Person Woman Man Camera TV

We can't punish every politician with a mental problem, but some are clearly unfit for office.

Even the most virtuous politicians are pretty weird. That was the central thesis of Harold Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics, in which the author first categorized politicians into different types (agitators, administrators, theorists, etc.), then tries to divine the hidden psychological motivations behind their actions on the political stage. No matter how different these different types are, both in their behavior and their motivations, they have one thing in common: some powerful psychological drive has pushed them into a career that most people happily avoid. Something inside them drives them into these unusual roles, and as the title says, that drive has roots that may be psychopathological. For example, Lasswell argued that the agitator may be driven by narcissism and paranoia, but they are still able to do good in mobilizing opposition to great wrongs.

There are lots of good examples of politicians who were high functioning somethings. Churchill, for example, struggled with depression, which he called his “black dog” that followed him around. Whether leaders like Churchill were successfully because of these pathologies, or in spite of them, is a topic worth debating. Nevertheless, it is true that there is some quality that drives people into political leadership, a difficult and unusual profession, and at least some of these people do have mental issues.

The easier, and perhaps more important, question is what level of pathology is acceptable. Senator Bob Graham’s need to document every minute of his day seemed obsessive-compulsive, to say the least. Thankfully, it also seemed harmless.

It’s not too controversial, at this point, to say that Donald J. Trump may suffer from serious mental issues. It’s important always to disentangle mental illness from just being an awful person. When confronted with profound immorality that is difficult for the average person to fathom, retreat into comfortable mental harbors such as, “That person must be crazy!” is letting the malefactor off the hook. However, there have been signs from the beginning that Trump may have some profound psychological problems. Until 2016, we didn’t hear the phrase “malignant narcissism” as often as we do now — and that’s just the first course of a speculative smorgasbord covering Trump’s possible psychopathologies. Mary Trump’s recently published book has increased the volume of this discussion, but others, such as George Conway and the authors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, started it already.

Of course, none of us are qualified to give a definitive diagnosis of Trump, though Mary Trump comes closest, knowing him well as a family member. However, if you are on the bus with someone, as I once was, who is angrily shouting about blue demons and the CIA, you presume that there’s something broken about them, certainly enough to move to a different seat further away from that person. We don’t have to be that person’s therapist or psychiatrist to hypothesize about potentially dangerous mental problems and protect ourselves from them.

At the same time, we also don’t want to stigmatize people who are mentally ill. Trump is definitely a danger to others, but not every politician with a mental issue necessarily is. Thomas Eagleton wasn’t necessarily unfit for the vice presidency because he sought help with depression and exhaustion. A mild level of narcissism, whether innate or learned, may be a trait of a vast number of politicians encouraged to talk about themselves all the time.

So when does political psychopathology become unacceptable? The classic distinction between neurosis and psychosis might be a starting point. Neurotics are still able to “function,” getting less out of their lives than they might, but nonetheless able to get through a day. Psychotics undermine themselves much more profoundly.

Trump certainly is humorless, but his joylessness goes into self-destructive places. Trump is not the only person who nurtures grievances, but he has taken them to a world-historic level. When asked about his legacy, he ran down the list of people who had done him wrong. He cannot see past his grievances to the obvious thing that would actually help him in the polls, and help everyone else in the country during multiple crises: governing.

He also does not see how humiliating it is to continue bleating about his cognitive test. Chances are that he has so terrorized everyone near to him, or driven them to hate him enough, so that they are unwilling to tell him exactly how ridiculous he looks. Or maybe someone told him, and he ignored it, because of his compulsion to prove his point. However, given how much time he watches television, it would be very unlikely that he heard no one point out how embarrassing his insistence on discussing the cognitive test really is. And yet he persists. His reasons for persisting may be ultimately unknowable, but there’s something clearly demented about it.

Nixon was aggrieved, too, but he kept at least some of his self-pity to private discussions, as the Watergate tapes showed. Today’s occupant of the Oval Office doesn’t just have his Henry Kissinger as a captive audience. He makes everyone in the world the audience. All the time he spends on these complaints himself, or he directs staffers to pursue them (such as the talking points against Anthony Fauci), is time spent not governing. Therefore, he is not just a danger to himself, but to others who need a functioning president.

