A Yale Psychiatrist Seeks to Compare Trump and Hitler

November 3, 2020 Updated: November 3, 2020

Commentary

Dr. Bandy Lee, the Yale forensic psychiatrist, recently compared Donald Trump somewhat unfavorably with Hitler, using a version of the “at-least-Hitler-was-sincere” argument.

Hitler did something to improve daily life for his people, she said, had discipline, and ‘required more of himself to gain the respect of his people.’ Well, not quite all of his people, perhaps…

Since we are in comparison mode, let us compare Mr. Obama with Stalin, à la Bandy Lee. At least Stalin did not make a personal fortune from his position and had much better and more refined taste in music than Obama, albeit expressed in somewhat dictatorial fashion, once allegedly making his favourite pianist, Mariya Yudina, get up in the early hours of the morning, together with an entire orchestra, to play him a Mozart piano concerto.

But that does not alter the fact: Stalin had much better musical taste than Obama—as well as much wider intellectual interests in general.

Do we conclude from this that Stalin and Obama were comparable, except, that is, in the sense that anything can be compared with anything else? I think not.

Even to make the comparison is to insult Stalin’s victims by failing utterly to enter imaginatively into the horror of the repression, the camps, the mass deportations, the famines, etc., of his regime. Such a ridiculous comparison is a form of narcissistic outrage (or, possibly, of a degree of ignorance unusual even for an academic).

And of course, this comparison is an insult to Obama, who is not guilty of murder, much less mass murder.

Proportion

In other words, we need a sense of proportion. The latter is, presumably, a precondition of what Dr. Lee would no doubt call mental health (though personally I find this term in equal degree odious, ridiculous, and sinister). A person who lacks a sense of proportion is commonly said to be unbalanced: and if any comment were ever unbalanced, poor Dr. Lee’s was. Perhaps she should see someone.

Of course, a sense of proportion is harder to achieve than might appear at first sight. I am more genuinely angry if my train is ten minutes later than I am at the latest outrage in some very distance country. I am naturally more concerned with my own little travails than I am by the suffering of multitudes, at least so long as my little travails endure.

But I hope I wouldn’t Tweet when my train is delayed, say, that at least the Tutsi in Rwanda never had to suffer any delayed trains because there were no railways in Rwanda. (Actually, I wouldn’t Tweet anything, I find the whole phenomenon disagreeable.) Man is given an intellect so that he can put things in proportion, notwithstanding the level of emotion he feels.

Neither suffering nor evil are on a simple linear scale. A man who murders six people is not necessarily twice as bad as one who murders three, who is not necessarily three times as bad as one who murders only one, who is not necessarily infinitely worse than someone who murders nobody. Our moral judgements have to be a good deal more complex than that.

The comparison of someone with Hitler now plays a similar role in moral discourse, perhaps at a faintly higher level, as the use of the word f….. in the general discourse of much of the populace. It has no specific meaning and is a general intensifier of what is said.

Thus a person in an office who is called a little Hitler is understood to be someone who is too bossy rather than someone who is genocidally murderous.

How strongly the word f…… intensifies what it qualifies depends largely on who is using it: half the population seems incapable of saying anything without its use. But if a normally genteel person uses it, it may be of some significance.

A Mad Comparison

Dr. Lee, I suspect, meant more than that she thought Mr. Trump to be very, very bad. She meant the comparison to be historically illuminating. She added that people of the same psychopathology—Hitler and Trump—could exist at different levels of competence, Hitler in this respect being Trump’s superior.

But competence at what, precisely? Competence is not a general characteristic that people have across all fields of human endeavor: one may be a competent artist, for example, and an incompetent businessman, or an incompetent artist but a competent businessman (the latter type being rather more common these days than the former).

To have said, therefore, that Hitler was more competent than Trump was also to imply that they were engaged on the same, similar or comparable task. This, to put it colloquially, is mad.

By deleting her Tweet, Dr. Lee implicitly acknowledged that she had not furthered her reputation for sagacity. But she deleted it only because she realized that it had damaged her, not because she thought there was anything wrong with it.

Indeed, she wrote in her own defense: “If we cannot look at parallels in history and learn from them, we are truly poised to repeat it.”

In other words, she stood by her comparison: she thought the parallels were close enough to be instructive, albeit that in some respects Mr. Trump had already proved himself worse than Hitler.

But this is robust good sense itself by comparison with what comes after: “I say so in heartbreak for the 11+ million lives lost [presumably as a result of the comparatively competent Hitler’s activities], not in their minimization (currently we are looking at 7 billion at risk, without exaggeration).”

In a sense, of course, it is true that we are all at risk: in 120 years, all 7 billion of us will be dead, most of us long dead. Life itself is a 100 per cent risk of death, but this has nothing to do with Mr Trump. As John Milton puts it:

“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

“Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

“Brought death into the world, and all our woes…

“Sing, heav’nly muse…”

Death, as an inevitable condition of life, did not wait for Mr. Trump to make its appearance in the world and render us all—without exception—vulnerable.

Incidentally, I do not believe that Dr. Lee experiences “heartbreak for the 11+ million lives lost.” Heartbreak is not like that. Her words have, at least to my ears, the ring of authentic bogusness, the ring of a person trying to feel more than she feels, trying to appear better than she is.

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.