It has been clear for some time now that Donald Trump is mentally unfit to be president of the United States. This observation has little to do with recognizing his profound lack of knowledge, expertise, or interest in the job, to say nothing of his gusto for dousing America’s smoldering racial and religious divisions with kerosene, or his penchant for looting the government’s coffers for his own private gain. All of that is true, and supports the years-long insistence from Democrats and half-hearted, anonymous leaks from timid Republicans that Trump is fundamentally unable to perform even the most minimal functions of the job. What has become increasingly clear since he took the oath of office, however, is something even more serious—Trump is exhibiting significant mental deterioration and instability.
The evidence is mounting. Trump’s frightening schoolyard taunts toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in recent months have seemed particularly unhinged. His speeches and interviews, always a dizzying exercise is diversion and digression, have become practically indecipherable. His speech is now sometimes slurred. And in the New York Times bombshell report that details the extent to which Trump attempted to obstruct the FBI’s Russia investigation, it was revealed that a senior attorney in the White House Counsel’s Office deliberately mislead Trump into believing he needed cause to fire an FBI Director, which as law professor Stephen Vladeck was quoted as noting, indicates “that the president’s lawyers don’t trust giving him all the facts because they fear he will make a decision that is not best suited for him.” Trump’s self-destructive behavior and inability to reason are strong indicators that he is not “a very stable genius.”
Although a legitimate inquiry for some time now, the issue of Trump’s mental health has captivated the national discourse in recent days due to the president’s disturbed series of statements to begin the new year and the release of Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury. Among other astonishing claims, the book contends that Trump has forgotten long-time friends and repeats himself constantly within ten-minute loops. When asked about the revelations in Wolff’s book and news that House and Senate leaders asked Yale Psychologist Dr. Bandy Lee to give multiple briefings on Trump’s mental state, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded with characteristic defiance and ostrich-like avoidance. After labeling the questioning “disgraceful,” Sanders remarked: “If he was unfit, he probably wouldn’t be sitting there, wouldn’t have defeated the most qualified group of candidates the Republican Party has ever seen.”
It’s a good thing this discussion is gaining traction. Though it may temporarily wash away in future news cycles, the president’s mental fitness seems destined to be near the forefront of our national consciousness for the remainder of his tenure. It remains to be seen what shape the country will be in after a full four years of this madness.
But, today, let’s take seriously Ms. Sanders’ defense of her boss’s competence. Is it possible that a major American political party could anoint a madman? Could a bumbling fool with a tenuous grasp on reality vanquish a dozen talented conservative challengers? Even setting aside that Trump’s triumph is ever receding while his mental deterioration appears to be accelerating, Sanders has unwittingly hit on a defining feature of our current political crisis. It is precisely because Trump was unfit that he defeated his Republican rivals. Insanity was central to his appeal.
The 2016 Republican primaries may have been the pinnacle of wild, reality-TV-style politics because of Donald Trump, but it was not unprecedented. The GOP primaries have been rollicking competitions over who could dial up the extremism to 11 the fastest for multiple cycles now. In 2008, there were draconian debates over who could be tougher on “illegals” between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, wild-eyed promises of militarized border fences and significant limitations on legal immigration from half-wits Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, and crusader-like religious fervor from fundamentalists Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee. Eccentric racist Ron Paul inspired cult-like devotion. That autumn, John McCain picked the incomprehensible Sarah Palin as his running mate.
In 2012, there was the Republican “clown car,” piled high with right-wing authoritarians. Rick Santorum, a Christian fundamentalist who campaigned against birth control and the separation of church and state, turned out to be the most mainstream conservative alternative to Romney. GOP primary debates throughout 2011 had Paul, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, and Herman Cain all on the same stage. Cain spent a Trump-like month demonstrating profound ignorance and spewing gaffes at a record pace, an accidental strategy that rocketed him into the national polling lead. Gingrich was revealed as a race-baiting philanderer and was only taken down after Romney made him look soft on illegal immigration. Meanwhile, GOP debate attendees drew attention for booing a gay soldier and screaming “let him die” in response to a question about how to handle the uninsured in dire need of medical care.
Forgotten in 2016’s insanity is that the only candidate other than Trump to lead in the national polls after Trump began his ascent in 2015 was the equally ignorant and deluded Ben Carson. This wasn’t a Trump-specific phenomenon. The Republican base has long been attracted to crazy in all its many flavors.
That’s not to say that the bizarre, deluded, and extremist policy utterances of GOP campaigns past are the same as the troubling rants of America’s first dotard. But it does show that if Trump were sick this whole time, we could hardly divine it from his wild primary pronouncements. And it drives home the point that Trump’s long-time defense of his competence—strong poll numbers and electoral support from the GOP base—is not on solid footing. Yes, it is precisely because the Republican Party has a decade-long track record of elevating the incoherent and advancing the indefensible that we now cannot tell whether its leader, the president of the United States, is advancing the party’s agenda or is suffering from dementia.