In psychiatry there’s a little something known as “the Goldwater Rule.” The Goldwater Rule is an informal title for the section of the American Psychiatric Association’s Code of Ethics that states it is unethical for a psychologist or psychiatrist to provide a diagnostic assessment of a public figure with whom that have not personally spoken, or to release such a diagnosis or assessment as a public statement. The nomenclature comes from a 1964 piece in Fact Magazine that polled a number of prominent mental health professionals as to whether they believed that conservative Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was fit for Executive Office. Goldwater sued for libel and won $75,000 in damages.
Other than the chance that an elected official might sue you and win big, there are other reasons not to associate the erratic behavior of a public figure with a mental illness that you are in no position to diagnose. A big one is throwing around terms like narcissistic personality disorder because you read the Wikipedia page and maybe breezed through a PDF of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), but it makes you sound like an asshole, whether or not you know it. Another big one is that, since the public figures we most often try to apply our amateur profiling too are rarely savory people, your informal diagnosis will most often prove to be deeply ableist and shaming. Which I guess will also make you sound like an asshole.
Why bring this up? Well, it seems that ever since he first announced his candidacy, Donald Trump has been the favorite subject of ten thousand armchair psychologists, fighting on social media about which personality disorder he most likely has, what sort of derangement is driving his policies. Of course, given the qualifications of these analysts, their hot takes carry about as much weight as if I were to claim that Donald Trump was, in fact, piloted by that tiny little alien from the first “Men in Black” movie. Unfortunately, whereas people would pretty quickly dismiss my little conspiracy theory as bullshit, the idea of a mentally ill Donald Trump sworn into the highest office in the land seems to persist against all odds.
I don’t know if Donald Trump is mentally ill, and I’m an English major, so I’m not in a position to say. But whether Donald Trump is mentally ill is not the point. This fascination with applying mental illness as a catch-all for the people whose behavior most upsets or baffles us is problematic, but it has nothing to do with what the ultimate answer to this very irrelevant question is.
Donald Trump is racist. Donald Trump is misogynistic. Donald Trump is an Ark-of-the-Covenant-like vessel for toxic masculinity (fingers crossed all these Nazis decide to take a peek inside). Donald Trump is a xenophobic, transphobic, homophobic sexual predator who has spent a lifetime serving an ego that has been hardened and emboldened by the forces of white supremacy. He’s a potential autocrat-wannabe. He has terrible taste in ties.
None of these qualities have anything to do with mental illness. If you think you might be unclear on that, please read that sentence again.
That we cannot look at Donald Trump’s admittedly erratic and undeniably disgusting behavior without immediately thinking the man is probably crazy, says (at least) two things about us. Firstly, we are failing to come to terms with the fact that many of the evils Trump represents, many of the bigotries he embodies, are not at all unique. They are embedded in our social and cultural fabric, and, while Donald Trump may embody them more flamboyantly than we are used to, they are boils that have long festered on the American flesh. They are an American normal. Secondly, we are all too comfortable using the mentally ill as a sort of bulletin board for all the qualities we don’t know how to make sense of, or how to sort. Rather than look at evil in the face and acknowledge that there are ugly forces in this world that are perfectly confident in their ugliness, bred out of perfectly (terrifyingly) normal circumstances, we put them under the umbrella of mental illness. Which, in a way, spares us. Because, we’re sane, right? We know we’re sane. And if racism is insanity than the sane among us cannot possibly be racist, or at least not in the way Donald Trump, or Steve Bannon, or Dylann Roof is.
Complicating this further is the fact that the mental illnesses most often slapped on as explanations for a bad man being a bad man are personality disorders, which have long been stigmatized in popular culture. Ever heard of borderline personality disorder? Don’t worry, it’s just the mental illness that “crazy” women fucking Michael Douglas in 80s movies have. Narcissistic personality disorder? If you have that you’re either Donald Trump or Patrick Bateman. Antisocial personality disorder? Well, you just might be a grimy serial killer who stores dead boys in his crawl space. Unless you need me to continue, the underlying point is that painting personality disorders as shorthand for morally reprehensible behavior is dangerous and destructive to the lives of the people who suffer from them. It makes care more difficult because it inundates potential healthcare professionals with vile and anti-factual preconceptions, and it inundates sufferers with the message that they’re monsters poised to wake up one morning in a twenty-seven foot tie with a hankering for some white nationalism. It tells those who suffer from these illnesses that their destiny is to be a plague, worse than a burden. It tells them their mental illness is also a social illness and a social scourge.
Our impulse to label Donald Trump as mentally ill is no different or more benign than the impulse many have to blame mass shootings on the perceived mental illness of the shooter. Both come from the desire to separate ourselves from what we see as so outrageously hideous we cannot bear to conceive of it taking hold in us. Both come from the casual media-driven association of mental illness and violence, mental illness and instability. Deep down, these attempts to map the unthinkable in the laziest way possible are means of absolving those who set out to do the mapping. Ultimately, they end up absolving the unthinkable as well. Robbing hatred of intentionality and sanity does nothing to diminish its potency. It just strips the person making conscious hateful choices of agency, and gives them a way out of accountability.
If there’s anything “insane” about President Donald Trump, it’s that we, as a collective, have been so willing—over years, if not decades, if not centuries—to let his various perversities bloom in our society, often in the open. The only insanity in Donald Trump is that after excusing him into power, so many of us still want to act as if we have no hand in the systems he feeds on, the systems that built him up. The only insanity about Donald Trump and the malice he espouses is that we can look at history—at ours and our fellows—and continue to find excuses to say that this isn’t normal in America. It is a deep and poisonous moral and political failure to confuse the superlative with the wholly alien. It’s a failure still deeper and more poisonous to act as though this derangement we’re now so determined to performatively recoil from is somehow quarantined in the West Wing.
I don’t know if Donald Trump is mentally ill, and I don’t really care. But I am terrified of the fact that the United States of America is fucking crazy.