Here’s a hint about rhetorical strategy: if you want to denounce someone as irrational and emotionally overwrought, you should not sound irrational and overwrought. If you do you will be emulating the example you are denouncing. If it is worth denouncing, it cannot be worth emulating.
As we have seen, a small number of mental health professionals have attacked Donald Trump as unfit to serve as president. They say that he is suffering from one or another psychiatric disorders—like malignant narcissistic personality disorder—and therefore should be disqualified.
Being mental health professionals they have allowed their minds to be overcome by their emotions. They have failed to note how many previous American presidents have suffered from one or another psychiatric condition. And they ignore the fact that there is nothing in the constitution that prevents us from electing someone who is severely depressed—like Abraham Lincoln. Let’s not forget the number of politicians and commentators who declared Theodore Roosevelt to be utterly unhinged.
On the other side a number of mental health professionals have rejected their colleagues’ wish to diagnose someone they have never met. Correctly so. But then, they denounce Trump for his totalitarian tendencies. In so doing they indulge the totalitarian tendency of using psychiatry to shut up one’s political opponents.
Anyway, mental health professionals are men and women of science. They have demonstrated some restraint and have offered opposing views of the Trump psyche.
Better yet, someone named Louise wrote in to the New York Times to school psychiatrists in the matter of the Trumpian psyche. She makes more sense than most, so I assume that she belongs to the field:
Trump's personality traits, along with his inherited money and his contacts, have enabled him to become POTUS, acquire a succession of young and socially impressive wives and get even richer.
This is not how mental illness generally works; the key feature of mental illnesses is that they are to a significant extent disabling to the people who have them. Personality disorders in particular tend to produce inflexible and inappropriate thought patterns and behaviour which make it hard for people to function effectively and form solid relationships. Trump's behaviour is bizarre, vain. inconsiderate, erratic and downright despicable but it's also calculated and very effective with the audience he's aiming at. When he lies it's with a purpose, when he appears confused it's usually misdirection, when he ignores or trivialises the important issues it's because he doesn't want to deal with them.
Louise finds much to dislike in the Trump performance— limited as it is—but at least she understands the difference between mental illness and public political performance.
Now, we have the honor of reading the thoughts of a distinguished American professor, one W. J. T. Mitchell of the University of Chicago. Mitchell’s thoughts appear in the Los Angeles Review of Books and they offer a sense of what is wrong with the American academy—a place where no one even pretends to care about empirical reality.
While mental health professionals have been relatively restrained in their diagnoses, Mitchell, who teaches literature and art criticism, feels no such compunction. As he sees it, the American people are suffering from a mass psychosis. Since psychosis is a well-defined clinical category no mental health professional uses it lightly or promiscuously. Mitchell knows nothing about psychosis, so he invokes the authority of that famed syphilitic philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Where else would you look for a definition of psychosis?
A well-known Chinese aphorism cursed people to live in interesting times. Mitchell declares that we are living in insane times. Being a master of absurd analogies, he declares the election of Donald Trump to have been as cataclysmic as September 11, 2001.
I kid you not:
For the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, the events of the days since November 8, 2016, have seemed as if the nightmare of history that Stephen Dedalus describes in James Joyce’s Ulysses has come upon us with a vengeance. And there is no possibility of awaking from it; it is a reality that will not go away; it has only just begun. Like the nightmare of September 11, 2001, it marks a historical epoch, underscoring the correctness of Nietzsche’s aphorism, which stipulates that it is not only a matter of collective insanity (“groups, parties, nations”), but also of “epochs,” those turning points and momentous events such as revolution and war that make us feel that we are living in extraordinary, even insane, times.
Let’s see: would you like to offer a description of the mindset of someone who declares that we are living through a nightmare and that it will never go away? One appreciates Mitchell’s prophetic powers, his ability to see the future and his encouraging thought that we will never awake from the nightmare. We awoke from 9/11, didn’t we? Mitchell is trafficking in mental drool.
Mitchell occupies an august positions in the American academy. He must count among the best and the brightest in that world. If that doesn't give you nightmares, I don’t know what will.
Anyway, Mitchell does not refrain from expressing his contempt for the American people. If you want to know why Hillary lost, you could not do better than to weigh Mitchell’s words:
As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.
