Does a president need to be normal?

Hi Joel,

The evidence continues to stack up that Donald Trump is not cognitively alright. Narcissism, the brain rot that comes from a life of power, dementia–who knows the cause of it, but it’s clear from his speech, his obsessive pettiness, and his grasping way of shaking hands, clinging to stair railings, and drinking from a water bottle that the man has some problems.

Should that be enough to get rid of him? Are his problems significant enough to invoke the 25th Amendment?

Questions about his mental, cognitive, and emotional fitness for the presidency have always been there. According to Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, no one who knows him thinks he had the brains for the job. Even if Michael Wolff’s book has some inaccuracies (and I’ve only read excerpts), this lack of faith his staff and family members have in him is pretty clear. And a group of mental health professionals, including some of the most famous psychology scholars in the US, working together in an organization called A Duty to Warn have been sounding the alarm on Trump’s mental health concerns for months now.  And members of Congress have been briefed by Yale University professor Bandy Lee, whose work is on assessing danger, about the need for an evaluation. She notes that our military leaders are required to pass such an exam and yet our president is not. Lots of jobs, of course, require mental health screenings, from police officers to working as a telephone operator. But should the presidency?

I don’t think so, though I do think political parties, as private clubs, should be allowed to make such requirements. But I don’t think we need more rules about who can become president. We have elections for that.

First, whether he is deluded or a liar or just unable to discern reality, we knew this before folks voted for him. There is no need for mental health professionals to invoke a duty to warn because we knew.  I think it’s reasonable for the Republicans to have kicked him off the ballot, but once they decided to make him their candidate, the rest of us had to do the work of saving the nation from a man whose brain is probably shrinking. We didn’t, and that’s to our shame.

Second, we’ve only had 44 presidents so far, spread out so far in time that we can’t really say much about what makes a good president. Presidents are so exceptional that we have to be careful, I think, about asking them to have “normal” minds. In a study of the presidents between 1776 and 1974, Jonathan R. T. Davidson from Duke University Medical School found that 27% of our leaders likely had some form of mental illness while they were in office and half had a mental illness at some point in their lives, most commonly anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol dependency. That our leaders would have personality problems seems to make sense–you kind of have to be a bit of an arrogant jerk to think you should be president–and anyone with the ability to end the world with one press of a button should probably feel a little anxious.

If we decided that there should be a test, what would disqualify people? Would we be looking to the DSM-5 for definitions of mental illness and, if so, are we willing to give that much power to a book that has often been wrong? Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson all had qualities that suggested bipolar disorder. Had we used the APA’s definition of the disorder, they might not have held office.

Or would we be looking at some kind of more non-clinical assessment, like something you notice after a few dates, like Nixon’s paranoia or the narcissism of Andrew Jackson, TR, and Kennedy?

Or should the test focus on moral reasoning? Twelve of our presidents didn’t seem to have the ability to recognize that enslaved people were humans–even though many white people (and we can assume about 100% of black people) were abolitionists at the founding of the nation, so it’s not the like the idea of freedom for African Americans was simply unheard of. If it seems obvious that the president of the US should see the problem with slavery, why don’t we expect the president to see the problem with drone warfare? What kind of immoral person drops bombs from airplanes on innocent people? Turns out that the answer is all of them who could.

Image result for trump is stupid

I love many people with low IQs, limited vocabularies, TBIs, dementia, and cognitive impairments. Whether Trump, above, is so stupid as to be incompetent doesn’t matter. None of the “stupid” people I know behave like he does. He’s corrupt, and his behavior devalues the office of the presidency. 

I don’t want to sound glib to those raising concerns that it might be time to use the 25th Amendment. I’m just very cautious about how invoking “mental incompetence” could work. We’ve never used it, even when we had some very stupid (George W. Bush), inept (Grant), and immoral (Jackson) presidents, and I think that’s a good thing. I’d rather we use the political process of voting, which, even with gerrymandering and voter suppression, keeps much of the power in the hands of citizens, than the political process of removal, which relies on politicians.





One comment

  1. Rebecca, I love contrarian thinking, but I wish you would expand this with specific comments about nuclear weapons. Your passing reference to drone warfare, and observation that every president who could drop bombs on innocent people have done so, is saddening and discomforting. Your observation that our first 12 presidents condoned slavery is embarrassing and cautionary about how cultural norms and tunnel vision can blind even our best and our brightest. You omitted any comments about our history with American Indians, our continuing obsession with gun culture, our mindless exploitation of the environment, etc. But my main concern is with nuclear weapons. Only one president since 1945 has ordered the use of nuclear weapons. Is this not a special case? Shouldn’t mental fitness for office now be a requirement, now that the potential end of civilization is a possibility? Are there enough checks and balances in our existing system to countermand a president with his enormous BUTTON?

    You suggest that each political party could vet all their candidates, including a test for mental fitness. How would this work? Would there be an impartial, non-partisan, professional panel that would score each candidate? Would voters not be able to override the panel’s opinions? What would prevent a rejected candidate from mounting an armed revolution?

    The 25th Amendment seems more fitting to me, but possibly tweaked to avoid partisanship in being invoked or in being blocked. I’m fuzzy on these details.


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