The pressures of the presidency have pushed Trump to the edge, but is he crazy enough to be removed from office?
By Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone Magazine | October 5, 2017
Evening, August 22nd, 2017, a convention center in Phoenix. It’s Donald Trump’s true coming-out party as an insane person. It looks like the same old Trump up there on the stage: same boxy blue suit, same obligatory flag pin and tangerine combover, same too-long reddish power tie swinging below his belt line like a locker-room abomination. Earlier this year there were efforts to make Trump stop wearing his suit jackets open – designer Joseph Abboud said buttoning up was a “very visible way of showing he knows how serious the job is” – but Donald Trump doesn’t take advice, not even the gently benign kind.
Illustration by Victor Juhasz for Rolling Stone
That makeover was undone just as quickly as it was done, leaving the Donald with the same old tie-on-bulging-duodenum look from the campaign. He even sounds the same now, kicking off the event with a go-to favorite: “What a crowd!” he shouts. (A week from now, he will shout, “What a crowd, what a turnout!” from atop a truck in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the occasion of a deadly hurricane.) But the embattled president who takes the stage tonight is a different man from the barnstorming revolutionary who ripped through the American political process a year ago. That Donald Trump enjoyed himself, to an obscene degree. Watching Trump lean over a podium on the road to the presidency was like watching a stud boar hump a hole in the wall.
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He said monstrous things and lied with stunning disinhibition, and when the civilized world recoiled in horror, he seemed to take sadistic pleasure in every minute – win or lose, the run was pure glory for him, a Sherman’s March of taboo politics and testosterone fury that would leave a mark on America forever.
There was one more thing. Candidate Trump may have been crazy, but it was craziness that on some level was working. Even at his lowest and most irrational moments – like his lunatic assault on the family of fallen soldier Humayun Khan, in which he raved to the grieving Gold Star parents about how it was he, Trump, who had “made a lot of sacrifices” – you could argue, if you squinted really hard, that it was strategy, a kick to the base.
Or even if he wasn’t doing these things on purpose, he must have been able to feel their impact, as the revolutionary force of his campaign demolished the 160-year-old Republican Party and barreled toward the gates of Barack Obama’s White House.
Now, it’s different. Now, he just seems crazy. And it’s his own administration that is crumbling, not any system.
After a disastrous and terrifying August, which among other things saw him defend the “very fine people” among neo-Nazi protesters in a Charlottesville, Virginia, march, it’s Trump’s mental state – not his alleged Russia ties, nor his failure to staff the government or pass any major legislation – that has become the central problem of his presidency.
Is this man losing his mind? And if so, what can be done about it? We’ve had some real zeros in the White House before, but we’ve never had a chief executive who barked at the moon or saw ghosts – at least, not one who was so public about it.
In Phoenix, which is technically a campaign event, the idea seems to be to surround the chief with an enthusiastic audience to boost his spirits after the fiasco of Charlottesville. Put him on the stump in the heart of MAGA country, let him feel that boar-with-a-boner high again.
It doesn’t work. The crowd is big and boisterous enough, maybe 10,000 Sheriff Joe-lovin’, Mexico-hatin’ ‘Muricans, but Trump looks miserable. He’s not the insurgent rebel anymore but a Caesar surrounded by knives. He’s got a special prosecutor crawling up his backside, and there are numerous prominent politicians, including at least two in his own party, who are questioning his sanity in public amid growing whispers of constitutional mutiny. Moreover, after shrugging off a thousand other scandals, Trump seems paralyzed by the Nazi thing. He can’t let it go. Say one nice thing about Nazis, and it’s like people can’t get over it. Unfair!
He plunges into a 77-minute rant on this subject, listing each offending news outlet by name. In a nicely Freudian twist, he starts with The New York Times, which incidentally is the same paper that nearly a century ago identified “Fred Trump of 175-24 Devonshire Road” – the president’s late father – as a detainee from a 1927 Ku Klux Klan rally in Queens. Back then, “native-born American Protestants” were railing against “Roman Catholic police” – essentially the dirty-immigrant Irish, last century’s Mexicans. Not much changes in this country. Maybe the father of the 2072 Republican nominee is here tonight in a MAGA hat.
