Saturday, September 21, 2019

Essay: Trump Off His Meds, Out of Therapy?

During George W. Bush’s first term, Richard Armitage, an aide to Colin Powell at the State Department, came to the defense of his boss with a wisecrack lobbed gleefully at Newt Gingrich. In attacking Powell, Armitage observed, the former Speaker of the House had gone “off his meds and out of therapy."

That remark, long since ensconced in the hall of fame for political insults, might have been even better applied these last few weeks of the summer to another publicity-hungry GOP leader, albeit one as powerful as Gingrich only wished he could have been: Donald Trump

In a recent Facebook exchange, a conservative (he prefers “libertarian”) friend of mine predicted that Trump would win in 2020, though he admitted the President used Twitter too much and was, in his words, “a blowhard.” 

I think my friend’s description was imprecise. Another phrase is far more appropriate: “mentally ill.”
Even to a Washington seemingly immune by now to daily shocks to the system and offenses against formal and informal laws, the President’s statements and misbehavior in the last few weeks left its denizens with their jaws agape. 

Clearly, something weird was going on with Trump, who engaged in a pattern of behavior unusually frantic and bizarre even for him

Consider the following events, rolling out one after another:

*He wondered about American Jews who voted Democratic, questioning their “loyalty.”

*He levied a stiffer tariff on China, raising prospects for a trade war.

*He called his own appointee to head the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, a “bigger enemy” to the U.S. than China.

*He tried to purchase Greenland—then, when that proposal was predictably rejected by Denmark’s Prime Minister, the President, annoyed by this (stop me if you’ve heard this description before!) “nasty” woman, canceled his trip to Denmark.

*He hinted that he would like to change the Constitution through executive order (an action which, by itself, would be unconstitutional).

*He called himself (looking up to Heaven) “The Chosen One.”

*He got into a Twitter war with Debra Messing, an actress with zero political influence.

*He urged science advisers to look into the possibility of averting future hurricanes by detonating nuclear weapons against them.

*He told reporters that he had never heard of a Category 5 hurricane before Dorian—even though that was the fourth since he became President.

*He feuded with politicians on Puerto Rico as Dorian threatened the area.

*He argued with the media for a week over his inaccurate claim that Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on Alabama—not only sending out 12 tweets and counting vainly claiming he was right at the start, even brandishing a map with an area encompassed by a Sharpie, but also leaning on aides to get the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to disavow a tweet that corrected the misinformation spread by the President.

*He joked about giving himself the Medal of Honor—a form of humor doubly dubious not only because he managed to use the excuse of bone spurs to get out of serving in the Vietnam War, but also because he unleashes hatred by egging on crowds.

*He fired John Bolton, his latest National Security Adviser—his fourth in less than a full term—after disagreeing about him on virtually everything, leading observers to wonder why the appointment was made in the first place.

*He invited the Taliban—who sheltered the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center on 9/11—to Camp David for an agreement withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, only to be forced to rescind the invitation after U.S. forces were attacked.

*He called out at the Group of Seven (G7) summit, when Egyptian President bdel-Fattah el-Sisi had not yet appeared, “Where's my favorite dictator?”—reducing the rest of the room (including Egyptian dignitaries and Trump’s own advisers) to uncomfortable silence.

*He joked, on the eve of 9/11, about serving a third term, which would violate the 22nd Amendment (legislation, be it noted, that postwar Republicans pushed through as revenge after Franklin Roosevelt had died after being elected to a fourth term).

*He referred to his Veep of the past three years as “Mike Pounce.”

*He referred to his son Barron as his wife’s son, in a kind of syntax I can’t imagine ever being taught in any of the President’s English classes: “We can’t have our youth be so affected [by vaping], and I’m hearing it, and that’s how the First Lady got involved. She’s got a son, together, that’s a beautiful young man, and she feels very, very strongly about it.”

