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John Gartner, Baltimore psychologist, takes his ‘duty to warn’ about Trump to film

In a new documentary film, John Gartner, a Baltimore-based psychotherapist, and other mental health professionals argue that Donald Trump is psychologically unfit to be president and is a threat to American democracy because of his authoritarian inclinations.
In a new documentary film, John Gartner, a Baltimore-based psychotherapist, and other mental health professionals argue that Donald Trump is psychologically unfit to be president and is a threat to American democracy because of his authoritarian inclinations. (#UNFIT)

A new documentary film both fascinating and frightening gives Baltimore-based psychotherapist John Gartner and a supporting cast of mental health professionals ample opportunity to make their case that Donald Trump is psychologically unfit to be president of the republic.

Its title, “#UNFIT: The Psychology of Donald Trump,” suggests a polemic, and there were many moments when I thought Michael Moore had directed the film. (He didn’t; Dan Partland did.) But, generally, the tone is clinical and explanatory, with arguments presented by experts in psychology, sociology, history, national security and cheating at golf. Trump’s own words in video clips serve as corroboration.

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Americans who believe its premise to be accurate will appreciate the film — some as an intellectual journey into modern psychiatry and the study of authoritarianism, others as a guilty indulgence. For the most part, the professionals who appear in the documentary speak dispassionately, but clearly with urgency about the future of American democracy. The film serves as a well-timed alarm, released into the video stream two months before the national election.

But for whom does this bell toll?

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Diagnose me crazy, but as I watched, I wondered if any of my fellow Americans who still support Trump would be willing to spend $5.99 for an on-demand viewing of “#UNFIT.”

It’s hard to imagine that they would. A film entitled, “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” about what they perceive as baseless fear of the president, would have greater appeal to the #MAGA faithful.

Of course, it always comes to this, doesn’t it? Anyone who earnestly tries to make a rational case against Trump hits the red wall of resistance to reason and facts. But “#UNFIT” predicts and acknowledges that and endeavors to explain it, starting with something I had never before considered: Fear of death.

Deep down — and isn’t all psychology deep down? — we all fear death, as Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College, explains in the film. Humans live with an unconscious existential terror that we are, biologically speaking, “breathing pieces of defecating meat no more significant or enduring than lizards or potatoes.”

To fight off that terrifying thought, Solomon says, we join groups and embrace belief systems to give life meaning and value.

Americans want to believe that ours is an exceptional country — land of the free, home of the brave and, since the “good war” that ended 75 years ago this month, the most powerful and prosperous nation in human history.

But, Solomon says, that post-World War II America has lost its luster, and a harsher reality has taken hold. “One of the first knees to our psychological groin was [the terrorist attack of] 9/11,” he says. (I would reach back further and list the Vietnam War as an earlier assault on the American psyche.)

Given the financial crisis and recession of 2007-2009, globalization and the nation’s changing demographics, it follows that Americans, particularly white Americans, would have started to feel the anxiety that is rooted in fear of death.

As I said, it’s deep stuff, based in Solomon’s validating research of “The Denial of Death,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in the 1970s.

When he came along in 2015 to run for president, Trump said, “The American dream is dead,” and he promised to make the country “great again.” When he heard Trump say that and talk about “Mexican rapists” and rail against Muslims, when he heard him promise to keep Americans safe, Solomon said to himself, “That guy’s gonna win.”

Once people bought into Trump, he says, they erected a “fact-proof screen” to fend off any reasonable argument against his presidency. Lies didn’t matter. Promises that turned out to be empty didn’t matter. When people feel economically and psychologically insecure — when a leader grotesquely exaggerates threats and effectively makes us fear death — Solomon says, “Rationality will lose every time.”

And so, no, Trump supporters would probably not be interested in “#UNFIT” and in hearing from Solomon, Gartner, psychiatrists Justin Frank and Lance Dodes, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, sports writer Rick Reilly (author of “Commander In Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump”) and military intelligence expert Malcolm Nance.

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“‘#UNFIT’ is NOT politically motivated,” says the disclaimer on the film’s website. “This film speaks only to the collective welfare of Americans, and the world. It is rooted in science, and espoused by experts that include doctors whose sole motivation is their Duty to Warn.”

The disclaimer also says the film is “NOT intended to offer a formal diagnosis,” a caution against the accusation that Gartner and others with the Duty to Warn Coalition violate a professional rule, known as the Goldwater Rule, by giving their opinions about Trump without examining him in person.

Gartner, an assistant professor of psychiatry for 28 years at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, argues confidently that so much is known about Trump, so much on display every day, that his personality traits are obvious and documented — narcissism, paranoia, lack of guilt, taking pleasure in degrading others. This led to Gartner’s conclusion that the 45th president is a malignant narcissist, the most severe of personality disorders, making him a threat to maintain power as a demagogue and authoritarian.

So Gartner makes no apology for his diagnosis nor for helping to produce the film. “To whom will history be kinder?” he asks. “Those who spoke up during the age when Trump rose or those who were silent?”

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