Interventions seldom go well, as with Natasha Lyonne as Megan Bloomfield in But I’m a Cheerleader – a hoot of a movie. Megan is a sweet young thing, but her parents realize she’s kind of a lesbian, so they sit her down for an intervention. Out of “love and concern” they tell her they’re sending her off to an odd place that specializes in gay-conversion therapy, run by a harridan in pink who talks about men and women’s proper roles, endlessly. It’s like being at a Values Voters convention run by Michele Bachmann pointing at pictures of sexy Sarah Palin – but putting young gay men and young gay women together in endless excruciating seminars backfires. Soon there are pockets of solidarity. Megan finally runs off with Graham, a rather pleasant young mannish dyke, and they’re both quite happy, finally. Megan is a lesbian. So what? She should live and be happy. The original intervention was stupid. It wasn’t worth a try. Their daughter is who she is. Deal with it.
It’s the same with Donald Trump, even if he isn’t a lesbian. Out of “love and concern” it was time for an intervention:
Congress is putting a bipartisan squeeze on President Donald Trump to condemn white supremacists and commit his administration’s resources to combating domestic terrorism by neo-Nazis and other racist groups.
A day after the Senate easily passed legislation condemning last month’s violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the House passed it on a voice vote Tuesday evening.
The House version was introduced last week by Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.), a conservative freshman who represents Charlottesville, and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.). It has the backing of Virginia’s entire delegation of seven Republicans and four Democrats.
Now that the House has cleared the Senate measure, it will land on Trump’s desk to sign or veto.
He may veto the thing just because it pisses him off – no one tells HIM what to do – but they have boxed him in:
Though resolutions are often passed to offer the sense of the House or Senate on various issues, they rarely head to the president for consideration. But backers of this measure structured it as a “joint resolution,” a move ensuring that passage would require Trump to weigh in on an issue that has dogged his presidency for weeks.
They also want action:
The resolution urges Trump to “speak out against hate groups that espouse racism, extremism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and White supremacy.” It also calls on the administration to “use all resources available to the President and the President’s Cabinet to address the growing prevalence of those hate groups in the United States.”
The resolution also urges Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate any acts of violence or domestic terrorism perpetrated by white supremacists.
In short, Trump should be what he’s clearly not – and so should Jeff Sessions – and do the right thing. This was an intervention. Don’t be that way!
Good luck with that. After that torchlight neo-Nazi Charlottesville rally, and that woman run down and killed by one of those white supremacists, Trump condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” and said that some “very fine people” were marching with those white nationalists. Two days later he conceded that those white supremacists were pretty awful people, but the next day he made clear at that Arizona rally that he considered his initial comments as perfect as perfect can be. This intervention might not work. He is who he is.
Was it worth a try? That’s doubtful, and the House and Senate know that. Donald Trump is who he is. They put themselves on record as being against white nationalists and white supremacists and the KKK and neo-Nazis and those shouting “Jews with not replace us” and that young fellow in the Dodge Challenger plowing into the crowd, and domestic terrorists of all sorts. The House and Senate are saying where they stand. Trump can do and say what he wants – it’s a free country. They know he won’t change. He should live and be happy. They’re just saying that they’re not happy.
But something is wrong. At Salon, Chauncey DeVega lays it out:
In the age of television and now the internet, there are hundreds of thousands of hours of video and audio footage of every president widely available. There are also rumors and leaks from within the White House and other branches of government that can help paint a picture of a given president’s moods, desires, thoughts and other behavior. What is to be done if this evidence collectively suggests that the president of the United States is mentally ill?
Unfortunately, with Donald Trump this is not the stuff of a political thriller. It is painfully plausible and all too real. The evidence suggesting that Donald Trump may have serious mental health problems is overwhelming.
He is a compulsive liar who creates his own fantasy world. Trump is also extremely moody and impulsive. Trump’s advisers have to satisfy his extreme narcissism and nurture his detachment from reality by presenting him – on a twice-daily basis – with a file folder full of “good news.” Fellow Republicans have been recorded on a hot mike suggesting that Trump may be “crazy.” The American news media, as well as commentators from other countries, have voiced serious concerns about Trump’s mental health and the threat it poses to global security.
It is time to interview an expert, and so DeVega interviews Lance Dodes, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (retired) and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.
That’s a good place to start, and Dodes starts by clarifying that old pesky rule:
The Goldwater rule is from the American Psychiatric Association (APA). However, the APA’s version of the Goldwater rule is not subscribed to by any of the other major mental health agencies, including my own, the American Psychoanalytic Association. It is also not subscribed to by the American Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers, among others. The APA’s view as expressed in the so-called Goldwater rule is unconstitutional because it prohibits free speech. It is also nonsensical and unethical to have the rule as is. The concerns that the APA is expressing about things like confidentiality and getting the permission of the person before you talk about them simply do not apply unless the person is your patient.
