The United States of insanity

Trump’s America may seem like a cruel new psychology experiment but US society has been sick for quite some time.

Trump holds a rally in Melbourne, Florida
Trump's comportment endows him with an aura of dangerousness, but his presidential predecessors weren't exactly racking up points in the empathy department, writes Fernandez [Lamarque/Reuters]

Since the ascent to power of US President Donald Trump, two discussion topics have become increasingly popular: whether or not the man is insane and whether or not it’s appropriate to talk about whether or not the man is insane.

While many psychiatrists, mental health workers and media figures have abided by the idea that it is unethical to publicly debate the head of state’s mental soundness, others view the taboo as reckless.

In an interview with The Independent, for example, Yale University’s Dr Bandy Lee cited Trump’s “taunting of North Korea” and spontaneous bombing of Syria as indications that his “instability, unpredictability and impulsivity … point to dangerousness due to mental impairment.”

In February, The New York Times ran a letter to the editor signed by 35 mental health professionals concerned that Trump’s “words and behaviour suggest a profound inability to empathise”.

Such traits, the authors note, cause people to “distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them”.

This diagnosis would appear to be pretty spot-on, as anyone can tell from a quick glance at the president’s Twitter account.

But while Trump’s unregulated comportment tends to endow him with an aura of singularly unhinged dangerousness, it’s worth recalling that his presidential predecessors weren’t exactly racking up any points in the empathy department.

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Barack Obama’s secret “kill list” comes to mind, as do George W Bush’s gleeful escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bill Clinton’s bombing of the former Yugoslavia, George H W Bush’s barbaric invasion of Panama, and every other form of US-backed slaughter and global plunder that have characterised imperial policy from the get-go.

Call it bipartisan insanity, a pre-existing condition that constitutes one of the very foundations of the US political establishment.

Super-sized symptom

Indeed, although many residents of Trump’s America may fear themselves the subject of a cruel new psychology experiment, the fact is that US society has been sick for quite some time – with Trump merely constituting the latest – and super-sized – symptom of this psychological malaise.

For starters, the unrelenting capitalism to which the US is wedded is anything but conducive to collective mental stability, entailing as it does a vicious pursuit of profit at the expense of human wellbeing.

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Tied up in the capitalist approach is an emphasis on individual success that inevitably erodes communal bonds, which of course further deteriorate in accordance with the ongoing technological onslaught.

The permeation of existence with attention-obliterating electronic devices results in a situation in which physical human interaction – by most accounts a prerequisite for mental soundness – is increasingly replaced by interaction between oneself and one’s mobile phone screen.

There's no time like the present to dismantle the enduring stigma attached to discussions of mental illness in order to more profoundly consider the current president in historico-psychological context.


It’s hardly far-fetched to speculate that, in a profit-driven age of institutionalised distraction, empathy might find itself in rather short supply. This means, once again, that it’s not only Trump who may be suffering from “a profound inability to empathise”, though he’s certainly better equipped to act on it.

Mental tolls

As part of an evolving backdrop of popular alienation from reality, empathy voids are no doubt catchy music to the ears of those in the business of dropping bombs and engaging in other forms of high-level sociopathic behaviour.

For an example of the latter category, recall the time a certain prominent US politician argued that the “price” of killing half a million Iraqi children via sanctions for achieving US policy objectives was “worth it” (hint: it wasn’t Donald Trump).

And while the health of the American defence industry is generally treated as a national priority, the same can’t be said for the health of sectors of the domestic population, which alternately assume the position of collateral casualty or de facto enemy in the government’s various wars on black people, poor people, immigrants, healthcare, and so forth.

For many Americans, having to contend with such antagonisms – not to mention the common predicament of being saddled with eternal debt in exchange for education and other services – can take a considerable mental toll.

In my own experience as a US citizen born and raised in the country, I find it curious, to say the least, that out of the 60-plus nations I’ve since travelled and resided in, the homeland is the only place I’ve ever experienced acute panic attacks – some of them lasting several months.

Downright crazy?

Lest we despair, a thriving American pharmaceutical industry is ever on hand to ensure that egregious over-prescription remains the name of the game and that everything that can be pathologised will be – except, of course, the sociopolitical context fuelling psychological and other maladies and guaranteeing their profitable exploitation.

Now, with the advent of Trump – who feels no need to even pretend to disguise his war on reality behind pseudo-civilised discourse – an already depressing situation has become more overtly so.

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Each new outburst against Mexicans, Muslims, “so-called” judges and the other nemeses that populate the presidential tweets is liable to make even those folks most mentally secure in their existence begin to fear a descent into insanity.

It seems, then, that there’s no time like the present to dismantle the enduring stigma attached to discussions of mental illness in order to more profoundly consider the current president in historico-psychological context.

Because to ignore the bigger picture would be downright crazy. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.