This is simply a partisan exploitation of popular prejudice against the “mentally ill.” We should all hope Donald Trump is mentally ill. Some of the best US presidents are known or commonly accepted to have been so while in office: Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson. William Tecumseh Sherman had some sort of mental or emotional collapse at the outset of the Civil War. Winston Churchill was pretty definitely what we would now call bipolar—manic depressive.
|Portrait of a maniac, by Karsh.|
Hitler, by contrast, so far as we can know, was perfectly sane. At least until his last days, under pressure of events.
“Normal” people generally do not rise to positions of great prominence, in politics or anywhere else. Barring some crazy spin of the roulette wheel of life, it takes some sort of abnormality to stand out in any such way from the crowd. Something abnormal is driving it; some demon or genius.
With political leaders, we probably have three choices. Perhaps the most common type is driven by a need for approval and for status; the careerist. Perhaps he needs to prove something to Mom. This is the Chamberlain type. He or she is not, by definition, a leader. And he or she is not, in conventional terms, mentally ill. He is perfectly socially adapted. He or she will do whatever those around them consider popular. This inevitably produces mediocrity: no sudden changes, no new directions, any tough decisions deferred. It also tends to produce corruption: the “nice guy” will help out his friends, his cronies, his family, his party, himself. The imperative is to see smiling faces. Such leaders are interchangeable. Over time, they will hollow out the economy and the polity and force civilizational decline.
|Good old Neville.|
When Americans voted for Trump, they knew they were not getting this type. They voted for Trump because they did not want this type.
The second type is driven by an urge for power over others. This is the Stalin type, or the Hitler type: by instinct a narcissist, a sadist and a totalitarian. Some call these things mental illnesses, but they are very different from other things we call mental illnesses, or illnesses generally: the “sufferer” never suffers. Those around him or her do. Except that, naturally enough, once a sadist has indulged himself to a great enough extent, he can be stricken with something we call “paranoia.” He can become convinced that everyone is out to get him: because his conscience is telling him they ought to be. And in reality, too, by this point, they probably are; not to mention divine retribution. I understand convicted killers on death row often develop paranoid delusions.
But properly, this is not a disease; it is a moral failing, with its consequences.
We surely should hope Trump is not this type.
|The jolly, well-adjusted young Stalin.|
And the third type is the classically mentally ill: the Churchill type. They are driven primarily by low self-esteem. Thinking little of themselves, they are driven by a need to prove their lives and their existence worthwhile by accomplishing something for their fellow man. This is the classic hero type.
They may sound similar to the first type, the crowd pleaser. A friend of mine objects that depressives could not possibly do well in politics, despite the many known examples of those who have, because in politics you need to be “ruthless” and “thick skinned.”
Hmm—ruthless. That word has indeed been used in relation to William Tecumseh Sherman.
The essential difference between the first, Chamberlain, type, and the third, Churchill, type, is that the former craves popularity, and the latter conspicuously does not. People who are mentally ill in the true sense, melancholics, as they used to be called, are invariably “mentally ill” because they have been emotionally abused in childhood; as Churchill was. This relentless abuse by significant others while growing up has given them their low self-esteem. Accordingly, they cannot be the Chamberlain type and still function: either they have accepted that the immediate approval of those around them is not the gold standard in life, or they have become and remained basket cases at best.
Melancholics therefore crave solitude, not approval: Aristotle and Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy) both consider this the definitive trait of a melancholic. They are self-directed, inner-directed, guided by their own voices, rather than relying on what others think and say. They learn to turn for guidance, instead, to first principles, to the eternal verities. God, truth, right and wrong.
Which is to say, they are men or women of principle, and govern on principle.
Which then could very well be called a “thick skin.” They care less than the rest of us what others are saying and doing. They know this is not a reliable guide. And this is a necessary personality trait for any kind of true leadership, or indeed for any significant new contribution in any field. You cannot follow the herd, and be a leader.
So the mentally ill are, almost definitively, thick-skinned. They are not, contrary to common myth, too “sensitive.” They are not wilting flowers or, as they like to say these days, “delicate snowflakes.” They are the opposite, and have had to learn to be, to survive.
|Vien, "Sweet Melancholy"|
You might also see this same tendency to operate on principle, doing what they believe to be right instead of following the crowd and its desires, as “ruthless.” More correctly, “decisive.” Governing by principle, they will do what is necessary rather than what everyone will think is “nice.” No kicking tough decisions down the turnpike.
It is true that, if Trump is “mentally unstable,” he is more likely than a gladhander and baby kisser to press that proverbial button. And decisive decisions can be bad decisions. Churchill's career is littered with bad decisions. But if it ever comes to crisis, who is more likely to make the truly catastrophic decision, Chamberlain or Churchill?
Necessary decisions deferred are the greater danger.
And short of crisis, whose decisions, cumulatively, are more likely to be in the general interest?
But wait, you may say. Aren't I forgetting something important? The mentally ill can actually become psychotic. They can be in a state in which they do not know what is going on around them, or what they are actually doing.
But this is far less a danger in a position of prominence, in fact, than for an ordinary person in their daily life. It is pretty easy to detect such mental states, if one is always surrounded by various helpers and aides. Any system of government that has lasted any length of time has made provision for this, because, of course, all leaders are human, and such things happen. In monarchies, over the years, it has happened often. The chancellor and cabinet takes over, or a regent is appointed, until King George recovers.
|The sometimes psychotic King George III|
In Canada, as in other Westminster systems, if a Prime Minister does something his caucus or cabinet thinks is Coco Puffs crazy, he can be deposed within a day if needed by a vote in the caucus or the legislature. If parliament is not in session, the Governor General can step in and recall parliament. If it ever comes to that—more likely, it would all be handled in a cabinet meeting, and an acting PM announced to the press scrum when the doors opened. The mentally ill are not power-mad, almost necessarily not power-mad, and so would be extremely unlikely to make any difficulty over this in a legitimate case. They would know themselves that something was not right.
In the US, the cabinet can similarly vote at a cabinet meeting to remove the President from office for incapacity to perform his duties. This must later be ratified by Congress, but can happen, if necessary, within hours. But it has never even come to anything like this; when Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke, his wife informally took over. A chief of staff might easily do the same, and probably has, from time to time, without us even knowing.
Is Trump mad?
I hope so.