History and legend are crammed with cautionary tales about mad kings. The stories share a shape: the King has lost control of what wit and reason he possessed. Wild emotion rules him, but nobody dares say so, because he is the king.
And because he is the king, he gets to remake the meaning of madness, as has been the privilege of oligarchs down the centuries. He is in charge, often divinely so, and therefore, by definition, sane. Suggesting otherwise is tantamount to treason. If anyone’s crazy, it’s you for not adjusting to the new normal. It’s safest to avoid the obvious, horrifying truth, even if the guy in the gold tower is haranguing other world leaders, ranting in public about death and destruction and fake news, and threatening obliquely to nuke Iran three weeks into the job. It’s safest to pretend, for as long as possible, that the King is not mad.
The United States has its very own Mad King to cope with, even if, by some measures, they elected him. In stabler times, questions about a politician’s sanity are either offensive, irrelevant or both - usually, when people say ‘that man is mad’, what they actually mean is ‘I don’t agree with him, and I don’t like him’. These are not stable times, however, and some brave souls are already starting to raise the mental health question we’ve all been dreading because we don’t want to hear the answer.
Paying any attention to the news at all these days is like living inside a rolling panic attack, so you may have missed the fact that somewhere between the "Muslim Ban" and the utter destruction of American political precedent, thousands of mental health professionals signed a petition stating bluntly that Mr Trump is too unwell to do the job. Elsewhere, Senator Ted Lieu of California suggested that a presidential psychiatrist be appointed without delay. This masterpiece of concern-trolling might be a play for headlines or political points, or it might be a genuine, if misguided, attempt to science up a solution to a political crisis.
A presidential psychiatrist would be a good idea if the problem at hand could be treated with some talk therapy and a handful of mood stabilizers.
The problem, however, is not that Donald Trump is mentally ill. The problem is that he is unstable, vengeful, sexually predatory, misogynistic, racist, unscrupulous, notionally in charge of the world’s most powerful country and, possibly and incidentally, mentally ill.
The problem with the mad king is not that he is simply mad - he is also dangerous and unpredictable, and that casts his curiosities in a chilling light. The inside of Mr Trump's skull is clearly an interesting place. There is no way of knowing if the demon that drove him to lie, scheme and bully his way to the White House is the same one that makes him afraid of, among other things, going down the stairs.
Mere eccentricity is rarely a problem for royalty, and is in fact encouraged. It's when these things are combined with a track record of acting out by, for example, threatening war with China, that there starts to be a bit of an issue.
Mental health problems can sometimes be an explanation for abusive or tyrannical behavior. But they are never, ever an excuse for it. Millions of people in America manage to have serious mental health problems without becoming freewheeling authoritarian despots. In fact, people with mental health problems are far more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to perpetrate it. I can name dozens of people with serious mental health difficulties who would make far better Presidents than Mr Trump.
Well-balanced people rarely run for president, but Mr Trump is patently committed to a reading of reality that not only bears no relation to fact but erodes the entire notion of truth until everyone forced to live inside this dissociative fugue of a presidency feels as trapped as he does. No glittering tower is high enough, no golden jet fast and flashy enough, to allow Mr Trump to escape the howling wasteland of his own brain, yammering with phantoms repeating every unflattering headline in a paranoid whisper.
I don’t know what terrible things were done to Mr Trump to make him like this, but I do know that I don’t care in anything but an academic sense. There are limits to human empathy. It’s the rest of the country, and indeed the rest of the world, that I’m worried about. So it’s well past time to stop mincing words.
The Mad King story has a moral, and it's not aimed at royalty. It's aimed at the rest of us. It's a warning about indulging the neuroses of power, a warning about the practical and systemic costs of allowing a leader's faculties to run wild. It’s a warning about what happens when we let dangerous madmen remake our reality.
It would be senseless to ignore the warning - especially as Donald Trump is more than just any old Mad King.
Kings don't become kings because they are mad, but Trump was anointed precisely because he is the personification of the most dangerous disturbances his nation nurses at its traumatized core. He is the atavistic monster of the American id in an orange skinsack, and that is exactly why people voted for him.
America legitimized its pain by affording it high office. That was a terrible mistake America has not yet faced up the magnitude of THAT mistake, but it will have to do so, and soon, because this is a crisis that cannot be solved by talk alone.
The president might be mentally ill. I don’t know. I don’t care. The president is definitely a dangerous madman, and it’s not him that needs healing. It’s the country.
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