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The Insanity Offense

Why calling Trump mentally ill doesn’t solve anything.

US President Donald Trump speaks in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, DC, December 13, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on Dec. 13.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

With new reports about the erratic behavior of our president and the sheer dysfunction at the heart of power dominating headlines over the past week, a narrative which had once been restricted to the outer reaches of the internet has quickly gained momentum: Donald Trump, this story goes, is mentally ill.

“The president of the United States,” Ezra Klein recently argued, “is not well.” “The danger has become imminent,” Bandy Lee, a professor at Yale Medical School, seconded. “The president of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States,” David Remnick argued in a piece about “The Increasing Unfitness of Donald Trump.” So intense has the speculation about Trump’s mental state become over the past days that he himself addressed them, taking to Twitter to declare himself “a very stable genius.”

Like most fringe narratives that suddenly break into the mainstream, this one is both extremely alarming and potentially comforting: It is extremely alarming because the fate of the world is now in the hands of a man who (supposedly) does not have full control over his own mental faculties.
But it is also potentially comforting because the deterioration of the president’s mind (purportedly) points the way towards an obvious solution: To solve the terrifying predicament in which we find ourselves, we have but to invoke the 25th Amendment, declaring Trump to be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”—and remove him from the presidency.

Tempting though this story is, I fear that it is both factually dubious and politically disastrous.

It is factually dubious because there is (at least so far) little evidence that Trump’s mind is actually deteriorating. The many tweets and articles claiming that Trump is going mad claim that he has become increasingly obsessed with himself; that he seems to harbor ever greater delusions about his own abilities; that he now seems to believe his own lies; and that he is more selfish than ever.

All of this is true. But none of it is new.

From everything we know about his long career in the public eye, Donald Trump has always been childishly obsessed with his own fame. (In the 1980s, he went so far as to impersonate his own publicist in calls with journalists.)

His conception of himself as a brilliant businessman has always lacked a basis in reality. (If he had foregone all of his businesses, putting his inheritance into the S&P 500, he would be much richer today.)

He has always been willing to lie for his own profit, seemingly believing his own hype. (The promises he made about the benefits which students would draw from attending Trump University were no less inflated than those he now makes about the benefits average Americans will draw from his tax reform.)

And of course he has always been shockingly selfish. (Just ask the scores of contractors he never paid for services rendered.)

To be sure, the fact that there is no clear mental deterioration does not prove that there is no mental illness. Just as his self-appointed shrinks claim, Donald Trump could, all along, have engaged in “compulsive ‘more-than’ behavior” or suffered from “malignant narcissism.”

Since I am not a trained psychiatrist, I have no way of assessing how plausible these armchair diagnoses are. But I do know that the lack of mental deterioration makes it much more difficult to argue for Trump’s removal from office. If the president had dementia, or some other serious degenerative disease, the case for declaring him incapable of performing his duties of office would be much stronger: It could then be argued that the American people got a president they never elected—and that his incapacity to do his job will only become more acute in the future.

But given that his behavior is not more erratic today than it used to be, there is no clear reason to believe it will keep growing more erratic in the future. What’s more, those who believe that Donald Trump is mentally ill have to acknowledge that the American people sent him to the White House at a time when his mental illness was on open display for all to see; this makes it very difficult to see how such an act would be democratically legitimate.

The 25th Amendment was passed in 1967, a few years after John F. Kennedy was shot. It was meant to cover scenarios in which a president was evidently unable to carry out the duties of his office, for example, because he was in a coma as the result of an assassination attempt.
Stretching the terms of this provision to include a president who was of sound mind when he was elected, but then began to suffer the effects of dementia, would be controversial enough. Applying it to a president who appears to be operating much the way he has publicly done for many decades would amount to staging a judicial coup.

Listen to the Good Fight Podcast:

Anybody who is tempted to advocate such a coup should stop a minute to ponder its likely long-term effects. Trump, let us remember, is as much a symptom as he is a cause of our current political crisis; if he were removed from office in a way that confirmed his supporters’ most paranoid fears about a rigged political system, the decapitated hydra would be sure to sprout many more orange heads.

What’s more, one of the most dangerous aspects of Trump’s presidency is precisely the way in which he systematically disregards the most basic rules and norms of liberal democracy. To fight these violations of democratic norms by weakening the idea that the people get to choose their president is, to quote James Madison, a remedy “worse than the disease.”

For all these reasons, we shouldn’t even think about invoking Trump’s supposed mental illness to remove him from office. But that doesn’t mean that we should simply sit back and accept the risk that his character flaws might lead to some apocalyptic consequences, like a nuclear war with North Korea. As both Klein and Remnick persuasively argue, the destruction which such an event would wreak is so immense that we must immediately take action to prevent it.

In seeking a way to check Trump’s unlimited power, we should, however, honor two crucial principles.

First, we should justify such actions with evident character flaws that are on display for all to see, not with controversial conjectures about mental defects which only medical experts—who in any case deeply disagree with each other—are competent to judge. As Evan McMullin aptly pointed out on Twitter, “Whether the president is actually mentally ill or just has extreme personality flaws, we may never know. Either way, he’s clearly unfit for the office and we’ve seen enough to know that we need an independent press and Congress to hold him accountable.”

Second, we should take democratically legitimate action that sets a healthy precedent for the future rather than staging a judicial coup that contributes to the further erosion of democratic norms. In my mind, this means that we should use this opportunity to constrain presidential powers in areas where they have, in any case, grown far too vast.

Like many others, for example, I am especially anxious about the fact that Donald Trump can order the world’s destruction at a moment’s whim.
But this only serves to remind us that no one man should be able to make so consequential a decision without some institutionalized mechanism to ensure that he isn’t gripped by a fit of rage or irrationality. In acting now to constrain Trump’s power to destroy the world, we would simultaneously fix a long-standing problem in a way that will continue to make us safer for years to come.

The power to launch a nuclear weapon that kills millions of people in one fell stroke is the most obvious way in which presidential powers have grown scarily unaccountable. But there are plenty of others. Neither Donald Trump nor future American presidents should, for example, be allowed to take America into war without the explicit authorization of Congress. And neither Donald Trump nor future presidents should retain so much formal power over independent institutions like the FBI.

There are plenty of urgent and weighty reasons to constrain the terrifying powers that now rest in a man publicly proven to be unfit for the immense responsibilities of his job. But there is simply no good reason for inventing dubious diagnoses of mental illness to add to that already lengthy list.

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