The Madness of King Donald
Aside from re-inflating the sketch comedy bubble, Trump’s rise has been a boom for neuro-psychological hobbyists, who have diagnosed him with any number of grave conditions, from Alzheimer’s to prion disease to the recently fashionable Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
This last was put to bed earlier this week, when the retired Duke professor of psychiatry who actually crafted the DSM criteria for the disorder wrote to The New York Times to chide “amateur diagnosticians” for their errors of analysis. “Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely,” he wrote, before suggesting that Trump’s psychological motivations are “too obvious to be interesting” and reminding readers that Trump is not a problem of psychology, but of politics.
This is true, strictly speaking, but it’s also strangely reductive. The contemporary imagination suffers from the modern world’s neurotic desire to divide all knowledge and mental activity into distinct disciplines, and the notion that the president can’t be crazy just because he isn’t clinically, pathologically disordered seems to me to be a deliberately over-narrow parsing of possible truths.
Sanity, as actual psychologists will tell you, isn’t a clinical term at all. It’s a legal concept, and therefore, a political one.
We’re already used to presidential foibles. No one, after all, in possession of the titanic ambition, ruthlessness, and self-regard necessary to become president of the United States can be entirely normal; the position self-selects for a kind of monomania.
But Trump is so deeply weird, so vain, so scattered, so oddly affected, that he really does conjure a question that has vexed subjects, aristocrats, parliaments, and royal courts for millennia: What to do about the madness of a king? (snip)
And here we return to Donald Trump, whose press conference last week (article written Feb. 20) read like an Ionesco play, an absurdist dialogue composed of elementary phrases from a textbook designed to teach foreigners a second language.
He hemmed, hawed, cajoled, made faces, whispered, referred off-handedly to “nuclear holocaust,” asked an African-American reporter if she could set up a meeting with black people in Congress. He talked about blowing up a Russian ship, and yelled that he wasn’t going to tell anyone about his secret plans to do something to North Korea. He complained about the military giving advance warning of assaults on Mosul—he doesn’t understand that they do so to give civilians time to flee—and in so doing, he did a bunch of funny voices.
It was all quite bonkers; you can look that one up in the DSM.
As far as anyone could tell from the video feeds, the entire senior staff of the nascent administration was right there, sitting in the front row. Like any royal court, this one is beset by factionalism and infighting; everyone is in charge, and so no one is. The president is so whacky, so moody, so changeable that they must attend his every public appearance and study every nonsensical utterance in order to attempt to divine where, for the next ten seconds or so, his attention might alight and then use the opportunity to promote their own advantage.
The Republican Congress, which through contrivance and deliberate inaction, has absented itself from responsibility for war, economic policy, and strategic investment and become little more than a House-of-Commons shouting-chamber to an expansive, imperial Executive, sat in its offices watching aghast before dialing their favorite reporters to privately complain that the President of These United States is a goddamn looney tune.
The result is a paradoxical feeling of panicked inertness, a sense of a rapidly unfolding crisis that is at the same time encased, immoveable, in amber. Is the president ill? Well, he’s not well. And yet, while we hope that he will be carted off, or at least held in check by whichever of his advisers and secretaries is the least odious, we are also—like all those ministers and congresspeople—transfixed. Whatever we tell ourselves, we have all adopted the idea that the president is some kind of huge metonym for America itself; that is to say, we accept him as a kind of king.