We simply don't work on that level: Is it possible that Donald J. Trump is mentally ill? Dangerously so, perhaps?
Of one thing you can be sure—you'll never see that question discussed within our upper-end press corps. Here's what you'll see instead:
As we noted yesterday, you'll see major journalists hinting at such an idea. But they won't pull on their big boy pants and say what they actually mean.
On occasion, a Jennifer Senior will come along and raise this possibility in print. On April 6, Senior did so in the New York Times, but her column generated exactly zero discussion.
Such efforts never will.
Many journalists secretly think that something is seriously wrong with Trump—that he's psychiatrically or cognitively impaired. But they won't say such things out loud. As a people, we simply don't work on that level.
Is it possible that Trump is severely ill—that he is, in William Styron's phrase, one of "the beaten children of the Earth?"
You won't see that possibility discussed. Instead, you'll see what you continue to see today, what you've seen in recent days:
You see references to how "stupid" Trump is, references to him as a "moron." You won't be asked to consider the source of his endlessly repeated, deeply peculiar claims.
Within our unimpressive upper-end guild, you won't see any such discussion—until the first N-bomb falls.
Into this somewhat childish world walks Dr. John Gartner, a psychotherapist who served for 28 years as a professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Way back in March 2017, Gartner cast himself in the Jennifer Senior role. He wrote a column for USA Today in which he assessed that President Trump was in fact—we'll speak colloquially—severely mentally ill.
Was Gartner's assessment that day correct? Absent further debate and discussion, we're poorly equipped to say.
But Gartner came forward again last week to state his case about President Trump. We think it's worth explaining why his interview with Salon isn't ready for prime time—why you'll never see a public discussion of the assessments Gartner advanced.
Gartner's assessments may well be completely correct—but you'll never see them discussed. Let's start with what he wrote for USA Today, back when Trump's presidency was still just a pup.
For now, we'll skip the first two paragraphs in that three-year-old column. A word Gartner used in his opening sentence made it impossible that his column could ever be discussed.
Instead, we'll start with his paragraph 3.
A word Gartner used in paragraph 3 also made his piece untouchable. Still and all, much of what he said that day will sound extremely familiar today. A prediction he cites from 2016 will perhaps seem prescient:
GARTNER (5/4/17): Much has been written about Trump having narcissistic personality disorder. As critics have pointed out, merely saying a leader is narcissistic is hardly disqualifying. But malignant narcissism is like a malignant tumor: toxic.Gartner says this as that passage starts: "Much has been written about Trump having narcissistic personality disorder."
Psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Erich Fromm, who invented the diagnosis of malignant narcissism, argues that it “lies on the borderline between sanity and insanity.” Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst specializing in borderline personalities, defined malignant narcissism as having four components: narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personality and sadism. Trump exhibits all four.
His narcissism is evident in his “grandiose sense of self-importance … without commensurate achievements.” From viewing cable news, he knows "more about ISIS than the generals” and believes that among all human beings on the planet, “I alone can fix it.” His "repeated lying," “disregard for and violation of the rights of others” (Trump University fraud and multiple sexual assault allegations) and “lack of remorse” meet the clinical criteria for anti-social personality. His bizarre conspiracy theories, false sense of victimization, and demonization of the press, minorities and anyone who opposes him are textbook paranoia. Like most sadists, Trump has been a bully since childhood, and his thousands of vicious tweets make him perhaps the most prolific cyber bully in history.
A year ago, I warned that “the idea that Trump is going to settle down and become presidential when he achieves power is wishful thinking.” Trump, like many successful people, shows biological signs of hypomania—a mild and more functional expression of bipolar genes that manifest in energy, confidence, creativity, little need for sleep, as well as arrogance, impulsivity, irritability and diminished judgment. As is often typical, when Trump has achieved great success, his hypomania has increased with disastrous consequences.
Indeed, that's the possible diagnosis suggested by Senior, three years later, in her column for the New York Times.
You could almost imagine that diagnosis being discussed in the upper-end press. As Gartner suggests, it almost sounds like something we've seen, and joked about, in our previous leaders.
We don't mean this, in any way, as a criticism of Senior, or of the editors at the Times who were willing to publish her column. But Senior is a journalist, and Gartner is a psychotherapist who has dealt with severe personality disorders for decades in his private practice.
Gartner is an experienced psychotherapist; he says the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder doesn't go far enough. Gartner says that Trump is a "malignant narcissist," and that one word has made all the difference.
Gartner's assessment may be completely correct. But that diagnosis could never be discussed by our upper-end press corps.
Is it possible that Donald Trump fits into the diagnostic sub-category of "malignant narcissism?" As far as we know, it is.
That said, some problems may quickly arise. For one example, the leading authority on psychiatry tells us this:
Malignant narcissism is a psychological syndrome comprising an extreme mix of narcissism, antisocial behavior, aggression, and sadism. Grandiose, and always ready to raise hostility levels, the malignant narcissist undermines families and organizations in which they are involved, and dehumanizes the people with whom they associate.Uh-oh! While Senior's diagnosis has been officially sanctioned, "malignant narcissism" is said to be an experimental diagnosis.
Malignant narcissism is a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category. Narcissistic personality disorder is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), while malignant narcissism is not. As a hypothetical syndrome, malignant narcissism could include aspects of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) alongside a mix of antisocial, paranoid and sadistic personality disorder traits.
That would scare high-end scribes away. But so would an array of challenging words Gartner has used in discussing Trump, perhaps with perfect accuracy.
At the start of his piece for USA Today, Gartner seemed to describe Trump as "psychotic." In last week's interview with Salon, he describes the president as a "sexual sadist."
Within the world of our upper-end discourse, you're allowed to use words like stupid and moron, but you aren't allowed to use words like those when you're discussing a president. Gartner may be completely right in his assessment of President Trump. But there's zero chance that our upper-end journalists would ever link themselves to his work or quote and discuss what he's said.
In that sense, Gartner's assessment may be completely correct but, quite plainly, it's also not ready for prime time.
As we noted yesterday, our upper-end journalists are generally unwilling to discuss the concept of psychiatric disorder at all. They'll never take the chance of linking to a diagnosis in which terms like "sexual sadist," "democidal" and even "malignant" occur.
To quote Dana Carvey as President Bush, "Na ga do it." Our upper-end discourse is limited, childish. It simply won't visit such lands.
We have one more thought about Gartner's interview with Salon. There's one more reason why his assessment could never be discussed:
Gartner may be completely correct in his assessment of Trump. But he also sounds angry and judgmental concerning Trump, and especially within a psychiatric context, that isn't going to fly.
Is Donald F. Trump severely disordered in the ways Gartner describes? In our view, he certainly may be. (Tomorrow, we'll discuss the extent to which laypersons like us can understand such diagnoses at all.)
Is the president severely disordered in the way Gartner says? Is he a "malignant narcissist?" On that basis, is he a uniquely dangerous person?
In our view, he certainly could be. But if he is, then in our view, that makes him one of the "beaten children of the Earth." It makes him Bob Dylan's (metaphorical) "poor immigrant," a broken-souled (and dangerous) person for whom Dylan recommended pity.
Jennifer Senior made an excellent try. Even better, Gartner is a deeply experienced psychotherapist. That said, some suggestions are never going to fly, given the withered nature of our upper-end discourse.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But despite the self-flattering stories we persistently tell ourselves, our current intellectual culture is extremely limited.
Our upper-end stars will never go there. In our view, we'd have a better chance to get our ideas out if we tried a little tenderness—if, in Homer's dramatic words, we chose to beat back our great anger.
Tomorrow: Was Joseph Stalin mentally ill? What does that even mean?