The Trump syndrome and its impact: A psychiatric probe

By Vikas Datta

Title: Twilight of American Sanity; Author: Allen Frances; Publisher: William Morrow/Harper Collins: Pages: 336; Price: Rs 799

There are some times you can despair of the human race, or at least significant portions of it. Especially the times when a country that sees itself as a world leader — and many around the globe look up to — seems to have collectively abandoned sanity and ended up with a President who seems something out of a psychology textbook.

We may call Donald Trump crazy but can this suffice to explain his victory in a democratic election, even though it was patently flawed, rigged and vitiated? Or should we look elsewhere, say in terms of that Shakespearean plaint from “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”

How exactly are we to blame is what eminent psychiatrist Allen Frances explains here, arguing that the triumph of Trump represents the ascendancy of the worst traits of humans, bolstered by some less-than-wholesome features that are particularly American.

In this unsettling, bitter but much-needed prognosis, he shows how these have implications beyond Trump — or other global leaders who exhibit one and more of his attributes — or the US, to the course and future of democracy and even our planet.

Frances, deemed one of the foremost experts on psychiatric diagnosis and past leader of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders or the “Bible of psychiatry”, says it may well be comforting to write off Trump as an exception — an extremely egregious one — or crazy, but this tends to hide the real problems.

Recounting how he was invited on TV in the initial days of the Trump campaign, to give his view on Trump’s psychological state, he says he declined for two reasons. Firstly, he had no evidence that Trump had any mental disorder, and secondly, professional ethics disallowing armchair diagnosis of politicians that can be exploited.

Trump is not suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder as several amateur diagnosticians have said, says Frances, who wrote the criteria for it in the DSM, despite displaying its symptoms like grandiose self-importance, having to hang around with special people, requiring constant admiration, lacking empathy, and being exploitative, envious and arrogant.

“… being a world-class narcissist doesn’t make Trump mentally ill”, he says, for this requires clinically significant distress or impairment, but Trump is a “man who causes distress in others but shows no signs himself of experiencing great distress… Trump is a threat to the United States, and to the world, not because he is clinically mad, but because he is very bad”.

And the harsh lesson, he says, is that: “Trump isn’t crazy, but our society is.” While he means the US, the world’s oldest democracy, there is lots that could also strike a chord with our own largest democracy, its dynamics and particularly, its leaders.

In a sweeping narrative that includes his and his family’s own American journey, the crudities of Trump and right-wing forces in the US, the theories of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Theodore Adorno, the example of Martin Luther King, the “selfish gene”, societal delusions and biases, American strengths and shortcomings, incisive political and social analysis and more, Frances shows how democracy is in trouble from those who subvert it for their own selfish, autocratic and whimsical rule.

Before making a compelling case why Trump triumphed and what possibly terrible outcomes it could lead to, he carefully sets the ground. He begins with global problems — overpopulation, environmental degradation, depleting resources, terrorism, inequity — and how US is sidestepping or ignoring them, as well the country’s foreign policy and image of itself.

He then take up the reasons why people end up making such bad decisions on crucial issues with their set of cognitive biases, and “American exceptionalism”.

And while there are barbs aplenty at Trump and the American right wing, the role of social media, some incisive political analysis and a host of telling details — for instance, how the sale of dystopian novels peaked after Trump’s victory — Frances is too professional to just list the symptoms, but also provides prescriptions aplenty for the people.

But how palatable these will be for the people of the consumerist societies in today’s democracies remains to be seen — though doom faces us up close. (IANS)

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