It’s been a real struggle for me to talk about Donald Trump.
No, not because he’s an extremely unpleasant subject. I mean, that, sure. Though to be honest I’ve been talking about him a lot in various places. I wish I could ignore him – and the whole damn election – entirely, but this is not how I cope. Or my coping mechanism of choice isn’t altogether a healthy one, and it is to become totally and utterly obsessed.
Don’t ask me what my curated news feed largely consists of. Don’t ask me how many political podcasts I currently follow. Don’t ask me how frequently I check FiveThirtyEight, and how much emotional weight I attach to numbers which are, after all, not objective but instead mediated through and interpreted by human beings. The point is that I’m obsessed, which means that I’m immersed in the way you and I and we all talk about Donald J. Trump.
‘scuse me a sec.
Something I’ve noticed we do especially much is talk about his mental health. This has been done in a serious, concerted way – attempts to “diagnose” him, usually though not always on the part of people who have received no mental health training in their lives, not that that’s the only thing that matters – but more often in a casual, offhand way – Trump is “insane”. “Nuts”. “Delusional”. “Crazy”. So are his adherents. We’re at a loss to explain the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, at least in any rational way, so we turn to the discourse of mental illness. In order to account for his existence and its nature, we medicalize him.
This is a problem, and the problem is twofold.
Firstly – and this is actually what I intended the sole focus of this piece to be – it’s ableist as hell. Taking someone like Trump, with his cruelty, his arrogance, his racism and xenophobia and misogyny, and making use of mental illness to explain it, connects mental illness with all of those things, which isn’t merely wrong and bad but dangerous. It’s part of a larger discourse that works to demonize people with mental illness, to present them as potentially dangerous. Because Trump is dangerous, and is frequently and explicitly referred to as such (and I wouldn’t for a moment disagree). Recall the ways in which we tend to explain rampage shooters with mental illness rather than things like toxic masculinity. It also constructs people with mental illness as fundamentally irrational to a hopeless extent; these people can’t be reasoned with, can’t be reached.
Talking about someone like that dehumanizes them in a way we reeeeeeally don’t want to do. Because when someone can’t be reasoned with, a central element of their humanity is denied. It’s not a tremendous number of steps from that to some very ugly things.
This is especially ironic, because this way of speaking about mental illness is supposed to be kinder and more humane. But I’d argue that it ultimately has the opposite effect. With only a few exceptions, I haven’t seen this way of framing Trump elicit much sympathy for or desire to help him. It hasn’t humanized him. It’s served to remove him from those of us who are describing him in these terms, to draw hard lines between us and him. He isn’t like us. We’re better. We’re more rational. We’re sane. By extension, we’re better than everyone who likes him and/or is prepared to vote for him.
(I’m not sane, by the bye. Another thing you should not ask me about is all my medication. I’m on a lot of medication. No, it’s frankly not helping much with this.)
We’re also allegedly smarter. Intelligence is a thing. Trump is an idiot. He’s stupid. He’s a moron. I thankfully haven’t seen anyone call him “retarded” but in spite of my obsession I have largely remained in my little safe space with my safe people, and I know it’s being done. His people are the same. They’re not just crazy, they’re dumb.
Bringing someone’s intelligence into the conversation and using it to dismiss and dehumanize them is just as ableist as calling them crazy. We do it all the time, without thinking – and that’s a huge part of the problem.
I do it. I really try not to, but it’s deeply ingrained, so it happens anyway. Plus, yeah, it feels good. In a nasty way, but it does. It feels good to be superior – or to think you are.
Donald Trump frightens us. He confuses us. We don’t know what to do with him. So we try to explain him in medicalized, positivist terms that make us more comfortable, and we try to elevate ourselves above him and his Trumpians in order to feel a little better about everything.
But it’s not just that it’s ableist. It also doesn’t work. It isn’t sufficient or accurate, and we need to recognize that.
Using mental illness and/or intelligence to explain someone like Trump vastly oversimplifies the situation. It reduces it to those safe, comfortable terms. It requires no stretch on our part to understand the deeper complexities, because in spite of how many words people have spent on this, ultimately it’s dismissive – as I said above – and in dismissing someone or something, you absolve yourself of any greater responsibility to understand how they and the whole thing happened.
Again, it’s like writing off a rampage shooter as a “nutcase”. It means we don’t have to think about where that person actually came from and why they became who they became. We don’t have to think about the hideous effect of toxic masculinity on cisgender men who are raised in a fundamentally misogynist culture, and about how violence fits into the picture. That’s harder. It’s uncomfortable. Not least because it implicates us.
When we use mental illness to explain Donald Trump, among other things we don’t have to think about ideology. Mental illness discourse doesn’t allow us to think about ideology. But that’s only one thing among many.
When I was considering this the other day, it occurred to me that another form of discourse exists that does some of what mental illness discourse doesn’t. Once we explained (and a lot of us still do) things like this in terms of sin and evil. We used moral and ethical concepts that were grounded in spirituality, and the dominant forms of discourse largely abandoned this when we made the switch from one to the other, from believing that people with schizophrenia were possessed by demons to identifying them as suffering from an illness that could be scientifically treated as such.
Calling someone evil has the exact same dehumanizing effect I described above, only a lot more intense and a lot more direct. An evil person isn’t really a person anymore, at least not in the way that “good” people are. I personally think evil is a useful idea in some contexts, but even if that’s true, in this specific context its hazards are significant and whatever it does isn’t nearly sufficient to make up for mental illness discourse’s many shortcomings.
It’s also much too simple.
So how do we talk about Donald Trump, if very little of what we currently use is useful and is in fact harmful? From where do we get a different kind of discourse in order to describe Trumpishness? I honestly don’t know. I’m honestly not sure it can even be done. But I think we need to try, because we should strive not to harm people, and because as long as we’re failing in our attempts to articulate who Trump is and the social context that created the event that is his presidential campaign, and our place in all of it, we’re very poorly situated to do anything about it when it happens again.
And regardless of what goes down on Tuesday, you know it will happen again.
I need to go scream into a pillow some more.