Since the very first day of his campaign, Donald Trump has been a controversial figure. His xenophobia, unprofessional language and erratic behavior defined his candidacy for President of the United States. This unusual behavior has led to widespread speculation that Trump is mentally ill, with accusations from politicians, psychologists and the general public. Many on the left have championed this as their primary argument as to why Trump needs to be forcibly removed from office. However, this assertion is limited in its ability to adequately explain the President’s actions and often crosses the line into ableism.
Trump is far from the first public figure to have his mental health scrutinized. Politicians from Woodrow Wilson to William Jennings Bryan have faced similar accusations, but none more publicly than Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In 1964, Goldwater was the Republican nominee for President of the United States and, like Trump, he was a controversial figure with a tendency to make erratic statements.
In fairness to Goldwater, he was far from Trump’s ideological or moral equal. Goldwater’s ideology combined libertarian-esque domestic policies with hawkish foreign policy. While he supported a lot of conservative policies and even voted against the Civil Rights Act, some of his beliefs would be considered fairly progressive today. He was an advocate for allowing LGBTQ citizens to serve in the military well before it was popular to do so. He was avidly pro-choice. He was even a fervent critic of the religious right (The New York Times Magazine, “Goldwater Girl,” 08.27.2006).
Still, at the time he was known as somewhat of an extremist. Perhaps this was justified. His beliefs regarding foreign policy specifically caused a lot of concern during the 1964 presidential election, especially after his comment on the use of tactical nukes against North Vietnam (History, “1964: Goldwater Suggests Using Atomic Weapons”). This resulted in widespread speculation that Goldwater was mentally ill. During the campaign, Fact Magazine sent out a survey to psychiatrists throughout the United States asking whether Goldwater was fit to be president, and a little under 50 percent said no (Politico, “What Happens When Americans Try to Psychoanalyze Their Leaders,” 01.13.2018).
As expected, this survey resulted in a massive backlash. Goldwater ended up suing the ma-azine for libel and won. The problem was that none of these psychiatrists had any authority to discuss Goldwater’s mental health, as none had met him in the capacity of their positions. Recognizing this error, the American Psychiatric Association instituted what has now become known as the Goldwater Rule, which states, “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” (American Psychiatric Association, “The Principles of Medical Ethics with Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry: 2010 Edition,” 2010).
In the age of Trump, this rule may seem outdated. After all, we seem to know a fair amount about him, his life and his views. He appears to tweet and say everything on his mind. More importantly, if Trump truly is mentally ill, it seems as if the experts in the field should have the right to comment on it. After all, he is the president, and it is of utmost importance that we guarantee that he is fulfilling his responsibility to the best of his ability. There is, therefore, an understandable desire to evaluate him.
In February of 2017, former professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School Lance Dodes and former chairman of the Committee of Research Proposals for the International Psychoanalytic Association Joseph Schachter co-wrote a letter to The New York Times, signed by 33 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, that questioned Trump’s capabilities as president (The New York Times, “Mental Health Professionals Warn About Trump,” 02.13.2017).
The letter stated: “Mr. Trump’s speech and actions demonstrate an inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions. His words and behavior suggest a profound inability to empathize. Individuals with these traits distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them (journalists, scientists). In a powerful leader, these attacks are likely to increase, as his personal myth of greatness appears to be confirmed. We believe that the grave emotional instability indicated by Mr. Trump’s speech and actions makes him incapable of serving safely as president.”
Dodes and Schachter also took aim at the Goldwater Rule, writing that it has resulted in a failure to lend their expertise to worried journalists and members of Congress. However, the Goldwater Rule is just as relevant now as it was in 1964. It’s important because the psychiatrists who signed this letter are just as incapable of diagnosing Trump as the psychiatrists who spoke to Fact Magazine were of diagnosing Barry Goldwater. None of the people who signed this letter have met Donald Trump, at least not in the capacity of their positions. None of them could have evaluated the president and are instead making misguided diagnoses based on what they perceive.
One of the most frequent accusations made against Donald Trump is that he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. According to Allen Frances, the chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV and the man who defined the characteristics of this disorder, Trump does not have narcissistic personality disorder (The Independent, “The Psychiatrist Who Wrote the Definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder Says Trump Doesn’t Have It,” 02.15.2017).
“[Trump] may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.” Mr. Frances wrote in a letter to the New York Times. “It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped in with Mr. Trump (who is neither). Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy” (The New York Times, “An Eminent Psychiatrist Demurs on Trump’s Mental State.” 02.14.2017).
Despite what many of Trump’s critics may believe, there is a considerable difference between a personality issue and a psychological issue. Trump is petty, impulsive, arrogant, incompetent and bigoted, but this doesn’t mean that he has a mental health disability. Being a bad person does not mean you have a disability, and having a disability does not mean you are a bad person. We as a society tend to associate good behavior with a healthy mind and bad behavior with an unhealthy mind. We assume that people we don’t like or who do bad things are inherently mentally ill. We are wrong to believe this, and it does nothing to help our cause while further stigmatizing disabled people.
Even if, however, Donald Trump is mentally ill, that would not disqualify him from being president. According to a study by the Duke University Medical Center, nearly half of United States presidents who served from 1776 to 1974 exhibited symptoms of having a mental health disability, and over a quarter of them met those criteria while in office (Psychology Today, “Study: Half of All Presidents Suffered from Mental Illness,” 02.2.2016). According to the study, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge all showed signs that they met the diagnostic criteria for depression. In addition, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson displayed evidence of anxiety disorders.
I still have problems with this study and the article I cited that summarizes it: Its language is somewhat ableist, it still feels largely speculative (although not as bad as the speculation on Trump’s and Goldwater’s mental health), and it claims that their alleged disabilities may have impaired their performances in the position. I mention it, however, because the study does at least demonstrate that a person can have a mental health disability and still function as president. Even if you reject the study’s findings, we’ve probably elected at least one person to the presidency that has at least had a mental health crisis in their life, and the country is still here.
This endless speculation takes its toll on people with disabilities, especially those who have ambitions of being elected to higher offices. In 1972, the Democrats selected Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri to serve as their nominee for Vice President of the United States. His candidacy ended, however, when he admitted to having undergone electroshock treatment for depression (Politico, “Washington’s Growing Obsession: The 25th Amendment,” 01.3.2018). As a result, he was removed from the ticket, despite there being no evidence that he was psychologically or morally unfit for the vice presidency (or presidency, should the situation arise). Here, the Democratic Party couldn’t distinguish between having a mental disability and not being capable of leading the country. Eagleton continued to serve valiantly in the United States Senate, where he was beloved by his constituents.
Eagleton could have been a fine Vice President; that he didn’t get the chance to vie for the nomination is unfortunate. Someone with a history of mental health issues or who has a mental health disability can still serve as President of the United States, and such individuals have done so effectively.
Donald Trump is a bad president. He’s arrogant, he’s racist, he’s petty, he’s indecisive and he’s unprofessional. It’s possible that on top of all of this, he may have a mental health disability. However, those who harp on this, those who are obsessed with getting him removed from the presidency on these grounds, are missing the point entirely. Trump is a danger to America, but it’s not because he’s mentally ill; it’s because he is a dishonest, entitled person who advocates a dangerous ideology. Diverting attention away from this only serves to distract Americans from the issues that matter most and to further stigmatize mentally ill people.