Whatever dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable mental issues for prominent politics may be very blurry and indistinct, but it does need to exist. Both extremes — no mental problem is disqualifying, all mental problems are disqualifying — are unacceptable.

Trump is not a Mad King, only removable by force of arms. He was elected by people who bear responsibility for making future judgments on the fitness for public office. If we do not have a public discussion of what “fitness” means, we are likely to excuse the inexcusable again, or correct too far in the other direction, doing sloppy lay analysis on effective, well-intentioned public servants who will not deserve the censure or removal that results. In both scenarios, we will suffer as a result from our unwillingness to grapple with a difficult question.

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About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I feel that the question of whether Trump is mentally ill or not is something of a distraction. The important question is whether he can faithfully execute the duties of the job he has, and whether he does faithfully execute them.

    I am aware of people with a diagnosis of a mental health issue that, in fact, could do this just fine, and other people who don’t have such a diagnosis who couldn’t.

    The guy on the bus squawking about blue demons is demonstrating a kind of low functioning. The social norm is that we don’t yell on the bus, regardless of how me way feel. So either that guy is not aware of this, and has some kind of spectrum disorder, or he knows, but cannot restrain some compulsion of his.

    I’m not sure Trump can be described as low functioning, though I despise his politics. Though I do think his level of performance has degraded with time in the White House. It’s a job that’s rough on the occupant, and he’s no exception.

    We need to focus more on how he’s doing his job than on whether he’s “mentally fit”. The Russians offered bounties for kills of US soldiers, what is Trump doing about it? What did he do, what will he do?

    Covid has killed 150K US citizens and the death rate is climbing not falling. How is Trump going to address this?

    Trump has sent anonymous Federal agents to Portland to stir things up and generate favorable TV coverage. Is this acceptable? What will he do if he doesn’t get the reaction he wants?

    I feel that focusing on his mental fitness is easier ground for him than the above questions.

  2. CSK says:

    In the “What Trump Leaves Behind” thread I made the point that it is astonishing to me that Trump doesn’t realize what a fool he’s making of himself over that MoCA test. Given the widespread mockery to which he’s been subject, even the least self-aware individual should have, by now, cottoned onto the fact that publicly insisting that a test meant to diagnose Alzheimer’s or dementia is in fact an I.Q. test is NOT a good look. Is he that insulated from reality that he doesn’t realize what a horse’s ass he’s made of himself?

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    What people claim about themselves is rarely the truth, and quite often they know it. Trump knows he couldn’t pass the SAT and his father hired an impersonator. I have always believed Trump’s father also paid brighter students to carry Trump through college. So Trump knows he’s not bright. He’ll have worked up a long list of excuses and explanations and euphemisms,* but in the end he knows. And if there’s one thing you can count on Trump to do, it’s point a tiny orange finger at all of his own weaknesses through projection.

    *Mr. President:
    Q: What is the term for a list of words all beginning with the same letter or sound?

    a) Obliteration
    b) Alliteration
    c) Covfeferation
    d) Tolerization
    e) Amonimushation.

  4. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Oh, I know that, but what I’m questioning is why, in the face of literally thousands of people telling him publicly what a fool he looks like pushing this MoCA business, he doesn’t just drop it. Shut up about it. You would. I would. We–and the rest of the sentient world–KNOW the MoCA isn’t an I.Q. test. Why does Trump keep insisting it is?

  5. MarkedMan says:

    I’ve been idly wondering what QAnon has made of the Person Man Woman, etc thing. If anything sounds like a cryptic message it would be that. And his emphasis on having to do it twice…

  6. Jen says:

    I think he’s long had issues learning, and it has eaten away at him. Lots of signs from his growing up–that he acted up a lot, so much that he got sent to military school. The stand-in to take tests. The obvious embarrassment about his grades. And so on.

    The cognitive decline is different and apparent. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been noted by many others on this forum, but the difference in his speech over the last decade or so shows a very clear and obvious decline.

    What struck me about this example (person, woman, man, camera, tv), was that he used as examples things that were around him when he said it. At very least, there was a man (the interviewer) a camera (the TV camera), there to record something for TV. I’d bet that Hope Hicks or Kaleigh McEnany were right there too, off-camera.

