THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2020
And what do such words even mean?: Is it possible that Donald J. Trump will still achieve re-election?
As of this typing, it is. If Candidate Biden ends up winning Pennsylvania, that will give him 273 electoral votes—three more than are needed.
That said, there is no other single state which could push Biden over the top. As a tandem, Arizona nd Nevada would give him 270, the minimum needed—but as of this typing, those states aren't sure things for Biden.
If Biden squeezes out a win in Georgia but loses the other undecided states, the electoral college will end in a 269-269 tie. That way lies disaster.
This exists as the background to the question we decided to review this week. The question(s) we're reviewing are these
Is it possible that Donald J. Trump is (severely) "mentally ill?" Does he have a serious "personality disorder?" And what do such words even mean?
In part, we ask these questions because of the president's niece, Mary L. Trump.
Mary Trump is a clinical psychologist. Beyond that, she seems to be brighter than the average press corps bear.
This July, she published a mammoth best-seller in which she discussed and described her uncle, the sitting commander in chief. Based upon personal observation and family lore, she described a childhood experience which became disastrous when her uncle was only two.
Meanwhile, concerning the adult Trump, Mary Trump wrote this:
MARY TRUMP (page 12): In the last three years, I’ve watched as countless pundits, armchair psychologists and journalists have kept missing the mark, using phrases such as "malignant narcissism" and "narcissistic personality disorder" in an attempt to make sense of Donald’s often bizarre and self-defeating behavior. I have no problem calling Donald a narcissist—he meets all nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—but the label only gets us so far.
[Clinical] experiences showed me time and again that diagnosis doesn't exist in a vacuum. Does Donald have other symptoms we aren't aware of? Are there other disorders that might have as much or more explanatory power? Maybe. A case could be made that he also meets the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, which in its most severe forms is generally considered sociopathy but can also refer to chronic criminality, arrogance, and disregard for the rights of others...
The fact is, Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for.
Mary Trump flatly says that Donald Trump's father was a "sociopath;" she suggests that the president may be even worse. But what do such technical terms even mean? And why haven't these claims been discussed within the upper-end press?
To all intents and purposes, the very notion of "mental illness" is a bit of a metaphor, at least within the realm of common understanding. We all understand that a wide array of physical illnesses exist. The notion that something called "mental" illness exists involves a type of comparison, concerning the components of which most people are much less clear.
What does it mean to say that someone's a "sociopath?" What can it possibly mean to say that as many as three percent of adults Americans—perhaps five percent of adult men—can be so diagnosed? (Or are so "afflicted?")
Is it even possible that someone as prominent as Donald J. Trump can be listed among those so afflicted? If so, wouldn't it make obvious sense to see that possibility discussed?
For better or worse, this possibility hasn't been discussed in any serious way within the mainstream press corps. At the start of a recent op-ed column for the Washington Post, Mary Trump provided part of the explanation, dating back many long years:
MARY TRUMP (10/25/20): In 1964, Fact magazine published an unscientific survey asking psychiatrists whether they thought the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, was psychologically fit to serve as president of the United States. The problem wasn’t that professionals felt the need to share their views of what they considered Goldwater’s dangerous ideas; [the problem] was the irresponsible and often bizarre analyses that were in some cases based entirely on rank speculation. “Goldwater is basically a paranoid schizophrenic” who “resembles Mao Tse-tung,” one offered. Another said that he “has the same pathological make-up as Hitler, Castro, Stalin and other known schizophrenic leaders.” A third said that “a megalomaniacal, grandiose omnipotence appears to pervade Mr. Goldwater’s personality.”
Embarrassed, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in reaction to this debacle, established the “Goldwater Rule,” which barred its members from diagnosing public figures. It concluded that “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
Oof! According to Mary Trump, showboating psychiatrists offered "irresponsible and often bizarre analyses" of Candidate Goldwater's psychiatric state.
In Mary Trump's view, these highly-educated professionals had behaved quite badly. In reaction to this behavior, the APA established the so-called "Goldwater Rule," a professional stricture which obtains to the present day.
In her column, Mary Trump argued that the time has come for the APA to cast this rule aside. Tomorrow, we'll call attention to a major state of affairs which went unmentioned in this essay by this bright observer.
That said, the mainstream press corps has tended to honor the spirit of the Goldwater Rule. When the spirit has moved the press, the stricture has been observed in the breach. But within the past few years, the unusual conduct of President Trump has brought this rule to the fore.
In the literal sense, the Goldwater Rule applies to the behavior of psychiatrists, not journalists. But journalists have tended to avoid introducing psychiatry into the American political discourse, and in January 2018, the New York Times penned an editorial which seemed to end an emerging discussion of this president's mental health.
Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee had published a collection of essays by major psychiatrists under this title: The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.
The book had become a New York Times best-seller. Its authors were working in defiance of the Goldwater Rule.
In January 2018, the prominence of the book produced a response from the New York Times editorial board. In its never-ending wisdom, the board published an editorial under this ill-advised headline:
Is Mister Trump Nuts?
Beneath that absurdly low-IQ headline, a stern editorial sternly claimed that journalists shouldn't discuss such questions. Almost surely as a consequence, Dr. Lee disappeared beneath the waves, never to be heard from again.
Is it possible that Donald J. Trump actually is (severely) "mentally ill?"
If "mental illness" actually exists, we'd say it certainly is. . In the abstract, this would seem like a deeply consequential matter—a matter which cries for discussion.
At least in theory, why should this topic be discussed? In part, because we the people may not be skilled at recognizing such disorders and understanding their possible consequences. In a discussion of this topic before Mary Trump's book appeared, Steve Taylor offered this in Psychology Today:
TAYLOR (6/5/20): People with personality disorders such as malignant narcissism can be charming and charismatic. When they become politicians, members of the general public are often taken in by them. The egotism of pathocrats is mistaken for "standing up" for the nation; their impulsiveness is mistaken for decisiveness; their lack of empathy is mistaken for strong-mindedness. Since mental professionals are amongst the small proportion of the population who can detect personality disorders, they surely have a responsibility to share their concerns. When scientists become aware of imminent natural disasters like earthquakes, they have a duty to let us know about them. In the same way, when social scientists such as psychologists become aware of imminent political disasters, they surely also have a duty to alert the public. As Elizabeth Mika puts it, the Goldwater Rule "leads to an absurd situation where those most qualified to opine on the president's obviously compromised mental health and its calamitous effects on America and the world are the least able to do so."
We the people may badly misread the "charismatic" behavior of people afflicted with severe disorders. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration exists today because we the people have always tended to be taken in by various types of elixir and snake oil salespersons—by the Professor Harold Hills of this world.
Should a discussion of President Trump's mental health have occurred? Sadly, the answer isn't obvious. That brings us to today's key observation:
At the very top of our upper-end press corps, our discourse is comically flawed. It's often hard for people to understand this fact, and this is often true for us liberals above all.
The music men we see on TV rarely know what they're talking about. Meanwhile, the men and women at the top of our most exalted news orgs write editorials with headlines like this:
Is Mister Trump Nuts?
That board went on to produce an embarrassing reality TV show about the way they decided to endorse two (2) people for the Democratic nomination. Their newspaper has tended to fall for one hoax after another, starting with the deeply consequential "Whitewater" pseudoscandal.
Their crowd was able to believe, or at least to claim for years, that Al Gore said he invented the Internet! These people just aren't super-sharp. We liberals tend to have a hard time spotting this obvious fact.
What would have happened if the Times had tried to discuss Donald Trump's mental health? If the paper had debated the claim that Trump is a sociopath?
Almost surely, a culture war would have broken out. Even if a newspaper like the Times tried to be extremely selective in the commentary it published, "irresponsible and often bizarre analyses" would soon be flooding the market, offering pseudo-psychiatric analyses of everyone under the sun.
Simple story! Despite the flattering stories we tell ourselves, our national political discourse is extremely primitive. Trump voters may misperceive the behavior of Trump, but we liberals are, in turn, highly skilled at misperceiving these "others."
Often, we're served by our own music men. We can't see through their incompetence and their tribal clowning.
When the Times decided to stop the discussion of mental health, it meant that readers wouldn't see answers to the questions we've listed. At the same time, it may have saved us from an even stupider discourse war.
What is a "personality disorder?" Where do such syndromes come from?
Is a sociopath morally responsible for his destructive behavior? Or is he in the grip of an "affliction," like someone with a terrible physical illness?
(Do "compulsive liars" know that they're lying, or do they believe their ludicrous claims? If they believe their ludicrous claims, can they be said to be "lying?")
Our feeble discourse blows right past a wide range of such questions about mental illness. As this happens, we liberals exult in the intellectual brilliance we attribute to ourselves and our kind.
In her recent essay in the Post, Mary Trump went on to say that it's time for the Goldwater Rule to go. We'll discuss her view tomorrow.
In our view, Mary Trump is sharper than the average bear. Tomorrow, though, we'll point to something she didn't mention in her (well-written) essay.
Mary Trump strikes us as insightful, empathetic and sharp. That said, do we the people have anything which even resembles a "public discourse?" To what extent do we self-impressed giants possess a "discourse" at all?
Tomorrow: Our current state of development