The “Goldwater Rule” established that health experts wouldn’t comment on the mental health of public officials. Trump caused experts to break that rule.
Back in 1964 the Republican nominee for president Barry Goldwater received strong support from members of the John Birch society. Among other things, they expressed admiration for his commitment to winning the struggle against the Soviet Union and the communist menace in general. His ghost-written book, No Substitute for Victory provided inspiration, as did his acceptance speech at the GOP nominating convention in San Francisco at which Goldwater remarked that “…I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
This comment reinforced the Birch Society’s enthusiasm for the Arizona senator, but it also drew the attention of many psychologists and psychiatrists. During the election campaign, a survey of over one thousand psychologists and psychiatrists reported their belief that Goldwater was not emotionally fit to serve as president. These mental health professionals, in effect, used their credentials to discourage citizens from voting for the GOP nominee. They worried especially he would get the United States involved in a war with the Soviets and its allies.
This intervention in partisan politics produced a reaction. Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association passed what became known as the “Goldwater Rule” aimed at preventing members of these organizations from commenting on the mental states of public figures they had not encountered on a professional basis.
Goldwater went on to lose the election by a landslide margin to Lyndon Johnson. Without the benefit of public assessments by mental health professionals, Johnson proceeded to involve the United States in the Vietnam War, a conflict which eventually caused the deaths of close to 60,000 members of the American military.
Goldwater And Trump, Kindred Spirits
This brings us to Donald Trump. As with Goldwater, so too in Trump’s case, the far right, now re-labeled the ‘alt-right’ was drawn to support his candidacy. Unlike Goldwater, however, Trump won the 2016 election and is currently well into his first term as president. It is tempting to think that their electoral appeals were different. Goldwater stressed his strong anti-communism while Trump stressed, the Soviet Union long since having passed from the scene, xenophobic and white nationalist themes in vowing to restore American greatness.
On closer inspection though the appeals of Goldwater and Trump were not all that different. Goldwater’s appeal was based substantially on his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act which, among other things, required the elimination of racially based discrimination in public facilities throughout the country. In fact, Goldwater, aside from his home state of Arizona, only carried a handful of states of the old Confederacy – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. The race-based appeal was not hard to discern.
Mental Health Professionals Speak Up
Like Goldwater, Trump has drawn the attention of psychologists and psychiatrists who have been willing to violate the ‘Goldwater Rule’ in order to warn the public about the dangers his presidency posed to the country’s safety and well-being. Accordingly, Dr. Bandy Lee (MD), a faculty member at the Yale medical school convened a conference of some 27 psychologists and psychiatrists shortly after Trump took office. Under the title “Duty to Warn”, conference participants proceeded to offer clinically-based assessments of Trump’s personality and the concomitant threat it posed (see Bandy Lee, organizer, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump2017). They later briefed Congress on this.
Naturally, opinions differed. But participants made repeated references to malignant narcissism, extreme present hedonism, sociopathy (virtually complete indifference to the feelings of others), sadism, cognitive disorganization, and a high level of impulsivity. All agreed however that Trump was a dangerous character whose occupation of the Oval Office represented a threat to the peace. Given the constellation of traits, Trump displayed he might very well take the country to war based on some whim or mood swing.
The psychiatrists’ views have recently been restated following the distribution of a redacted version of the Mueller Report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Dr. Lee and her associates examined the document, took note of Trump’s expressions and behavior, and concluded he was showing signs of mental decline. The conclusion they drew from this observation is that a second Trump term would increase the likelihood a re-elected Trump would be more likely to involve the U.S. in some foreign war – given his already impaired judgment. The mental health professionals cite Ronald Reagan’s second term. They assess that Reagan began to show signs of mental deterioration during his second term (1984-1988).
It is currently the end of April 2019. What does the record indicate about Trump’s war-making proclivities? It is too early to be unequivocal about it, but since taking office the New York real estate developer and TV personality has sought to withdraw American military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also been highly critical of the NATO alliance and has expressed doubts about the need to offer military assistance to the Baltic states should they be threatened by the Russians. It is true that early in his presidency Trump threatened North Korea with nuclear retaliation if Kim Jung-Il didn’t suspend its own nuclear weapons testing. But after a face-to-face meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump became persuaded of North Korea’s peaceful intentions and suspended the annual American-South Korean military exercises.
More recently, Russian President Putin sent a detachment of ‘special forces’ to Venezuela to help prop-up the Maduro dictatorship. The ‘Monroe Doctrine’, which dates from the 1820s, asserts that the US would resist the intervention of European powers in the Western Hemisphere (see the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis). It is clearly an ongoing crisis. But after saying “all options are on the table”, the Trump administration has not done much, so far as one can tell, to promote a Russian withdrawal.
All this is not to say Trump is a model of mental health. He may be as nutty as the proverbial fruitcake and put Captain Queeg ‘s paranoia to shame (see The Cain Mutiny), but it doesn’t appear to manifest itself in war-making or military involvements. Rather his hostility manifests itself on a highly personal basis. He responds to anyone who criticizes him or defies his will by hurling personal insults, often involving the target’s physical features or other perceived defects. So that during the 2016 presidential campaign Trump referred to various GOP opponents as ugly, stupid, ‘Lying Ted’, and low energy. Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the general election became “Crooked Hillary”. Since taking office Trump compared his own attorney general Jeff Sessions as resembling Elmer Fudd, a cartoon character. This was after his appointee recused himself from an investigation into Russian involvement in the election campaign. More recently Trump referred to Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House select committee on intelligence, as “Adam Shit” and as someone with a too thin neck.
This behavior seems pretty childish and primitive, something to be expected from an adolescent. But it doesn’t seem to give rise to dangerous military adventures. And that is about the best we can hope for until the 2020 presidential election.
Finally, we should call attention to Ronald Reagan’s second term of office. If the psychiatrists are right and that this most affable of American presidents was showing signs of Alzheimer’s it hardly increased his inclination to take the country to war. In fact, Reagan spent a good deal of time during his second term doing the opposite, negotiating with Soviet leader Gorbachev over nuclear arms reduction at summit meetings in Geneva (November 1985) and Reykjavik Iceland (October 1986).
Some Reagan advisers at the Reykjavik gathering worried that the President was too willing to make one-sided concessions to the Soviet leader, that he was being outwitted in other words. In the event of a second Trump term of office, if Reagan’s case may serve as an example, the likelihood is not that he will launch a nuclear attack on some yet to be determined enemy but that he will be outfoxed by various foreign leaders. Signs of this already abound during his first term.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. His profile can be found here:
© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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