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Mad King Donald's Executive Disorder

Mental health problems are no excuse for bigotry and abuse - even if you're the president.

History and legend are crammed with cautionary tales about mad kings. The stories share a shape: the King has lost control of what wit and reason he possessed. Wild emotion rules him, but nobody dares say so, because he is the king. 

And because he is the king, he gets to remake the meaning of madness, as has been the privilege of oligarchs down the centuries. He is in charge, often divinely so, and therefore, by definition, sane. Suggesting otherwise is tantamount to treason. If anyone’s crazy, it’s you for not adjusting to the new normal. It’s safest to avoid the obvious, horrifying truth, even if the guy in the gold tower is haranguing other world leaders, ranting in public about death and destruction and fake news, and threatening obliquely to nuke Iran three weeks into the job. It’s safest to pretend, for as long as possible, that the King is not mad. 

The United States has its very own Mad King to cope with, even if, by some measures, they elected him. In stabler times, questions about a politician’s sanity are either offensive, irrelevant  or both - usually, when people say ‘that man is mad’, what they actually mean is ‘I don’t agree with him, and I don’t like him’. These are not stable times, however, and some brave souls are already starting to raise the mental health question we’ve all been dreading because we don’t want to hear the answer. 

Paying any attention to the news at all these days is like living inside a rolling panic attack, so you may have missed the fact that somewhere between the "Muslim Ban" and the utter destruction of American political precedent, thousands of mental health professionals signed a petition stating bluntly that Mr Trump is too unwell to do the job. Elsewhere, Congressman Ted Lieu of California suggested that a presidential psychiatrist be appointed without delay. This masterpiece of concern-trolling might be a play for headlines or political points, or it might be a genuine, if misguided, attempt to science up a solution to a political crisis. 

A presidential psychiatrist would be a good idea if the problem at hand could be treated with some talk therapy and a handful of mood stabilisers. 

The problem, however, is not that Donald Trump is mentally ill. The problem is that he is unstable, vengeful, sexually predatory, misogynistic, racist, unscrupulous, notionally in charge of the world’s most powerful country and, possibly and incidentally, mentally ill. 

The problem with the mad king is not that he is simply mad - he is also dangerous and unpredictable, and that casts his curiosities in a chilling light. The inside of Mr Trump's skull is clearly an interesting place. There is no way of knowing if the demon that drove him to lie, scheme and bully his way to the White House is the same one that makes him afraid of, among other things, going down the stairs.

Mere eccentricity is rarely a problem for royalty, and is in fact encouraged. It's when these things are combined with a track record of acting out by, for example, threatening war with China, that there starts to be a bit of an issue.

Mental health problems can sometimes be an explanation for abusive or tyrannical behaviour. But they are never, ever an excuse for it. Millions of people in America manage to have serious mental health problems without becoming freewheeling authoritarian despots. In fact, people with mental health problems are far more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to perpetrate it. I can name dozens of people with serious mental health difficulties who would make far better Presidents than Mr Trump. 

Well-balanced people rarely run for president, but Mr Trump is patently committed to a reading of reality that not only bears no relation to fact but erodes the entire notion of truth until everyone forced to live inside this dissociative fugue of a presidency feels as trapped as he does. No glittering tower is high enough, no golden jet fast and flashy enough, to allow Mr Trump to escape the howling wasteland of his own brain, yammering with phantoms repeating every unflattering headline in a paranoid whisper.

I don’t know what terrible things were done to Mr Trump to make him like this, but I do know that I don’t care in anything but an academic sense. There are limits to human empathy. It’s the rest of the country, and indeed the rest of the world, that I’m worried about. So it’s well past time to stop mincing words. 


Writers have been too coy when it comes to discussing mental health and this presidency. Pitfalls of language have been dug to deter us from broaching the subject - in no small part because if we get it wrong, we risk stigmatising people with mental health conditions, committing treason, or both. Which one you’re more worried about says a lot about your ethics.

