Two psychiatrists who warned that Donald Trump was inspiring violence had their point made, the hard way, when Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) abruptly canceled a planned public meeting with them at a senior center after receiving violent threats about the event.
According to Bandy X. Lee, an assistant clinical professor at Yale who was scheduled to speak at the event, Raskin informed her just 24 hours beforehand that it was off, because going forward would have posed “significant safety risks” to attendees.
“Sorry about tomorrow night—we’ve been getting so many threats,” Raskin said, according to Lee, the editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, a controversial collection of essays arguing that Trump’s affinity for violence represents a danger to the public, and a leading member of the National Coalition of Concerned Mental-Health Experts (full disclosure: the group’s members include Claire Silverman, a psychologist and this reporter’s mother) that’s raised public questions about Trump’s fitness for office.
Raskin has roused the ire of Trump supporters since he submitted a bill in April of last year calling for the creation of a committee to evaluate the president’s physical and mental fitness.
“Whenever my boss talks about the 25th Amendment, there will be an uptick in comments on social media, or phone calls, or emails, that contain either explicit threats or generally violent and hateful language,” Lauren Doney, Raskin’s communications director, told The Daily Beast, while confirming that Thursday’s event had been canceled.
Doney, who cited the need for a more comprehensive security plan, stressed that the event had not been finalized or publicly announced when it was called off Wednesday, and also said that Raskin’s desire to focus on tax policy also played a role in the cancellation.
To Lee, the threats that led to the event’s cancellation reaffirmed what she and other mental-health professionals have been arguing for a year, “that our fears were correct, that our predictions were correct, that the president’s supporters are very violent and ready to inflict violence,” she said.
“When one is a danger to themselves, to others, to the public, then we have a duty to report, to warn, and take steps to protect victims.”
Reached by phone, James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who has specialized in studying the causes and prevention of violence over 50 years as a faculty member at universities including Harvard and Cambridge and who’d also been scheduled to speak at Raskin’s canceled event, stressed that at no point has he or Lee offered a diagnosis of the president and thus crossed the ethical boundary set forth by the Goldwater Rule, a criticism that has often been leveled by critics of his and Lee’s.
The rule was established in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and prohibits members from making and airing a diagnosis of a public figure without both a face-to-face evaluation and the permission of the individual in question. It was established nine years after psychiatrists had offered a diagnosis of then-GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in Fact Magazine (headline: “1,189 PSYCHIATRISTS SAY GOLDWATER IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNFIT TO BE PRESIDENT!”), partly because he seemed unconcerned with the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Goldwater sued the magazine for libel and eventually received a settlement award.
Lee and Gilligan both maintain that they are not breaking the Goldwater Rule and diagnosing the president, but rather warning about Trump’s public statements at rallies, speeches, and on social media.
“He has threatened violence, incited his followers to violence, in which he has boasted of his own habitual sexual violence against women,” Gilligan said, calling that ample evidence of the threat Trump poses to public health and safety. He and Lee also made that case last month, when they briefed a group of mostly Democratic House and Senate members.
“The only important question is: Is he dangerous? And there I think I would disagree with APA that you’d need a personal interview with somebody to make that determination,” Gilligan said.
The psychological reasons for Trump’s statements aren’t relevant, says Gilligan. “When I talk about the public health, it’s not what’s going on in his mind, but rather, what’s the effect of his behavior on other people.” Most violent individuals, Gilligan noted, are not diagnosed with a specific mental-health condition and, conversely, most mentally ill people are not violent and do not commit acts of violence.
Pushback, though, has come not just from Trump supporters, but from many of Lee and Gilligan’s fellow psychiatrists.
The Goldwater Rule was rarely mentioned prior to the Trump presidency, Gilligan noted, and never has the APA felt compelled to use it as a cudgel to question the ethical behavior of its members. But in March 2017, as more psychiatrists began speaking out, the APA tightened the strictures of the Goldwater Rule, forbidding members from not only making a diagnosis, but from offering any statements at all about a public figure’s behavior. Earlier this month, it issued a statement reiterating that position and deriding what it called “armchair psychiatry,” a characterization that Lee feels was directly and unfairly aimed at her.
One psychiatrist, Jeffrey A. Lieberman of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, took to the New England Journal of Medicine to deride her as possessing a “misguided and dangerous” morality. Writing in The New York Times, he claimed that similar behavior to Lee’s on the part of mental-health professionals is what empowered Mao to banish political dissidents using a diagnosis as cover, and provided the basis for Nazi eugenics programs.
Ironically, Lieberman did offer a diagnosis of Trump in an article for Vice in which he alleged that Lee and Gilligan had violated the Goldwater Rule.
As Lee has made the media rounds over the last two weeks—giving interviews to Vox and The Atlantic, writing op-eds for Politico, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, and the New York Daily News, and appearing on numerous cable news broadcasts—she says that she received nearly 100 threats, including two examples she shared with The Daily Beast.
“IF YOU TRY TO TAKE OUT PRESIDENT TRUMP, YOU WILL BE MET WITH LETHAL FORCE!” one email read.
“I knew there was danger involved,” she said, and while she has concerns for her safety, “I was glad to be the face for this needed cause.”
The criticisms of Lee were amplified online—in largely inaccurate ways—by high-profile Trump supporters like the far-right Twitter personality Mike Cernovich, Pizzagate “investigator” Jack Posobiec, conspiracy theorist Mark Dice, and Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, who called her “fake news” and then jokingly attempted to tie Lee’s warnings to the question of Trump’s racism.
Online trolls upped the ante, digging up a screenshot of Lee’s medical license that showed it had expired in Connecticut and positing that she was therefore not qualified. Similarly framed tweets often included a photo of Lee and contact information for the APA. In one instance, though, someone mistakenly posted the number for the American Psychological Association.
In fact, Lee maintains a license to practice in New York state. She used to have licenses in New York, Connecticut, and California, but only one active license is required by law, as she detailed to Snopes.
That didn’t stop sites like Free Republic and Campus Reform, in an article re-published by InfoWars, from questioning whether Lee was a licensed psychiatrist. (She is.) Breitbart sounded two dog whistles at once—highlighting the part of Lee’s bio that states she is “preparing students at Yale Law School to become asylum attorneys” in an article that also included a link to her work email address.
Lee says that while she’ll continue to work with lawmakers to press her case for a full neuropsychological evaluation of the president, she may make fewer public appearances going forward.
In an attempt to combat the misperceptions and outright mischaracterizations of her work, Lee created a Twitter account on Jan. 2. On Jan. 6, she deleted her account.
“I was shocked, actually,” she said. “It’s a venue that is designed for mob violence.”
Prior to leaving Twitter, Lee received a slew of replies, the vast majority of which questioned her credentials, used abusive language, promised to go after her job, and falsely labeled her a foreign agent, including threats of violence.
“I’m probably going to write something about the incredible damage it is doing to public mental health,” she added.
“I thought entertainment and advertising were bad. This is a thousand times worse.”