Trump gestures to the crowd as he speaks to supporters at Phoenix Convention Center during Rally on August 22, 2017 | Photograph by Ralph Freso/Getty Images
That old family shame might be why the president, who’s always denied Fred Trump was a Klansman (“Never happened”), is having such a hard time with Charlottesville and race. He rails against the “Times, which is, like, so bad,” moves on to the “Washington Post, which I call a lobbying tool for Amazon” and winds up with “CNN, which is so bad and pathetic, and their ratings are going down.”
CNN’s ratings aren’t down. The network’s second-quarter prime-time viewers just cracked a 1 million average, its most-watched second quarter ever, largely due to the blimp wreck of the Trump presidency. It’s the one incontrovertible achievement of this administration. The network tweets as much shortly after Trump says the line. The Phoenix audience doesn’t care. “CNN sucks!” they chant. “CNN sucks!”
I was late to the event and actually standing outside the press pen, so when the crowd turns to scream and hiss at the media, I’m on the angry-zombie side of the line. A man taps my shoulder.
“Fuck those people!” he shouts.
I smile, zip up my jacket to hide my lanyard, then turn around to give him a thumbs up. The crowd escalates:
“Tell the truth! Tell the truth!”
Trump goes on, raging against “very dishonest media” and trying to rekindle the spirit of the campaign. He self-plagiarizes a little, reviving the “little Marco” dig for “little George” Stephanopoulos.
The audience seems into it for a while. But it goes on too long. During the campaign, Trump was expert at keeping a hall buzzed with resentment for an hour or so. But he hits weird notes now. He goes off on a tangent about his enemies, it’s not clear which ones. “They’re elite?” he says. “I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.”
“You know what?” he goes on. “I think we’re the elites. They’re not the elites.”
No one is counting fingers, but you can tell people are having trouble making the math work. We’re elite because you have a nice apartment? Campaign Trump bragged endlessly about his wealth – “I have a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney” was a classic line – but back then he was selling a vicarious fantasy. Trump’s Ferrari-underpants lifestyle was the silent-majority vision of how they would all live once the winning started. But candidate Trump was never dumb enough to try to tell debt-ridden, angry crowds they were already living the dream.
At one point, Trump ends up standing with a piece of paper in hand, haranguing all with transcripts of his own remarks on Charlottesville. To prove that he’s been misquoted or misunderstood, he goes through the whole story, from the beginning. It gets quiet in the hall.
It’s an agonizing parody of late-stage Lenny Bruce. The great Sixties comedian’s act degenerated into tendentious soliloquies about his legal situation (he had been charged with obscenity). Bruce too stood onstage in his last years for interminable periods, court papers in hand, quoting himself to audiences bored to insanity by the spectacle.
This is exactly Trump. Even his followers are starting to look sideways at one another. In a sight rarely seen last year, a trickle of supporters heads for the exits. Then Trump cracks.
“The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself, and the fake news,” he says, to tepid applause.
He stops and points in accusing fashion at the press riser.
“Oh, that’s so funny,” he says. “Look back there, the live red lights. They’re turning those suckers off fast out there. They’re turning those lights off fast.”
We reporters had seen this act before. On October 10th of last year, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, at one of the most massive rallies of the campaign, Trump accused CNN of shutting down the feed because he was criticizing their debate coverage. In that case, a camera light really did flicker, but CNN was actually turning the live feed on, not off. That was possibly an honest mistake. Possibly also it was Trump just pulling the media’s tail, tweaking us with a line of bull, as he had with countless other provocations. The general consensus of attendant journalists that night was that Trump was messing with us.
Phoenix is different. Trump seems to believe what he’s saying. He really thinks that not just CNN, but all of the networks are shutting down their feeds, overwhelmed by the power of his words. “Boy, those cameras are going off,” he says, coming back to the subject. “Oh, wow. Why don’t you just fold them up and take them home? Oh, those cameras are going off. Wow. That’s the one thing, they’re very nervous to have me on live television…”
The president of the United States is seeing things. He might as well be shooing imaginary ants off his suit. His followers still love him, but even they’re starting to notice. They come for the old standards, but this new Trump material gets mixed reviews.
