On Jan. 3, Dan Rather denounced President Donald Trump’s tweet regarding North Korea boasting that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim Jong Un’s button as “so far beyond any norm of advisable presidential behavior as to defy reason.”
This comment harkens back to April 2017 when, after meeting at Yale University, a group of 27 psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts opined that as “witnessing professionals” they had an ethical duty to warn people about the danger of Trump.
The danger to which they referred has been coined “malignant normality” by psychiatrist Dr. Robert J. Lifton, one of the 27 and a researcher into the psychological effects of war and political violence. This term grew out of Lifton’s work on Nazi war crimes in which he identified the principle that when ordinary people are continuously exposed to evil ideologies over a period of time—and even though they believe they are resisting the evil ideas, they become socialized to them—resulting in a climate that makes such behavior socially acceptable and perceived as normal.
Through this process, these destructive influences can then be inculcated into an otherwise reasonable society and can lead that society to do things it would otherwise never do. Through this socialization process, Nazi doctors and other professionals were “reduced to being automatic servants of the existing regime as opposed to people with special knowledge balanced by a moral baseline as well as the scientific information to make judgments.”
According to Lifton, Trump’s presidency is earmarked by a level of behavior that has been unthinkable for presidents in the past and is little by little morphing into expected conduct for the president. Many people who were once shocked by Trump’s behavior are slowly becoming accustomed to it. This has resulted in a “gradual begrudging acceptance of his crude and belligerent treatment of others from foreign leaders to fellow Americans which has resulted as the new normal in American politics,” in other words, a state of malignant normality is being created.
Lifton describes the current political climate as normalizing Trump’s behavior when members of both parties fail to explicitly criticize each of his aberrant behaviors.
With the president’s problematic behavior escalating, one would expect people to be speaking out more than ever. His incessant and continuous extreme communication and behavior, however, have seemingly worn people down and perhaps makes protest seems fruitless. But speaking out is more important now than ever to halt the further normalizing and acceptance of his behaviors.
As Lifton asserts, like the mental health professionals who have a duty to warn about the danger of this presidency, all professionals, including lawyers, as “witnessing professionals,” also have an obligation to contest the president’s problematic behavior “rather than being servants of the powers responsible for the malignant normality … we must be people with a conscience in a very fundamental way.”
We, as lawyers, trained in the law, including on issues of justice and constitutionality which are the bedrock of our democracy, have a heightened duty to speak out about aberrant presidential behavior that threatens to erode that very democracy.