As attorney George Conway recently wrote in the Atlantic, “you don’t need to be a mental-health professional to see that something’s very seriously off with Trump.” Conway labeled Trump unfit for office and supported his impeachment.
Conway’s judgment stems from Trump’s erratic behavior, which seems to increase by the day. But while critics often denounce Trump’s policies, his flouting of norms and his personal tweet-driven style as products of his perceived deficiencies, racist appeals, praise for dictators, alleged corruption and support for right-wing conspiracy theories are not mental illnesses. Casting Trump as ill or disabled therefore has the twin effects of minimizing his ideological motivations and portraying all people with mental illness as harmful or deficient.
Indeed, a tendency to focus on Trump’s supposedly deficient body and mind — apparent in discussions of not only his mental capacity but also his weight, hair or even spray tan — only reinforces the stigmas facing those who’ve suffered most acutely under Trump’s rule: namely women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. By pathologizing and body-shaming the president, many of his critics harness and mobilize deeply entrenched prejudices rather than challenge them.
Americans have long looked to men’s health — both physical and mental — as indicative of their ability to lead. Lore about presidential fitness is often used to bolster ideas about a political figure’s internal character. Think, for instance, of Theodore Roosevelt’s rugged masculinity, Gerald Ford’s daily swimming routine, Bill Clinton’s jogs and George W. Bush’s runs on his Air Force One treadmill. However, these stories often obscure a more significant truth — no president has perfectly embodied the norm of vitality expected of presidents.
In fact, the mythology surrounding presidents’ physical abilities has concealed the neurodiversity of U.S. leaders — that is, the range of neurological and mental-health characteristics they’ve exhibited. Scholars believe that Teddy Roosevelt’s appetite for adventure may have been a symptom of his bipolar disorder, for example. And he was not the only president with an apparent mental illness: Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the country’s most revered president, grappled with major depression for much of his adult life. That “melancholy,” author Joshua Wolf Shenk argues, bestowed upon Lincoln unique insights that helped him steer the nation through the Civil War. Indeed, research has demonstrated that about half of the presidents who served between 1776 and 1974 showed signs of mental illness.
A similar story swirls around physical impairments: Observers often interpreted John F. Kennedy’s tan as a “sign of vigor,” but it was a byproduct of Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder that Kennedy hid from the public. While Kennedy was lionized for his dynamism, masculinity and fitness, he suffered from serious medical conditions, including chronic back pain, colitis, ulcers and urinary tract infections. Similarly, even though he served more than 12 years in office, many Americans never knew that Franklin Roosevelt could not walk.
Presidents and presidential hopefuls are less than forthcoming about their maladies because any sign of perceived physical or psychological weakness — historically or today — might embolden one’s political opponents. Dating to the earliest days of the republic, those trying to disparage male political leaders have often questioned their masculinity or made veiled (or not-so-veiled) comments about their sexuality. During the 1800 election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the influential journalist James Callender called Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character.” After the Civil War, critics of Jefferson Davis often depicted him in a dress to humiliate him. And during the 2004 presidential contest, supporters of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney coded their challengers John F. Kerry and John Edwards as emasculated Francophonic fancy lads (with “Breck Girl” hair), whose weakness might undermine national security.
The implication that mental instability, gender “confusion” or non-normative sexuality could sully a person’s moral character has persisted. In 2015, retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Ralph Peters insisted on Fox News that President Barack Obama “is just not manly” enough to pursue and stamp out the Islamic State.
Highlighting Trump’s presumed mental, intellectual and masculine deficiencies follows in this tradition. But when armchair psychologists contend that Trump’s erratic behavior and incendiary rhetoric can be linked to an undiagnosed neurosyphilis ravaging his body and brain, or that his behavior suggests dementia, they are reproducing ugly tropes that have long been used to discount the contributions of people with disabilities.
Consider, for example, the controversy that surrounded 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. His strident proclamations regarding “law and order,” fiscal conservatism and the use of military force alarmed many observers, including those in the psychiatric community.
Acting on these sentiments, Fact magazine surveyed members of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) about Goldwater’s mental state. The magazine implied that Goldwater’s supposed instability stemmed, in part, from his father’s homosexuality. After Goldwater sued Fact, the APA began prohibiting its members from diagnosing individuals without an in-person evaluation. This restriction became known as the Goldwater rule, though it did not prevent over 70,000 self-proclaimed mental-health professionals from signing an online petition affirming “that Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.”
Marshaling the harmful idea that Trump’s flaws derive from presumed psychological abnormalities, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) has pushed for legislation mandating the presence of a psychiatrist in the White House at all times, while Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) have looked to establish oversight committees that could evaluate a president’s fitness for office and trigger the 25th Amendment, removing him from office if deemed unfit.
Such actions rest on the flawed notion that disability and effective leadership are incompatible — a premise disproved by the likes of both Roosevelts and Lincoln. Further, plenty of politicians who adhered to certain leadership norms have supported policies and tropes that have been detrimental to women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.
Discrediting Trump because he is purportedly abnormal or disabled does little to stall his rise and, rather, feeds the idea that neurodiversity and “unmasculine” behavior are at odds with the norms and ideals of the presidential office. Trump himself has often made use of fat-shaming, sexism and derogatory language toward people with disabilities for political gain. He has promoted the dangerous idea that gun violence stems primarily from mental illness and that people with mental disabilities (whom he has called “monsters”) should be surveilled and even institutionalized. The president’s opponents capitulate to his proclivity for strongman leadership and fuel the marginalization of vulnerable people when they link danger and disability and stress Trump’s failure to behave as an idealized, normative male leader.
Instead, critics and Democratic presidential candidates ought to emphasize the need for structural change that serves women, people of color, LGBTQ people and populations with disabilities — universal health care, demilitarization and dismantling the carceral state. Candidates must look beyond rhetorical strategies that strike at surface-level stigmas and instead listen to the marginalized peoples whose identities and conditions are so often weaponized by Trump and his opponents.