Outside, a fan gives the speech a half-hearted thumbs up. “I liked ‘Lock her up,'” the man says with a shrug. “They did that for a little while.”
“[He’s saying] ‘I don’t promote racism, that’s just the media trying to fuck with me,'” says Rich Yukon, a biker from a Tempe-based club called the Metalheads. “But he gets a little out of hand here and there, he says some shit.”
After the event, Trump tweets, “Beautiful turnout of 15,000 in Phoenix tonight!” Later, he reportedly fires the organizer of that same “beautiful” event, longtime aide and RNC contractor George Gigicos, apparently for not delivering a terrifyingly massive enough crowd. Sources told Bloomberg that Trump saw open floor space in TV shots before he took the stage, and this put him in a “foul mood” from which he never recovered.
Trump has never had much use for facts, or decorum, or empathy, or sexual discretion, or any of the hundred other markers we normally look at to gauge mental wellness. But he’s never been like this. This guy is lost, and as he flails for a clue, he keeps struggling violently against the conventions of his own office. The presidency has become a straitjacket.
We deserve Trump, though. God, do we deserve him. We Americans have some good qualities, too, don’t get me wrong. But we’re also a bloodthirsty Mr. Hyde nation that subsists on massacres and slave labor and leaves victims half-alive and crawling over deserts and jungles, while we sit stuffing ourselves on couches and blathering about our “American exceptionalism.” We dumped 20 million gallons of toxic herbicide on Vietnam from the air, just to make the shooting easier without all those trees, an insane plan to win “hearts and minds” that has left about a million still disabled from defects and disease – including about 100,000 children, even decades later, little kids with misshapen heads, webbed hands and fused eyelids writhing on cots, our real American legacy, well out of view, of course.
Nowadays we use flying robots and missiles to kill so many civilians and women and children in places like Mosul and Raqqa and Damadola, Pakistan, in our countless ongoing undeclared wars that the incidents scarcely make the news anymore. Our next innovation is “automation,” AI-powered drones that can identify and shoot targets, so human beings don’t have to pull triggers and feel bad anymore. If you want to look in our rearview, it’s lynchings and race war and genocide all the way back, from Hispaniola to Jolo Island in the Philippines to Mendocino County, California, where we nearly wiped out the Yuki people once upon a time.
Donald Trump and Melania standing on a fire truck to display a Texas flag after addressing First Responders and Corpus Christi, Texas area residents at a briefing on Hurricane Harvey storm relief and rescue efforts on August 29, 2017 – Photo by Shealah Craighead/The White House
This is who we’ve always been, a nation of madmen and sociopaths, for whom murder is a line item, kept hidden via a long list of semantic self-deceptions, from “manifest destiny” to “collateral damage.” We’re used to presidents being the soul of probity, kind Dads and struggling Atlases, humbled by the terrible responsibility, proof to ourselves of our goodness. Now, the mask of respectability is gone, and we feel sorry for ourselves, because the sickness is showing.
So much of the Trump phenomenon is about history. Fueling the divide between pro- and anti-Trump camps is exactly the fact that we’ve never had a real reckoning with either our terrible past or our similarly bloody present. The Trump movement culturally represents an absolute denial of our sins from slavery on – hence the intense reaction to the removal of Confederate statues, the bizarre paranoia about the Washington Monument being next, and so on. But #resistance is also a denial mechanism. It makes Trump the root of all evil, and is powered by an intense desire to not have to look at the ugliness, to go back to the way things were. We see this hideous clown in the White House and feel our dignity outraged, but when you really think about it, what should America’s president look like?
Trump is no malfunction. He’s a perfect representation of who, as a country, we are and always have been: an insane monster. Frankly, we’re lucky he’s not walking around using a child’s femur as a toothpick.
When it’s not trembling in terror, the rest of the world must be laughing its ass off. America, land of the mad pig president. Shove that up your exceptionalism.
