In his Thursday morning speech responding to the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump correctly noted that “it is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference; we must actually make that difference.” This comment came near the end of a speech packed with condolences, platitudes, and vague promises to the 17 people who were killed on Wednesday. Though he acknowledged that reports of gunfire first brought police to the scene, not once did he utter the word guns.
This isn’t just a verbal tic. Though his speech was mind-blowingly blurry in terms of policy, he pointed a finger at one cause for Wednesday’s shooting:
Our administration is working closely with local authorities to investigate the shooting and learn everything we can. We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health.
These appeals to consider the shooter’s “mental health” are an inevitable part of our all too frequent news cycles on gun violence, even though the evidence suggests that people with diagnosed mental illness are more likely to have violence done to them than to perpetrate violence themselves. There is something a bit understandable about the impulse to otherize the shooter when these massacres happen. We want to separate ourselves from the monsters who walk into schools and shoot children, and explaining their behavior with comforting clinical terms that mark them as officially “broken” offers relief, never mind that it demonizes an entire group of people who do not deserve it. It also offers pro-gun rights politicians an out: What could we have done? they seem to say. He was mentally ill—as though these shootings are acts of nature, like a devastating tornado.
I don’t know whether Nikolas Cruz struggled with mental health problems, and I doubt the president does, either. But say Cruz does. Let’s think for just one moment how Donald Trump’s America has served him. For one thing, nearly a year ago, Trump reversed a law that would have made it harder for people with mental illness to get guns. The law had been drafted following the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting that killed 20 children and eight adults (including the shooter and his mother). The president did not offer an explanation for his reversal. Then, in the subsequent months, Trump crusaded for several iterations of new health care policy that would have obliterated mental health care access. His namesake bill, which did not pass, had provisions to roll back mandates that required Medicaid to cover mental health care. The Senate bill, which also did not pass, would have allowed private insurers to remove mental health care from the list of essential benefits they are required to pay for. This legislation dovetails with how Trump talks about mental health issues—he relies on platitudes about strength rather than taking it seriously as a medical issue, and he flattens issues of drug addiction into demonstrations of personal failure that he assumes could have been fixed if people had just a little more willpower. Given all of this, I have extremely limited faith in Trump’s ability to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health.”
I find Trump’s comments hard to stomach for another reason, though. The most established association we find in people who commit this kind of violence is not mental illness. It is anger. As the psychologist Laura L. Hayes wrote in Slate in 2016 after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the ability to regulate anger is an essential skill. When it isn’t developed, the result can be catastrophic:
An adult who is able to effectively regulate anger uses it to alert himself to a problem situation. Managed well, it is an extraordinarily effective warning system. Unregulated, impulses are stronger, and thinking is less clear. The poorly regulated adult with enhanced reactivity, impulsivity, and a constant state of fight or flight sees in every interaction the potential for being harmed and the necessity to defend himself. The angrier he feels, the less clearly he will think. His reactions will often be out of proportion to the situation, and he will be prone to violence. Because he sees the world as a constant source of danger, he externalizes blame, to his spouse, children, neighbors, government, and “others” in race, nationality, religion, or culture. Angry, blaming, aggressive, and unable to modulate his emotions, he can become a danger to others.
Hayes wrote this before American journalism was spending so much time psychologizing Donald Trump, but as someone who has spent a fair bit of time considering what happens inside the president’s head, this strikes me as quite relevant.
Later, Hayes offers a strategy for the question we all want to know the answer to—how do we identify these people and get them help before they kill. She writes:
There is a profile of the typical mass murderer, albeit not one particularly useful in identifying dangerous individuals. He is male, white, and single, divorced, or separated. He is also isolated, lacking in social support, and bears a grudge toward someone or something. He externalizes blame and sees himself as wronged. It is clear the first part of this profile—male, white, and single—is not the part that would best predict a violent killer. It is the second part—lonely and isolated, blaming others for his problems, and most importantly, angry—that depicts a man likely to lose control.
Again, I have no idea what exactly was happening in the life of Nikolas Cruz, though I am sure we will all learn more over time. And I cannot assess how the behavior modeled by the president of the United States may have influenced him or convinced him that his anger was OK, even righteous. But I do know that our president is an exceptionally angry man who blames others as a matter of course and condones violence in many forms—against women, against the press, against Americans who show up to his rallies in protest. So it’s a bit rich that today, he asked children to “answer hate with love.”