What kind of person, holding the office of President of a country that possesses the most powerful military capacity in the world (‘the US spends more money — $601 billion — on defense than the next nine countries on Credit Suisse’s index combined’), publicly threatens to annihilate a county with more than 25,000,000 million human beings? During the same speech, Trump’s characterization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran deal or Iran nuclear deal, as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” reveals the darkest depths of his ignorance, stupidity, and arrogance. And it was of a piece with the Manichean madness splattered in spittle and blood all over his inaugural UN speech (Are the conventions of diplomatic discourse irrelevant, devoid of any normative value?).
In the words of Jack Goldsmith from his recent piece in The Atlantic, “We have never had a president so ill-informed about the nature of his office, so openly mendacious, so self-destructive, or so brazen in his abusive attacks on the courts, the press, Congress (including members of his own party), and even senior officials within his own administration.” Characterized in comparative terms, “Trump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.”
Hence I suppose we should not be surprised at Trump’s habitual rhetorical reliance in public speeches upon crude, hyperbolic, and often child-like adjectives and metaphors (with corresponding child-like or homologous and associationist thinking: mistaking bigness for greatness; the quantitative valuation of virtually everything; connecting competition, success and size; the attraction of novelty; a thirst for sensationalism; an overweening sense of privilege and superiority rooted in a fascination with sheer power if not megalomania, and so forth and so on), the harm of which is exacerbated by mendacious Manichean propaganda within an overarching framework of narcissistic nationalism. Alas, we don’t need the intimate privacy and authoritative atmosphere of the clinic to make a symptomatic diagnosis of narcissistic megalomania. Bearing in mind the trenchant psychological and philosophical critiques of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it remains a source of qualified guidance for clinical judgment. As Alex Morris explains in his Rolling Stone article, “Why Trump Is Not Mentally Fit to Be President” (25 April 2017), the latest
“iteration of the DSM classifies narcissistic personality disorder as: ‘A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.’ A diagnosis would also require five or more of the following traits:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., ‘Nobody builds walls better than me’; ‘There’s nobody that respects women more than I do’; ‘There’s nobody who’s done so much for equality as I have’).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love (e.g., ‘I alone can fix it’; ‘It’s very hard for them to attack me on looks, because I’m so good-looking’).
- Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions (e.g., ‘Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich’).
- Requires excessive admiration (e.g., ‘They said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl’).
- Has a sense of entitlement (e.g., ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy’).
- Is interpersonally exploitative (see above).
- Lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others (e.g., ‘He’s not a war hero . . . he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured’). Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her (e.g., ‘I’m the president, and you’re not’).
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her (e.g., ‘I’m the president, and you’re not’).
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes (e.g., ‘I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters’).”
Both Donald Trump’s pre-political career and tenure to date as U.S. President provide ample, disturbing and compelling behavioral evidence for our non-professional (‘armchair’) diagnosis. We’re all too familiar with his behavior during the campaign and time in office, the pre-political period perhaps less so:
“Viewed through the lens of pathology, Trump’s behavior – from military-school reports that he was too competitive to have close friends to his recent impromptu press conference, where he seemed to revel in the hour and a half he spent center stage, spouting paranoia and insults – can be seen as a constant quest for narcissistic supply. Certainly few have gone after fame (a veritable conveyor belt of narcissistic supply) with such single-mindedness as Trump, constantly upping the ante to gain more exposure. Not content with being the heir apparent of his father’s vast outer-borough fortune, he spent his twenties moving the Trump Organization into the spotlight of Manhattan, where his buildings needed to be the biggest, the grandest, the tallest (in the pursuit of which he skipped floors in the numbering to make them seem higher). Not content to inflict the city with a succession of eyesores bearing his name in outsize letters, he had to buy up more Atlantic City casinos than anyone else, as well as a fleet of 727s (which he also slapped with his name) and the world’s third-biggest yacht (despite professing to not like boats). Meanwhile, to make sure that none of this escaped notice, he sometimes pretended to be his own publicist, peppering the press with unsolicited information about his business conquests and his sexual prowess.”
And yet if history provides us with any appropriate standard in such matters, it seems “having a mental illness, in and of itself, [doesn’t] necessarily make Trump unqualified for the presidency.” Again, Morris:
“A 2006 study published in the Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease found that 18 of the first 37 presidents met criteria for having a psychiatric disorder, from depression (24 percent) and anxiety (eight percent) to alcoholism (eight percent) and bipolar disorder (eight percent). Ten of them exhibited symptoms while in office, and one of those 10 was arguably our best president, Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from deep depression (though, considering the death of his son and the state of the nation, who could blame him?).
The problem is that, when it comes to leadership, all pathologies are not created equal. Some, like depression, though debilitating, do not typically lead to psychosis or risky decision-making and are mainly unpleasant only for the person suffering them, as well as perhaps for their close friends and family. Others, like alcoholism, can be more dicey: In 1969, Nixon got so sloshed that he ordered a nuclear attack against North Korea (in anticipation of just such an event, his defense secretary had supposedly warned the military not to act on White House orders without approval from either himself or the secretary of state).”
And we need to distinguish what has been called “run-of-the-mill narcissism,” which is common to more than a few politicians (and episodically, perhaps most of us), from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) proper:
“For many in the mental-health field, the most troubling aspect of Trump’s personality is his loose grasp of fact and fiction. When narcissism veers into NPD, it can lead to delusions, an alternate reality where the narcissist remains on top despite clear evidence to the contrary. ‘He’s extremely quick, like nanoseconds quick, to discern anything that could conceivably threaten his dominance,’ says biographer Gwenda Blair, who wrote The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President. ‘He’s on it. Anything that he senses – and he has very sharp senses – that could suggest that he is anything except 200 percent total winner, he’s got to stomp it out immediately. So having those reports, for example, that he did not win the popular vote? He can’t take that in. There has to be another explanation. It has to have been stolen. It has to have been some illegal voters. It can’t be the case that he lost. That’s not thinkable.’”
The office of the presidency has of course provided a global stage for the unavoidable and relentless exhibition of the aforementioned pathological symptoms, making it difficult for most of us to afford Trump the sympathy or compassion we might otherwise generate in the intimate realm for a person afflicted with such a personality or character disorder, if only because in his case the enhanced harmful consequences (both immediate and long-term) of such behavior will affect an enormous number of people (especially those most vulnerable to the actions of the upper classes and the politically powerful) as well as impact the wider, life-sustaining properties of the natural world.
Accompanying real or promised actions born of non-delusional grandeur or grandiose delusions, Trump’s rhetoric, as his UN speech made painfully pellucid, only serves to further muddle when not obliterating already hazy or vague boundaries in the political arena between appearance and reality, pretense and substance, deception and truth. And this only immeasurably worsens, within the prevailing polluted climate of neoliberal capitalism, existing threats to the ethos, values, principles and essential methods of democratic praxis that have been assiduously cut, chiseled, and polished over many years, in an astonishing variety of geographic locales and among peoples motivated by or tethered to different worldviews, lifeworlds, and ideologies. The convoluted and insincere hermeneutic rationales routinely if awkwardly constructed in defense of Trump’s inconsistent and haphazard rhetoric by his cronies and sycophants has only conspicuously shrunken the depth and scope of democratic political argumentation. Thus our corresponding public discourse—whether in the mass media or informal public fora—is invariably shallow and sullied, except perhaps, in those precious quarters where opposition, resistance, and rebellion is being nurtured under the protective banner of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, where the virtues of participatory and deliberative democracy have not disappeared, thereby making it possible if not probable that the thirst for social justice will one day be sated.