A week in Trump time is like a century, and the week after the Phoenix fiasco felt like a thousand years. First, he slipped in a prime-time pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio – Trump’s Ghost of Christmas Future, an envelope-pushing birther and demented prairie fascist who looked destined to spend his eighties in jail. Then, Trump held a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. The diminutive Scandinavian stood trying not to reach for his cyanide pill as Trump proudly explained to the press that he’d timed the Arpaio pardon with coverage of Hurricane Harvey for maximum ratings impact. The poor Euro looked like a Belgian nun forced to bunk up with Honey Boo Boo.
Trump spent much of the week expressing morbid excitement about Harvey, as though the sheer size of the storm somehow reflected upon him personally. “HISTORIC rainfall,” he gushed. Then, he went to Texas and said a slew of inappropriate things, celebrating crowd turnout and continually popping wood over the killer storm’s “epic” dimensions – “nobody’s ever seen this much water,” he raved. He repeatedly forgot to express empathy for victims, but doled out a major attaboy to FEMA administrator Brock Long, who “really became famous on television the past few days.”
Then, Trump went somewhere, fell asleep, woke up and decided first thing to take a Twitter leak on nuclear belligerent Kim Jong-Un, who just days before had shot missiles over northern Japan. “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years,” Trump wrote. “Talking is not the answer!”
After enough weeks and months of behavior like this, it’s become axiomatic in many circles that Trump simply must go, for whatever reason. Our desperation as a nation to get back to “normal” – that is to say, back to being able to pretend we’re a civilized people with justified hegemonic authority – has hit such a fever pitch that there is now real energy behind a pair of long-shot efforts to remove our mad king from the throne ahead of schedule.
The problem is that Trump might just live in an awful sweet spot – a raving, dangerous embarrassment, about the worst imaginable, but safe under the law absent new information. Depending on whom you ask, we may have to break democratic rules to be rid of him – something we’ve never had a problem doing, of course, but this is no desert sideshow, this would be center stage with the whole world watching.
Impeachment, now favored by upwards of 43 percent of voters, is one track. Many thought Trump was impeachable from Day One thanks to ethical conflicts and other issues. But successful impeachment would not only require significant defections from a Republican-controlled Congress, but proof of high crimes and misdemeanors, so far elusive.
There’s a widespread misconception that impeachment is a purely political matter, that it can and should happen the instant a two-thirds majority of the Senate deems it necessary. Some of this has been fueled by social-media discussions quoting figures like Gerald Ford, who as a minority congressman once said, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be.”
But many legal experts disagree. “That was the worst thing that Ford could have said,” says Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University. While, superficially, impeachment is a political decision, to get all the way to the finish line the effort “has to meet the legal standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Merely being an inappropriate, racist, unethical, sociopathic embarrassment, even on the Trump level, doesn’t necessarily rate as an impeachable offense. The president must be caught committing a crime, and it must be serious.
Impeachment is going to be tough political sledding in almost any case. Part of Trump’s purpose in going to Arizona was to start digging the grave of Republican senator and open Trump antagonist Jeff Flake, who is up for re-election in 2018. Flake is polling far behind a Trump-backed primary challenger, Dr. Kelli Ward, thrilling the mad regent. “WEAK on borders, crime, and a non-factor in the Senate,” Trump tweeted of Flake. “He’s toxic!”
In the wake of Charlottesville, Trump surrogates like longtime friend Roger Stone argued that the president shouldn’t back down at all to global outcries, but instead run back on offense by going after a “scalp” in his own party. By helping to blow up Flake, whose approval rating among voters in his own state, according to one poll, is down to 18 percent, Trump can demonstrate he still wields life-or-death power over most GOP elected officials. This will surely chill any effort to try to shorten Trump’s term.
Still, five different investigations into Trump’s relationship with Russia are currently underway, and there’s little question that the undisguisedly sweeping nature of the inquiry is freaking Trump out. It was not difficult to notice that a predawn FBI raid on the home of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort took place just before Trump’s disastrous response to the Charlottesville tragedy. If you think special counsel Robert Mueller is in Trump’s head, he probably is.
