In an earlier post, I argued that Trump is not mentally unstable. Not everyone liked this post. Some readers said he obviously is. But the better point is that we all mean different things when we use the term “mental instability.” How was I using it? A friend, Jay Weiser, rides to the rescue with some helpful distinctions. My comments in brackets.
Soviet/Winston Smith/Democratic Party [sic] definition
Anyone who opposes state control of the means of production and the ideology of the latest progressive Dear Leader is by definition insane. This is the definition psychiatrists used to find Barry Goldwater psychologically unfit for the Presidency (but not Lyndon Johnson!), and is probably Andrew Sullivan’s definition.
[For literal-minded readers, Jay was a bit mischievous to include the Democratic party, or maybe, and I take no position on his characterization of that noble institution. In any event, let’s agree that it is tempting to declare insane anyone who disagrees with us, but let’s also try to resist this temptation.]
This is close to the legal definition: mental conditions that are so debilitating as to make normal adult functioning impossible. Examples are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or autism when they are severe and untreated.
[Trump does not meet this definition. If he did, then we might start the 25th Amendment conversation (“the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”). No.]
Most psychological problems fall on a continuum of severity, and much of the population has aspects of one or another condition, up to and including symptoms that would qualify for clinical diagnosis at some point. As Hong Kong’s Bus Uncle said, “I’ve got pressure, you’ve got pressure!” In subclinical or mild clinical form, the condition may cause impairment or even be somewhat helpful (if you believe the studies saying that successful CEOs often have some measure of narcissism or sociopathy, or that ADHD is associated with creativity). People manage to adjust most of the time.
[If Trump faces issues of mental health, he falls into this category, along with many of the rest of us, including many successful people and numerous presidents as well (including, I strongly suspect, LBJ, an extravagant liar whose psychology seems Trumpian in many respects). If Trump ever faces reelection, by all means take into account his temperament before casting your ballot, but don’t call him crazy unless you think most people are crazy.]
Even people with severe mental illness can be functional. Carrie Fisher was literally a textbook case of bipolar disorder, but high-functioning despite lapses. Despite a daunting paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis, famed jazz trumpeter Tom Harrell maintains a touring schedule.
[Which does not mean that we would have wanted either of them as our president. Yet Lincoln exhibited some symptoms of clinical depression. The Goldwater article mentioned above quotes one of the psychiatrists who thought that Goldwater was insane:
His theme is “freedom” – but from what? Unconsciously, it seems to be from his mother’s domination…
Let’s learn from the past as we continue to speculate about Trump’s mental universe.]