The health of American presidents has long been a subject of interest for the American voter. The question of physical fitness for office is one that any candidate or president faces. Barack Obama, for instance, drew public scrutiny for his smoking habit, which he replaced with chewing Nicorette gum during his presidency, and Hillary Clinton faced skepticism about her fitness for office after appearing to collapse while campaigning for the 2016 election. This concern is heightened for older candidates; the 78-year-old Bernie Sanders, for instance, underwent perhaps the biggest challenge of his campaign thus far after suffering a heart attack, from which he has since recovered, and people were concerned for the health of 77-year-old Joe Biden after his eye appeared to fill with blood during a town hall event. But while the physical health of presidents tends to be heavily scrutinized by the media and the general public, the mental health of presidents and candidates is not discussed with the same frequency, even though presidents have tremendously stressful jobs which require emotional and cognitive stability to execute properly.
This absence in our public discourse is the result of a number of factors, not the least of which is a general overall societal taboo against discussing mental health issues. And while doctors often feel free to discuss the physical health of presidents and candidates, they are much less likely to question their mental fitness because of the Goldwater rule, a medical ethics rule that discourages psychiatrists from diagnosing public officials whom they have not personally examined. But in the unprecedented case of the presidency of Donald Trump, this norm is receding, as liberal pundits openly speculate that he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder or dementia, and some psychiatrists have made the rare decision to speak out. “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” for instance, argues that the president is dangerously mentally compromised.
Perhaps the most chilling part of Dr. Lee’s analysis is her argument that the president’s illness has generated a “shared psychosis” in American society.
Recently, Yale professor Dr. Bandy Lee, who edited this book, spoke with Salon about the state of the president’s mental health and what should be done about it. Dr. Lee, and the other experts who contributed to the book, feel that their duty to warn and protect the public supersedes the Goldwater rule, as they claim the combination of Trump’s pathologies and his political power present a serious threat to American society. This assessment is based on the president’s “signs of danger or emergency,” which Dr. Lee says include “verbal aggressiveness, history of sexual assault, incitement of violence at his rallies, attraction to violence and powerful weapons, [and] provocation of hostile nations.” In fact, while Dr. Lee praises Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment efforts, she argues Pelosi has not gone far enough and suggested she submit the president to an involuntary psychological evaluation. According to Dr. Lee, anyone has the right to call emergency services to report a coworker or family member who seems dangerous, after which point they may be professionally evaluated by a psychiatrist, potentially against their will. This law applies to everybody in all 50 states, including the president, and as Nancy Pelosi holds a high position in government, Dr. Lee argues that Pelosi has not only the right but the professional obligation to take this action against her coworker.
Such a move would be absolutely unprecedented in American history, and it’s very unlikely that Pelosi would take this route in her efforts to stymie the president. Nevertheless, Dr. Lee is beginning to believe that a mental health hold is becoming “inevitable,” as Pelosi’s decision to withhold sending articles of impeachment to the Senate is likely aggravating the president’s condition. A more realistic suggestion, endorsed by Dr. Lee as well as psychiatrists from around the country, is for the House of Representatives to hold a hearing involving psychiatrists to discuss the president’s mental fitness for office as part of its impeachment efforts. Given the narrow scope of the House’s impeachment inquiry, though, this too is unlikely.
Perhaps the most chilling part of Dr. Lee’s analysis is her argument that the president’s illness has generated a “shared psychosis” in American society. According to Dr. Lee, in a case of shared psychosis, “rather than the sick person getting better, the otherwise healthy people take on symptoms of the sick person, as if they had the sickness themselves.” Dr. Lee claims that Trump, who is not only paranoid and delusional but holds a position of extreme power, has a strong influence on his supporters, resulting in their adopting his pathological pattern of thinking. This level of psychological control is particularly appealing to authoritarian figures like dictators, whom Trump openly admires, as it allows them to consolidate their power and withstand threats from legal and political institutions. Several theories have been proposed to explain the president’s steady approval rating despite his being mired in endless scandals and controversy; the shared psychosis theory, endorsed by Dr. Lee and many other mental health professionals, suggests that the president’s base is unlikely to stop supporting Trump as long as he is president, as they unquestioningly accept his self-aggrandizing and warped messaging about himself and his opponents.