I need not tell you that “complete narcissistic moron” does not appear in the DSM V. It tells us that Mitchell is flailing… but also that he sees the Trump presidency as wish fulfillment, the wish of the plain folks to see the office of the presidency occupied by someone who expresses their inner soul… which is to be a fool and a completely narcissistic moron.
How does Mitchell know that America has gone completely mad? You guessed it: the nation has not done enough to stop climate change. It takes your breath away. You have to read it to believe it. So, here it is:
When the world’s most powerful nation goes crazy, the consequences are global. And this is nowhere to be seen more clearly than in the absolute silence about the greatest challenge facing the world community in the foreseeable future, namely, climate change. The issue never came up in the presidential debates, and received little coverage in the media. Admittedly, climate change is a hard sell to people who do not read newspapers. But when, in a rare moment of collective sanity and wisdom, 195 countries come to an agreement that climate change is real and must be addressed, one would think that the issue is, as we say, a no-brainer. But Trump is a climate change denier who intends to tear up the Paris agreement as a “bad deal,” and who has nominated a fossil fuel lobbyist who, like many Trump appointees, would like to destroy the very agency he has been appointed to direct, namely, the Environmental Protection Agency.
Does anyone really believe that the nation has ignored climate change? In truth, the Obama administration was obsessed with climate change, to the point where it was willing to shut down industries and put people out of work to save the planet. It’s one good reason why Hillary lost.
And, by the way, what does a professor of art and literature know about climate change? The fact that a bunch of nations got together and signed an agreement transferring wealth from America to the poorer countries of the world does not confirm that America is responsible for climate changes. Everyone understands that the climate changes. The question is whether or not human beings—that is, privileged white males-- ought to be punished for it and whether the Industrial Revolution should be repealed to save the smelts.
Since Mitchell correctly notes that the balance of powers in the United States Constitution is a wondrous thing, we must add that the treaty signed by the Obama administration has skirted constitutional scrutiny because the administration called it a deal and not a treaty.
For your and Mitchell’s edification, I provide a link to some remarks that Prof. Richard Lindzen at a seminar conducted at the British House of Commons in 2012. Since Lindzen has been the head of the climate science lab at MIT I trust you will agree that he knows the subject. Something we cannot say about Mitchell.
When it comes to the dogmas of climate change Mitchell and others who know nothing about climate science are absolutely convinced that they are right and that everyone who disagrees with them is—not wrong, but insane.
Or does it have real potential as a way of analyzing a mentality, a style of thinking and feeling that is resistant to persuasion, but might be susceptible of understanding? It is one of the characteristics of an epochal moment like this that it is going to be very difficult to distinguish rational analysis from polemic. It may in fact be the case that there are times in history when reason and outrage have to converge, and the whole liberal style of calm deliberation and the comfort of long views will seem radically inadequate.
Is Mitchell showing himself to be amenable to rational argument? Is he willing to consider the views of important scientists who disagree with him? Not at all. If a bunch of nations, along with Pope Francis, have bought the idea, then it must be dogmatic truth, never again to be questioned.
I will mention in passing that since Nietzsche was not a sufficient authority on the question of madness, Mitchell quotes Freud himself. One of the twentieth century’s greatest pseudo-scientists has no real authority on mass psychosis or even on individual psychosis. Admittedly, Freud did do some work on psychosis—he wrote a commentary on a memoir written by a psychotic. Yet, Freud was a neurologist and aside from the fact that his dangerous method did not work on neurotics, it most certainly did not work on psychosis.
While Mitchell agrees that we ought not to diagnose political leaders and that Trump himself is not psychotic, he still argues that Trumpism is madness and that it should be treated with psychoanalytic methods that have fallen seriously out of favor because they do not work. No one has ever believed that they work with psychosis. Only serious humanists have failed to see this fact:
But what about Trumpism, the mass syndrome that now grips this country and threatens the world? It fulfills the basic criteria of psychosis in its hostility to reality-testing and its potential to be “a danger to itself and others,” the legal standard for involuntary confinement of the insane. Any politics that sets out to cure the disorder of Trumpism will have to find a way to think of it in relation to psychology, not as a set of polemical labels, but as a therapeutic method, a listening cure.
Mitchell knows nothing about psychosis, but his suggestion that everyone who voted for Trump, everyone who is responsible for Trumpism is participating in a mass psychosis and should be involuntarily confined is madness itself. If not that, true stupidity.