Trump hands out emergency supplies to residents impacted by Huriricane Harvey while visiting the First Church of Pearland on September 2, 2017 in Pearland Texas. Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Mueller, who is wielding the biggest pitchfork in this thing, is roaming promiscuously into all sorts of areas of inquiry, from Manafort’s finances to the dismissal of former FBI chief James Comey to God knows what else. Mueller is exactly the kind of person Trump doesn’t need sniffing his sheets: a graying, hatchet-faced moralist who, while Trump was spending decades romping with models and partying with TV stars, was quietly building – on a government salary – a reputation for being “incorruptible” and having “extraordinary integrity.” As a former FBI chief, he is a veteran of massive undertakings, having led one of the biggest investigations in the bureau’s history after 9/11. He can be expected to have grand juries sprouting across the country like mushrooms, and if there’s evidence Trump so much as farted across state lines once, it will be in Mueller’s report.
And likely none of it would have happened had Trump had enough self-control to let Comey’s probably far narrower probe run its course. It was remarkable to hear recently deposed Trump adviser Steve Bannon say this out loud. The alt-right guru told Charlie Rose that firing Comey was the biggest mistake in “modern political history,” and “we would not have the Mueller investigation and the breadth that clearly Mr. Mueller is going for.”
But Mueller’s investigation would almost certainly have to be a direct hit to Trump to result in removal from office. And there have been ominous signs for those who have hopes on this front. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ranking member on the Judiciary Committee and senior member on Intelligence, as plugged-in a politician as there is on the Democratic side, stunned a San Francisco audience at the end of August by saying that Trump “is going to be president most likely for the rest of this term.” She suggested – to cries of “No!” – that Trump “can be a good president.”
Trump’s catastrophic August, which saw his approval ratings drop to a preposterous 35 percent, was marked by two devastating unforced errors: his Phoenix speech and the similarly id-exposing Trump Tower presser about those “very fine people” among the Nazis. The press narrative since those incidents has been focused far less on impeachability than on the other road to early removal: a declaration of “inability to discharge duties” under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment.
This is a form of legalized mutiny that could theoretically take place if enough people in Trump’s orbit were to conclude he were mentally unfit. (There is a congressional removal scenario under this provision, too, but it’s complex and even more of a long shot.) There’s buzz about this coup-like scenario in both parties. Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin has introduced a bill to set up an independent commission to gauge Trump’s fitness. Twenty-eight Democrats have since signed the resolution.
In the Senate, Tennessee’s glad-handing, six-faced, wanna-be Napoleon, wheelerdealer Republican Bob Corker, who as recently as June was seen golfing with Trump and Peyton Manning, questioned Trump’s “stability” and “competence” in a statement that was widely interpreted as a reference to the 25th Amendment. This came after Democratic Sen. Jack Reed was captured on a hot mic saying to Republican Sen. Susan Collins, “I think he’s crazy.” Collins replied, “I’m worried.”
Even some of the president’s chief foes on the Russia front, including “deep state” types like former director of national intelligence James Clapper, have pivoted to the unfitness theme. The day after Phoenix, Clapper told CNN that Trump’s speech was the most “disturbing” thing he’d ever seen from a president.
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But the 25th Amendment process, adopted in 1967, offers faint hope to anti-Trumpers. “It’s the new Hail Mary,” says the law professor Turley. It can be instigated in a few ways, none simple. The most likely would involve Veep Mike Pence (rumored to be preparing a 2020 run) and the bulk of Trump’s Cabinet writing a letter to Congress asserting that Trump is unable to perform his duties. Presumably such an effort would also include the coterie of missile-lobbing uniform fetishists surrounding Trump, people like John Kelly, H.R. McMaster and James Mattis. These half-bright military men, upon whom so much of Washington has pinned hopes as the “axis of adults” in Trump’s loony-bin administration, would likely have to defy their commander in chief.
A letter to Congress from this crew would begin a process that would put Pence in the Oval Office as the acting president. Under the 25th Amendment, incidentally, the president is never removed, but merely sidelined. Imagine still-technically-President Trump’s serene, imperturbable behavior as he watches his “temporary” replacement Pence in the White House. A two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress would eventually be needed to secure the play.
