Monday, February 27, 2017

The madness of King Donald

[This post is cross-posted with Hit Coffee.]

Rabbi Michael Lerner warns against psychoanalyzing/diagnosing Mr. Trump (or any political leader, for that matter), especially when such psychoanalysis is intended as a tool for opposition. He points out that it's questionable to diagnose people without working with them for a long time in a therapeutic setting. Rather, he says, one should focus on actions instead of on the internal demons of one's opponent. (Mr. Lerner lists other reasons as well. Read the whole thing.)

I'm inclined to agree. I get very uneasy when I read of a psychotherapist or other mental health professional diagnose a politician with a disorder.

Occam's Razor can do some good here. If Mr. Trump is unstable, erratic, or unpredictable, his actions by themselves speak to how much we can trust him or how competent he is. Whether the diagnosis is right or wrong, we don't need it.

Or mostly we don't. Mr. Lerner's warning is an "editorial note" to another piece, "Trump as Narcissist," by Michael Brenner, also found at the above link.* Brenner makes several arguments that stand or fall on their own. But his key point is that Mr. Trump is a narcissist and we cannot expect the demands and incentives of the presidency to tame his narcissism.

That argument is marginally informed by whether Mr. Trump really and truly suffers from narcissism. If he does, there's less hope that he'll mature and grow into the presidency. If he doesn't, there's slightly more hope. And if a 25th amendment solution is at all in the offing, then maybe psychological unfitness is a way to invoke that process. (At the same time, I'm not sure we really want to invoke that process, and I am especially wary of admitting to that end testimony from mental health professionals who have not even met with Mr. Trump personally.) So...maybe diagnoses of the sort Mr. Brenner offers do some good after all.

But the argument that Mr. Trump will grow into the presidency doesn't rely only on the proposition that he'll become a better person. It also relies on the claim that our system of checks and balances might actually work and that the federal bureaucracy will do what bureaucracies do and somehow condition what Mr. Trump can accomplish. We may of course doubt whether any of this will happen or if it does, whether we'll welcome what the country would look like afterward. (For example, I'm glad that Michael Flynn has quit the National Security Agency, but I also share Noah Millman's concerns about the intelligence leaks that seem to have prompted his ouster.)

And for the record, I don't believe there's something epistemologically magical about the "months, or sometimes years" of working with a client that Mr. Lerner says is necessary to determine if a person suffers from a disorder. I acknowledge that the the diagnoser probably has to always base his or her decision on incomplete information. So maybe it's not entirely fair for me to claim the public diagnoses lack sufficient information.

That acknowledgement, however, doesn't change my mind that such health professionals are acting unprofessionally and to a certain extent dangerously in their public diagnoses. They're contributing to a discourse in which mental illness is seen as something shameful or to be feared. To my mind they're weaponizing techniques that originally were meant to help or at least understand people.

Such is not their intention, and it's not everything that they're doing. Some mental disorders and perhaps even "personality organizations" ought to disqualify a person from certain positions of responsibility, among them the presidency. When an apt case presents itself, then maybe these mental health professionals are doing a service in highlighting it. And as even Mr. Lerner notes, there is something to be said for noting certain "styles" of politics and cultural expression. He cites Christopher Lasch's study of the American "culture of narcissism, and I could cite Richard Hofstadter's essay on the "paranoid style" of American politics.

Maybe there's no "pure" approach. Maybe some harm has to be done for a greater good. I will probably not convince these mental health professionals otherwise. But I urge them to at least acknowledge and more forthrightly address the dangers of what they're doing.

*If you read Tikkun Olam a lot, you'll find that Mr. Lerner often attaches editorial comments to essays he publishes but disagrees with.

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