Ned Barnett

The political hunt for Trump’s sanity

President Donald Trump talks to reporters during a meeting in the White House on Wednesday, the day after he fired FBI director James Comey. Mental health experts and political observers have questioned Trump’s erratic behavior.
President Donald Trump talks to reporters during a meeting in the White House on Wednesday, the day after he fired FBI director James Comey. Mental health experts and political observers have questioned Trump’s erratic behavior. The Associated Press

Here’s a political paradox: President Trump is, as Wordsworth said of the world, too much with us, yet many wonder if he’s all there.

Indeed many people bewildered by Trump’s erratic behavior as a candidate and as president think he should be removed from office because he is mentally unstable.

Hal Crowther, the Hillsborough journalist and essayist, wrote a broadside in The Progressive Populist in March declaring that it’s time to remove a “mentally ill” president who is “a hollow shell of diseased self-regard.” He continued, “Some of us have been saying since 2015 that Donald Trump was better qualified for the madhouse than the White House. Post-inaugural events have advanced this argument beyond debate or objective denial.”

Liberal firebrand Keith Olbermann called for Trump to resign just days after he took office because “this man is not of sound mind.” He said Trump’s chronic lying and self-delusion represents his “running war with reality” a condition that could lead to nuclear war and “the end of civilization.”

Speculation about Trump’s mental health isn’t just a matter of political frustration. There are nonpartisan, objective reasons to regard Trump’s mental fitness with skepticism and fear. He is the oldest person ever elected to the most powerful office in the world and, in terms of government experience, the least prepared. It will be increasingly hard for him to adjust to the mental and emotional pressures of the office that have obviously aged younger men.

Concerns about Trump’s mental health and the possibility of his removal are considered in-depth in a remarkable report by Evan Osnos in the May 8 issue of The New Yorker. Osnos’ article explores whether and how Trump may be removed from office as mentally unfit. It’s an odd subject to be discussing only four months into a president’s tenure, but Trump’s oddness – his impulsive tweeting, his paranoia about Obama tapping his phone and now his sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey – makes the discussion inevitable.

Duke University plays a role in Osnos’ account. First he cites a Duke study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases in 2006 that concluded that about half of the 37 presidents Duke studied showed signs of mental illness – mostly depression, anxiety or substance abuse. The study found that 10 presidents appeared to have had mental issues that hindered their ability to carry out their duties.

Osnos also mentions the man who may be the final authority on this issue, Allen Frances, a professor emeritus at the Duke University medical school and an expert on diagnosing the condition most often attributed to Trump – narcissistic personality disorder. Frances wrote the criteria that define the disorder for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – in the fourth edition published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Allen Frances
Dr. Allen Frances

After 34 mental health professionals wrote a February letter to The New York Times expressing their fears that Trump is mentally ill, Frances put a pin to that balloon of speculation with his own letter to the newspaper. He wrote that Trump doesn’t suffer from mental illness. “He 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. . . . Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.”

Frances now lives in San Diego. I spoke with him by phone last Wednesday as the news of Comey’s firing was breaking. The doctor said he still thinks Trump is sane, though he’s more convinced than ever about the president’s flawed character. Frances said, “He doesn’t meet the criteria for having a mental disorder and lumping him with the mentally ill is much more an insult to them than an embarrassment to him.”

Frances is more concerned about the mental health of the nation than of its president. He said Trump is a symptom of a nation where stress is giving rise to denial and disregard for the nation’s problems of inequity and a world threatened by climate change.

“Unless we start facing reality and confronting the facts of life, we will be handing our children, our grandchildren and their children a world that is much less livable,” he said.

Frances is finishing a book titled, “The Twilight of American Sanity, a psychiatrist’s perspective in the age of Trump.”

Essentially, his book puts the country on the couch.

“We have to look in the mirror and wonder how we elected Trump,” he said, adding in a political rather than medical sense, “Trump may not be crazy, but we certainly are for having elected him.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

  Comments