Donald Trump is not anyone’s patient, so there is no confidentiality rule. In fact, no other branch of medicine has this rule. If your favorite linebacker goes down with a tear to his ACL in a football game, the next thing you will see is an orthopedist on television talking about the prognosis and the injury. Every other medical specialty feels free – and they should feel free – to speak out about public figures because it is a public service. In the field of psychiatry, we call this “duty to warn.” When you gag the people who actually know the best about these things, then you leave the public with uninformed lay opinions.
Forget those lay opinions:
The APA itself has a diagnostic manual, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5). If you look in that manual, the way they diagnose conditions is on two bases: one, behavior and two, speech. There is no inference about the causality or about the emotional determents or about the specific inner issues and conflicts in people. To know that it’s true, you have to interview them and you have to get to know them. But anybody, trained or not, can observe speech and behavior. It is good to be a professional in the field because then you can take the next step with confidence and say, “People with this kind of speech and behavior have this kind of problem.” That is completely fair, and that is exactly where the APA diagnoses things. If you consider, for example, the diagnosis “antisocial personality,” that is a diagnosis in the DSM-5 and you can look it up.
So anybody can read that and then look at Donald Trump and, as you say, the thousands of hours of interviews and evidence that we have about him, and see whether he either meets this criteria for speech and behavior or he does not. The fact is, he does.
This is a matter of observation:
It is people who lie and cheat. Everybody lies some of the time, but in this instance we mean people who lie as a way of being in the world, to manage relationships and also to manage your feelings about yourself. People who cheat and steal from others. People who lack empathy… the lack of empathy is a critical aspect of it. People who are narcissistic.
That’s the diagnosis:
Trump’s case of narcissism is particularly severe because he also is out of touch with reality whenever he becomes upset. When he says, “I had the largest crowd at an inauguration in history,” it does not matter that you can tell him that it is not true, he still insists on it. Well, that is very troublesome because what it means is that he needs to believe it. He is able to give up reality in exchange for his wished-for belief. Sometimes we call that a delusion. We have not used that word much with Donald Trump because that does get confused with people who think that they are Napoleon. But Trump has a fluid sense of reality, which is a sign of a very sick individual.
Sociopathy itself is a sign of a very sick individual, someone with a lying, cheating and emotional disorder. The intersection of those two occurs in sociopathy. It is not just bad behavior that people have to lie and cheat the way he does, it is the incapacity to treat other people as full human beings. That is why his focus is on humiliating others to aggrandize himself, as he did in the Republican primaries when he was debating and calling people names. The same thing applies to Hispanic immigrants and separating the children from their parents. That is a very, very serious mental and emotional problem. Normal people have normal empathy. It is part of being a human being. Lying and cheating and humiliating others and grinding them into dust in order to triumph is not just bad behavior. It is a serious mental illness.
Still, this may be a useful mental illness:
Some people look for strong leaders. Others are suspicious of strong leaders. A lot of people seek out strong leaders because it is part of our shared human experience. As children, we all want to believe that our parents are good and strong and great and will protect us forever. So if you have someone who comes along say, “I am good and strong and great and I will protect you forever,” a certain number of people will follow that person.
If they are skilled at it the way Trump is, or the way that Mussolini or Hitler was, then they speak to the concerns of those people. Not that they really have any care about them. Trump does not. He could not care less about these people. What they want from him is somebody who will finally be strong and speak up for them, except that it is a one-sided bargain. They just do not know it is because he is a liar.
That leads to a discussion of how Trump appears to have no sense of social obligation or reciprocity, and Dodes adds this:
He has no sense of that because it is all about him. That is narcissistic, but it is much worse than the ordinary person with narcissistic personality. You know, I have known lots of people like that, and none of them are as evil or dangerous as Donald Trump because they do not have the sociopathy part. They may be oriented towards themselves, they may be self-centered, they may care mostly about themselves, but when it comes right down to it, they have some compassion; they have a conscience. But not Donald Trump. That is the malignant part.
So it might be time for an intervention:
The more desperate Trump becomes, the more he needs to have a crisis so the country will rally around him. If I had to pinpoint it, I would say he is going to start bombing North Korea. Unfortunately, the North Korean leader is just as sick as Trump. The two of them are like little boys on a playground but much worse, because little boys are not evil, they are just aggressive. The second thing is – and this is the Republican calculation – at what point do I need to abandon Donald Trump in order to preserve my political career? I think that is exactly what is going through the minds of the Republican Party leadership right now. They have to wait for a shift in public opinion and it is coming. Charlottesville was one major event, and there will be others. Then I think they will go to Trump and say, “We are going to impeach you or we are going to apply the 25th Amendment.”
