by Tony Wyman
Malignant Normality and the rise of Donald Trump
The effect of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States has been to create a state of what Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, psychiatrist and author of studies on the psychological effects of war and political violence, calls “malignant normality.”
We’ve seen, over the period that Mr. Trump has maintained his position of prominence on the American stage, a gradual and begrudging acceptance of the president’s crude and belligerent treatment of others, from foreign leaders to fellow Americans, as the new normal in American politics.
A level of boorish behavior that would have been unthinkable for presidents in the past, is now, incrementally, morphing into expected conduct for the president. Many Americans who were once appalled by Mr. Trump’s acerbic and degrading barbs directed at those who dared challenge him, are slowly becoming inured to them. This is how malignant normality works.
Nazi Doctors and the Normalization of Evil
Dr. Lifton, who I met at Oregon State University in 1996 following a speech he gave about Nazi war doctors, fascinated his audience that night with his thoughts about how ordinary and normal people can be socialized into subscribing to evil ideologies, even when they believe they are resisting those ideas, simply by being continuously exposed to them.
He recounted discussions he had with German doctors who, over time being exposed to the toxic ideas of Nazism, went from being healers to men who performed unforgivably cruel experiments on Jewish children in the name of advancing the German state.
In his speech, Dr. Lifton described how these doctors would subject small children to what was, essentially, torture at work before going home to play with their own children of the same age.
How was this possible, that such men, who had dedicated their lives to healing and caring for others, could degenerate into men willing to put small children through excruciating pain in support of Nazi aims?
The answer is that the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, created a climate in his country that made such behavior both socially acceptable and, in a word, normal.
He did this by driving a wedge between Germans, separating “good” Germans from “bad,” and overwhelming the reason of otherwise sensible Germans by spreading his message throughout German society. He was dedicated to protecting Germany, Hitler claimed, to solving its crime problem, to making it safe, to punishing the country’s enemies.
Over time, German people who otherwise held no hostility to the Jews and other so-called enemies of the state began to accept at least some of Hitler’s charges against them.
Hitler, Dr. Lifton said, offered Germans a “genocidal ideology” that the Nordic race became “‘infected’ by destructive Jewish influence and rendered weak and ill; and that it could become healthy and strong again only by ridding it of that Jewish influence.” Germany could be made great again, argued Hitler, if the German people helped him solve the “Jewish problem.”
Socializing the Dehumanization of “Others”
This idea, now considered outrageous among decent people, was excepted by many Germans, including both those who were not Nazis and those who were not even particularly sympathetic to their politics or vision.
Over time, the socialization of Hitler’s malignant politics led to the Nazification of Germany and, ultimately, the deaths of six million Jews and nearly as many non-Jews (5 million).
About how easily even people who do not subscribe fully to a toxic ideology in a nation become socialized to it, Dr. Lifton said, “Extreme ideologues do much to create a malignant normality, which comes to pervade most institutions, including medical ones. Then ordinary people who work in those institutions adhere to that normality, often aided by bits and pieces of the extreme ideology. The prevailing normality can be decisive because it excludes alternatives and provides strong pressures for destructive behavior.”
In other words, people who are not full-fledged sympathizers to an extreme ideology can, ultimately, still aid and abet the extremists by accepting a more moderate and toned-down version of the radical’s beliefs. By diluting the extreme position through accepting bits and pieces of the less objectionable portions and accepting those tenets as “just the way things are,” the average person can see himself as reasonable, as just getting along with his peers and striving to be aligned with the elites whom he admires and looks to for guidance.
This is how people begin to believe that “others” can be treated differently, that there is an incremental cadence that, ultimately, dehumanizes people who are different than the majority, that can, in the most extreme cases, lead to horrific brutality on a mass scale.
This is how a small group in power, with all of the tools available to them, can inculcate their extremist message into an otherwise reasonable and moderate society and lead that society to do things it otherwise would never do. Germans in 1933, for example, didn’t know that accepting Hitler’s message concerning the Jews would, ultimately, lead to the mass murder of eleven million human beings by 1945.
They just knew Hitler was going to do something to address the problem. But what happened was Hitler’s toxicity set the parameters under which Nazism became the new malignant normality in Germany, and the result was the darkest chapter in world history.
Now, whenever anyone dares to invoke Hitler in any discussion of modern politics, he risks being immediately dismissed by readers who believe the Nazi leader was such an extreme aberration that trying to draw parallels to him about anyone in the modern age amounts to nothing more than inexcusable hyperbole.
But, the reality is Hitler wasn’t really as much of an anomaly as we’d like to think he was. In fact, there have been many men as malignant, if not even more so, since Hitler’s death in 1945 who failed to gain Hitler’s notoriety simply because they weren’t as successful at spreading evil as was the German.
One could argue people like Pol Pot, Mao, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein were just as evil, just as ruthless and toxic, as was Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s model for the Holocaust, in many respects, was the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.
So, when people like Dr. Lifton and others try to warn us about our leaders, specifically now against the emerging malignant normality of the the current group led by Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer and others who use powerful messages of anger, resentment, division and victimization to stir the emotions of the people, we ought to listen and take heed.
For more on this subject, please watch this video, “It Can’t Happen Here.”