My fellow Americans, we are under attack. As a physician, I can tell you that this attack is every bit as dangerous as a virus or a cancer, and just as insidious.
Our journalists are doing stellar jobs of sounding the alarm that our Democratic institutions are under attack.
Paul Waldman in particular notes a recurring pattern: “It goes like this: President Trump makes a ridiculous accusation that almost everyone immediately understands to be false. Then we in the media, because it’s the president, treat that accusation as though it’s something that has to be taken seriously. Then governmental resources are mustered to deal with the accusation. Then Republicans try to twist the mobilization of those resources to give them the answer they’re seeking. But because it’s all based on a lie, they fail… [but we] end up doing it again.”
He further adds, “These are lies. They’re not ‘unconfirmed,’ they’re not ‘misstatements,’ and they’re not ‘exaggerations.’ They’re lies. How many times do we have to go through this charade?”
How many times indeed? In Aesop’s classic fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the townspeople fall for the lie just two times before they no longer take the boy’s shouting seriously. Two times. The Washington Post has now documented 3,000 lies from President Trump since he took office. 3,000! And we go through the charade over and over again. Why is it taking so long to learn?
Part of the explanation is as economist A.O. Hirschman observed, “that America itself was founded on the principle that exit (i.e., from Europe) was inherently preferable to trying to change things from within.”
Thus a responsible Republican senator like Jeff Flake of Arizona, retires from the Senate rather than stay and fight the evil he finds in Trump, even though evil that is not fought, is not beaten.
Added to this dilemma, Dahlia Lithwick proposes that there is a ”fragility” to both the press and the courts: “For its own self-preservation, [the press is] also required to pretend every day that a president who has no corresponding regard for norms and truth actually does.” In the face of this fragility, Masha Gessen calls upon us to refuse to live by lies — “stubbornly, consistently, incrementally.”
But how do we do it? All of the journalists I’ve mentioned so far fall short of specific answers.
As a physician, perhaps I can help. The problems being discussed are political, but they are also immune system problems. As biological beings, we are blessed with powerful immune systems. We have learned how to augment those immune systems with vaccines, which teach the immune system to be hypersensitive and devastating in response to attacks from pathogens.
Some viruses, like AIDS and cancers, hijack the immune system, making it difficult for the immune system to combat. But with AIDS we have found ways to heal and augment the immune system. We are now learning to use the body’s own immune system to fight specific cancers. At the core of these approaches is pattern recognition, recognizing what makes a virus and a cancer foreign, so that the immune system can identify it and kill it.
We need the same kind of augmented response with our politics. With 3,000 documented lies by the president, surely patterns can be identified, where with the next new lie, our journalists will be able to report that we just received a lie in the category of – fill in the blank, list half a dozen or so, similar lies that were told, and why the likelihood is that this “new” one should not be taken seriously.
With faster recognition, quicker response times, hopefully the “charade and rigamarole” that Waldman describes will not have to be repeated ad infinitum, ad nauseum. We have the data, we have the technology. With the will, we can do this.
Michael A. Kalm, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in Utah. He is also a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah Medical School and past president of the Utah Psychiatric Association.