“In your guts you know he’s nuts”: Trumping the Goldwater Rule

Writing about Trump is like trying to stay ahead of an avalanche. Something happens, and you try to respond to it, but then something else happens, and you try to respond to THAT and you haven’t even finished responding to the first thing, and then something ELSE happens and before you know it you’re completely buried.

This is not the place for an exhaustive rundown of every strange, inappropriate, awful, or evil thing the US president has done recently. For one, this is information which is easily available. For another, I don’t want to do the research necessary to write such a thing. For my own sanity it’s better for me NOT to be informed, because there is absolutely nothing I can do about it in any respect, least of all my humble remit as company blogger for a Toronto consulting firm.

But hell, why not take a break from writing about weird group behaviour and the difficulties of shared leadership and delve into the one thing Trump has done relatively recently that’s tangentially related to this blog’s about page.

It was buried under the perpetual avalanche of “what the heck has he done NOW?” that is Trump-related news, but back in August a bunch of articles went around saying that the American Psychoanalytic Association had dropped the so-called “Goldwater Rule”, leaving members free to comment on Donald Trump’s mental health, or lack thereof.

This was a bit of an exaggeration, actually. The so-called “Goldwater Rule” – which prohibits mental health professionals from providing an opinion on the mental health of public figures which they have not examined – never really applied to the American PSYCHOANALYTIC Association, just the American PSYCHIATRIC Association. Same initials aside, these are two different organizations, and while they both concern the mind, psychoanalysis and psychiatry are not the same thing (at least not anymore).  All that happened was that the American Psychoanalytic Association clarified that it “does not consider political commentary by its individual members an ethical matter” – in other words, it never really had the Goldwater rule to begin with and would not sanction members for commenting on the mental health of public figures, i.e., mentioning the obvious and progressively worsening unhingement of Donald Trump – and lo and behold, there was an article on Huffington Post and the rest is history.

But even though this is kind of a non-story, let’s get into it a bit.

The TL/DR of the Goldwater rule is that, during the 1964 United States presidential election, rabid anti-communist nuclear hawk Barry Goldwater sued a magazine for publishing a poll of psychiatrists on his mental health. (For the record, they were 89% of the opinion that Goldwater was too crazy to be president.) He lost the election but won the lawsuit, and the APA instituted the Goldwater rule, prohibiting members from commenting on the mental health of public figures which they had not examined.

And you know what, it’s not a terrible idea. We all present a different public face than the one we would show to a therapist, analyst, or psychiatrist; diagnosing mental illnesses, personality disorders, neuroses, or what have you based only on public statements and actions is both unlikely to be accurate and, in a political context, pretty damn inflammatory. To call your political opponent dangerously insane or too mentally unstable to do the job is time-honoured, if nasty, political tactic, and one that has been successfully used against women, minorities, and other marginalized people; to lend the weight of a mental health profession to that kind of dirty trick is a very dangerous precedent to set.

But wishing to avoid the kind of ableist thinking which elides Donald Trump’s awfulness with the struggles of people with mental illnesses, however, doesn’t let us off the hook – let me off the hook, I should say – when it comes to grappling with the implications of having a clearly unreliable person in charge of the world’s largest superpower. To say “Donald Trump is obviously crazy and, obviously, crazy people should not have access to power” is clearly wrong, but to say “Donald Trump’s potential mental illnesses are none of our business, let’s focus on his behaviour” removes us from any deep conversation about Trump and his meaning, leaving us able to deal with surfaces only. If we believe that things do happen “beneath the surface”, in the unconscious, that are important and have real consequences in the real world, then we can’t do this.

What is so frightening, and why I think we keep talking around the red herring of Trump’s putative insanity, is the possibility that it might not exist. I keep coming back to the slogan with which Lyndon Johnson brilliantly capitalized on Goldwater’s public humiliation: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”. Do we, though? Before he became president, did anyone think Trump was nuts? I’m trying to remember what I thought of him before all of this and I can’t. Because alongside the terrifying possibility that a man with a serious uncontrolled mental disorder has the nuclear football, is the equally terrifying possibility that a perfectly sane but petty, stupid, tyrannical, and evil man has the nuclear football and might very well use it in a fit of pique. Not because he’s ill and “can’t help it”, but because he just doesn’t care enough not to. What if the evil of Trump isn’t madness at all, but something innate in humanity that no psychiatric diagnosis or psychoanalytic interpretation can remove?

This is the thing I can’t accept, the gaping hole that opens up beneath me when I try to think through how someone like this could wind up in power. It’s not just that Trump is awful, but that he’s a mirror to our own – my own – awfulness. This is unbearable to think of, so to get around it it’s tempting to think of Trump as some kind of anomaly, an aberration who doesn’t count as the normal stream of humanity, rather than a figure who appears over and over and over in human history –  the stupid, nasty demagogue who wants nothing but power and attention and doesn’t care how they get it.

Getting back to the Goldwater rule, perhaps Trump’s sanity or lack thereof actually IS beside the point. Calling out Trump for his possible mental health problems can be as much a defense against understanding what he means (or trying to understand) as is ignoring the fact that those problems probably do exist. So the answer is there’s no answer, no way to talk about Trump other than as the product of ugly forces within USian culture and society – ugly social, political, and psychological forces (conscious and unconscious) which made the election of someone like him inevitable. And that means there’s no way to fight him except by fighting back against these. However that works.

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