Is the president unleashing a fierce anger within us all? Bonnie Greer investigates
A thought experiment: imagine a day without Donald Trump. Imagine a day without his face, his name, his shenanigans constantly in the news.
An acquaintance of mine suggested this course of action after declaring that Donald Trump had driven him to seek psychiatric help. It has led me to wonder whether the president is literally making us sick. With the curve in mass shootings rising during his administration – including the biggest in US history – is Trump unleashing anger? Could the 45th president of the United States be stirring up something primal, threatening and deep?
There is a persistent urban myth that no one saw Trump coming, that Hillary Clinton could not lose. But the truth is that Trump always lurked in the margins of error, always there if we had bothered to look.
We tend to see what we want to see and most pundits, for example, would not see Trump. The former beauty queen boss, failed casino owner, real estate magnate and host of The Apprentice was improbable, impossible, they thought. Next to the most qualified candidate for president in US history and the possible first woman in the White House, Trump seemed to be a joke. The fact that he won by fewer than 100,000 votes in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana – Democrat heartland – is still a reality that many cannot assimilate. Part of the feeling of deep malaise, of even illness, many feel in the States stems from the peculiar nature of his win, which left him three million popular votes behind his opponent. Unprecedented.
Trump is in the White House by virtue of an arcane system which allows the least populous states to be in the presidential game, the electoral college. It was a system he railed against before he became a candidate for office. Now he embraces it.
In the mid-terms last week, the Democrats took 29 Republican seats in the House of Representatives and more than 300 seats in state legislatures. They won seven governorships. The results show that urban, educated America has decided to jump off the Trump Train. And there is a real danger that suburban women have left the Republican Party for good. If this trend continues, Trump could have a challenger in the primaries in 2020.
Yet he called the mid-term results a ‘great victory’. This distortion of reality could almost be called gaslighting, a technique used to make another person literally doubt their sanity. The term comes from the 1944 film noir Gaslight about a woman whose husband makes her doubt that the lights are on. Trump like the husband in the film, has created a universe of lies.
That Trump lies is a secret to no one. And there is a record of continuing lies regarding the press, about how they have treated him, that they are ‘the enemy of the people’. But this is a relatively new stance for him. Back in the heady, big money days of 1980s New York, Trump was beginning his ascent as a big time, real estate mogul and a man trying to keep his name in the papers. The June 6, 1980, issue of the New York Times saw the first newspaper appearance of Trump using the alter ego ‘John Barron, Trump Organization Vice President’.
‘Barron’ – the name he went on to give to his youngest child – was quoted in an article explaining why Trump had decided to destroy art work that was part of the Art Deco frontage of an historic building which was to be torn down to make way for the flagship Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue. This frontage was described as a ‘spilled casket of gems: platinum, bronze, hammered aluminium, orange and yellow faience, and tinted glass backlighted at night’. Of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted it. But Trump had decided that undoing the façade would delay demolition of the building by two weeks and cost him an additional $32,000.
Thus, ‘John Barron’ was born, to explain why Trump’s builders had gone ahead and smashed the façade to smithereens. There are tape recordings which still exist where it is possible to hear Trump as ‘John Barron’. On one, a reporter is half laughing, half begging Trump to admit who he really is. Because Trump makes no attempt to disguise his voice, when speaking as ‘Barron’.
As president, Trump could present a similar danger to the sanity of the population that Barry Goldwater – Republican candidate for the White House in 1964 – once did.
Goldwater advocated the use of nuclear weapons against Russia and Vietnam; the abolition of social programmes; the relegation of African Americans and other people of colour to the margins of society. His campaign slogan ‘In your heart you know he’s right’ became, to critics, ‘In your guts, you know he’s nuts’. Fact magazine published an article entitled ‘1,189 Psychiatrists say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President!’, based on an informal poll of US psychiatrists,
The Goldwater campaign later sued the magazine, which was fined, and in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association introduced a ruling to prevent the discussion of the mental health of public officials. It remains in effect.
But a group of US psychiatrists and mental health officials calling themselves ‘Duty To Warn’ are coming out against it, in an effort to warn the public about the effect of Donald Trump. The term ‘duty to warn’ refers to the responsibility that a therapist or counsellor has to third parties or authorities if a client poses a threat to themselves and/or others. The implication being that the behaviour of the president may be harming the fragile and those on the brink
Duty to Warn advocates Trump’s removal from office under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows for such an eventuality if the president is ‘unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office’. To this end, the group is creating a documentary called Unfit, in which it aims to prove that Trump suffers from ‘malignant narcissism’.
Who knows whether this group will succeed, but they help us to understand this: that these days and times demand a rigorous adherence to facts. We need vigilance not only for ourselves but also for our family; friends, co-workers; lovers and associates.
We are not as sturdy as we might think. Reality itself might not be as sturdy as we believe.