On Friday, Donald Trump, self-described billionaire businessman, reality TV star and and believer that he is the key element in the resolution of all the nation's major problems — real and imagined — started characterizing his presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton, in a new way. Clinton, Trump said, is unstable, insane and lacking the equilibrium required to be an effective president.
This, more than a few Clinton supporters have said, is the ultimate mirror critique. Insanity — or at least, constant mental instability and displays of volatile outrage in the face of minor slights — ranks among the allegations that Clinton supporters and even some Republicans have most often lobbed at Trump. But what's even more noteworthy here is that, despite a 14-month-old Trump campaign replete with political self-sabotage and other behavior described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as dysfunctional, Trump's allegations might be plausible to some voters.
Trump's comments tap into ancient, malignant and metastasized notions about women that continue to shape what happens when women take on leadership roles. Trump just described Clinton as crazy and or unable to regulate her emotions in a way that will diminish her capacity to lead and protect the country. There is a long and inauspicious history of stating or implying just that about other women in both public and private life.
Now, Trump has demonstrated the skills of a specialist in this arena many, many times before. But he is far from the first public figure or candidate to suggest that women are temperamentally unsuited to the rigors of public office and the constant need to make major decisions.
The word "hysteria" comes from the term hystericus, Latin for "of the womb." The Greek scientist, philosopher, tutor and political adviser Aristotle famously described women as unfit for public life and leadership because of what he viewed as women's emotional, impulsive, manipulative, compassionate, argumentative "natures" and their long memories. As a group, men were, in Aristotle's telling, afflicted by none of these things.
In almost every issue of The Woman Patriot, a national newspaper dedicated to opposing women's suffrage, the female editor made a practice of rounding up letters to the editor and other public statements by individuals who opposed giving women the vote, largely on the grounds of women's raging emotions and family responsibilities.
We don't have to look that far back. In 1987, then-Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) broke into tears while announcing that she would not run for the White House. Reporters must have typed double-time to generate the volume of stories that followed questioning whether her tears proved her more unfit for office than the fundraising and other logistical challenges that felled Schroeder's campaign before it got started. And when Clinton had her own moment of tears on the 2008 campaign trail while discussing the toll of running for public office, she, too, faced many of the same questions. Meanwhile, in 2010, when the country had a House speaker, John Boehner, who could be reliably counted upon to cry over any number of matters, reporters and commentators sometimes made jokes. But no one questioned Boehner's actual mental health or ability to lead.
The problem of saying or implying that women are universally crazy and thus unable to lead certainly isn't limited to the United States. In 2011, David Cameron, then Britain's prime minister, famously told a female opposition lawmaker, Angela Eagle, to "calm down, dear," during a typically heated session of Parliament.
Yes, "calm down, dear."
There's also a whole body of public commentary and deep-seated ideas that apply to women outside politics, too. If further evidence is required, note the assertively average men who offered their peers dating and marriage advice in the form of the infamous "hot, crazy matrix" at the center of a viral YouTube video.
Trump may well feel personally and politically imperiled by the growing avalanche of questions raised about his sanity and related ability to serve as president.
In July, the ghostwriter behind Trump's often mentioned New York Times best seller, "The Art of the Deal," told the New Yorker magazine that he has spent much of the 2016 campaign season racked with guilt about what that book did and continues to do for Trump. At the time that ghostwriter Tony Schwartz wrote the book, Trump was just a private businessman with a big ego and other personality traits that probably mattered only to those who worked for him, married him or did business with him. But as Trump begin harnessing some of those traits to great success in the election, using some of them to obscure the things that Schwartz said make Trump dangerous in public life, Schwartz realized that he had actually been the one who "put lipstick on a pig,” he told the magazine.
"I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.” He went on, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization."
The critique of Trump's character from a writer who spent 18 months in close contact with Trump did not end there. One criticism was so biting that quoting it is the most neutral route of transmission available here. From the magazine:
If he were writing “The Art of the Deal” today, Schwartz said, it would be a very different book with a very different title. Asked what he would call it, he answered, “The Sociopath.”
Similarly, President Obama said Trump represents a departure from every other modern candidate for the White House, Democrat or Republican. Trump, Obama said, is dangerous and has made other Republicans seem, at best, disingenuous. Three months from the election Trump, according to Obama, remains so erratic that Republicans have put themselves in the the illogical position of denouncing Trump's comments, often, but sustaining their endorsement of his campaign.
But, that alone does not explain why Trump — a man with his Twitter feed — would be so bold as to call Clinton crazy in public.
Clinton may be many, many things to many people. There are legitimate critiques that can be made, some of which often are. But almost no friend or foe has described her as anything other than shrewd, intelligent or in possession of an agile mind. If you leave out those now mature conspiracy theories about brain damage that keep finding prominent home on the Drudge Report and few other highly partisan outlets, only Clinton's continued inability to provide plausible answers to two long-running issues come close to providing evidence of anything to the contrary. But even Clinton's ongoing political missteps around her email management and those Wall Street speaking fees fall into the realm of ego demonstrations and bits of truth and untruth that Americans have seen and heard from politicians — particularly male ones — many times before.
The most likely explanation for why anyone would begin to believe or repeat the idea that Clinton is crazy is that Clinton is a lady. She is, by this logic, a woman with all those hormones and emotions which, when the pressure is high, allegedly make sound decision-making impossible.
If Trump's allegation had any power, that stereotype would be the most likely reason.