    So, he’s using coping skills/crutches to make it appear as though he’s fine. I’d be willing to put money on the fact that if he’d just pulled a series of words out (car, book, light bulb, red, cow) that he wouldn’t have been able to repeat them. It had to be things in his line of vision, likely in order.

  7. Jon says:

    @Jen: It would not surprise me in the least to find out that there was somebody standing off-camera with a large cue card with those words on it. He does cut his eyes over to his right at least once while reciting them.

    And now I’m sad, realizing I’ve watched the video enough to have picked up on that.

  8. Kathy says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    It’s a job that’s rough on the occupant, and he’s no exception.

    It is a job that’s rough on such occupants who bother to do the job.

    Trump, on the other hand…

  9. Kingdaddy says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I mostly agree with you. As I wrote the other day, the ethos of politics centers around what you do, not what you intend, think, or feel. Nevertheless, I wrote this post today for two reasons:

    (1) Inevitably, because of Trump, we’re going to be talking more about the mental fitness of public officials. It’s impossible to ignore, when someone is clearly past some point of pathology. What’s different now is, no one who is clearly this diminished has been able to inflict this much harm on the world before. Our mechanisms for dealing with that situation are, to say the least, ineffective. Among other formal and informal safeguards, the 25th Amendment might as well not exist. So what do we do?

    (2) When answering that question, Americans shouldn’t either throw up their hands in despair (“All politicians are crazy and corrupt, so waddayagonnado?”) or go too far in the other direction. We can drive good people out of public service easily, if we make strict sanity tests a precondition of public life. I don’t know what the mental health equivalent of Puritanical tests of private virtue are, but I’d hate to have them. That was my point of citing Lasswell at the beginning. There are some very odd people in public life, and perhaps you need to be a little odd to pursue a political career at all.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    I been convinced from the first moment that Mr Trump began talking up this test that he actually had a lot of trouble with it. First, why did Dr Jackson conduct the test. I’m a few months older than the President and I’ve never been given such a screening. I assume it’s not on a par with the every-ten-year-colonoscopy as a regular thing that everyone gets. Somehow, it was important enough to include in the battery of tests he received. That seems significant, right there.

    Then his insistence that it measures something like IQ or mental functioning sounds like an explanation that would be given to convince him to take the test. Otherwise, where’d he get the idea?

    And if it was given 2 years ago but he clearly remembers it then there was obviously a strong impression made. If it was a breeze for him I doubt he’d have such a strong memory of it.

    So it seems likely to me that some insiders had questions about his competence and prevailed on Dr Jackson to include it. And that he did badly. I have a mental picture of hints being given and lengthy pauses while he tries to perform the tasks and sphincters in the room grow tighter and tighter.

    Then when the hints are taken and the test is done everyone in the room erupts in relief that an outcome compatible with early dementia is narrowly avoided there’s congratulations all around. And that’s the part he remembers.

    I know I’m kind of a poster child for motivated thinking about this. But I’ll stick with it until we can read it as history. I bet he flunked it.

  11. SC_Birdflyte says:

    This discussion put me in mind of a comment attributed to Senator Ben Wade, during the Civil War, about his abolitionist ally, Salmon P. Chase (then Secretary of the Treasury, later Chief Justice): “Chase is a good man, but his theology is unsound. He thinks there is a fourth person in the Trinity.”

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:


    There are some very odd people in public life,

    And most of them are narcissists.

  13. Joe says:

    What struck me about this example (person, woman, man, camera, tv), was that he used as examples things that were around him when he said it.

    What struck me, Jen, was the risk he took in rolling out the 5 words more than once. If he had missed one or even inverted the order of two of them it would have totally crushed his story. So he either rehearsed it 50 times, or he had the cue cards you suggest or he really has some fascinating coping mechanism to link physical objects in his sight line to create an instant mnemonic device. I suppose there is an outside chance that his memory is really that good. . . . nahh.

    Among other formal and informal safeguards, the 25th Amendment might as well not exist. So what do we do?

    Unfortunately, Kingdaddy, all of the existing mechanisms for addressing this – whether 25th amendment or impeachment – and any others we think of are premised on the willingness of those who could exercise the authority having the political willingness to do so in the best interest of the country.