The House and Senate settled for a joint resolution instead of those two things – and that’s as likely to work as well as the gay-conversion therapy worked with that cheerleader Megan Bloomfield.
Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a former assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, has a different take on this. Forget the mental health issues. Donald Trump could destroy the presidency itself:
We have never had a president so ill-informed about the nature of his office, so openly mendacious, so self-destructive, or so brazen in his abusive attacks on the courts, the press, Congress (including members of his own party), and even senior officials within his own administration. Trump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty…
At this point in the singular Trump presidency, we can begin to assess its impact on American democracy. The news thus far is not all bad. The Constitution’s checks and balances have largely stopped Trump from breaking the law. And while he has hurt his own administration, his successors likely won’t repeat his self-destructive antics. The prognosis for the rest of our democratic culture is grimmer, however. Trump’s bizarre behavior has coarsened politics and induced harmful norm-breaking by the institutions he has attacked. These changes will be harder to undo.
That’s because the job was always a bit vague:
The framers of the constitution wanted to create a powerful, independent executive branch, but they didn’t want to stoke fears that the new United States would replicate the monarchy from which it had just separated. Confident that George Washington would be the first chief executive and would use his power responsibly, they established an unstructured office with ambiguous authorities. Article II vests the president with “executive Power,” but it doesn’t define the term, and it gives the president only a few rather modest enumerated powers.
These vague constitutional contours allowed the presidency to grow, in response to changes in society and the world, into a gargantuan institution that the Framers never could have foreseen. The president’s control over the bully pulpit, federal law enforcement, and the national-security establishment has made the office the dominant force in American government and a danger to constitutional liberties. The flexible structure of the office has meant that it is defined largely by the person who occupies it – his character, competence, and leadership skills. Great presidents, such as Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, exercised power wisely (though controversially) to lead the nation through crisis. But Richard Nixon debased the office and betrayed the Constitution and our laws, while others, like Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, allowed the executive branch to become engulfed in corruption and scandal.
And now we have Donald Trump:
During the campaign, he pledged to act in illegal ways; expressed illiberal attitudes toward freedom of speech, religion, and the press; attacked immigrants and minorities; tolerated, and even incited, thuggery at his rallies. The man who on January 20, 2017, took a constitutional oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” seemed disdainful of the rule of law and almost certain to abuse his power. “He is unlikely to be contained by norms and customs, or even by laws and the Constitution,” wrote Peter Wehner, a circumspect Republican commentator, in The New York Times the day after Trump’s inauguration. Wehner captured, in an understated way, prevalent fears about Trump’s presidency.
But there is hope:
Many believe Congress hasn’t done enough to stand up to Trump. But in the context of facing a Republican president in his honeymoon first year, it has been remarkably tough. This summer, by large bipartisan majorities, it passed a law imposing sanctions on Russia that Trump abhorred and that curbed his power. Congress has also shown backbone in investigating the Trump campaign’s connection to Russian election meddling. The Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting a “notoriously bipartisan” investigation, as The Washington Post put it. Representative Devin Nunes of California, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, appeared to be in Trump’s pocket and trying to delegitimize the committee’s investigation. But the press uncovered his shenanigans, Nunes stepped aside, and the House has since been pursuing the matter more seriously. Republican senators also rose to Sessions’ defense when Trump openly attacked him, and they have signaled strong support for Robert Mueller. These efforts reflect unusual Republican distrust of a Republican president, and would surely ramp up if Trump fired Sessions or Mueller.
A symbiotic relationship between the bureaucracy and the press has also exposed abuses and illegalities. National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s lies about his Russian contacts were leaked and reported, and forced his resignation. When the New York Times published a leaked draft of an executive order that would have restored CIA authority for black sites, and enhanced interrogation, the outcry in Congress and elsewhere killed the order. Trump and his family have not yet been brought to heel on their business conflicts of interest. Checks have been weakest here, but that is mainly because the Constitution and laws are ambiguous on such conflicts, and are not designed for judicial enforcement. Nonetheless, several imaginative lawsuits have been filed against Trump and his associates, and the press has done a good job of bringing conflicts to light.
All of this helps:
In these and other ways, actors inside and outside the executive branch have so far stymied Trump’s tendencies toward lawlessness. One might even say that in the first year of his presidency, Trump has invigorated constitutional checks and balances, and the nation’s appreciation for them.
All of this may not be enough:
Donald Trump is a norm-busting president without parallel in American history. He has told scores of easily disprovable public lies; he has shifted back and forth and back again on his policies, often contradicting Cabinet officials along the way; he has attacked the courts, the press, his predecessor, his former electoral opponent, members of his party, the intelligence community, and even his own attorney general; he has failed to release his tax returns or to fill senior political positions in many agencies; he has shown indifference to ethics concerns; he has regularly interjected a self-regarding political element into apolitical events; he has monetized the presidency by linking it to his personal business interests; and he has engaged in cruel public behavior. The list goes on and on.
