I started writing this article back in July, 2019, right after Donald Trump “approved military strikes on Iran, then pulled back…” According to the New York Times (and other media outlets), “planes were in the air and ships were in position but no missiles had been fired…”¹ At the time, I wrote, “This breaking news, if true, should terrify everyone.”
So, its with chilling irony and tragic predictability Trump may have embroiled us in an asymmetrical war with the government of Iran and it’s supporters. Anyone naive enough or with enough hubris to think otherwise need only imagine if Iran had bombed the US, killing our Vice President. Whether it’s justified or not is beside the point. Arguing to people they shouldn’t be angry – no matter how good our intentions, rational our argument, or justified our actions – never works. As Benjamin Franklin in the musical, “1776” remarks, “A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as ‘our rebellion.’ It is only in the third person – ‘their rebellion’ – that it becomes illegal.”² That is how Iranians will see it.
Less than three months prior to the drone strike in Iran, Trump unilaterally withdrew US troops from northern Syria, allowing for the reconstitution of ISIS and the continuation of Turkey’s “ethnic cleansing” campaign (including Christians). This, in turn, served the agenda of our enemies, Russia and Syria. (BTW, an “enemy,” is not an innocuous entity. These are countries systematically trying to destroy the US, just don’t expect them to forecast or admit it.) In coming to this decision, Trump did not consult with his Secretary of State, Director of National Security or Defense Intelligence, military leaders or allies. Rather, he made this decision unilaterally and impulsively, after one phone conversation with Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Three days later, Trump naively tried to back-track by sending a letter to Erdogan warning him not to “be a tough guy” and go through with the invasion.³ Needless to say, it had no effect.
As a psychotherapist, I’m not surprised by Trump’s erratic and impulsive foreign policy. In fact, a group of 27 mental health experts accurately predicted the threat a Trump presidency in their book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Since its initial release, in October, 2017, ten more experts have authored essays. Some of the book’s architects also established the World Mental Health Coalition to educate and protect the public.
Imagine sitting in a stadium full of people. Everyone has blinders on but you. Suddenly, you all smell smoke but only you can see the fire. You repeatedly warn the others that the fire’s spreading, but they ignore your warnings because they don’t see it. That’s what the last three years have felt like for mental health professionals. Despite repeated appeals, Congress and the media continue to ignore the “elephant in the room,” largely because they regard it as politically irrelevant.
The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, is supposed to address Presidential incapacity. While it specifically lays out procedures for unseating a President, it vaguely describes the criterion as “the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”4 In an article for Time, Jon Meacham recounts that the amendment’s chief author, Indiana Senator Birch Bayh addressed mental fitness: “It is conceivable that a President might be able to walk… and thus, by the definition of some people, might be physically able, but at the same time he might not possess the mental capacity to make a decision and perform the powers and duties of his office.” Representative Richard H. Poff of Virginia envisioned a scenario, “When the President, by reason of mental debility, is unable or unwilling to make any rational decision, including particularly the decision to stand aside.”5 Unfortunately, how a lawmaker defines “mental capacity” or “mental debility” can depend on his or her political agenda.
Even if the 25th amendment is a political impossibility, it is still a conversation worth having. There are measures Congress can pass based on Trump’s psychological dangerousness. On March 19th, 2019, the World Mental Health Coalition convened a panel of experts in mental health, law, economics, politics, and national security at the National Press Club. On July 25th, Trump made the now-infamous phone call, pressuring the Ukrainian President to interfere in the US 2020 Presidential election. On October 3rd, the Coalition submitted a letter to Congress urging limits on Trump’s ability to make war or launch military options. On October 13th, Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops in Syria. On December 5th, the Coalition petitioned the US House Judiciary Committee to place constraints on Trump’s potentially dangerous impulses in response to impeachment. On January 3rd, Trump ordered the drone strike in Iran. On January 8th, the Coalition sent an “Urgent Communication to Congress RE: The Psychological Dangerousness of Donald J. Trump.6 Will this, too, go unheeded by Congress and the media?
If we continue to avoid talking about Trump’s mental and emotional instability, the country is also at greater risk of reelecting him. In my article, “How Our Ignorance of Mental Health Helped Elect Donald Trump,” I discuss the costs to a nation illiterate about mental health. (For a brief explanation of Trump’s behavior, I encourage you to read it.) Critics say it’s professionally irresponsible to apply a clinical diagnoses to Trump’s behavior. I think it’s irresponsible to normalize it.
What has become abundantly clear over the past three years is that democracy is only as strong as the integrity of its practitioners. And no matter how many laws are enacted, they will be ineffective if not equally enforced. They can be manipulated as easy as words and justified as easy as thoughts. But that’s the point: not everything can be solved through laws and physical barriers.
When a patient has been wronged and files a civil lawsuit, I caution him not to expect it to resolve his emotional wounds. We can lock people up for their crimes but that isn’t teaching them how to function in a civil society. These may be easy fixes that take away our anger and emotional pain, but it’s at our own peril we ignore the complexity of our personal and social ills.
No, the remedy for Donald Trump is not our legal system anymore than Donald Trump is the remedy for our grievances. It’s our mindset – all of us – not just the ones you hate or disagree with, that must dig us out of this mess, just as it dug us into it. But we have to want to find compromise more than we want to vent anger, win an argument, exact revenge, or get someone to change. This is the only way we will thrive. As I tell my patients, you can win the battle, but lose the war. Is there any doubt which direction we’re currently heading?