One of the stories people tell themselves to make sense of living in Donald Trump’s America is that the president suffers from extreme mental illness. From the front page to the opinion section, hardly a week goes by without a major publication declaring that he is certifiably unhinged. It helps numb the pain. It lets us make an easy distinction. He’s crazy. We’re not. We could save democracy if we could just rush into the Oval Office with a straight-jacket right now.
But for many of us with mental illness, this tale is a growing cause for concern. In the span of a few years, it has shifted from a focused attack on the president, that was in and of itself unsettling, to a broad trope that stigmatizes mental illness more than at any time in a generation.
From the outset, articles about the president’s mental health have been cavalier, using innuendo from unnamed sources within the White House to stoke public concern. Given Trump’s propensity for using slurs like idiot and moron against his enemies, it became accepted practice to volley back at him with equal callousness.
Writing for The Los Angeles Times in June, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg joked that the president was, “a few fries short of a Happy Meal,” and questioned whether the White House nurse had swapped Trump’s medications with M&Ms.
We seem unable to accept the idea that the president’s behavior is not abnormal even if it is abhorrent.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have encouraged these lines of attack by assuring the president’s detractors that it is appropriate to engage in casual speculation about mental health. In an interview with Salon, Yale psychiatrist Bandy Lee — author of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” -- assured readers that her years-long practice of diagnosing a man she’s never met, “has nothing to do with politics.”
“[Psychiatric health providers’] concerns,” Lee said, “are purely about public health and safety, and whether or not American society will choose a destructive route versus a life-affirming, constructive route. Disease by definition is destructive.”
It takes extreme egotism to fuse medicine and democratic principles this way, but Lee’s comments are even more disturbing because they paint with such a broad brush. Like Trump’s insults being parroted by his followers in everyday conversation, it is easy to take Lee’s words and swing them in any direction, not just at Trump.
What is astonishing is the degree to which we embrace this kind of criticism. We seem unable to accept the idea that the president’s behavior is not abnormal even if it is abhorrent. Even if not a majority, enormous swaths of the country are in complete support of what Trump does and how he does it.
Moreover, it is possible to understand Trump without ever invoking disability. He is a relentless self-promoter, willing to do anything to climb to the top. He is dogmatic and unwavering in his cause. To many of us, he is a recognizable figure. He is the most banal and commonplace telling of the American Dream.
He is the version of the story people tell themselves when they want to justify their entitlement and scorn for others. The ones who sit around the dinner table and say that a hurricane would have gone into Alabama because they just know it, suggest that we should buy another country because it seems like a good investment, and believe a football player who takes a knee during the national anthem is a threat to democracy.
Now, Trump finds himself in a job that is extraordinarily challenging, and he is doing what he has always done — attempting to destroy any opposition with unrelenting denigration and self-aggrandizement — because that approach has rewarded him every time. As the system bucks his methods, he has grown increasingly exhausted, and with a limited repertoire of responses, he has engaged in potentially criminal behavior.
This is not intellectual disability. This is not mental illness. This is the status quo played out to a logical end.
Diagnosing Trump has reignited a broader fear of people with mental illness and animated a casual expression of it that would never be accepted if used to describe any other minority group. Amidst this summer’s mass shootings, Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang both supported gun control efforts that targeted people with mental illness rather than guns, which are the root of the problem. That played into Trump’s escalation games, and he proposed monitoring the phones of all people with mental illness and reviving mass institutionalization.
Instead of evaluating Trump’s mindset, we should look at where his actions definitively violate our laws.
America has been down this path before and in that story, liberals and conservatives found common ground by foisting their fears onto anyone seen as different. They loaded up all the sins of an unequal democracy of their own creation onto the backs of those who didn’t have a hand in it, then denied any responsibility, and sent people like me off, never to return. There’s no excuse for going down that path again.
This time, they should tell a version of the story of Donald Trump where they admit that he is where the dominant culture in America has delivered us to. They should accept some responsibility in allowing this false story to persist, and find a way to restore the health of this nation without doing it at the expense of their fellow citizens.
Instead of evaluating Trump’s mindset, we should look at where his actions definitively violate our laws. Thankfully, that is where the current impeachment proceedings will begin. What did the president actually do? Does it constitute high crimes and misdemeanors? These are questions that all citizens can buy into without denigrating one another.