Is the president crazy? It’s the question everyone’s asking as President Trump’s erratic behavior continues unabated a year into his presidency (and not helped by Trump’s claim in response to all the speculation that he is, in fact, a “very stable genius”).
The declaration by his physician that Trump “did exceedingly well” in a cognitive test as part of his annual physical is unlikely to quiet the discussion, so long as the president continues behaving erratically. Instead, we’ll continue to see psychiatrists and other experts willing to insert their professional views of mental pathology into politics receiving platforms. And that’s a problem. Because in doing so, they morph current political and historical analysis into mere medical prescription.
But history and politics are more complicated than that. Understanding the history of fascism and populism can help us better recognize why a populist leader can sound insane while not actually being so, something we’ve seen in the past in Latin America, Europe and elsewhere. Seen through that lens, Trump’s rhetoric and style become less a reflection of his health and more a reflection of our democracy’s.
Easy explanations about the craziness of authoritarian leaders do not actually explain much. Instead, they are symptoms of a refusal to understand what we might not like. Trump is an extreme populist with a xenophobic and anti-egalitarian agenda. Programmatic politics and winning elections against him are more important to democratic life than psychiatric assessments. The racism and misogyny emanating from the White House are above all political acts that cannot be ignored.
Moreover, we should ask ourselves why the critique of authoritarian populists so often does not go beyond the simplistic use of adjectives and even insults. Abnormalizing Trump normalizes the rest of the American landscape, as if Trump were a parenthetical aside in an unblemished history of pluralism, equality and respect for minorities. This was never the case in the United States, any more than in the rest of the world. In fact, the new forms of extreme right-wing populism that emerged during the Cold War (McCarthyism and later the presidential candidacies of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace) are key American antecedents for understanding the appeal of Trump’s repressive ideas and authoritarian style.
Globally, Trumpism has a history that includes populists and fascist leaders like Juan Perón in Argentina and Getulio Vargas in Brazil in the early postwar period and, more recently, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. As a modern populism in power, Trumpism is not a mental state but a form of post-fascism, an anti-liberal, and often anti-constitutional, authoritarian democracy with a political rationale of its own.
The idea of denouncing such a leader as insane is also not new. Populist and fascist leaders have often been defined as crazy. But rather than an accurate diagnosis, this view reflects the confusion of an opposition faced with an unusual form of politics — a confusion that historically has led to inaction vis-à-vis authoritarianism and its intolerant consequences.
Adolf Hitler was serially treated as crazy. This conceptual laziness perpetuated by so many antifascists at the time of the Holocaust contributed to Nazi success. By considering Hitler to be a pathetic, impulsive, crazy charlatan, they ignored that he coldly planned war and genocide while generating a wide consensus among the German population.
More generally, the idea of a ridiculous, deranged individual, an idea fixed on style and not on content, proved to be a distraction from the real consequences of the practices and politics of these unconventional leaders. This idea also separated the “abnormal” leaders from the supposedly confused and sane followers. And it separated political ideology, including racism and anti-Semitism, from political analysis resulting in an inability to clearly oppose these leaders’ agenda.
This ascription of mental illness or disorder to the rhetoric and actions of such leaders adds to the misunderstanding of what makes such leaders successful: a narcissistic populist ideology that poses them as godlike genius figures, absolute voices of the people who know better than the people themselves what they, the people, truly want.
The idea of presenting these irrational leaders as insane scores easy political points. (Really easy, judging from the Twitter response.) But in the long term, such focus on insanity rather than ideology overshadows the most important fact behind their leadership: the reality that their extreme ideas are constantly normalized and supported by a wide segment of the people, as well as key party figures. Trump is probably right in assuming that many of his followers share his racist notion of Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”
Although there are key intolerant anti-democratic elements in Trumpism, there is nothing new or mentally pathological about it. The history of populists in power from Juan Perón to Silvio Berlusconi, and fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini before them, is full of self-aggrandizing tendencies — tendencies that were fully supported by their parties and followers.
In fact, their followers loved this messianic dimension of the respective demagogues. Does this mean the followers were also deranged?
There is no historical evidence that can support this claim. What we know is that Hitler saw himself as a “prophet” and that Perón and Berlusconi compared themselves to Jesus. Eva “Evita” Perón famously said about her husband: “Perón is a God for all of us, to the extent that we do not conceive of the sky without Perón. Perón is our sun, Perón is the water. Perón is the life of our country and the Argentine people.” Perón also compared himself to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon who, like him, were conductors of the “people.”
Even if it is true that Trump is an immature, erratic, insecure, incurious man who has no grand master plan guiding each move, the far more important concern is that his supporters, like the throngs who flocked to these past populist authoritarians, bask in his every tweet, intolerant assertion and attempt to bully those who look different or think differently. Many Americans still support the very conception of Trump as a redemptive national leader. Instead of worrying about his mental health, we should fear the resonance of his authoritarian politics and racist ideas.