In the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, there is an emergent effort to remove President Donald J. Trump from office, and a debate as to whether removal should come from impeachment by Congress or an invocation of 25th amendment. One argument for Trump’s removal has been revived in this discussion: Donald Trump is mentally unfit to lead the country, evidenced by his erratic behavior, reports of unfettered rants in the Oval Office, and his touting of paranoid conspiracy theories. To some, the events of January 6 is just one more piece of evidence to support that claim.
Attention to Trump’s mental state is not new.
Psychiatrists have been publically speculating about it since at least 2016. Reports have been surfacing for years that call into question his mental stability. Points of interest range from angry outbursts directed at staffers to a culture of paranoia in the Oval Office to strangely misspelled words on Twitter that Trump insists have a secret meaning. Even from inside the white house, people are worried: insiders of the Trump administration have affirmed Trump’s instability by effectively claiming to be his babysitters. Just a few months ago, Trump’s own niece urged action against him, calling him medically unfit to hold office. In the weeks leading up to the “Stop the Steal” rally, reports about Trump’s erratic behavior have continued to appear. Now, in the final days of the Trump administration, it seems fitting to many that we ask ourselves, is Trump mentally capable of remaining in power until the transition? How could taking his mental state into consideration help lawmakers to act in this moment?
Where do the experts land?
Public speculation about Trump’s mental fitness is controversial. Officially, the American Psychiatric Association’s decries the public diagnosis of political figures without a full, in-person examination to precede it on ethical grounds. This rule, called the “Goldwater Rule” was established after a number of mental health professionals questioned the mental state of 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Many harsh responses penned by psychiatrists to an ill-administered survey about the senator’s mental state were widely reported by the media. Subsequently, the APA’s stance has become that no diagnosis can be rendered without proper access and exposure to the person in question.
It’s not just the APA that has concerns. Some critics of mainstream psychiatry, such as Critical Mad Studies scholars, members of the Mad Pride movement, and Disability advocates have questioned the rhetoric of mental illness that follows Trump. They have called news posts and op-eds questioning Trump’s mental fitness saneist (upholding the unquestioned hierarchy of the supposedly ‘mentally well’ over the ‘mentally ill’). In addition, they have argued that charges of mental deficiency are not only misleading, but harmful to women, people of color, and the disabled. Reflecting these same problematic arguments onto Trump helps no one, in these cases.
To these arguments, I add another point that should be of keen interest to policy makers: the decision to remove Trump from office is a fundamentally political decision about the health and stability of American democracy–framing it in terms of psychiatric diagnosis obfuscates the gravity of this moment.
What a psychiatric diagnosis cannot tell us.
The problem with assigning responsibility for Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection to “mental decline,” “instability,” “illness,” or the like is that it completely misses the vast conspiratorial effort that undergirds the reality of Trump’s politics. Illness, in at least one medical sense, implies that there is a cure or some kind of treatment, that might alleviate Trump’s condition. It suggests that with the right help (doctors, aids), medicine, and time that Trump could “come around.” It treats the problem of Trumpism as located within Trump himself, rather than as part of a broader cultural phenomenon that has been developing for years. And it underplays the extent to which Wednesday’s events were not those of a lone man having a breakdown, but of an organized political leader who knowingly incited violence to disrupt a democratic process.
It is imperative that we do not forget that Trump is not alone responsible for the damage done to American democracy. And that we not hastily conclude that the events of January 6 were not aberrant or an act of insanity. They were coordinated for weeks on social media by his most ardent supporters. The siege on the Capitol occurred against the backdrop of policies, advisors, and supporters popular amongst white supremacist groups with anti-democratic leanings. Removing Trump from office on the grounds of mental disability will not help us to deal with those in the Republican party who aided and abetted his attempts to seize power. And thus, confining the debate about whether to remove Trump from office to a question of his mental state completely misses the point about how ‘Trumpism’ is bigger than just Trump.
So, what should we be thinking about?
We ought to be thinking about the extent to which Trump is a demagogue and has used the powers of his office to amass greater power for himself at the expense of those he is supposed to serve. Trump is dangerous–not because of any medical condition–but because of how his words and actions so closely draw from the fascist’s playbook.
Fascism is an ideology that purports a belief in the powers of a charismatic leader who embodies the spirit of the nation-state organized against a common enemy. Fascists (aspiring or otherwise) actively seek to instill themselves as irreplaceable fixtures in a declining society, which they claim to save. They mobilize masses of followers through the use of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and fiery rhetoric to do carry out their missions of amassing power. They appeal to a sense of powerlessness in the public and respond with masculine rhetoric that promises them a return to power.
Trump, like other fascist leaders before him, touts himself as the savior of ill-fated nation-state. Trump has a well-documented history of sympathizing with far-right wing conspirators and militant organizers who express vocal support for him. He openly spreads false information that does not suit his image as a strong man. He engages in racist discourse that targets his political opponents. He promotes conspiracy theories that sow distrust in mainstream political parties and existing political system. Even if Trump himself is not a fascist, but is better characterized as authoritarian, a dictator, a cult leader, or something else entirely, there are still valuable lessons to learn by linking his brand of politics to those of fascist regimes. The most significant of which, is that there is no end in sight without removing him from power.
I cannot say whether Trump has a mental disability. And, even if I could, I do not think it relevant to the current moment. Consider this scenario: if Trump were calmly and quietly leading his supporters into the Capitol on Wednesday, would he be any less dangerous to our democracy? Would the need to evaluate his fitness for political office be any less prescient if we were not able to couch his actions in stereotypes about persons with mental illness? I think not. Making mental illness the scapegoat is far too easy and the consequences too great. So here I write, not in defense of Trump, but in defense of a stronger, more robust analysis of the current moment as a distinctly political phenomenon concerning what behaviors are incompatible with democracy. I call for an analysis of any fidelity he pledges to democracy now or in the future that is contextualized in his past words and deeds. And I urge policymakers to reflect on Trump’s past and how likely it is to escalate.