The words used to describe Donald Trump include businessman, narcissist, liar, racist, sexist, reality TV star and president of the United States. Trump has stirred up a lot of controversy during his short time in politics, and there has been much resistance to him as president. Some of the more interesting attempts to impeach president Trump have been based on attacks on his character, which are intimately interwoven with the legal cases against him. It would be hard to win a debate against the position that Trump has characteristics that one does not want in a president, especially in a world leader. However, can we say that Trump suffers from a mental illness, as tens of thousands of mental health experts in America and the world claim—a claim they have been preparing to use, in collaboration with the Democrats, as grounds for impeachment?
The Efforts to Impeach Trump as Mentally Ill Under the 25th Amendment
The topic of impeaching Trump is popular among voters, and is supported by some powerful financial backers. However, in early January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants said that, although they cannot not rule it out, the time isn’t right to pursue the impeachment of Trump. Instead, they are sensibly waiting for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to present Congress with the findings of his team’s ongoing investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Despite this, the Democratic Party remains split on the topic of impeachment, with a small wing of House Democrats continuing to take initiatives to remove the president from office. For instance, in early January, Brad Sherman and Al Green reintroduced articles of impeachment in Congress.
There have been numerous efforts to impeach Trump. Some of the more notable are based on possible conflicts of interest between Trump’s business and political interests, and the emoluments clause. The emoluments clause is a provision in the US Constitution that prohibits federal officeholders from receiving, from domestic or foreign interests, gifts that may influence their political decision making. This is why the residential tower the Trump organization was planning to build in Moscow in 2016 forms part of Mueller’s investigation. Although still subsidiary in an institutional sense, another meaningful effort to impeach Trump is based on the premise that his impaired mental health renders him incapable of serving as POTUS.
In early 2017, just months after Trump’s inauguration, psychologist John Gartner launched a petition in which he stated that Trump “manifests a serious mental illness” and therefore ought to be “removed from office, according to article 3 of the 25th Amendment.” This petition had accumulated the signatures of 25,000 mental health experts by the time it was first sent to Democratic senator and opposition leader, Chuck Schumer, and 41,000 by the time it was sent to Washington D.C. By the end, it sported the signatures of over 70,000 mental health experts. The case against Trump from a mental health perspective inspired the formation of the National Coalition of Concerned Mental Health Experts, which, with international support, soon became the World Mental Health Coalition, whose primary purpose at the moment is to impeach Trump. The movement to impeach Trump from a mental health perspective has been supported and popularized by such books as The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President; Michael Wolf’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House; and Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House. According to Bandy X. Lee, editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump and co-founder of the World Mental Health Coalition, the professional leg of the mental health movement against Trump is based on the duty to warn—i.e. the ethical responsibility of mental health experts to intervene when a person poses a danger to others. Mental health experts use their duty to warn to override the American Psychiatric Association’s so-called Goldwater rule, which discourages them from evaluating public figures when they have not examined them in person, or sought their permission to discuss their mental health in public. Hence, the position of the World Mental Health Coalition regarding Trump:
In a historically unprecedented fashion, we have come together as mental health experts to warn that Mr. Trump, in the office of the president, is a danger to national and international security … A diagnosis is irrelevant when someone is dangerous. We need first to contain the person, to remove any access to weapons, and to perform an urgent evaluation.
The 25th Amendment, on which the efforts to impeach Trump from a mental health perspective are based, was added to the Constitution in 1967, after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, in order to establish procedures for replacing a president if he is incapacitated. The bill suggests that a panel—consisting of the vice president, cabinet members, a small number of former high ranking officials and a majority of physicians and psychiatrists—be appointed in a bipartisan manner to permit the removal of a president whom the board deems “unable to discharge the powers and duties of office,” whether due to physical or mental illness. Such a panel has not yet been created, but in April 2017, Rep. Jamie Raskin, a member of the Democratic Party, introduced the bill to the House of Representatives, with the support of twenty co-sponsors (all Democrats). According to the official website of the US Congress, the matter was referred a month later to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, whereafter no further actions have been reported.
Mental health experts have suggested a range of disorders from which Donald Trump may suffer—notably antisocial personality disorder (a blanket diagnosis, which has replaced traditional diagnoses such as sociopathy and psychopathy, a primary symptom of which is impaired empathy and remorse); and narcissistic personality disorder (which describes a cluster of symptoms, including grandiosity, expectations of superior treatment from others, preoccupation with fantasies of power, success, intelligence and attractiveness, and the exploitation and manipulation of others to achieve personal gain).
Some of Trump’s behaviors may be dangerous and harmful, but there appears to have been no discussion of the fact that the real diagnosis goes deeper than the president. The American Psychiatric Association defines disordered (or maladaptive) behavior relative to the cultural context in which such behavior takes place. Therefore, a mental disorder is usually considered to be clinically significant when it causes subjective distress, or significantly impairs the individual’s adaptive functioning in important areas of daily life, such as work, family and social life. The implication is that, while an individual may be deemed well adapted to the norms and standards of one culture—and therefore mentally healthy—his or her behavior will not necessarily be equally well adapted to the norms and standards of a different culture. This is important when you try to make the case that Donald Trump, a man whose character seems to be adapted to the business and entertainment culture, suffers from a mental disorder when he continues this behavior in the culture of politics. If the first premise is true, should the argument not rather be that some of the behaviors that Trump has developed as a businessman and reality TV star are maladaptive on the global political stage?
