IT IS AN article of faith in polite society, where I live in a kind of internal exile, that President Trump is clinically insane.
Here are some headlines from the august New York Times: “Mental Health Professionals Warn About Trump,” “Is It Time to Call Trump Mentally Ill?,” and so on. Before those two articles appeared in February, Sharon Begley of STAT wrote a more convincing and measured overview of head-shrinkers’ thoughts about Trump, cannily titled, “Crazy Like a Fox.”
Trump’s mental state definitely interests me. He seems deeply wounded, frantically impulsive, and obviously capable of endangering the nation and the world. But medicalizing heinous behavior — a favorite pastime of the chattering classes — is counterproductive. Not everyone who is sad is depressed. Not everyone who is excited is manic. Not every miscreant is nuts.
It’s a good idea to leave diagnoses to the diagnosticians, and we don’t have access to any of Trump’s psychiatric records, if such even exist. It should not go unnoticed that the man who literally wrote the book on the “narcissistic personality disorder” so commonly ascribed to Trump, opined, “He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill.”
Dr. Allen Frances, the chairman of the committee that created psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Volume 4, continued: “It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).”
Mental health professionals should be familiar with the “Goldwater Rule,” which strongly cautions psychiatrists against commenting on the mental state of people they have not examined. The rule harks back to 1964, when several psychiatrists dilated on the mental fitness of the Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater sued the publication that quoted them, and, in an unusual legal victory for a public figure, won. Savor the irony: Goldwater, a five-term US senator, was about 20 times more qualified to be president than Trump. Talk about defining deviancy down.
There have been other comical attempts at psychoanalyzing presidents. In 1931, the prominent Freudian A.A. Brill published a paper diagnosing Abraham Lincoln as a “manic schizoid personality.” He observed that Lincoln’s famous stories and jokes “are of an aggressive and [sexually masochistic] nature, treating of pain, suffering and death, and that a great many of them were so frankly sexual as to be classed as obscene.”
Simultaneously rebutting and demeaning Freud’s American disciple, analyst Jacob L. Moreno noted that the barely five-foot tall Brill sported a beard and was also named “Abe.” “Brill had waited patiently for a chance to measure up to that other Abe,” Moreno wrote.
In 1967, the retired diplomat William Bullitt published a “psychological study” of Woodrow Wilson purportedly coauthored by Freud, who had been dead for 28 years. The “authors” refered to Wilson as “Tommy” throughout, and attributed his reformist urges in part to an “under-vitalized” mother and “the ego of a boy who has no sister.”
“What a can of worms,” the New York Sun editorialized. “The tome was so weird that it horrified even Harvard’s Erik Erikson,” who called it “a disastrously bad book on Wilson.”
If and when Trump is forced to answer for his many depradations, let’s not rationalize his behavior with a bogus insanity defense.
Alex Beam’s column runs regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.