As with impeachment, there is a misconception that a Section 4 declaration can be a purely political gambit. In fact, the procedure specifically can’t be about politics. John Feerick, a Fordham law professor who helped work on the original bill with senators such as Indiana’s Birch Bayh and authored a book titled The 25th Amendment, goes out of his way to point out the many things that do not qualify as “inability” under this law. The list reads like Trump’s résumé.
The debates in Congress about the amendment, Feerick writes, make clear that “inability” does not cover “policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness or impeachable conduct.” When asked about the possibility of invoking the amendment today, Feerick is wary. “It’s a very high bar that has to be satisfied,” he says. “You’re dealing with a president elected for four years.”
“It has to be very serious,” agrees Turley, who adds that an inability effort would probably require “sworn statements from psychiatric professionals.”
The president, again, cannot be merely a disordered, inappropriate, incompetent, destructive embarrassment. He has to be genuinely “unable” to work. For Trump to be impeachable, he probably has to be responsible for crimes. To be declared unfit, he probably has to be demonstrably insane. He probably can’t be both. Is he either?
Unless the Russia investigation pans out, the question of whether Trump survives to 2020 – Vegas betting houses started putting the odds below 50 percent after Charlottesville – hangs on a single question: Is Donald Trump insane?
It’s actually not easy to answer, even conversationally. Is he crazy? On one level, of course he is, hell yes. Trump has been mad as a sack of bees since he launched his campaign. Put simply, Trump believes things that aren’t there. He made it to the White House in a delusional bubble of his own creation, and his brain is clearly a denuded mush of paranoid, self-aggrandizing fictions he probably couldn’t part with even if some brave confederate were to force him to try.
People pay the most attention to Trump’s political deceptions: that 3 million “illegal” voters lost him the popular vote, that Hillary Clinton wants to “release the violent criminals from jail,” that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the JFK assassination, and so on. “We are the highest-taxed nation in the world” was a notable recent whopper.
But those lies may be strategic, and Trump probably isn’t married to them anyway, given that he doesn’t appear to have real beliefs. Trump picks his political positions like ties: whatever’s on the rack. Under duress, and with no way to escape, he will sometimes cop to being full of it, like the time he finally admitted, “Obama was born in the United States,” after five years of bleating the opposite.
But sit him in front of a doctor and see what happens when you ask: Who had the larger inaugural crowd, him or Obama? Or: Would he ever admit the Boy Scouts never called to tell him his speech was the “greatest ever”? Trump might struggle here. It’s the countless little fairy tales he tells himself about his power and infallibility to which he clings like a dope fiend to a $10 bill.
Everyone with half a brain and a recent copy of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by shrinks everywhere) knew the diagnosis on Trump the instant he joined the race. Trump fits the clinical definition of a narcissistic personality so completely that it will be a shock if future psychiatrists don’t rename the disorder after him.
Grandiosity, a tendency to exaggerate achievements, a preoccupation with “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love,” a belief in one’s specialness (which can only be understood by other special people), a need for excessive admiration and a sense of entitlement – sound like anyone you know?
Trump’s rapidly expanding list of things at which he’s either a supreme expert or the Earth’s best living practitioner would shame even great historical blowhards like Stalin or Mobutu Sese Seko.
As the “world’s greatest person” at restricting immigration, who is “good at war” and “knows more about ISIS than the generals,” and who is the “least racist person” with “the best temperament” who knows “more about renewables than any human being on Earth,” insists “nobody reads the Bible more than me,” and even knows more about New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker “than [Booker] knows himself,” Trump by his own description is not a splenetic rightwing basket case at all, but just a cleverly disguised cross of God, Norman Schwarzkopf, Coretta Scott King, Gloria Steinem, Pope Francis and, apparently, Cory Booker’s mother, Carolyn.
The president’s ludicrous grandiosity was a running joke throughout the campaign season, but having a personality disorder is not a disqualifying feature in a president. Even his most vocal critics in the mental-health community concede that being a narcissist, even a very sick one, does not make him unfit for office.
“As someone who’s studied Trump, as someone who’s met Trump, who’s interacted with him socially, I can say with absolute confidence that he suffers from severe personality disorders, perhaps a cluster of disorders,” says Ben Michaelis, a New York-based psychologist who has run into Trump over the years. “But to get a sense of outright psychotic behavior … There’s some possibility, but you really need to examine him in a clinical setting.”