*He referred again, for no apparent reason, to an earlier description of himself, tweeting “ ‘A Very Stable Genius.’ Thank you.”

Okay, I may have missed one or even more such statements—but after all, I’m only one man, and Trump is to these head-scratchers what Niagara is to water.

These are more than disquieting statements—they are disqualifying ones as to Trump’s capacity to act as leader of this country and of the Free World. 

In the months before the release of the Mueller Report, Trump exhibited much of the same hysteria. This time, the goading factor may have been reports that the economy, courtesy of uncertainty over his trade policies, might be moving toward a recession.

But what exactly Trump's actions signify, as to the nature of his psychological condition, is far more complex.

Alzheimer’s? Not So Fast

Two years ago, the normally genial New York Times columnist David Brooks reported that a congressional GOP delegation, after an Oval Office meeting, considered whether the President was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That speculation has continued to grow.

It’s not just Democrats, or disgruntled former Republicans like Joe Scarborough, who are pushing this theory. In April, psychologist John Gartner urged, in a piece for USA Today, that the President be administered a more thorough cognitive test than the one he’d been administered, pointing to possible speech disorders and tangential logic in Trump’s stump addresses. 

Other mental health professionals have argued similarly, with even less evidence. Relatively recent history points towards the dangers of making such claims.

Psychiatrists’ responses to a 1964 poll questioning Barry Goldwater’s mental fitness for the Presidency led the American Psychiatric Association to adopt “The Goldwater Rule,” which holds it unethical to offer a professional opinion about a candidate that one has not personally examined. Despite what they may think are the best intentions, many practitioners are making that same mistake now with Trump.

Trump, despite a family history of Alzheimer’s (his father had the disease), does not seem especially forgetful, even for a man his age. If he has trouble remembering anything, it is all the falsehoods he propagates. 

But who can blame him? He may be the most prodigious liar in the history of the Oval Office—which, given several of its postwar occupants (Lyndon Johnson—nicknamed “Bull Johnson” in his college days for his serial prevarication, Richard “I Am Not a Crook” Nixon, and Bill “I Did Not Have Sex With That Woman” Clinton), inspires onlookers with equal amounts of astonishment and disgust.

But what if Trump’s increasing use of simpler, repetition-heavy speeches is not a sign of cognitive loss, but rather his recognition that such rhetoric, combined with fear-laden appeals, works wonders with audiences particularly receptive to the end point of propaganda: The Big Lie?

Ongoing Sociopathology? Far More Likely

There is another problem with pointing to Trump’s cognitive issues as a clue to Alzheimer’s: How long can critics continue to say he is declining before he reaches point zero? And who will make that determination?

There is another possibility for what ails Trump that has nothing to do with Alzheimer’s. He exhibits multiple traits that collectively demonstrate sociopathology, in plain sight of the electorate:





*Unnecessary risk-taking

*Inability to feel guilt

*Inability to abide external criticism or extended internal dissent

*Escalation of anger

*Brazen, delusional falsehoods

According to legend, the ancient Roman emperor Caligula was so mad that he almost appointed his favorite horse a consul. I suppose it's a good thing that Trump displays little similar fondness for an animal. Who knows? He might appoint the beast to a Supreme Court vacancy. 

All of this unsettles the economy, confuses allies and foes, teaches the young that bullying pays, and makes this nation a source of international embarrassment and ridicule.

Over a year and a half ago, Peggy Noonan---Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist, former speechwriter, and observer of multiple Presidents and politics—presciently pointed out the peril posed by Trump's bizarre behavior, even without a foreign crisis or economic downturn in view at the time:

“Everything you’ve learned from life as a leader in whatever sphere—business, local public service—tells you this: Crazy doesn’t last. Crazy doesn’t go the distance. Crazy is an unstable element that when let loose in an unstable environment, explodes. 

“And so your disquiet…. If the president is the way he is on a good day, what will he be like on a bad day? It all feels so dangerous.”

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