Ever since Donald Trump hit the presidential campaign trail more than two years ago, there has been a drumbeat about whether he is mentally unstable — from mainstream news sources (the Washington Post: “Is Trump mentally ill? Or is America? Psychiatrists weigh in”) to the left media (Democracy Now!: “Psychiatrists ‘deeply concerned’ by Trump’s instability call for urgent mental health evaluation”).
But it is wrong to put all this focus on Trump’s mental health because it deflects attention from his reactionary politics. As David Perry wrote at Pacific Standard magazine in an article titled “Stop speculating about Trump’s mental health”:
I don’t believe Trump’s mental condition is all that relevant to his miserable performance as president. I believe he’s always been a liar, a merchant of racism and sexism, and a person willing to exploit any perceived weakness for the sake of personal gain. The urge to pathologize his conduct says much more about the ableist biases of American society than whatever is going on in the president’s brain. What’s more, Trump’s enablers will resist any such reporting.
To be blunt, the label of “crazy” is both too gentle for the monster who sits in the White House and also insulting to millions of people who suffer from mental illness. As Perry writes:
He lies, boasts, exaggerates, grifts, swaggers, spreads hate and division, and does whatever he can to improve his own fortunes while concealing his vast incompetencies and bottomless ignorance. None of these characteristics requires a pathology to explain. Trump’s complete lack of fitness as president has nothing to do with whether he has any diagnosable conditions.
It turns out that there are accepted guidelines for how psychiatrists and psychologists should treat speculation of the mental health of elected officials when they take place in the media. They are known as the Goldwater Rule, as Christie Aschwanden explained at FiveThirtyEight:
The rule arose from a 1964 cover story in Fact magazine that had the headline, “FACT: 1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to Be President!” which led Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater to sue for libel — and win.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule explicitly states: “[I]t is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
Ashwanden quotes Allen Frances, a co-author of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and a defender of the Goldwater Rule.
“Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely,” Frances wrote in a New York Times op-ed article. “Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy.”‘
Ashwaden wraps up the article with a point that liberal commentators might do well to think about: “People accusing Trump of insanity might well feel different about the practice if it was turned on one of their favored candidates.”
The answer to this part of the “crazy” label is simple: Trump — like any other serial abuser, for that matter — is responsible for his actions and must be held responsible, or he will be unaccountable.
Stigma against mental illness is serious problem in this culture. Our society has made important improvements from the draconian days of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but that stigma persists — and both Republicans and Democrats help perpetuate it, while cutting desperately needed resources.
Access to mental health care is worse than other types of medical services — in a country that already has horrifically bad health care when compared to other developed countries.
The impact on people who suffer real mental health problems — which are often rooted in the oppressive and alienating world around us — is drastic. Many end up in prison, houseless, or dependent on partners or family to make up for their inability to function in a way that serves capitalism’s needs.
This gives a very different picture of mental illness and its consequences from the media stereotypes. All too often, for example, the media tend to blame mass shootings on “mental illness,” when mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence rather than commit it.
Rev. William J. Barber, the architect of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina who is now launching a new Poor People’s Campaign, made an important point on Democracy Now!: “I’ve been looking at how people are focusing now on Trump’s “mental status.” I think that’s the wrong thing…Dr. King talked about America being sick.”
In fact, Donald Trump is the human embodiment of this sickness, having been born into wealth and grown into a spoiled, racist, serial rapist who was then accidentally elected president of the richest and most militarily advanced country in the world.
Trump is erratic and extreme in his self-aggrandizement, and those traits no doubt shape his behavior. But to use mental illness as an explanation is to ignore how the rulers of the capitalist system collectively use sexism, racism, transphobia, Islamaphobia and so on to keep their profit system functioning.