The Naked Face of Capitalism in the World of Politics
Let us examine some of the core symptoms of narcissism and antisocial personality disorder in the behaviors of Trump, and the behaviors that are deemed normal in the cultures of business and politics, to see if Trump’s behaviors really are as abnormal in politics as claimed.
I will start with the allegation that Trump is a narcissistic and antisocial liar, who suffers from delusions of grandeur and superiority. This allegation has been made even though the communications of both businesses and political campaigns—such as both the Trump and Hillary campaigns—follow a standard template of marketing and branding: they are a form of lying and self-propaganda, based on a concrete offer that promises to take people from less desirable point A to more desirable point B. We normally accept the exaggerated stories and blatant lies that companies and political parties tell us about the superiority of their products or services as an almost welcome fantasy, as long as the products perform more or less as advertised. As a politician, Trump still offers his customers tangible things such as tax cuts, deregulation and changes in foreign relations and immigration policy. As long as Trump tries to deliver on the point A to point B thing, to keep his customers happy, they will continue to believe in the Trump fantasy, because deception, lies and half-truths are part of the agreement between the showman or salesman and his audience.
Let us move on to the allegation that Trump is selfish, and that he remorselessly exploits others. Under capitalism, businesses run on the principle of supply and demand—you supply whatever your customers demand—and profit—you try to get back more than you give in exchange. Businesses generally do not care about their customers’ health, or their effects on the environment, unless there is a law they are genuinely fearful of transgressing, or a public concern that affects their bottom line. The same definition of selfishness and remorselessness is used to criticize Trump’s slogans and policies, such as America First and Make America Great Again! These criticisms have been leveled against Trump, even though he has taken a Constitutional pledge to protect the “life, liberty and property” of the American populace, who employ him by paying their taxes. Nation states like America and Russia are like businesses: they trade with one another, and remorselessly compete over limited markets and natural resources, to power their economies. The same consideration applies when Trump has to balance humanitarian concerns with national security and the interests of the American populace. Following the refugee crisis in Europe, Trump is clearly trying to avoid creating a similar set of problems—hence his campaign for improved border security and immigration policies, and yet he is criticized under the same terms used to criticize his capitalist attitude overall—that he is a narcissistic liar and that his policies are sociopathic and inhumane.
Trump is a capitalist. The narcissism and psychopathy of which he is accused are indistinguishable from capitalist culture, and the way the world actually works. Mental health experts can make the argument that some of Trump’s traditional business behaviors are destructive and potentially dangerous in politics, since America ought to be a global peace and environmental leader, in addition to looking after its own interests. However, it simply does not follow from this that Trump suffers from a mental illness.
Mental health experts may have used the APA’s guidelines to diagnose Trump with a mental illness because he is a representative of capitalist culture, a philosophy with which they personally disagree. If true, this is dishonest and scandalous. It would mean that these mental health experts have abused their professional authority for political reasons. It would also reveal the diagnosis of Trump as a perverse case, in which an individual is criticized, diagnosed and demonized by mental health experts for a deeper problem with the culture to which he is adapting. Furthermore, taking such a critical stance on a culture—in this case capitalist culture—goes against an ethical code of the mental health industry, which is based on cultural relativism and uncritical respect for other cultures. Mental health experts are required to only diagnose individuals with mental disorders when they experience certain difficulties in adapting to their environments, and to otherwise remain agnostic about whether the cultures their patients adapt to are healthy or not. How can mental health experts diagnose Trump with a mental disorder when he is perfectly adapted to the culture of capitalism in both business and politics? The argument seems to be that Trump ought to adapt his capitalist ways to suit their political preferences and culture—otherwise he is mentally ill, and they are ethically bound to physically restrain him and remove him from office. The situation is even worse than this, though—since, in the west, the same mental health experts who diagnose Trump routinely diagnose their patients with mental disorders when they experience certain problems in adapting to the culture of capitalism. If this culture is narcissistic and psychopathic according to these same experts, isn’t it a double standard to expect and encourage their patients to adapt to it? If capitalism is indistinguishable from narcissism and psychopathy, what these relativistic mental health experts really want is to express their personal (as opposed to professional) feeling that the underlying philosophy of the western world is symptomatic of widespread narcissism and psychopathy. Perhaps they are right, but this observation means nothing if you are not working towards a practical solution to the problems of capitalism in business and politics. Although not perfect, the free market system of capitalism is the best economic system that we have invented as a species. All these mental health experts have achieved is to say that capitalism is evil. That is how simple their strawmen of Trump and capitalism really are. Perhaps their argument should rather be that, as a businessman and a capitalist, Trump takes care of American interests, in accordance with his Constitutional pledge to the American citizenry, but as such he does not always take the concerns of the species seriously enough, for instance in his attitudes to global warming, and his reluctance to discuss historical injustices, global human suffering and inequality.