  14. Kylopod says:


    I been convinced from the first moment that Mr Trump began talking up this test that he actually had a lot of trouble with it.

    I absolutely agree. I’ve been saying it for the past few days. The very fact that he insists he did well on the test is itself a very strong indication that he didn’t. Trump has a habit of insisting he’s great in the very areas in which he’s woefully lacking. It’s one of his consistent tells. This seems utterly obvious to me, and yet a lot of people seem not to grasp it fully. Whenever he insists he’s the greatest at something, that in itself is a red flag suggesting that the opposite is the truth.

    This makes him different from a run-of-the-mill egomaniac or narcissist. For example, take the Rupert Pupkin character from The King of Comedy. That is probably closer to a typical example of a narcissistic personality. He thinks he’s a gifted comedian. When we finally get around to seeing him perform at the end of the film, his routine isn’t godawful or anything–it just isn’t anything special. His self-image isn’t a total reversal of reality, just wildly overinflated.

    Trump’s narcissism isn’t like that. In an odd way, it does seem like he has at least some level of awareness of his own limitations, since his boasts about himself have an almost perfect, inversely proportional relationship to to the truth. When he says he’s great at something, it means he’s absolutely terrible at it. That cuts against the idea that he’s simply delusional, since it has the effect of being a strategy–a dumb strategy, but still a strategy, a sustained attempt to alter reality in the minds of others.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    Trump is stupid. I said that 4 years ago to a chorus of, ‘No, he couldn’t be rich and also a moron!’ Trump is nearly illiterate. ‘But how could he be so successful if…” My amateur diagnosis of psychopathy is now accepted, but at the time it was, ‘That’s just a role he’s playing.’

    So I’ll venture another diagnosis: yes, he’s in decline. Might be mini-strokes – that’s what fried my dad’s brain. Or it might be dementia – which is the reason my wife has to talk to her mother each day and promise to find those missing phone numbers of people who’ve been dead for 30 years.

    This is not that hard. When you’re elected president part of the deal has to be yearly medical exams by doctors and shrinks not employed by, or in any way controlled by, POTUS or Congress. Those exams to be made public, by law. If we need to invoke the 25th we’ll have objective standards.

    FFS, we’re talking about a person with nuclear weapons.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Seeing as this is THE “Person Woman Man Camera TV” post, I’m going to put up Sarah Cooper’s latest here: How to person woman man camera tv.


  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kingdaddy: Yeah, it is impossible to ignore, and I don’t mind you posting about it. But that should not be the primary political strategy.

    The 25th Amendment would work, if enough Republicans thought the situation was dangerous enough to invoke it. Apparently they don’t, and they get to own that. Sometimes I think we just have to suffer to make the point. At its least, the 25th provides for “the president is in a coma, and everyone knows it”. Very unusual, but possible scenarios. It wouldn’t have stopped the Woodrow Wilson situation, I don’t think, and that was probably much worse than Trump, in terms of the president’s ability to function.

  18. Kathy says:

    What are the odds once Biden is inaugurated, that plenty of former Trump cabinet officers will say “Of course I wanted to invoke the 25th amendment, but I was the only one.”?

  19. MarkedMan says:

    Moving away from Trump and into the broader area of the unusual characteristics of people that go into politics, I think there is a strong relationship to modern day influencers. There are many of these people that will do virtually anything to get attention. Good attention, bad attention, it’s still attention. When I try to imagine what is going through the mind of a McEnany, a Huckabee Sanders, a Rudy Giuliani, pre-revelation Cohen, or any of these other jamokes that get up there day after day and make fools of themselves, I can’t imagine what is going through their heads that compel them to get in front of that camera.

  20. MarkedMan says:


    plenty of former Trump cabinet officers will say “Of course I wanted to invoke the 25th amendment, but I was the only one.”?

    One of the few things I remember from my one Business class in college back in the late 70’s, was a deep dive done on the Bay of Pigs disaster. Something that a number of participants brought up: they felt they didn’t really understand the rationale but knew they were in the room with some of the most brilliant minds of their generation and didn’t want to pipe up as the idiot in the room.*

    Now, I don’t think Trumps toadies think they are in the presence of the most brilliant minds, but I wonder if there isn’t some similarities there. That feeling that if you make a contrary move you will lose your status, your place.

