[Author’s Note: This piece originally appeared in print way back in August of 2016 as an edition of my Sex, Drugs & Electoral Rolls magazine column. It is reproduced here for TDB readers’ consumption in light of the recent upsurge over the last few days in media comment on the alleged mental health (or otherwise) of US President Donald Trump. ]
Earlier this week, I encountered a piece on the Washington Post which purported to attempt to explain the behavior, rhetoric and general political persona of one Donald Trump as being the result of a traumatic brain injury. This joins previous pieces from both the same outlet and others which have sought to psychoanalyze from behind a keyboard the man who could possibly be the next President, and explain away Trump’s eccentricities or extravigancies as being the result of one or more cohabiting personality disorders.
This matters. And not just because of the obvious potential impacts of associating all concussion sufferers – or a swathe of personality disorder people – with the onerous burden of political and temperamental association with Donald Trump.
The burden of stigma is something which just about everybody who’s a bit “not right in the head” for whatever reason comes into contact with eventually. It can lead to people eschewing seeking a proper diagnosis and treatment due to serious (and occasionally quite justified) concerns that having an official three-letter-acronym or whatever after their name on their medical file can detrimentally affect their future life-choices or career.
One area in which this is often particularly pronounced is in that field of human endeavour known as Politics.
The reasons for this ought to be plainly apparent.
People already presume that at least half their elected representatives are unofficial sociopaths anyway, so tend not to have any especial overwhelming desire to place anybody of more obviously questionable sanity or faculties anywhere near the levers of political power. This goes doubly so for a position – such as the one Trump’s vying for – wherein one of those levers comes in the form of a big red button capable of unleashing nuclear armageddon. (Although the fact that masses of voters in both the UK and US somewhat inexplicably chose to re-elect Tony Blair and George W. Bush respectively despite revelations that the voice of the divine was apparently directly dictating Atlanticist foreign policy decisions to each – in specia the impetus to invade a certain oil-rich Middle Eastern country … has me scratching my head. Not so much at the alleged sanity of these heads of government, but at their respective voter-bases in each country as well. Perhaps voters really ARE more afraid of the labels of mental illness than they are of the symptoms)
The issue with what is happening when journalists and columnists patently inaccurately “diagnose” in typeset Trump (and really, how on earth can you properly psychiatrically assess somebody from afar through media interviews and appearances while never being alone or perhaps even in the same room together) is that it makes it far harder for persons grappling with genuine mental illnesses or cerebral injuries to be taken seriously in public life.
We already, some decades ago, witnessed exactly what happens when a candidate for high office has their mental health history become a matter of public record. The brilliant young U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton remains a cautionary tale. During the 1972 election buildup, Eagleton acquired the unenviable honour of holding perhaps the shortest Vice Presidential candidacy in American history at eighteen days. (I say “perhaps”, because earlier this year Ted Cruz’s VP pick Carly Fiorina managed to eclipse Eagleton’s record by holding the position for a mere week. Although she may potentially not count, as unlike Eagleton, she wasn’t actually on a major party ticket at that point – but rather only a presumptive in the unlikely situation that Cruz won the Republican nomination for President)
The reason why Eagleton found himself being dropped faster than high-explosive ordnance in the skies above Vietnam?
He’d suffered from periodic bouts of depression, and had previously been hospitalized for same. For this princely crime of having a psychiatric weakness which was readily exposable and exploitable by the Republican opposition (which, let’s remember, was also at that time in the business of breaking into political opponents’ psychiatrists’ offices in pursuit of potentially explodable dirt) … the Democratic establishment wound up putting severe pressure upon George McGovern to axe his running-mate.
McGovern initially declared that he backed Eagleton “one thousand percent” … then folded on him some time later. Regardless of a battery of opinion polling suggesting that the votes of a majority of Americans would remain unaffected by Eagleton’s mental health history, it seemed that a candidate with a prior record of mental illness was too fraught a possibility for the true decision-makers of the American electoral system to countenance.
But there’s an obvious difference between what was done to Eagleton and that which is happening today. In his case, he actually had the mental illness in question. Yet when it comes to more modern situations wherein allegations of mental impairment are used to attempt to damage or discredit a candidate, this doesn’t have to be the case. Instead, increasingly spurious and hackneyed conjecture from afar is deployed in a kind of baseless smear politics to attempt to put some distance between the hearts and minds of the electorate and the established public figure of a leader or politician. As an example, Vladimir Putin’s stirling realpolitik foreign policy and burnished tough-guy machismo attitude seem altogether less compelling when they’re thought to be the result of previously undiagnosed Autism – presumably explaining why a Pentagon report claiming exactly that was disseminated with such verve and vigour last year through the media at the height of the Donetsk crisis.
And while it might seem somewhat hard to muster up significant sympathy for men like Trump when they come under attack in this particular manner, spare a thought for the other candidates who’ve been swept up or outright disallowed on grounds of mental health issues – real or alleged. Actually-successful political figures like Abraham Lincoln with his depression, Winston Churchill with his bipolar disorder, as well as GandhiJi and Martin Luther King with their depression and suicidal ideation all managed to make an enduring mark upon this world – and in many cases arguably because of rather than inspite of their mental illnesses. By buying into the stigma surrounding the “potentially crazy” in public office, we deny ourselves access to incredible men of their impressive and self-evident caliber. Accusations like the ones presently being made against Trump, in other words, help to ensure that situations like Eagleton’s keep happening even today.
Because that’s the issue here. We like to think of ourselves as an enlightened, progressive and tolerant nation. In many respects, we probably are. Yet, as I can personally attest, there remains some considerable stigma attached towards people with mental health diagnoses pursuing serious careers in public life and office. I share diagnostic labels with several of the individuals mentioned in this piece (including the Bipolar (II) with which Senator Eagleton found himself afflicted). My medication regimen, amusingly, bore some close coterminity to that doled out to former U.S. Presidents Kennedy & Nixon (Even if I’m perhaps arguably more of a Marion Barry than either of them). One reason why I’m so incredibly open about all of this is because something similar to what was done to Thomas Eagleton once happened to me.
In the wake of this regrettable experience, I resolved to never let anyone be in a position to threaten to destroy me by disclosing information about my illnesses again. If the facts of my diagnoses were public knowledge, then this considerably reduced their potential for weaponization. People, in other words, would be more likely to see the real me – who I am, my record of service, and what I stand for – rather than the scary labels which might be insidiously deployed by rivals to act as a forcible, barbed barrier betwixt candidate and electorate.
The attacks which we’ve recently seen creeping back into our political press are the exact opposite of this in both spirit and effect. Not just because they’re more regularly carried out upon people who are, in all probability, presumably largely sane. But because they hinge around a virulent re-stigmatization of mental health issues rather than the relative merits of the politicians themselves.
Let us be clear about this: if you’re going to oppose Donald Trump or anyone else … please let it be for actual, tangible reasons rather than motivated by a media-fostered fear and loathing of the victims of mental illness.