Nine sororities are rallying behind Kamala Harris.

When Sen. Kamala Harris announced her run for president in January 2019, she used her campaign logo to pay tribute to the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to seek a major party's presidential nomination.

Chisholm, who represented New York's 12th District from 1969 to 1983, ran for president in 1972 under the campaign slogan, "unbought and unbossed."

"Like so many other Black women in Congress, I stand on the shoulders of the great Shirley Chisholm. The first Black woman elected to Congress, Shirley was unbought, unbossed and never afraid to speak the truth," Harris tweeted in February, in honor of Black History Month.

The California senator, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, is now the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major party. And while accepting the historic Democratic nomination for vice president on Wednesday at the DNC, she again paid tribute to Chisholm.

5 unanswered medical questions about coronavirus

When are we going to have a safe and effective vaccine?

Seven months into the pandemic, we continue to unravel the mystery that is COVID-19. There continue to be critical questions that remain unanswered.

Experts interviewed by ABC News shared five scientific mysteries that persist amid the race to end the pandemic.

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When are we going to have a safe and effective vaccine?

This may be one of the biggest questions on the minds of many. Vaccines may be the most effective way to develop herd immunity, so that the virus can't spread effectively.

Nearly 170 vaccine candidates are being tracked by the World Health Organization. Six of these are in crucial phase three trials, where thousands are being administered vaccine doses.

Usually, vaccines take years to develop. However, optimistic projections suggest a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine could be available by the end of 2020 or early in 2021, but wide-scale distribution will take time.

"I do believe that we will be able to know if one or more vaccines is efficacious against COVID-19 by the end of year," Dr. Anna Durbin, Professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told ABC News. "I am less confident that there will be enough doses of vaccine by early 2021 to reach the at-risk populations … How this is distributed needs to be planned carefully."

For the vaccine to be effective, the public would also need to be willing to be vaccinated, especially in the case of rapid "emergency use authorizations," Dr. Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon and public health expert at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told ABC News. "The public has to know that the vaccine being produced is safe and effective. It will be critical that the cornerstone pieces of the normal process are incorporated prior to issuing an emergency use authorization for a vaccine product."

Vaccine confidence is crucially important because enough people have to be vaccinated – estimates vary between 40-70% of the population – to enable herd immunity. Even with a perfect vaccine, distributing it to billions of people is no small feat.

In addition to problems with supply, many countries will not be able to afford enough vaccine doses.

Are children as susceptible as adults?

Our understanding of coronavirus infection in children has evolved during the pandemic.

Scientists interviewed by ABC News suggest children are not infected as much as adults and with less intensity, but concerning data is coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent report on COVID-19 infections in children from the CDC says that children can spread the virus effectively in certain settings. The amount of virus children shed seems to be even higher than adults.

"It's safe to say this research further complicates back-to-school planning" said Dr. John Brownstein, ABC contributor and epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital, adding that the CDC study, and another recent study from Massachusetts General Hospital, "confirms lack or non-specific symptoms in infected kids which makes control strategies tough" and "poses a challenge for school reopening and puts burden on testing (rather than symptom screening)."

There's also a risk that some children develop an idiosyncratic, severe inflammatory reaction called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). In a small number of children, the immune system goes into overdrive and can damage the heart.

According to the CDC, we still don't know why MIS-C happens in some children. The organization highlights that "MIS-C can be serious, even deadly, but most children who were diagnosed with this condition have gotten better with medical care."

Why do some people get really sick, and some not at all?

It's thought that a significant number of people with coronavirus don't get any symptoms at all, with some studies suggesting up to 80% of people are asymptomatic.

We know that there are risk factors for developing severe COVID-19: age, obesity and other co-morbidities. Ethnic minorities, especially Black and Hispanic people, are at a significantly higher risk, too.

"I think this is still such a mysterious virus … its ability to impact certain people tremendously whereas sparing others all make this virus difficult to understand, diagnose and treat," Dr. Ashish Jha, Professor of Global Health and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told ABC News.

There may be a genetic element at play. One study suggests two key gene variants increase the risk of severe respiratory complications, one of which is blood group. But this evidence is controversial as a more recent study by Harvard Medical School suggests that there isn't a relationship. Genetic effects are probably modest compared to the well-established risk factors.

Can people get reinfected?

There are two things that could influence reinfection rates; the duration of coronavirus immunity and how much the virus mutates.

However, we still don't know how long immunity lasts.

Reinfection is possible with coronaviruses causing the common cold, but did not seem to happen with SARS or MERS, which are the two other infamous coronaviruses closely related to the virus that causes COVID-19.

There have also been cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection where people test positive, then test negative, only to test positive again. This could be because of reinfection but might also because of a false-negative test result.

Experts say that given enough time, people who have been infected with the novel coronavirus will eventually be able to be reinfected. But our experience with this virus has been so brief that they say it's unlikely, or very rare, that anyone who has survived will have been reinfected.

Will the virus ever go away?

The unfortunate answer is probably not.

The pandemic -- the rapid, uncontrolled spread of the virus -- might end, but experts think it will continue to transmit at lower levels. This is called endemic spread. Over time, endemic viruses typically become less harmful.

The future trajectory of SARS-CoV-2 remains uncertain, but many experts predict a second peak later on in the year, before the virus becomes endemic.

Our gradual return to normality has to take into account that the virus will be with us for the foreseeable future, and we may have to brace ourselves for things getting worse before they get better. They will get better, but precisely when remains unclear.

One way scientists suggest that we can adapt to the new normal is considering the risk posed when we engage in public or in homes. Is it a low, moderate, or high-risk situation and what is the positivity rate in your community? Camping, shopping, eating at your favorite restaurant and hugging take on a different meaning. That being said, we know one answer to the question of how we beat the virus, live our lives and save many more is clear: wear our masks, watch our distance, and wash our hands.

What to know about the coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
  • Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.

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