    *I’ve always taken that to heart – my coworkers can vouch that I am often the idiot in the room

  21. JohnMcC says:

    @Kathy: If the various Trump Administration officials are speaking in court, I bet there will be a large number who will profess that they were JUST ON THE VERGE of declaring the time right for a 25thA solution.

    If they are on Right Wing Media with no legal proceedings in sight, none.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: Depends on how the next six months go. There’s a large chunk of the Republican Party that is going to want to replace St. Ronnie with St. Donald, martyr to the cause, felled by a Democrat Hoax about a China Virus. And the Russia Hoax (all of Russia is a hoax… it doesn’t even exist)

    I think they’re going to try it, and claim that Biden is mishandling the China Virus and trampling freedoms. They tried to make America fail so Obama would fail during the greatest financial crisis since the great depression, so I see no reason to assume they wouldn’t do it in a pandemic. I’d be happy to be wrong (unless the reason they aren’t trying to do that is the pandemic is so awful that even they cannot ignore it… that would be bad).

  23. @Jay L Gischer:

    The 25th Amendment would work, if enough Republicans thought the situation was dangerous enough to invoke it.

    Not to let anyone off the hook in this administration, but this is a flawed mechanism. The odds that co-partisans that you hired would work together to determine you unfit is slim, Republican or not.

    Being willing to say that the boss is crazy enough to remove from his job is a hard thing to do.

  24. dmichael says:

    @JohnMcC: F.Y.I. Dr. Jackson (soon to be a Repub rep from Texas) did not order Trump to take the test. Jackson had left his position sometime in 2018. TRUMP said that Jackson had him take this test. Another sign of Trump’s dementia.

  25. JohnMcC says:

    @dmichael: Well thank you.

  26. Kylopod says:


    F.Y.I. Dr. Jackson (soon to be a Repub rep from Texas) did not order Trump to take the test. Jackson had left his position sometime in 2018. TRUMP said that Jackson had him take this test. Another sign of Trump’s dementia.

    Trump also claimed in the Chris Wallace interview that he got “all 35 questions” correct. In the later interview he described the test as having “30-35 questions.” Needless to say, the test does not have anywhere near 30 questions.

    Despite all the ridicule he’s receiving, it boggles my mind that a lot of commentators are assuming he actually did pass the test as he claims–they’re just laughing at the fact that he thinks that’s a praiseworthy accomplishment. But it seems obvious he didn’t do well on the test. There’s no proof of it, and his very description of the test, plus what you mention (his claiming to have taken it a year ago from Dr. Jackson, which was after Dr. Jackson left), points heavily in the direction that he’s suffering from the exact sorts of cognitive problems he claims the test has ruled out.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    What’s most interesting to me about this discussion is that in 1972, a 43-year-old man was considered unfit to serve as Vice-President because he’d been treated for clinical depression, and now…

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: I would have to guess on about 1:100, but that might be a little generous. 🙂

  29. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Treated is the key word here. Trump’s never been treated for any psychiatric disorder, so Cult45 can delude itself that he’s mentally fit as a fiddle.

    Poor Thomas Eagleton. This is what he got for seeking help.

  30. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    Poor Thomas Eagleton. This is what he got for seeking help.

    Yeah. That was kind of my point. ETA: Think of it as a kind of a what’s-wrong-with-this-picture puzzle.

  31. An Interested Party says:

    And this is the person, along with his partisans, who is arguing that Joe Biden is senile…in addition to being a casebook study for NPD, he’s also got the worst case of psychological projection I think I’ve ever seen in a human being…

  32. Jc says:

    I think why Trump did not shut up about this test is likely because it was a test HE actually took and HE actually passed. It is an achievement for him, in his mind, as he actually did something by himself. Rather than how he has actually got through the majority of his life, with other people doing things for him. If he ever washes a dish, expect a photo and a tweet on it.

  33. JohnMcC says:

    @Jc: If Mr Trump washes a dish and broadcasts his accomplishment it will certainly be as fraudulent as the last time a Republican pol did the same:

  34. de stijl says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Focus on actions and consequences not motive.