On Wednesday, as he was leaving a press conference in which he proclaimed himself “the chosen one” and doubled down on his offensive comments about Jews, Donald Trump delivered his new line on gun control: “The gun doesn’t pull the trigger, a person does, and we have great mental illness.”
It’s worth watching him actually say it, to hear the way he inflects on GREAT before petering out on his mumble-y “mental illness.” He’s glommed onto mental illness as the new scapegoat for mass shootings in the weeks since the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, adding his own gross (and incorrect) twist to “guns don’t kill people—people do.” (People with mental illness are more likely to have violence done to them than to perpetrate violence themselves.)
There is a very small nugget of truth to what Trump is trying to say, but only if you squint. It’s understandable to ask what might cause someone to go on a murderous rampage and to attempt to locate the impulse for violence in something off about their human brain. The thing is, we do understand quite a bit about what makes people dangerous. It just has more to do with their mental health than mental illness.
The distinction is important: People with “mental illness” are struggling with their brain chemistry; they’re often attempting to name and diagnose and treat and live with whatever is going on in their heads. Nearly half of all humans will have to deal with mental illness at some point in their lives.
Mental health, on the other hand, is something we all have to deal with, all the time. It’s the broader condition of how we exist in the world, how we choose to think of and engage with others, what our dispositions are, how we manage our emotions. And this, it turns out, is where we know something useful about what might make someone dangerous. The best predictor of future violence is past violence. And the best known cause of both is unregulated anger. As Yasmeen Abutaleb and William Wan note in the Washington Post, instead of mental illness being to blame, “researchers have noted that more commonly shared attributes include a strong sense of resentment, desire for notoriety, obsession with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism and access to firearms.”
But Donald Trump suggests that we should solve our mass shooting crisis by shipping all the “mentally ill” people off to institutions that closed decades ago for being both ineffective and inhumane. He’s been proposing this as a solution ever since he got fixated on mental illness as the problem. At a rally in New Hampshire last week, he said, “We will be taking mentally deranged and dangerous people off the streets so we won’t have to worry so much about that.”
It would be easy to shrug this off as another bit of Trumpian ranting—another example of something he’ll talk about but never actually get done. But it’s worth remembering first that Trump has already been quite successful at making it harder for people with mental illness to access the medical care they need. And, as the Post further reported Thursday, the White House is now entertaining proposals like one from the foundation of a former television executive and Trump friend that would “attempt to use volunteer data to identify ‘neurobehavioral signs’ of ‘someone headed toward a violent explosive act.’ ” I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it certainly indicates that surveillance of a vulnerable population is the thing to watch out for here.
It’s frustrating but not surprising that Trump’s response to gun violence ignores the facts in favor of scapegoats. It’s tiring that, rather than make progress toward policies that might change anything for the better, we’ll have to watch to make sure he doesn’t enact policies that are actively harmful to vulnerable populations. But what gets me about the way he has latched onto this “mental illness is the problem” thesis is slightly removed from the policy level. What we are watching is a president who is gearing up for reelection.
We already know that Trump’s political strategy relies on the politics of resentment. His basic pitch is to cast the world as a frightening place full of threats, and to cast himself as the sole savior who can deliver us from said chaos. This time around, Trump’s job is going to be a little bit harder. He no longer has his outsider status that so easily allowed him to construct this picture of the country in a state of disaster, ripe for being made great again. And so, the task at hand for Trump is to surface new threats and to conjure new fears, ones that he can’t have been expected to solve yet, so that his voters continue to buy in to his story of the current America as one of carnage from which only he can deliver them. This is part of what’s behind his claims about Baltimore being “disgusting” and “rodent-infested” (the other part is that he’s a bully who uses his racism to try to demean his opponents), and it’s what’s behind everything he says about the “invasion” at the border. Indeed, he deploys similar language in each instance to imagine American streets as threatened and overrun by undesirable people—in describing his plan to reopen mental institutions, he said, “We can’t let these people be on the streets.”
And this brings me to the final irony of Trump’s plan for fixing the problem of gun violence via containing the mentally ill. The way he describes the threat is not just unproductive—it is destructive. It is of a piece with the way he talks about everything else, which is that he is motivated primarily by fomenting fear, otherizing people, and furthering his worldview in which a certain kind of person (the person who pledges his loyalty to Trump) gets to be “safe” from everything he has described as a threat.
“Researchers have noted that more commonly shared attributes include a strong sense of resentment, desire for notoriety, obsession with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism and access to firearms.”
We have all spent the past three years watching Trump talk. Resentment is his currency. We know how he treats women. His entire worldview is motivated, first and foremost, by his narcissism. We have heard him stand in front of his crowds and encourage violence explicitly—violence against the media, violence against his political opponents. We have seen him allow his crowds to chant “send them back” about four elected congresswomen who are American citizens. We know that his politics are the politics of hatred, that the cruelty is the point. This is the politics of anger, the politics of rage. And we know that living in a world in which all of this is constantly fomented is what tips people toward violence. It’s apparent in the El Paso shooter’s manifesto, and in the Tree of Life shooter’s motivation, and in the impulses of all the “very fine” people who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Anger is what causes violence, not mental illness. The problem is that our president thinks that certain people—white people, mostly white men—are entitled to their anger. He knows that he benefits by activating it. And as he heads back out onto the campaign trail, he’s just going to keep stirring it up as the rest of us watch, and worry.