But it’s more than that:
Trump’s norm violations are different. Many of them appear to result from his lack of emotional intelligence – a “president’s ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than being dominated by them and allowing them to diminish his leadership,” as the Princeton political scientist Fred I. Greenstein has put it. Trump’s behavior seems to flow from hypersensitivity untempered by shame, a mercurial and contrarian personality, and a notable lack of self-control.
A corollary to Trump’s shamelessness is that he often doesn’t seek to hide or even spin his norm-breaking. Put another way, he is far less hypocritical than past presidents – and that is a bad thing. Hypocrisy is an underappreciated political virtue. It can palliate self-interested and politically divisive government action through mollifying rhetoric and a call to shared values. Trump is bad at it because he can’t “recognize the difference between what one professes in public and what one does in private, much less the utility of exploiting that difference,” Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have noted in Foreign Affairs. He is incapable of keeping his crass thoughts to himself, or of cloaking his speech in other-regarding principle.
There’s much more – Goldsmith is depressingly thorough – but it all comes down to this:
Citizens’ trust in American institutions has been in decline for a while. That’s one reason Donald Trump was elected. His assault on those institutions, and the defiant reactions to his assault, will further diminish that trust and make it yet harder to resolve social and political disputes. The breakdown in institutions mirrors the breakdown in social cohesion among citizens that was also a major cause of Trumpism, and that Trumpism has churned further. This is perhaps the worst news of all for our democracy.
Trump could destroy it all. It is time for an intervention, and Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, suggests this new idea:
A president can be impeached and removed from office if convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors. He can be removed, under the conventional understanding of the 25th Amendment, if he is incapacitated by mental or physical illness. But there is no obvious solution for a president who has not committed a crime or been disabled by illness, but has lost the confidence of the public because of a failure of temperament, ideology or ability.
The current understanding of the 25th Amendment should be enlarged so as to provide authority to address this problem, through creation of a Presidential Oversight Council empowered to recommend removal of the president on political rather than medical grounds. When both the president’s party and the opposing party lose confidence in the president’s ability to govern, the council would stand ready to evaluate him and make a recommendation to Congress. Congress would be required to vote on its recommendation.
Posner is suggesting a new sort of intervention:
Congress should create such a council and staff it not with medical professionals (as proposed in a bill this spring by some Democrats in Congress), but with senior elected officials of both parties – the top Republican and Democratic elected officials in Congress, plus a few governors as well. The body would be required to meet periodically and verify that the president is able to discharge his powers and duties. Of course, it would be permitted to consult with medical and mental health experts, but they would not have any power to make decisions.
The council would consist of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and it would be able to declare the president’s unfitness based on a two-thirds majority vote. Such an arrangement means that the president would remain in office unless he lost significant support from his own party, including his own vice president. This would never happen – unless the president was truly incompetent.
And we may be there right now:
By politically incompetent, I mean incompetent to exercise the powers of the presidency in a way that meets the approval of the president’s party as well as the opposing party. This could be because the president’s values fall outside the mainstream (either they have changed while in office or he concealed them while running for office); he lacks the interest or attention span to inform himself about issues; or he lacks management abilities and is unable to govern effectively.
The problem we currently face is that Trump may be incompetent to hold office even if he has not committed crimes of sufficient weight to justify impeachment. Impeachments are oriented toward specific acts, akin to criminal trials, while the problem we currently face – and may face in the future – concerns the president’s character.
The Presidential Oversight Council, in contrast, would be able to evaluate the president’s overall ability based on all of his behavior in office. Because the council would be a standing body, oversight of the president would be normalized and wouldn’t require the sort of crisis that motivates impeachment proceedings.
This Presidential Oversight Council just might work:
It would allow Republicans to demonstrate the gravity of their concerns about Trump’s behavior without forcing them to take a stand on impeachment, which would surely fail. It would be ready to spring into action if Trump, or any future president, showed signs of incapacity to govern. It would reinforce the notion that the president does not govern alone but must maintain the support of Congress and other institutions in the much-maligned but essential “political establishment.” And it would give notice to Trump and his aides that outrageous behavior will no longer be tolerated and is not shielded by the Constitution.
And it’s nonsense. Creating this Presidential Oversight Council would be politically impossible. This tool would be seen as too dangerous. Any president could be removed at any time by the overwhelming agreement of sensible patriotic people.
No, wait. That’s the whole idea. Donald Trump, like that young cheerleader in the movie, isn’t going to change. He should live and be happy, but not as president. It’s a thought.