Donald Trump’s supporters roared their approval when he falsely declared victory over Joe Biden in the US presidential election on Wednesday. “We are going to the Supreme Court,” he said, “we want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list, okay?” His audience whistled and applauded. “We will win this and as far as I am concerned, we already have won it,” he bragged, to loud acclaim.
By Thursday, Trump was lashing out at election workers and pronouncing fraud, and he and his supporters were threatening litigation. The election had been ‘stolen’, Trump proclaimed, while his enraged supporters erupted and threatened revenge.
Forensic psychiatrist, Dr Bandy X Lee, who teaches law and psychiatry and the Yale School of Medicine, commented on Geo.tv that Trumps is more dangerous than Hitler and US political society is weaker than the system that Hitler corrupted with Nazi fascism. “We need to be sober about the dangers this entails: his followership is more irrational, and the spread of pathology is more difficult to counter,” Lee says.
The American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, coined the term “malignant normality” to refer to a degenerative social phenomenon in which large numbers of people view reality through the skewed lens of a political leader and even adopt his traits.
Lifton was one of 27 mental health practitioners who contributed to the New York Times bestseller: The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, edited by Lee. The book had three messages: That President Trump was more dangerous than the public was able to perceive; that he would grow more dangerous with time and that given his powerful position, his pathology would spread among the general population.
Lee and her colleagues were opposed by the American Psychiatric Association on the grounds of the “Goldwater rule,” which prevents mental health professionals from diagnosing public figures they have not personally examined. However, the group claimed they a moral duty to warn the American public.
Listening to the proceedings at the Zondo Commission, I sometimes wonder whether South African mental health professionals should be consulted. Rationalising a tender approval process this week, former SAA Technical board chair at the Zondo Commission, Yakhe Kwinana said: “If my daughter sells fat cakes and someone next door is also selling fat cakes, why would I buy next door instead of supporting my daughter?”
And former SAA board chairperson, Dudu Myeni said: “I prefer not to answer this question. Because my focus is dealing with poverty, inequality and all the other problems facing me as a woman leader. I have never had an opportunity to sit down and study people’s CVs so that I can align my CV to somebody else’s CV.”
Malignant normality appears to be a sinister offshoot of corruption in the South African context.
In an astute piece in the Mail & Guardian, (https://mg.co.za/news/2020-11-05-the-zondo-commission-of-evasion/) Sarah Smit quotes politicians and civil servants who have appeared before the Commission.
Former SABC chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng told the Commission: “We would fly to all these provinces with the Guptas even to Cape Town, because we were in partnership. And they had everything. For me it was an opportunity to also capture them.”
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, said: Before you talk to them [the Guptas] you eat curry. So this thing you see in the public that people eat curry there. It is not a joke. It is true I ate it, but that curry never finished me. I stood firm.”
Former Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. Said: “Chairperson I’ve never received anything, as Mr Agrizzi is stating … This has not happened. We all know that a house like this one cannot have a storage to keep all these items. Even those that came on-site, I’m sure they didn’t find any strong room or a fridge or whatever, a freezer, that could keep this.”
Former president, Jacob Zuma said, “He says that I auctioned off South Africa … Well, did I auction Table Mountain? Did I auction Johannesburg? It is a lie, there is nothing of that nature.”
Chief Justice Moegeng Moegeng has referred to corruption as a “sickness” and those who perpetuate it as “mentally damaged”.
“In the realm of politics, you have people who support leaders regardless of their behaviour,” said Professor Cora Smith, head of Charlotte Maxeke’s Department of Psychiatry, citing the appointment to the Provincial Council of the Gauteng MEC for Health who was allegedly responsible for the death of 143 people in the Life Esdimeni tragedy (as of today, not a single person implicated in the Life Esidimeni scandal has been charged).
While corruption is an expression of moral “sickness”; in some instances it may be linked to a psychiatric diagnosis such as antisocial personality disorder.
Should South African mental health professionals alert the public to the dangers that certain key people in government and politics represent as the US team did? This is by no means a call to stigmatise people with mental health illnesses, which is something I would never support – but for citizens to be alerted to the influence that morally questionable people in leadership positions are able to exert over their followers, and how this has the potential to chip away at their grasp of reality.
In his book, A Simple Man – Kasrils and the Zuma enigma, the former head of intelligence for Umkhonto weSizwe and senior member of the ANC and SACP, Ronnie Kasrils describes a meeting at the ANC offices in Johannesburg where he cautions ANC comrades about Zuma’s tribalism, immorality and corruption. “As revolutionaries we should be in the fore, taking him to task as a corrupt and immoral leader and consequently the corrupter of others. He is a dangerous man,” Kasrils said.
South African mental health professionals often recognise that a particular public figure displays psychopathic or antisocial traits, Smith said, but they are reluctant to speak out publicly. The HPSCA’s ethical guidelines regarding the diagnosis of public figures are unclear, she said. “However, we have a problem with the integrity of certain political stakeholders – and with psychopathy – that the public should be educated about.”
One manifestation of snowballing mental illness in the US and elsewhere, is a growing willingness for citizens to believe whatever they are told. In an article in the Economist last year, the writer said everyone knows that politicians mangle facts and push party agendas but the extent to which voters are prepared to back leaders who lie is greater than ever before. He suggested three possible reasons for this: People simply don’t know how to react; people trust the leaders they have voted for no matter what they say, and fake news may be making people more gullible.
In South Africa, “the debate is: How do we balance the public’s right to know, the professional’s duty to educate the public, and the pubic figure’s right to privacy and confidentiality,” Smith said. “What I think needs to happen, is that the Health Professions Council’s Code of Ethics should incorporate guidelines on how to manage unsolicited professional opinion on public figures.”
Even with better checks and balances such as scrutiny and screening of public figures, political leaders, state officials and executive managers, it is possible that certain individuals will be kept in public office despite severe misconduct. What protection can the public expect when political agendas override obvious misconduct?
Many are hoping that the Zondo Commission will ultimately lead to a series of prosecutions. But beyond this, the mental health of the nation needs to be taken seriously by all sectors, and new measures should be adopted to screen political candidates and appointees to key positions in State Owned Enterprises for their psychological fitness to hold office.