Donald Trump's mental health: Is it moral to speculate about the US President's state of mind from afar? – Laura Waddell

Lazy stereotypes about mental health may not wound Donald Trump, but could affect others, writes Laura Waddell
US President Donald Trump leaves the podium at the conclusion of a press conference about his administration's handling of the global coronavirus pandemic (Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump leaves the podium at the conclusion of a press conference about his administration's handling of the global coronavirus pandemic (Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump leaves the podium at the conclusion of a press conference about his administration's handling of the global coronavirus pandemic (Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In a new book exposing her Uncle Donald, known to those of us outside the family as the current President of the United States, Mary Trump draws on her professional experience as a psychologist to analyse his lifelong personal failings.

I haven’t read it yet (and am more inclined to read a book with Donald Trump’s face on the cover by discreet digital edition rather than have the hardback lying around my house glaring at me) but while her childhood stories lend a novel bent to the story of Donald Trump, and she’s out to get personal, the pattern of the President’s behaviour is familiar enough. Critics pull out all the juiciest morsels, but where they differ are views on the psycho-analysis element of the book, and whether it is justified.

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Peter Conrad’s brief review of Too Much and Never Enough in the Guardian takes in its stride Mary’s charges of “narcissism, sociopathy and learning disabilities”, and her view that the President seems to be remaking the USA into “a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family”, stemming from a ruthless tycoon father and miserly Scottish mother.

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Mary idenfifies other signs of mental disorder, including antisocial personality disorder and sleep disorder. Jennifer Szalai in the New York Times is a little more cautious about the link Mary Trump makes between Trump’s personality defects and her specialist subject, saying “it’s this kind of detail – memorably specific, fundamentally human and decidedly weird – that gives this book an undeniable power, even if its narrative is bookended by Mary’s strenuous efforts to put her training as a clinical psychologist to use”. (The anecdote that preceded this praise, by the way, was about Donald’s little brother Robert eating a block of Philadelphia cream cheese “as if it were a candy bar”.)

Mary Trump ‘uniquely qualified’

Megan Garber in the Atlantic draws a parallel between the book’s bent and the populace at large, commenting on how frequently his whims and whimsies drive national news. “That grim knowledge has turned Americans, over time, into a nation of armchair psychologists, struggling to understand the workings of one particular psyche.” But, Garber says, Mary is uniquely qualified to make these kinds of comments. “With this psychographic reading of the President, Mary Trump is doing the work many other Americans have been: analysing, decoding, explaining.”

Donald Trump has always tested the rule that it’s a bad idea to diagnose or comment upon others’ mental health conditions on the internet. There are, of course, serious risks to diagnosing from a distance. The media campaign Time to Change, created by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, pushes for responsible reporting on mental health, making the case for commentary that raises awareness, changes attitudes, and dispels myths. Dangers include spreading stereotypical ideas, including overplaying violence, and lumping together behaviours which can be entirely irrelevant.

There is still fragility in mainstream acceptance of mental health, not least in the underfunding of seriously stretched NHS services and long waiting lists for therapy. While general understanding of depression and stress seems to have come far in the last decade, there remains stigma attached to seeking medical assistance, particularly for men.

‘Free Britney’

Throughout history, madness has been cruelly used as an excuse to banish family burdens such as young unwed mothers, to castigate the undesirables of society, and undermine the agency of whole demographics. Trump’s own nickname for presidental rival Hillary Clinton was “Crazy Hillary”, a chant taken up by his fans, playing on the timeless sexist trope that women are irrational.

But Trump – celebrity first, president second – is not the only star whose mental fitness is currently being scrutinised on a large scale. The rapper Kanye West has publicly discussed his bipolar disorder and is reported to have suffered paranoia and psychosis, cancelling a slew of concerts in 2016. This comes to mind when hearing of his recent presidential bid and emotional speeches, but it is, after all, an aspiration which seems to have built up and lingered for some time.

Then there’s Britney Spears, who frequently appears these days in concerning Instagram stories, replicating poses from the youthful days of her career, with smudged eye make-up and a blank look. There is a whole movement of fans determined to ‘Free Britney’, referring to the conservatorship ruling the singer lives under, finances and movements controlled by her father, the appointed guardian. This is all in the public realm. But fans are concerned she is being exploited, after long-running Vegas shows where she raked in cash, without the full extent of her freedoms.

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In such an instance, the public doesn’t know what Britney’s doctors have prescribed. But in the Free Britney movement lingers the suspicion that something is amiss. Considering oneself a saviour is flattering to the ego and an easy trap to fall into, while conspiracy theories often hinge on the belief things are hidden in plain sight. But always lingers the question, what if?

Trump’s behaviour impacts a nation

At what point does mental health disorder genuinely merit public discussion? I think even stars, whose jobs depend upon the public spotlight, are entitled to keep their health information private. Is speculation over Trump’s health morally just?

Among public opinion lies every cringeworthy stereotype and lazy trope explaining away everything from the way Trump sneezes to his foreign policy. It’s wounding not to Trump, but to others suffering from malady and the ideas transmitted by such barbs.

But the dividing line for privacy, perhaps, ends where individuals wield power over other citizens. Trump’s erratic behaviour, as in anything he does, impacts a nation.

Those of us without psych backgrounds might be best limiting commentary to his actual behaviour, rather than reaching for diagnosis of it.

The gross responsibility he wields means his psychology is of public interest, just as the release of his taxes might inform the public about the President’s character and how he’s driving the USA through the world. The missing taxes, and that the release of this information wasn’t required of a sitting US President, tells its own story about the health of the system.

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