Is Donald Trump Sane?


Leslie U. Harris


In this not-so-sane election year the question above is not a query anyone would want to ask of a candidate for President of the United States. But it's a question that must be asked. Donald Trump is not your ordinary candidate. He says things that are not the usual political pablum. He behaves in ways that are not the familiar fodder pundits push on cable talk shows. Yet to ask if Donald Trump is sane is not the same as asking if he is insane: he is certainly not divorced from reality, or at least the reality of promoting himself. Indeed, he made his name in reality television after he had already made a fortune as a real estate developer.

This inquiry is also not like the question you scream at your small child who has just darted into the street, “Are you crazy?” and in anger and relief embrace her, knowing her behavior will change as she grows, but also knowing that you must watch her carefully until she does. No, this is a question that goes to the heart of Donald Trump's personality. His inarticulate outbursts, his vulgarisms and erratic behavior, his appeals to violence, serial lying, denial of his own statements even when confronted with what he had said, and his constant need to belittle raise the serious issue of his mental stability and, by extension, raise another question: Is he fit to have his finger on the nuclear trigger? It is a question that must be asked. Despite all the criticism that comes with the job of U.S. President, the American people deserve to be confident that the chief executive of the world's largest economy and the commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military is, first of all, in charge of himself.

When one asks the question of sanity about a political candidate, it is not asked in the same sense that one speaks of a person who is under the care of a psychiatrist. It is asked in the political sense that was asked in 1972 when Senator Thomas Eagleton was the Democratic candidate for vice-president and it was disclosed during the campaign that, years earlier, he had undergone electroshock treatment for serious depression. Everyone has suffered depression and we all could sympathize. But to think that a man who had such a severe condition was possibly a heartbeat away from the Oval Office was too much for the American people to bear. He was forced off the ticket after the Democratic candidate for President, Senator George McGovern, said he backed him 100 percent. McGovern lost to Nixon in a landslide. But in the case of Donald Trump we must go beyond politics to psychopathology.

What strikes any observer, even Trump's most ardent supporters, is his near total obsession with himself. Reality is reflected in the mirror of a warped persona. A good rule for governing is a certain detachment of ego from the issues at hand but Donald Trump does not exhibit any such tendency. “I alone can fix it,” he proclaimed to the Republican Convention, referring to Washington's ills. You alone? “They love me. Everyone loves me.” Really? “I was told I have a great temperament.” By whom? And he cannot stand any criticism. As a protester was led out of one of his rallies, he angrily yelled, “I'd like to punch him in the face.” When a Gold-Star family of a fallen American soldier asked at the Democratic Convention, “What sacrifices have you made?” he responded by attacking them and later claiming his sacrifices were that “I work very, very hard,” and that he had “created tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures, had great success.” These are sacrifices? (We were lucky he didn't mention that another of his sacrifices was that he once had to play a round of golf without a caddy and when he got back to the clubhouse there was only one can of hairspray in the locker room - and half empty at that.) These statements and many others are not those of an emotionally balanced person.

What is wrong with Donald Trump? Is he deranged, crazy like a fox (he did, after all, vanquish no less than 16 Republican opponents in the primaries) or something else? When healthy self-confidence is compulsively exaggerated to the point of self-obsession, it is called - what? For answers to this issue I turned to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which has listed the classification of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) since 1968. What I learned is that Trump fits the profile of someone we have all met – the school yard bully who has a neurotic need to dominate, physically and emotionally, all those around him – the classic narcissistic personality who filters reality only through the prism of himself.

The DSM states that clinical symptoms of NPD include the following:

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others;

  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.;

  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior or associated with high-status people and institutions;

  4. Needing constant admiration from others;

  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others;

  6. Exploitive of others to achieve personal gain;

  7. Unwilling to empathize with others' feelings, wishes, or needs;

  8. Intensely jealous of others and the belief that others are equally jealous of them;

  9. Pompous and arrogant demeanor.

Donald Trump ticks all the boxes.

How else to explain Trump's constant stream of insults, his swaggering arrogance, his contradictory statements, the never-ending lying, the insistent demand to believe in him, the fantasies of sexual conquests attended by gross vulgarities, the braggadocio of success and power, the exaggerated claims of brilliance with a concomitant refusal to learn, the cravings for constant admiration, intolerance for the views of others and lack of empathy for their feelings or situations, superficial charm deployed to manipulate, jealousy toward those who thwart his wishes and an unjustified belief that others are jealous of him, unreasoning fury with those who contradict him or do not share his beliefs accompanied by appeals to violence toward them, a refusal to change despite changed circumstances, certainty of conclusions without adequate evidence, the never-ending accusations that his words are misunderstood, his refusal to directly answer direct questions and attacks on the press for even asking them, the overwhelming need to always be right and never accepting the possibility of error, constant shifting of reality to conform to his inner sense of self, the belief that rules which apply to others do not apply to him, total inability to tolerate criticism and an obsession to deflect it at every opportunity, his sense of entitlement and inflexible demands for unquestioning obedience, impulsive behavior driven by his internal momentary needs without careful consideration of the matter at hand, his inability to assess the consequences of his actions. Are these traits not a description of narcissism? More important, are they not a description of Donald Trump?

