Like most sensible humans, I am terrified of Donald Trump. He is an openly racist, proudly misogynistic, profoundly incompetent, white nationalist authoritarian who thinks he owns the United States. I brace myself every time I look at the news in anticipation of the newest assault on civic norms, common decency, and social justice. It is impossible to overstate how colossal a fuckup this situation is. So many are reeling as we try to understand how any of this happened. So many of us cannot comprehend how someone could be this way. Unfortunately, this has prompted many people—ranging from journalists, medical professionals, friends and family—to start questioning Trump’s mental health. Does he have narcissistic personality disorder? Is he delusional and actually psychotic? Is he a psychopath?
Go ahead and spend 30 seconds typing “Trump + mental illness” or “Trump + crazy” (or any variation thereof) into Google News and be prepared for the deluge of hot takes about Trump’s state of mind. Here is a representative sample of what you can expect to see:
This practice of diagnosing from afar is often called armchair psychiatry and it is intellectually lazy, ethically dubious, and always ableist. But in this case, it is also stigmatizing and extremely harmful. “Crazy is never uttered with compassion” writes Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman and mental health advocate. He is absolutely right. People are bandying around words like “crazy” and “insane” with abandon when it comes to Trump and the valence of those terms is uniformly negative.
Let me be clear: Every time you call Trump “crazy” or “insane” or “psychotic,” you rely on the stigma of mental illness to make a point. Every time you say he is mentally ill, you prevent someone with mental illness from seeking help. It is currently estimated that one in five Americans will suffer from mental illness in a given year, and those numbers are only increasing. When you explain away Trump’s cruelty, arrogance, entitlement, racism, bigotry, sexism ad nauseam as mental illness, you are connecting mental illness with all of those things. You are essentially saying that his vile and evil actions are what mental illness looks like.
As someone who has a mental illness and someone who studies it, let me tell you this: It. Does. Not. Cause. Isms. Mental illness does not make you a racist. It does not make you a misogynist. It does not make you homophobic or transphobic. It does not make you xenophobic. It does not make you ableist.
You know what does make someone those things? The structural political ideologies that are patriarchal and rooted in white supremacy and the oppression of marginalized people. Trump is not a product of psychiatric disorder but the normalization of white supremacy, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and ableism. These are social realities that are found throughout history and have always been popular. The ideology can be traced historically through legislation, statutes, law, and social policy.
The whole rhetoric that comes with saying Trump is mentally ill is always reductive. Reduction requires no stretch on our part to understand the deeper complexities. In dismissing someone or something, you absolve yourself of any responsibility to understand how the whole thing happened. Rather than articulate the ways in which Trump is an evil person, we reduce it to pathology. When we ignore the social and political factors that contribute to white supremacy and toxic masculinity, we effectively remove us from the equation. It is more comfortable to attribute evil behavior to mental illness than deal with the fact that Trump is simply personifying the worst parts of our culture. There are social consequences to framing a social reality as a mental illness. Reducing social realities to an individual problem to be tackled psychologically makes it incredibly hard to create effective social policies to tackle everyday inequalities. Treating the individual conveniently ignores larger, social and structural issues.
There are many grounds on which to criticize Trump. I promise you, there are thousands. Stop hiding ugly social realities under the heading of mental health. Seriously. We proliferate stigma, harm, and harmful ideologies if we do not parse mental health and examine how socialization, entitlement, and privilege empowers Trump and people like him. We cannot lose sight of the fact that Trump has galvanized so many supporters in the first place—which has nothing to do with mental illness. Pathologizing Trump ignores the hundreds of people in government and millions of citizens who support his hateful policies. Trump and his followers are not sick. They are fucking assholes. They are the product of socialization. Not mental illness.