This holdup – that merely being disordered isn’t enough to justify removal, particularly when so many people endorsed these characteristics with a vote – has been one logistical problem stopping the “unfitness” Hail Mary. Another has been the American Psychiatric Association’s so-called Goldwater Rule, an ethical dictum that discourages mental-health professionals from diagnosing public figures from afar.
John Gartner, a psychologist who trained residents at Johns Hopkins, has found a way around both problems. The Goldwater Rule he just ignores, because, he argues, the graveness of the Trump threat renders it quaint. Lots of his colleagues seem to agree, as Gartner has managed to gather more than 62,000 signatures from self-described mental-health professionals attesting that Trump “manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of president of the United States.”
“We’re not talking about a gross psychotic disorder,” Gartner says. “We’re talking about a way in which people with severe personality disorders can regress to what they call transient psychotic states.”
Gartner’s argument is relatively simple. Add paranoia, sadism and antisocial behavior to narcissistic personality disorder and you have a new diagnosis: “malignant narcissism.” Trump, he says, is no paranoid schizophrenic who walks the streets claiming to be the Son of God – no one “so grossly ill” could be elected. However, the president’s increasing tendency to obsess over persecution theories – and not just parrot meaningless stupidities like the inaugural crowd story but seemingly believe them – shows that he’s crossing a meaningful diagnostic line into psychotic delusions, common among malignant narcissists.
“We’re not talking about a gross psychotic disorder,” Gartner says. “We’re talking about a way in which people with severe personality disorders can regress to what they call transient psychotic states.” He adds, “It’s a more subtle kind of psychosis, but it goes over the boundary into psychosis.”
The term malignant narcissist is said to have been invented by Holocaust survivor Erich Fromm, who used it to explain Hitler. It’s now become a catch-word on the Internet to describe Trump, and almost inevitably – in much the same way that language from the Steele dossier bled from the Internet to pop culture to the rhetoric of elected officials – it has begun to be circulated within the Democratic Party. California Rep. Jackie Speier actually used the term to describe Trump after Charlottesville, in an interview in which she also called him “unhinged” and “unfit.”
But this all has the feel of a duel between court experts. If the argument comes down to whether Trump is a garden-variety narcissist or a malignant narcissist, the from-afar diagnosis may not cut it as an excuse to sideline an elected president.
Nor should it, says Turley, who believes Trump’s opponents are playing with fire. He particularly points the finger at Democrats, whom he calls “constitutional shortsellers.” During the eight years of Obama, Turley says, Democrats continually boosted executive power, only to regret it once Trump was elected. Now, he says, toying with scenarios like a 25th Amendment ploy could come back to bite them.
“They’re doing this without thinking of the long-term implications,” he says. “It could be their president the next time.”
Trump on his phone in the White House. Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen
Trump wasn’t always crazy. He wasn’t even always obnoxious. Many Americans don’t remember, but the Donald Trump who appeared on TV regularly in the Eighties and Nineties was often engaging, self-deprecating, spoke in complete sentences and (verbally, anyway) usually lived up to his expensive schooling. He’d say things like, “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated,” and use words and phrases like “a somewhat impersonal life” and “money isn’t a totally essential ingredient.”
The difference today is striking. Trump has not only completely lost his sense of humor, particularly about himself, but he’s a lingual mess. In his current dread of polysyllables – his favorite words include “I,” “Trump,” “very,” “money” and “China” – he makes George W. Bush sound like Vladimir Nabokov. On the page, transcripts of his speaking appearances often look like complete gibberish.
“When I did this now I said, I probably, maybe will confuse people, maybe I’ll expand that,” he said to Lester Holt in May, “you know, I’ll lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion.”
The difference even since last year is hard to miss, and why not? The presidency severely ages and stresses even healthy people. From Obama to Bush to Jimmy Carter, presidents on their last day of office often look like med-school cadavers. President Trump already looks older, has a lower frustration threshold and seems only to have two moods, rage and sullen resignation (a.k.a. pre-rage).