Now I am no armchair psychologist (and would never pretend to be a mental health professional) and if Donald Trump were just a real estate developer or a former TV personality, or both, I would not be writing this. But a candidate for the White House necessarily places himself before the electorate, and therefore the citizens of the United States have a right (I would say, even a duty) to examine who this man really is. By constantly lashing out at his “enemies” whether they are Democrats or Republicans who stand in his way and/or refuse to endorse or bow to him, Trump reveals a mental imbalance that makes him unfit for the Oval Office. An emotionally sick individual can ruin a business or personal relationships but a mentally disturbed president can ruin the nation. Trump's rants expose a man confronting his character flaws rather than the partisan but thoughtful candidate we expect to discuss issues, which should be the focus of any presidential campaign. How such an unhinged person became the candidate of a major political party is the subject for another discussion, but there he is and now we must deal with him.

Yet look at his “success” his advocates argue, the very thing he sold to become the Republican candidate, and indeed he has seemingly had much of that in his chosen field. But the fact is that many manipulative people have had business success. They preside over their small domain, but a president presides over us all. In Trump's case, the evidence is that in his business dealings he broke contracts, cheated many small businesses, deceived thousands through false advertising, hired illegal workers, declared bankruptcy for six of his companies (who else has six bankruptcies on their résumé?) and impoverished investors while enriching himself. If you had invested in Trump's corporation when it went public in 1995, you would have lost 90% of your investment ten years later. In those ten years his company never made any money, yet during that time Trump paid himself $44 million, including unearned bonuses, out of investors' hard-earned cash. That was Donald Trump's success.

How did such a con-man deceive people for so long? The media played a major role. Trump has considerable charm rooted in his own warped psyche, with a talent for manipulation and self-promotion. The media found him entertaining and in an age of entertainment they sought ratings by covering him. “What is he going to say next?” they wondered and, not knowing, gave him more than a billion dollars of free air time. The Republican electorate played along and in their anger with public institutions chose the easy way out, perhaps the only way. And so Trump found himself triumphant, the center of the attention and adulation he so desperately demands but does not deserve, reinforcing his own emotionally stunted sense of self. “If they hit me, I hit back ten times harder,” he proclaimed, the hallmark of the school yard bully. “I'm not going to change,” he boasted, the declaration of the demagogue. “Everybody loves me,” he loudly bellowed, ignoring reality to protect his own mental pathology. Perhaps in a private setting such a man may be pitied; in the public sphere such a man must be confronted and condemned.

When the media finally awoke to the psychodrama that was playing out, he viciously attacked them. Reporters were corralled into small areas at his rallies where they could not ask questions. If they attempted to approach him they were expelled. He called the media “lying scum” for reporting on his statements. He mocked a New York Times reporter who has a physical handicap (“You should see this guy,” he crudely crowed to a cheering crowd, wildly waving his arms). A reporter who raised questions about his so-called contributions to veterans organizations is a “sleaze,” CNN is “very unprofessional,” Fox treats him “very unfairly,” the New York Times is “a failing rag.” His list of enemies is infinite. No media outlet which does not pander to his grandiosity is immune from his foul invective. His campaign is not one of issues; it is a constant lashing out to reinforce his mental disorder.

Donald Trump is dangerous for America. His plan to discount the national debt would be a financial catastrophe (as well as unconstitutional). His appeals to violence would promote civil disorder. His characterization of Mexican immigrants as criminals fans the flames of hatred, and ignores the facts that tens of millions of Hispanic-Americans are productive citizens of this country and many have ancestors who were in America before there was an America. His animosity toward Muslims tars an entire religion with the sins of a radical few and assists ISIS and al-Qaeda in their recruitment efforts. He downgrades NATO, proposes nuclear proliferation in Asia, wants a potentially disastrous word-wide trade war, expects to “deal” with the paranoid leader of North Korea and publicly meditates about the use of nuclear weapons. Foreign leaders, particularly our closest allies, are appalled. He will do all this and prevail, he says, because of the wonder that is Donald Trump. “Believe me.”

And if he does not succeed it will not be his fault. Oh no, it will be the fault of all those who failed him, because one of the over-arching symptoms of his mental illness is the refusal to accept responsibility for errors and the desperate grasping at imagined or unearned achievements. How can such a sublimely endowed man fail except for the betrayal of those he relies upon? His judgment alone is perfect, his perception of reality stands above all others, his will must surely triumph and carry us through to ultimate victory. He bestrides history like a colossus and history will remember him for the brilliant genius that he was and is. He will be the “greatest of all presidents” and if he cannot then he will bring the nation down with him for being unworthy of his extraordinary persona.

If we Americans invest this psychopath with the power of the presidency we will have only ourselves to blame for the consequences.


September 16, 2016


NEXT: “Is Hillary Clinton Sane?”

The author is an American living in Brazil, from where he is observing the U.S. presidential race with little amusement and much revulsion.