The Psychoanalysis of public figures, a subset of Applied Psychoanalysis, has a rather checkered history. In 2004, Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times on The Perils of Putting National Leaders on the Couch. She described an occasion where Psychiatry was seriously misused:In 1964, a few months before the presidential election, Fact magazine, now defunct, surveyed the membership of the American Psychiatric Association about the personality traits of Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee. The psychiatrists savaged Goldwater, calling him "warped," and a "paranoid schizophrenic" who harbored unconscious hatred of his Jewish father and endured rigid toilet training.
Such forays into applied psychoanalysis have not been immune to criticism. After the Fact survey, the psychiatric association issued the so-called Goldwater Rule, advising members that it is "unethical for psychiatrists to offer a professional opinion unless he/she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement."
In general, the Goldwater Rule is a smart guideline to follow for Mental Health writers, including bloggers. Exceptions occur and are no less shameful in the recent past than in the distant past:
There have been Psychiatric "hit jobs" performed on the current President, which purport to explain his policies and positions as resulting from his early experiences. Justin Franks, MD, is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association and the author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. Needless to say, Franks has never interviewed the President let alone put him on the couch, yet his book takes extreme liberties with various published sources to skewer Bush.
Porphyrogenitus, at Winds of Change, offers a useful reminder that such amateurish psychologizing can occur on the Right as well as on the Left:
Criticisms of these sort, blogchair psychoanalytics, are insipid and self-defeating regardless of who engages in them. They do nothing to advance the debate, and a lot to poison it. I mean, c'mon, who is fooling who here? Nobody is fooling anyone but themselves. People who think Obama or Reagan should have never been President don't do so because they're the product of alcoholic households or for any other psychoanalytic reason, and nobody who does think either were or are fine Presidents are going to be convinced otherwise by bogus arguments of this sort. The psychoanalitic deligitimization comes after already deciding they don't like their policies. It's never "you know, I really like what this guy's trying to accomplish and support his policies, but he's probably got this deep-seated mental disorder I attribute to him. He might be unfit for office by reason of crazy."
The article to which Porphyrogenitus linked was posted at the American Thinker blog. As far as I can tell, the article was not written by a Psychiatrist, which means that it is simultaneously less perceptive psychodynamically and less authoritative. The writer uses pop psychology memes to categorize the Presidents character and behavior. This would be foolish (and unethical) were it done by a professional; having a lay person write such an inane article is merely foolish.
There is a well understood tendency of those in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis to use the insights they gain in their daily life. This of course is one of the goals of treatment, the hard won attainment of insight which facilitates a widened and more free decision repertoire for the patient. However, many Patients use their insights, typically when the insight is primarily intellectual and has not yet produced character change, as a weapon with which to attack important people in their environment. It is not unusual to hear a patient complain that their significant other attacked them with something their therapist said in a session. “My husband's therapist told him that I am a selfish woman.” Whether or not the charge is accurate is irrelevant; it is meant as an attack and taken as such.
[It is also not unusual for our patients to use our comments as weapons; this typically requires some distortion in how a comment is understood since a good therapist rarely comments directly on the behavior or character of people who they know only through their patients. At other times our patients use others' voices as a weapon to attack us: “My husband said you aren't helping me.” It is sometimes hard to directly criticize and attack one's therapist.]
Whenever I decide to write an applied Psychoanalytic essay that concerns a living person, it is designed explicitly to illuminate weaknesses in their character that might be exploitable. I reserve such efforts for genuine enemies, like Ayman al Zawahiri, rather than political opponents like Barack Obama. We can, and should, oppose Barack Obama on his policies, which I believe are often foolish and occasionally dangerous, but we do ourselves and our arguments no favors when we attempt to hijack Psychology to pathologize our political opponents.