The relationship between madness, power and politics is deliberately difficult to define. 

Social taboos shape the words we use and do not use to describe how politics makes us feel, and how emotion shapes politics. Crazy is not the same as delusional is not the same as irrational is not the same as abusive is not the same as disturbed is not the same as unwell. 

We have been shy about stating the obvious: that something is terribly and uniquely wrong with this president. His powers weaponise the problem.  We can all see it. We can all feel it, too. Donald Trump is the walking, talking, hate-tweeting embodiment of the howling identity crisis afflicting the entire United States.

And it’s affecting everyone. As Andrew Sullivan observed: ’This is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge. There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”

We need to talk about mental health and power, and we need to be very careful about how we do so. In these edgy, existentially frantic times, we must be specific. Terms like "schizophrenic", "narcissist", "mentally ill" should only be used, unless there’s a good reason otherwise, to mean exactly what they say. Don’t use someone else’s diagnosis as a lazy metaphor. The DSM-5 is not a work of political theory. When I point out, for example, that the president is behaving like a narcissistic sociopath, I mean precisely that. The only reason I’m not saying that he is one is that I have not seen his medical records, and it’s rude to fling diagnoses around like rotten fruit. 

Then there are some words that that commonly refer to both medical and social phenomena - anxious, demented, depressed, manic. Those are to be used responsibly. So when I say, for example that Donald Trump is signing executive orders in the way my bipolar friends go on shopping benders when they’re at the crunchy end of a manic spree, I am not actually suggesting that the president is bipolar. I'm saying he's acting like someone does when they’re in that state and not managing it responsibly. To be clear, being bipolar would not make him unfit to serve. Winston Churchill is widely considered to have been bipolar.

Lastly, there are words like ‘mad’, ‘disturbed’, ‘raving’, ‘frantic’ and ’deranged’, all of which describe ways of behaving that can crop up whatever a person’s state of mental health. The word ‘crazy’, for example means someone or something who is or appears to be out of control of their emotions. They may or may not also be mentally ill. 

‘Mad’ is the most interesting one of all. It refers both to a person who has lost touch with reality - ‘he’s mad as a march hare!’ - and to a person overwhelmed with rage - ‘he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore!’. The question is not whether a given leader is mentally ill. Mental illness does not make a person unfit to serve. How you manage it does.

The question is: is Mr Trump mad? Yes. Yes he is. Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, is quite mad. You know it. I know it. It has been obvious for quite some time. 

We need to get used to saying it. It’s a hard thing to say. It’s a difficult thing to contemplate. But these are surreal times where the words we use shape a reality that is being violently remade around us, and it is very, very important that we say what we mean. 

So we are allowed to say that Donald Trump is crazy. We are allowed to say that he is a madman. We are allowed to say that he appears far too unstable and vengeful and out of control to hold the office he has been elected to. In fact, we must say so, because only when we call the problem by its name can we work out what to do next.

The Mad King story has a moral, and it's not aimed at royalty. It's aimed at the rest of us. It's a warning about indulging the neuroses of power, a warning about the practical and systemic costs of allowing a leader's faculties to run wild. It’s a warning about what happens when we let dangerous madmen remake our reality. 

It would be senseless to ignore the warning - especially as Donald Trump is more than just any old Mad King.  

Kings don't become kings because they are mad, but Trump was anointed precisely because he is the personification of the most dangerous disturbances his nation nurses at its traumatised core. He is the atavistic monster of the American id in an orange skinsack, and that is exactly why people voted for him. 

America legitimised its pain by affording it high office. That was a terrible mistake  America has not yet faced up the magnitude of that mistake, but it will have to do so, and soon, because this is a crisis that cannot be solved by talk alone.

The president might be mentally ill. I don’t know. I don’t care. The president is definitely a dangerous madman, and it’s not him that needs healing.  It’s the country.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.


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