I am not a psychologist. I understand that, even for professionals, remote diagnoses are deeply problematic. I recall how Republicans insisted that Obama was a narcissist because, first, his speechwriters made frequent use of the first-person, subjective-case pronoun (update: which isn’t even true, apparently) and, second, he had the temerity to be a black president – and an intellectual one at that.
Despite these caveats, there are two ‘diagnoses’ (edit: if you don’t realize I’m using the term loosely the scare quotes should help) I am willing to make of Donald Trump. One is that he has severe, untreated ADHD. The evidence here is overwhelming. He cannot pay attention to normal briefings or preparation materials, even when they are gussied up with lots of visual stimulation. He struggles to stay focused during speeches. Noel Cassler claims that Trump snorted Adderall on the set of The Apprentice and hasn’t been hit with a lawsuit. Trump’s mainlining of Diet Coke is also a pretty big tell. Diet caffeinated soda is a good way to get a constant stream of a stimulant; it’s easier to constantly consume vast quantities of than coffee, and if you drank sugar soda you’d be easily looking at 1,000+ calories a day.
I don’t buy it.
I dealt with untreated ADHD for decades – something I’ll post about eventually, because a number of academics think it would be helpful. It made my family miserable. It did tend to structure home life around my pathologies; my hyperfocus meant that I sometimes seemed indifferent to the needs of those in my immediate vicinity, as did my tendency to mentally and physically wander.
But none of this meant that I wasn’t perfectly capable of demonstrating sustained empathy, or of putting other people’s interests before my own.
For example, I would never have sabotaged policies to protect the public from a pandemic while, at the very same time, insisting on extraordinary actions to prevent me from contracting the same disease.
President Donald Trump appears ready to move on from a still-raging coronavirus pandemic — skipping the first White House task force briefing in months and moving the event out of the White House itself. But the measures meant to protect him from catching the virus have scaled up dramatically.
As he seeks to insert rival Joe Biden’s health into the presidential campaign, Trump has voiced escalating concern about how it would appear if he contracted coronavirus and has insisted on steps to protect himself, even as he refuses to wear a mask in public and agitates for large campaign rallies where the virus could spread.
When he travels to locations where the virus is surging, every venue the President enters is inspected for potential areas of contagion by advance security and medical teams, according to people familiar with the arrangements. Bathrooms designated for the President’s use are scrubbed and sanitized before he arrives. Staff maintain a close accounting of who will come into contact with the President to ensure they receive tests.
While the White House phases out steps such as temperature checks and required mask-wearing in the West Wing — changes meant to signal the country is moving on — those around the President still undergo regular testing. And even as Trump attempts to put the pandemic behind him by encouraging reopening and downplaying the new surge, there are signs of the still-raging pandemic even within his orbit.
It’s not that our president has severe, untreated adult ADHD. It’s not even simply that he’s a malignant narcissist. If he were smarter, more intellectually curious, and fundamentally competent he would a) be able to compensate for the former and b) recognize that his self-interest demanded an effective response to the pandemic. It’s the complete package that’s killed over 100k people and driven the country off the proverbial cliff.
Plus the criminality and demagoguery.*
I think about that when I see conservative friends discuss how Trump could adjust his messaging to improve his chances of reelection. They’re right that, as a matter of strategy, Trump needs to drive down Biden’s net favorability rating while shifting attention to areas of comparative advantage – although, at this point, I’m not entirely sure what those are.
But you know how Trump could really increase his odds of winning?
By launching a major, federally-coordinated response to the pandemic – one that reverses current trends.
But he won’t. And he’s simply not capable of doing so. The fault lies not in the message, but in himself.
*Added post-publication to make the fundamental argument clearer, which is that whatever treatable psychological conditions Trump may have are insufficient to explain why he’s such a destructive force.