One of the familiar taunts that supporters of the president hurl at opponents is that they are suffering from TDS: Trump Derangement Syndrome.
TDS is marked by neurotic obsession with the president and his provocations, an inability to maintain emotional detachment from his outlandish behavior, leading ultimately to distorted perceptions of reality. Trump backers love issuing a mocking diagnosis: You are letting him live In your head rent-free. Ha, ha!
The taunt is effective because the targets often ruefully acknowledge it is true. The syndrome is related to another psychological concept in vogue in the Trump era, “gaslighting,” in which people are manipulated into questioning their own sanity.
Recent days have raised an arresting possibility: Trump himself appears to be suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome.
This isn’t really surprising. A practitioner of germ warfare would need to wear an airtight suit to avoid being infected by the virus intended for his or her enemies. Unless Trump has been very careful in the lab, it’s not hard to imagine that his various experiments in conspiracy theory, self-mythologizing, insult, grandiosity and fact denial might be seeping into his own consciousness. At a minimum, there are plainly a lot of people living in his head, and it’s hard to believe he is collecting rent from all of them.
When it comes to discussions of Trump’s mental health, there are always two questions. One relates to measurement. He’s been saying wild stuff for a long time. Is any particular new statement really more daffy than things he has said before? The other question relates to motive. He says things all the time that sound bonkers, or at least would sound that way from any other politician. But, at least some of the time, he is doing so because such behavior is the essence of his brand as an anti-establishment political disrupter. Trump’s efforts to sound like he may really be losing his mind may be evidence of his rationality.
But this binary framing—yes, he is nuts; no, it’s just an act—could be a false choice. In the pathology of TDS, living in the agitated psychic state required to make his performance convincing may over time lead to the performance no longer being a performance at all. Trump has gaslit himself.
At a minimum, his words lately follow a logic that is opaque even to many supporters. Take, as an example that is no longer much of an anomaly, his discursive interview last week with Rush Limbaugh. In the closing days of a presidential campaign in which he is running behind, Trump used the time to keep talking about his 2016 opponent (“She deleted 33,000 emails, she should be in jail for that”); LeBron James (“He’s a hater”) and the NBA (“I can’t watch it … I just don’t have any interest in it anymore”); New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman (“I haven’t seen her, I haven’t spoken to her, in a year and a half”); and the alleged anti-Trump drift of Fox News in recent years, perhaps due to the fact that former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is on the board (“You watch this Fox—it’s a whole different ballgame.”) Even accepting that Trump is following a strategy of mobilizing the committed, rather than persuading the one or two Americans who are genuinely torn between Biden and Trump, do these comments advance his self-interest?
In other recent moves, Trump has thrown barbs at his attorney general for not indicting Joe Biden, Barack Obama and others for their role in a “TREASONOUS PLOT” ; claimed that Kamala Harris is a “monster” and a “communist”; asserted that he is “a perfect physical specimen”; retweeted a QAnon-linked account that posted a conspiracy that Osama bin Laden is still living; and at a Johnstown, Pa., rally pleaded: “Suburban women, will you please like me? Please. Please. I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
At this late date, many people sniff and sip these remarks as though they are new vintages at a wine tasting (“full-bodied with overtones of smoke; more tannins than usual”) but no one finds them especially shocking. Supporters, no less than foes, accept that Trump just isn’t a normal politician. But we are so used to discussing him clinically (“a disrupter,” in a generous mood; “unbalanced,” in a censorious mood) that neither side typically pauses to ponder that even a non-normal politician must still somehow—even if way deep down—be a normal person.
Just consider what Trump is facing in his life right now:
— He was just hospitalized with trouble breathing from a disease that has killed many people his age. How could he not have experienced some intimation of mortality?
— A person who has made an obsession of “winning” is facing the possibility, and even the probability, of an electoral repudiation.
— In either scenario, but especially if he loses, he is facing fearsome legal and financial challenges.
— He is the public-health equivalent of a wartime president. Even if he genuinely believes that he has done a superb job battling the coronavirus pandemic, he lives with the knowledge that words he says and actions in balancing health and economic imperatives will have life-and-death consequences. These are not abstractions but actual individuals with names and addresses.
Who would not be carrying an awesome psychological burden under these circumstances?
Consider some other questions. Given how thoroughly Trump has merged his personal life with the Trump brand, with his own children working for Trump Inc., is there even one person in his life who would say, “You know, no matter what happens, I love you for the person you are—not because you are rich or you are president”? Does he have one friend close to him who would have the nerve to say: “Man, I’m worried about all the stress you are under. How about I come up to Camp David, we shoot the breeze and maybe go for a stroll, and the only rule will be we don’t talk politics or business”?
Even asking the questions seems absurd. Probably, Trump himself would scoff that such acknowledgment of human vulnerability may be for mortals but not for him. But recall that the myth of Trump’s superhuman qualities is precisely that. In other words: Not reality.
Other people in Trump’s orbit highlight the high costs of living in the arena of perpetual combat and myth-making of Trump world. His former lawyer Michael Cohen was disbarred and went to prison. Recently at the Department of Health and Human Services the communications chief Trump personally installed, Michael Caputo, had a wild five-month run in which he clashed explosively with government officials as he tried to align their scientific pronouncements with White House propaganda. Last month, he apologized to colleagues and went on leave. And Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was recently detained by police after a domestic incident and said he is seeking help for the “overwhelming stress” he is under.
Trump Derangement Syndrome is a satirical phrase. But there is a nonhumorous reality that Trump’s fraught brand of politics coaxes many people to the psychological edge.
The fact that Trump himself seems lately to be dancing near that edge—that even he has trouble staying grounded amid the foam and frenzy he promotes—may be the best evidence that deep down he is actually normal.
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