The Trump syndrome and its impact: A psychiatric probe
Title: Twilight of American Sanity; Author: Allen Frances;
Publisher: William Morrow/Harper Collins: Pages: 336; Price: Rs 799
There are some times you can despair of the human race, or at least significant
portions of it. Especially the times when a country that sees itself as a world
leader -- and many around the globe look up to -- seems to have collectively
abandoned sanity and ended up with a President who seems something out of a
We may call Donald Trump crazy but can this suffice to explain his victory in a
democratic election, even though it was patently flawed, rigged and vitiated? Or
should we look elsewhere, say in terms of that Shakespearean plaint from "Julius
Caesar": "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves..."
How exactly are we to blame is what eminent psychiatrist Allen Frances explains
here, arguing that the triumph of Trump represents the ascendancy of the worst
traits of humans, bolstered by some less-than-wholesome features that are
In this unsettling, bitter but much-needed prognosis, he shows how these have
implications beyond Trump -- or other global leaders who exhibit one and more of
his attributes -- or the US, to the course and future of democracy and even our
Frances, deemed one of the foremost experts on psychiatric diagnosis and past
leader of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders or the "Bible of psychiatry", says it may well
be comforting to write off Trump as an exception -- an extremely egregious one
-- or crazy, but this tends to hide the real problems.
Recounting how he was invited on TV in the initial days of the Trump campaign,
to give his view on Trump's psychological state, he says he declined for two
reasons. Firstly, he had no evidence that Trump had any mental disorder, and
secondly, professional ethics disallowing armchair diagnosis of politicians that
can be exploited.
Trump is not suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder as several
amateur diagnosticians have said, says Frances, who wrote the criteria for it in
the DSM, despite displaying its symptoms like grandiose self-importance, having
to hang around with special people, requiring constant admiration, lacking
empathy, and being exploitative, envious and arrogant.
"... being a world-class narcissist doesn't make Trump mentally ill", he says,
for this requires clinically significant distress or impairment, but Trump is a
"man who causes distress in others but shows no signs himself of experiencing
great distress... Trump is a threat to the United States, and to the world, not
because he is clinically mad, but because he is very bad".
And the harsh lesson, he says, is that: "Trump isn't crazy, but our society is."
While he means the US, the world's oldest democracy, there is lots that could
also strike a chord with our own largest democracy, its dynamics and
particularly, its leaders.
In a sweeping narrative that includes his and his family's own American journey,
the crudities of Trump and right-wing forces in the US, the theories of Charles
Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Theodore Adorno, the example of Martin Luther King,
the "selfish gene", societal delusions and biases, American strengths and
shortcomings, incisive political and social analysis and more, Frances shows how
democracy is in trouble from those who subvert it for their own selfish,
autocratic and whimsical rule.
Before making a compelling case why Trump triumphed and what possibly terrible
outcomes it could lead to, he carefully sets the ground. He begins with global
problems -- overpopulation, environmental degradation, depleting resources,
terrorism, inequity -- and how US is sidestepping or ignoring them, as well the
country's foreign policy and image of itself.
He then take up the reasons why people end up making such bad decisions on
crucial issues with their set of cognitive biases, and "American
And while there are barbs aplenty at Trump and the American right wing, the role
of social media, some incisive political analysis and a host of telling details
-- for instance, how the sale of dystopian novels peaked after Trump's victory
-- Frances is too professional to just list the symptoms, but also provides
prescriptions aplenty for the people.
But how palatable these will be for the people of the consumerist societies in
today's democracies remains to be seen -- though doom faces us up close.
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