Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
David M. Perry: Characterizing Trump as 'crazy' relies on the stigma of psychiatric disabilities to make a point
There's a history of using disability as a weapon to attack political opponents, he says
This week, Karen Bass, a Democratic congresswoman from California, launched a Change.org petition calling for Donald Trump to be diagnosed. She supported it by promoting the hashtag #DiagnoseTrump, and the topic took off. Her effort has received ample media coverage and trended nationally on Twitter for a while. And as it did, it became the latest manifestation of a problem I’ve been tracking for months now.
With what seems to be increasing frequency, each time Trump does something objectionable, too many of his opponents want to blame mental illness as a way to erode his electoral chances. Yet characterizing Trump as “crazy” relies on the stigma of psychiatric disabilities to make a point.
There are many grounds on which to criticize Donald Trump and to argue against his candidacy. But his mental health should not be one of them, because it’s a strategy that appeals to bigotry. Leveraging ableism to achieve electoral goals is no more acceptable than using racism, sexism, anti-gay sentiment, anti-Islamic sentiment, or any other form of prejudice.
I don’t want Donald Trump to become president for lots of reasons. He routinely makes racist and sexist comments. He lies. I don’t trust him to make good decisions or to hire good people. The list of detriments goes on and on. Yet characterizing his erratic temperament or understanding of the truth as a product of mental illness, then arguing he’s unfit to lead because of that mental illness, sends a terrible message to the millions of people with diagnosed psychiatric disabilities who are trying to make their way through an ableist world.
Don’t just take it from me. Many people with psychiatric disabilities and other diagnoses have been writing about this since Trump’s candidacy became serious, begging abled America to stop stigmatizing mental illness through armchair diagnoses of Donald Trump.
Disability rights advocate Kit Mead, for example, recently wrote, “Discussing Trump’s mental health status is getting into the territory where people will use it to say that people with mental health needs can’t be effective candidates for public office if they choose to run.”
Kim Sauder makes a similar argument, writing, “If the logic is that by framing Trump as having a mental illness makes him unfit for the presidency then the message is that mental illness is equated with incompetence.” Furthermore, Sauder writes, “Bigotry is not a mental illness.”
Finn Gardiner notes that there are many ways to criticize someone with whom you disagree that do not rely on ableist concepts. “Call them wrong. Call them misguided. Call them terrible,” Gardiner writes, “But stop calling them crazy.” Emily Willingham made a similar point at Forbes, writing, “We can use specific terms about his personality (disagreeable) and temperament (toddler-ish) but not make attributions to a clinical disorder.” Avoiding pathologizing Donald Trump doesn’t mean surrendering a useful weapon in the quest to defeat him.
Unfortunately, there’s a specific history of using disability as a weapon to attack political opponents at the highest levels in our society. In 1964, the cover of Fact Magazine read, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President!” The story called him paranoid, criticized him for his “infantile fantasies of revenge,” his relationship with his mother, a “dangerous lunatic,” and discussed alleged nervous breakdowns. Goldwater sued Fact and won. The American Psychiatrist Association, or APA, recognizing how dangerous it was to use mental health as a political weapon, issued the “Goldwater Rule,” forbidding psychiatrists from commenting on anyone’s mental state without personally examining them and receiving permission to go public.
The APA was worried that people would conceal their mental health needs lest they be publicly shamed. And that’s just what happened in 1972, when Thomas Eagleton was dropped from the vice presidential slot on the Democratic ticket due to revelations that he had sought treatment for depression. A few years later, noted columnist Garry Wills argued that George Wallace was unfit to serve as president because a physical disability (he had been shot) might cover up a mental disability. And no one really knows if Reagan did in fact begin to show signs of Alzheimer’s while in office, as his son has alleged, but I can’t blame his team for concealing it if he did.
Ironically, all this stigma about mental health and public office ignores history. One study found that half of all U.S. presidents showed symptoms of mental illness, often while in office, including widely acknowledged leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. Such neuro-diversity is a core feature of humanity, so it’s not surprising that our leaders reflect the broader realities of our mental variations.
Fred Friedman, the co-founder of the mental health reform group Next Steps, describes himself as a person with active mental illness symptoms. He feels this “diagnose Trump” movement is “just going to add to the stigma of having mental illness symptoms.” Recalling Eagleton, Friedman told me when it came to high office, he “hoped the stigma of mental illness was less today. To ask Trump to withdraw because of a possible diagnosis takes away any progress we have made. It hurts my heart.”
So let’s listen to Friedman, Gardiner, Sauder, Mead, Willingham and all the other people asking you to stop spreading mental health stigma.
Don’t diagnose Trump. Beat him a better way: Don’t vote for him.