I know it’s rather late in the day to be getting around to this, but David Brooks’ column in the New York Times this morning contained a remarkable statement.
|Give David Brooks a|
Ph.D in naiveté
"First, people who go into the White House to have a meeting with President Trump usually leave pleasantly surprised. They find that Trump is not the raving madman they expected from his tweetstorms or the media coverage. They generally say that he is affable, if repetitive. He runs a normal, good meeting and seems well-informed enough to get by."
The statement is remarkable because of its disquieting naiveté. Just because he’s affable, and seems like a “good guy” who is “well informed enough,” doesn’t mean Trump isn’t a complete psychopath. Many psychopaths have an extraordinary capacity for appearing “normal,” and affable, and even disarmingly charming.
|This "affable guy" died in the|
You want a case in point? How about this guy — one of the most charming and affable serial killers in the history of the United States. In fact, it was his charm that enabled him to work as a volunteer campaign worker (for a Republican candidate, naturally) and that also enabled him to meet, enchant, and then rape and murder somewhere between 36 and 100 women.
It turns out that psychopaths can be as affable as anyone else. In fact, some of them find affability a useful tool when they turn it on.
I spent seven years of my life living with a psychiatrist (who, before she died, was referred to at various times in this space as “The Crank’s Beautiful Girlfriend.”) She was indeed an exceptional beauty, and also a brilliant psychiatrist with a celebrity patient roster, who followed a hard-and-fast rule.
“I don’t take psychotic patients,” she told me. “I certainly don’t take psychopaths. I don't like crazy people. You can’t trust them. They’re dangerous.”
“But you’re a psychiatrist,” I said, a bit shocked.
“Yes and I don’t waste my time with insane people. Or risk my life.”
On the outside chance that she’d make a fatal misdiagnosis, this small, willowy, exquisite woman kept a can of mace in her top desk drawer. But she never had to use it. She was pretty infallible in her diagnoses. And she was firm in her opinions as to whom she’d treat and who would be better off seeing some other head shrinker.
Then there was the case my younger brother ran across, roughly 40 years ago, when he was a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City, assigned to deal with nut cases.
A bit of background. In the State of New York you can (or at least could, back then) incarcerate people who are not guilty of a crime if a court adjudicates them to be a “danger to themselves or others.”
They may be incipient Ted Bundys. They may be the kind of lost soul who pops up in the news for a day after acting on a message from God that advises them to push a subway passenger off some platform into the path of a speeding train. They may be any number of things, but they’re as crazy as bedbugs and a lot more dangerous.
Many of these people don’t like it in the looney bin. And the law allows them a way out. Periodically, they’re entitled to go back to court, present evidence, or at least a claim that they’re as normal as everybody else, and ask the court to free them. Since many of them have no money, the Legal Aid Society often represents them. Hence my brother.
One day, my brother told me about a truly amazing client he’d just represented. The bus brought his client to the courthouse, where my brother had about ten minutes to meet and interview him before they both went before the judge.
“The guy was completely rational,” my brother said. “He was charming. He had somehow kept up to date with the news. He could rattle off what he had read in The New York Times that week. And then he could explain — in cogent detail — why it mattered.
“His conversation was lively. He was clear-headed. In my mind there was no question about it. This guy was one hundred precent sane. He had to be released. Justice demanded it. So I brought him into the courtroom. And I put him on the witness stand."
Sure enough, my brother’s client charmed the judge, too. The judge was listening, fascinated, smiling, nodding agreeably, clearly under the spell of the witness, who swore his incarceration was all a mistake. His testimony even included a pretty plausible theory about how he could have been locked up through the error of a city hospital's foreign-born doctor, who spoke barely more than rudimentary English and who, through lack of English, misunderstood something and made an error.
The testimony was not only rational, it was clearly analytical. It was utterly reasonable. Clearly, the judge seemed to be thinking, he was hearing the testimony of what these days you might call “a stable genius.”
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, my brother spotted the state attorney, who appeared agitated, upset, and outraged. The state attorney whispered furiously into the ear of a psychiatrist who had accompanied the prisoner from the looney bin. The psychiatrist whispered back. The state’s attorney whispered something else. And there was another whispered reply.
Finally, it was the state attorney’s turn to cross-examine my brother’s client. But there seemed no evident point in doing so, since my brother's client was so evidently sane.
“Tell me,” asked the state’s attorney, “who is the President of Mexico?”
“Why, I am!” my brother’s client replied confidently, and without missing a beat.
“And how much are you paid to be President of Mexico?”
“Well that’s very hard to say because they can’t send me my money while I’m being held prisoner in New York. They put the money in a trunk and it’s buried under a tree in Guadalajara where….”
The judge’s smile faded. His eyes rolled in big circles. In due course the bus from the crazy house backed up to the court house, and two armed guards saw to it that my brother’s client was on board.
They never saw each other again.
MORAL: Just because somebody can act rational for twenty minutes or so doesn’t mean he wouldn’t nuke the planet, first opportunity he gets, particularly if you say whatever his magic words are. Got that, David Brooks?
Who’s ultimately more dangerous?
“I’m the most cold hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.” — Serial Killer Ted Bundy
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen…"— Stable genius Donald Trump