"Don't ask, don't tell," scribes advise: Once again, people are wondering about the mental health of our current president.
Over the weekend, Jonathan Chait offered a useful post which touched upon this topic. As he started, he compared a former well-known historical figure to our own current leader, Donald J. Trump:
CHAIT (3/17/18): A history professor of mine once attempted to explain to our class why Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, when the virtual impossibility of a land invasion of a country as vast as Russia was already well known in 1941. The answer, he concluded, was that Hitler was put on earth to invade Russia. His loathing of Bolshevism, his twisted Darwinian mania for the acquisition of land and resources, and his fixation with his own military genius all led him to a decision that was both inevitable and impossible.Chait recalled a crazy, self-destructive decision by Adolf Hitler. According to Chait, this manifestly crazy decision resulted from a "twisted mania" on Hitler's part. Also, from his "fixation with his own genius."
This is a good way to think about President Trump’s approach toward the Robert Mueller investigation.
"Twisted manias" and "fixations with genius" don't sound like markers of good mental health. In the case of this former world leader, they led to a manifestly crazy, self-destructive act.
According to Chait, this famous historical event gives us a way to think about Trump. It seems to us that Chait's right.
Key point! As Chait continues, he quickly says that he's "not drawing any moral parallel between" these two world leaders. "Trump is not a Nazi or a fascist," Chait also says.
You can judge that last claim yourselves, but Chait is directing us to a key point. Donald J. Trump, the American president, may not be mentally well.
Could Trump be involved in some form of "mental illness?" As he continues his post, Chair refers to Trump's "demonstrated pathologies," even to "his madness."
He says that Trump's recent behavior "displays a reckless disregard for even his own self-preservation." We don't know if that is true, but Chait's making a basic point:
Donald J. Trump, the American president, may be "mentally ill," or something like it. This calls to mind some peculiar advice we all got at the start of the year.
This advice came from several quarters. We'll concentrate on just two, beginning with a post by Josh Marshall.
On January 6, Marshall wrote a post in which he said we shouldn't attempt to discuss Trump's mental health. In the course of his post, he said that Trump is "frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell." And yet, headline included, he started off like this:
MARSHALL (1/6/18): Is President Trump Mentally Ill? It Doesn’t MatterAccording to Marshall, it doesn't matter if Trump is mentally ill. According to Marshall, we'll learn nothing from a discussion of that possibility that we can't learn just as well by seeing the things Trump does.
We are now back on to the feverish debate about whether or not Donald Trump is mentally ill or suffering from the onset of dementia. The most important thing to know about this debate is that it simply doesn’t matter. Diagnoses are something for trained professionals and even they are challenged to make them without a proper in-person examination. But again, it doesn’t matter.
We thought that argument was somewhat nuts. But five days later, the New York Times editorial board pretty much borrowed his stuff:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (1/11/18): Is Mr. Trump Nuts?The board went on and on from there, arguing that we shouldn't waste our time discussing this topic. If memory serves, other pundits weighed in at this time, expressing the same point of view.
Is Donald Trump mentally fit to be president of the United States? It's an understandable question, and it's also beside the point.
Understandable because Mr. Trump's behavior in office—impulsive, erratic, dishonest, childish, crude—is so alarming, and so far from what Americans expect in their chief executive, that it cries out for a deeper explanation.
It's beside the point not because a president's mental capacity doesn't matter, nor because we should blindly accept our leaders' declarations of their own stability, let alone genius. Rather, we don't need a medical degree or a psychiatric diagnosis to tell us what is wrong with Mr. Trump. It's obvious to anyone who listens to him speak, reads his tweets and sees the effects of his behavior...
We never got around to discussing these posts at the time; this omission has bugged us ever since. Chait's renewed concern about Trump's mental health called these past essays to mind.
You can read those two posts for yourselves. For ourselves, we think the argument they make is very weak, but also quite familiar.
Introducing psychiatry into politics would of course be perilous. Any such discussion would have to be undertaken with great care, not a strong suit of our press corps.
That said, the idea that we could learn nothing from such a discussion strikes us as slightly insane. Sadly, it also seems familiar, in this familiar way:
Again and again, our discourse seems to built around the rolling refusal to discuss important topics. We don't discuss major policy matters. We don't discuss the work of the press.
At the start of the year, we were now told that we shouldn't discuss the state of the president's mental health. He seems to be nuts, the pundits said. But what more can we learn beyond that?
In recent decades, our society has featured two dueling bromides. Within the press corps, "See something, say something" tends to lose out. "Don't ask, don't tell" tends to prevail.