It's been murmured for months, but over the last tumultuous couple of weeks — with President Trump careening from his "fire and fury" threat of nuclear war with North Korea to his "many sides" failure to condemn neo-Nazis in Charlottesville to his bizarre, alternately whiny and preening, and divisive pep rally in Phoenix — the talk has grown from a whisper to a scream.
Is the president of the United States mentally ill? Is the ongoing disaster at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — including the lunar-sized crater of moral authority that was exposed in Trump's reaction to death and chaos in Virginia — not the result of gross incompetence, kleptocratic greed, or visions of American autocracy but the product of a damaged mind? Is it time for a serious conversation about the 25th Amendment, which was enacted in 1967 and spells out provisions for dealing with a president who is in some way incapacitated?
This much is not up for debate: The last few days have brought proclamations about the state of mind of the sitting president from high-ranking elected officials and well-respected pundits that — as recently as a few months ago — would have caused screaming banner headlines. Now they have become embedded in our day-to-day national conversation.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, tweeted this month that Trump is "showing signs of erratic behavior and mental instability that place the country in grave danger. Time to invoke the 25th Amendment." James Clapper, who just a few months back was America's director of national intelligence, said after the Phoenix speech, "I really question his ability to be — his fitness to be — in this office." Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his reasoned commentary in the Washington Post, declared, "It's time to talk about Trump's mental health," and that was before the epic post-Phoenix lament by CNN's Don Lemon, who called the president "unhinged" and said "there was no sanity here."
It's a remarkable moment, and there's no doubt that — both in terms of everyday competence and, more important, moral authority — Trump has established in just seven months a crisis of presidential unworthiness that America has never before had to contemplate. But while there are urgent questions that need to be asked and answered regarding Trump, is mental health the right one to focus on?
I've seen the lowlights of Trump descending into the ashes of Phoenix. The whole thing reminded me of a TV show that aired briefly in the mid-1980s in which a whacked-out detective played by Jack Warden seemed bound for the asylum for the first 57 minutes until he solved the crime in the 58th; it was called Crazy Like a Fox. Trump's motives aren't as noble, but there is a warped "method" to his madness.
Mental illness might belong on the front burner if the president had gone on a 20-minute tirade asking who had stolen his strawberries or his second scoop of ice cream from the White House kitchen. What I heard instead from Trump's 75-minute performance in Arizona was a leader who — in branding a free press as enemies of the public and in echoing 1930s fascism with his appeal to "our history, our heritage" — was borrowing from the well-worn playbook of every tin-horn despot of the last century from Berlin to Caracas. Dangerous stuff, but not crazy.
Psychoanalyzing Trump — by top professionals and millions of amateurs — has become a cottage industry since the depths of the 2016 campaign. It's impossible to read the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder — a total lack of human empathy, the nonstop complaints of victimization, the thin-skinned reaction to any criticism, an obsession with appearance — and not picture the 45th president of the United States. That's alarming, and the polar opposite of what most of us want to see in the Oval Office. But it also places Trump on a scale — the bottom of the scale, to be sure — with other presidents who had, um, issues … such as the paranoia and heavy drinking of Richard Nixon. The Founders didn't directly address the mental health of future presidents — and I'm not sure they meant to.
But what about the 25th Amendment? That could surely be invoked in an extreme case — the involuntary commitment of a president to a hospital, say — but one suspects the authors were thinking more about a coma or a stroke (of the type that, unbeknownst to the American people, incapacitated Woodrow Wilson at the end of his presidency) than something like narcissistic personality disorder. And ponder the practicability of such a move, which would surely be contested by the combative Trump. In that case, his removal would need to be approved by Vice President Pence, who so far has stood 100 percent behind the president, and eight cabinet members, from the likes of Trump's close friend Wilbur Ross to Betsy DeVos to Steve Mnuchin, who owe their exalted station in life to The Donald.
And on top of that, then the president's ouster needs two-thirds approval from the GOP-led House and Senate!
In other words, more House votes are needed for the 25th Amendment than for impeachment, which requires a simple majority. Trump may or may not be mentally ill, but talk of "a 25th Amendment solution" is bat-guano insane. And I think talking about a kind of a magic wand that will remove Trump from the White House is a failure to see that there are deeper, systemic problems with American democracy that go way beyond one man's state of mind.
What was really so wacko about Trump and his speech in Phoenix, among other recent transgressions?
First, that some 35 percent of the American people are still willing to cast their lot with this president who seeks to divide people rather than unite them, who frequently lies to his constituents with little or no consequence, who has enriched himself and his family off the office of the presidency and who seems to lack a basic understanding of the connection between moral values and the American greatness that he claims to seek. But the other thing that defies sanity is that a majority of U.S. citizens seemed to grasp Trump's unfitness for office before Nov. 8 — and yet he was elected anyway. And his reelection remains within the realm of possibility, despite his minority support.
The best way to ensure sanity at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — in the long run — is to fight for a democratic system that produces saner results. That means (and some of this will take really, really hard work):
Strengthening — and not gutting — the Voting Rights Act and adding "small-d" democratic bells and whistles like Election Day holidays and same-day registration to bring as many Americans to the polls as possible.
Supporting — both morally and (maybe more important these days) financially — independent journalism as a bastion of the First Amendment.
That doesn't solve the immediate crisis of an unfit president, but the Founders did offer a clear-cut solution: Impeachment. True, the drafters of the Constitution were vague on what they meant by "high crimes and misdemeanors" as grounds for removal — but that may have been another crazy-like-a-fox moment. The reality is that an impeachable offense is very much like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography: We know it when we see it.
The disastrous Trump presidency has offered several impeachment tracks. The most obvious involve the so-called Trump-Russia probe and the president's ham-handed attempts to squelch it by firing FBI director James Comey and berating various U.S. senators, which already seem to match the kind of offenses that forced Nixon from office in 1974. That's separate from any wrongdoing related to collusion with Russia's 2016 election tampering or Trump family financial dealings that are still under investigation. And isn't it a high crime against his fitness for office when Trump abdicates his moral leadership role, as he did with Charlottesville, amplified in Phoenix? That's a tough call, but Congress has the power to make it, and it makes more sense than the cumbersome, impossible 25th Amendment.
Let's be honest: I don't know whether Donald Trump is mentally ill, and neither do you. But a majority of us agree that another three years and five months of this would be, well, nutso. So let's use the tools we already have to restore some sanity to America.