He also can barely speak anymore, but without a close-up examination it’s impossible to say if this is a neurological problem or just being typically American. As the psychologist Michaelis puts it, one major cause for loss of cognitive function is giving up reading in favor of TV or the Internet, which is basically most people in this country these days.
“In someone of his economic background and age, [the decline] is somewhat uncommon,” he says. “Then again, it’s a trend. People of my generation got more information from TV than books, and people of the next generation get more information from the Internet, and that exercises less of your cognitive reserve.”
This is a huge part of the problem of trying to gauge whether or not Trump is mentally unfit for office. It isn’t just that 63 million people specifically endorsed his nuttiest behaviors with a vote. It’s also that maintaining modern American media habits can make most anyone seem like a victim of organic brain damage.
In a kind of awful satire of the current American experience, part of what got Trump elected is the camaraderie he shared with other reality-averse Americans who similarly chose to live in castles of self-aggrandizement, denial and blameshifting, a journalistic product we offer to just about everyone these days.
Trump is almost certainly worse than most of his voters. He’s likely more grandiose, less empathetic and less capable of handling criticism. But his phobias about science or history or inconvenient facts, along with his countless conspiratorial hatreds and prejudices, are things he shares with millions of people. They voted for this, which creates as confounding and ridiculous a conundrum as has ever been observed in an industrial democracy. Can a country be declared unfit?
Tuesday, August 30th, Springfield, Missouri. Fresh off his “no more talking” tweet about North Korea that again puts the world on nuke alert, Trump flies to this sleepy little Ozark hub for a bit of image rehab. The play is transparent: Unspool plans for a monster corporate tax giveaway to pull nervous rank-and-file Republicans back toward the rubber room of Trump’s presidency, and grope a prominent piece of Americana – the birthplace of Route 66 – for the benefit of a voter base that may have been confused by the previous week’s Howard Beale act.
The speech is to be delivered at the Loren Cook Company, a maker of many things, including “laboratory exhaust systems,” which seems ominous somehow. The giant warehouse slowly fills with the usual crowd of elderly flag-wavers and squirrelly white dudes with bad facial hair and ill-fitting jeans. If there are protesters anywhere in the area, they’re likely very far away, probably surrounded by .30-caliber machine guns.
Every Trump event is must-see TV now, because no one ever knows when he’s going to go on one of his unscripted ape-rants. It doesn’t happen today. Today we get Clonazepam Trump, Prozac Trump. He stands in front of a big flag, perches between his two teleprompters and reads prepared remarks virtually from beginning to end – a relative rarity for this president, who hates scripts as much as he hates buttoned suit jackets. Trump reading a speech always looks like a hostage. In stark contrast to the vibrant rage of Phoenix, in Missouri he slowly spits out each lifeless cliché like it’s a dead bird.
“In difficult times such as these,” he says, “we see the true character of the American people: their strength, their love and their resolve. We see friend helping friend, neighbor helping neighbor, and stranger helping stranger…”
“Jeez,” moans a reporter in the press section, smacking a forehead.
Trump goes on to insinuate to the crowd that the state’s Democratic senator is holding back much-needed tax reform.
“And your senator, Claire McCaskill, she must do this for you,” he says robotically. “And if she doesn’t do it for you, you have to vote her out of office.”
Muted cheers. After the event, the crowd files out in a patriotic mumble. A mustachioed man who identifies himself only as “Chuck Chuck” says the lifeless speech doesn’t bother him.
“He told us about Claire McCaskill, that was good enough,” he says.
A week or so later, Trump will strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that leaves members of both parties stunned. His would-be enemies in The New York Times publish the breathless analysis they never gave to Bernie Sanders: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.”
This is the paradox of Trump. He is damaged, unwell and delusional, but at critical moments he’s able to approximate a functioning human being just long enough to survive. He is the worst-case scenario: embarrassing, mentally disorganized and completely inappropriate, but perhaps not all the way insane. Maybe crimes will soon be discovered and he’ll be impeached, or maybe he’ll run naked down Pennsylvania Avenue this fall, or nuke someone, and be declared unfit. Until then, he’s just the president we deserve, dragging our name down where it belongs. He is miserable, so are we, and we’re stuck with each other. Karma really is a bitch.