Tuesday, August 2, 2016

How to make the psychological fitness case against Trump

Fury of Achilles, by Charles-Antoine Coypel Source: wikipedia

Donald Trump's behavior continues to differ radically from the conventional wisdom about what a victory-maximizing campaign looks like.

His choices and public statements seem increasingly vindictive and self-destructive, and his incoherent, erratic speaking style is readily apparent. This has led to more open questioning of his psychological fitness for the presidency. Attacks in this vein are justified, but Trump's opponents should tread carefully to avoid a counterproductive backlash.

The first risk surrounding charges of mental or psychological fitness is that they will be perceived cynically, as hyperbolic politically-motivated attempts to 'jump the shark'. This is to some degree unavoidable, but given Trump's truly abnormal behavior and the topic's increasing visibility across the partisan spectrum, there does seem to be enough substantiating the issue for it to pass the 'gut check' threshold of acceptability.

At 70, Trump is relatively old among incoming presidents (Hillary is 68), and although his parents were long-lived, his father did suffer from alzheimer's six years prior to his death. But while progressive illnesses like alzheimer's are probably linked to other psychological challenges (and are therefore relevant), most of the concern is over Trump's current mental health status. A statement released last December by Trump's longtime personal physician about the candidate's overall health was totally unsound and ridiculous, and adds little reassurance.

The second risk involved in pursuing a mental health line of attack against Trump is its high potential for offensive misstatements and blowback. Discussing mental health and psychological pathology is extremely perilous, especially if it occurs publicly between thousands of journalists, political operatives and internet commentators. The relationship between mental health and human dignity is complicated, and sets off social justice alarm bells. The odds are good that someone prominent will say something dumb and undermine both the original attack and Clinton's standing within various incensed populations. Professional norms and rules of conduct make expert speculation ethically dubious, potentially undermining the scientific credibility of the attack.

But regardless, the powers of the presidency are such that Trump's psychological fitness must be questioned.

Narcissus, by Caravaggio Source: wikipedia

As far as it relates to a single individual, psychological pathology is a nebulous concept, blending smoothly into non-pathological models of personality and cognitive style. These blend into non-medical conceptions of 'character', 'morals' and 'judgement', which have been fair-game in politics for forever.

To make the safest and most effective argument, I would suggest eschewing altogether the pathological, medical angle and instead focus on how Trump's cognitive style fits poorly with historical precedent and the known institutional structures of the office of the presidency. The attack's sharpness largely derives from its explicit medicalisation, so using the formal scientific language of psychology while skirting around pathologies specifically could conserve most of its novelty and rhetorical oomph.

Being mentally 'unfit' for a job doesn't necessarily imply pathology or illness--lots of high-level technical and managerial jobs condemn most of the global population to the 'mentally unfit' status, and that's okay.

Instead of listing diagnosis specifications, emphasize the positive psychological, social, and personality traits required to be president, and how they conflict with Trump's record and persona. Emphasize the duty voters have to demand exceptional psychological fitness from their presidential candidates.

Attacks should walk a fine line between adequate bite and complete respect; advocates need not pathologize and demean Trump in order to scientifically demonstrate that Trump presents an unacceptable tail risk and would be a bad fit for the presidency. Attacks on Trump could even be paired with mild hedging to stave off social justice outrage over dehumanization concerns: concede that his narcissism and penchant for rage might serve him well in the property development sector, but probably not at the helm of a boundless regulatory apparatus or apocalyptic nuclear arsenal.

The world is filled with all manner of people with various extreme cognitive profiles. We respect the dignity of everyone regardless. That is a great strength of our economy, politics and society. But it doesn't necessarily follow that everyone with dignity is therefore psychologically fit to be President of the United States. Trump seems obviously unfit.

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