Stop Trying to Psychoanalyze Donald Trump
During the 2012 presidential election, Newt Gingrich was like a retrospectively muted version of this year’s Donald Trump. Which is to say, he was a provocative, populist target for liberal criticism. On the evening of January 27 of that year, talk show host Bill Maher offered his audience “proof” that Gingrich was clinically narcissistic by comparing definitions of the condition taken from a medical journal to a quote from the presidential hopeful.
Symptom: Shows arrogant haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Newt: “I first talked about [saving civilization] in August of 1958.”
“It’s kind of an armchair sport to diagnose public figures, especially politicians,” says Stephen Hinshaw, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. Cathartic? Sure. But psychologists say it is almost impossible to gain any real insight into a person’s mind and behavior based on such an analysis. Not only is it wrong, it is a perversion of what psychological diagnoses are meant to do: help people work through mental illness. Casually assigning medical jargon to an erratic politician’s baffling ideologies may actually add to the stigma surrounding mental illness. And that is bad for America.
But don’t feel too badly if you’ve done this. Humans are naturally inclined to try explaining things that don’t make sense, and Donald Trump’s behavior falls far beyond what anyone expects of a politician. “However, human behavior is extraordinarily complex, and therapists sometimes meet with patients for years before they think they have an understanding of the dynamics driving that patient’s behavior,” says Paul Appelbaum, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Armchair Freuds work with second-hand information, gathered from someone speaking in a public forum, as opposed to data collected in a one-on-one interview.
So: Wrong. Also, dangerous. “If anybody can shout at a TV and say, ‘That maniac is manic-depressive,’ or whatever, then that diagnostic label becomes an epithet,” says Hinshaw. Mental illness always has been stigmatized in the US, and chronically under-treated. If those who might benefit from help are afraid to seek help, they could be more likely to harm themselves and others.
In fact, this kind of diagnosing through the TV screen is so problematic, psychiatrists banned themselves from doing so. In 1964, the now-defunct Fact Magazine ran an issue polling psychiatrists to see if controversial conservative candidate Barry Goldwater was fit to serve as president. “Many of the psychiatrists who responded were voicing their political opinions more than psychiatric knowledge,” says Appelbaum. Goldwater sued the magazine for being reckless, and won. “In deposition, Goldwater explained how hurtful he found this whole thing,” says Appelbaum. “When he walked down the street and somebody smiles, he said he wonders if they recognize him and are being nice, or if they are secretly laughing at the guy with a supposedly impaired masculinity that drives his opinions about international affairs.” Even though a psychiatrist might object to Trump’s opinions on race, gender, or nuclear weapons, she would still respect his patient privacy. As an epilogue to the Goldwater incident, the American Psychiatric Association adopted a rule barring its members from discussing the mental health of public figures they had not examined.
OK, so maybe Trump deserves basic human dignity, but there is no denying that his rise to power says something about the American public, right? In their 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologists Jean Twenge of UCLA and W. Keith Campbell examined five decades of evidence to determine that narcissism was on the rise in the US—a trend that could be tied to Trump’s ascent. “I think there’s an element of truth to this,” says Hinshaw. “But it’s a stretch to say that social trends naturally lead to such-and-such candidate.” This ignores context like national security, economics, and political framing. That would be akin to arguing Barack Obama won two elections solely because he appealed to the collective subconscious of an emotionally-scarred American left.
Which gets at how framing a controversial politician as mentally ill harms the political process itself. In the late 1830s, a Scotsman named Henry McNoughton attempted to assassinate the British prime minister. During his trial, it came to light that McNoughton genuinely believed he the government was out to get him. His paranoia led to history’s first verdict of not guilty due to insanity. This set a legal precedent: people must be aware of their actions to be convicted. Extended to politics, it means that someone who says reckless things can be condemned without critical thought. “If we automatically judge a politician’s behavior as crazy, lunatic, insane, or whatever, it means we take politics or ethics out of the question,” says Hinshaw.
And last, armchair diagnosis is just plain unscientific. Look, the fact that physicists can reliably predict the motion of celestial objects is not a testament to the fact that they’re an inherently smarter breed than psychologists. The brain is complicated. “We still don’t have biomarkers to determine mental illnesses,” says Hinshaw. He believes it will be another 50 years or so before brain scans and other technology replace behavioral evaluations as the chief tool for psychiatric evaluation. And even when they do, the use of those tools is best left to professionals.