Is Trump crazy — or crazy like a fox?
One of those things is true. And both of them would be very bad.
You're not taking crazy pills. The president and a distressingly large number of people around him regularly say things that sound quite literally insane.
I don't mean neurotic. The president and his advisers don't appear to suffer from anxiety disorder or depression. I'm not even talking about the severe narcissism that every commentator and armchair psychotherapist discerns in Trump's self-absorbed, needy, vindictive tweets and other public pronouncements. I'm talking about something far more serious: clinical psychosis — an incapacity to distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and illusion.
I know this makes me sound like a parody of a pundit in the grip of my own delusion, a victim of Trump Derangement Syndrome driven by my loathing for the president to say patently ridiculous things about him. How on Earth could a man who built and ran an international business empire for decades and who successfully ran for president and won against stupendous odds be insane? But please, I beg you: Stick with me a little longer. This is serious, and it isn't just about Trump himself.
Distinguishing between sanity and insanity is a tricky business. The human experience of reality is always in part a social construct — a complex mixture of nature (what is true everywhere and always, apart from human invention) and convention (the norms, practices, and beliefs that human beings invent to make sense of the world). What one social context considers perfectly sane (the conviction in the colonial Massachusetts town of Salem during the 1690s that more than a dozen members of the community are witches, for example) appears to another (ours) to be evidence of collective madness.
Within a single context, such determinations are easier to make. We can know that the guy down the block who seriously claims to be Socrates is insane because no one else recognizes him to be the ancient Athenian philosopher miraculously transported to our time. If that changed, he would cease to be mad. But until that time, we can safely consider him out of touch with reality and therefore mentally disturbed.
Now consider this passage from a recent Andrew Sullivan essay that is aptly titled "The Madness of King Donald":
I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor's, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here's what I'd think: This man is off his rocker. [New York]
Yes, that's exactly what you and I would think — because we perceive the man's walls as blue. The insistence on the claim that they are red is evidence of a disconnection from the reality the rest of us share. Trump does precisely this when he claims that he won the Electoral College in a historic landslide (he did not), and that millions of people voted illegally in the election (they did not), and that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest ever (it was not), and that "the murder rate in our country is the highest it's been in 47 years" (it isn't).
One way to describe such statements is to call them blatant lies. That's one possibility — one I'll return to in a moment. But another is to call them delusions, the ravings of a mentally unwell man who resides in a world separate and distinct from the world the rest of us share and inhabit.
If the president were the only member of the administration showing signs of delusional thinking, it would be alarming. But the bizarre and terrifying fact is that Trump appears either to cultivate a culture of psychosis or to attract and promote people who are themselves prone to delusions.
Take Michael Flynn, who resigned Monday night as Trump's national security adviser. Flynn's career trajectory over the past five years — a widely admired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army who is first hired and then fired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama, only to become a rabid Trump supporter and scourge of Hillary Clinton who lasts a mere three weeks in his new position before having to resign in the midst of a scandal — would seem to demonstrate more than a touch of instability.
But the oddest thing of all is what brought him down: Flynn's calls with the Russian ambassador during the transition, in which he allegedly offered assurances that sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration related to Russian interference with the November election would be reviewed (and presumably softened) once the Trump administration took over. I have no experience working in the executive branch of the federal government. Yet if I ended up talking to the Russian ambassador on the phone, I would assume it was bugged by the NSA and that anything I said on the line would be recorded. Are you telling me that the former head of the DIA didn't know this? That's simply inconceivable — which makes Flynn's behavior inexplicable in rational terms. It was reckless, flagrantly delusional.
Then there's White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who stands before a roomful of journalists every day making rationally indefensible assertions. And Rudy Giuliani, the highly successful two-term New York City mayor, who now specializes in unhinged tirades about the existential threat of "Islamic extremist terrorism." And Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, who just did the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows, spreading blatant falsehoods about the historic productivity of the Trump administration and buses full of unregistered voters who helped throw the election to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.
Despite all the signs of insanity, plenty of Trump-friendly commentators on the right will scoff and say that Trump and his staff aren't crazy crazy, but actually crazy like foxes. They're just doing an incredibly good job of playing the media and provoking the left — including, it would seem, me. And I concede: This may well be true.
It turns out there is reason to think that Trump chief strategist Stephen Bannon has been impressed by the idea that the deliberate promulgation of nonsense can be (in the words of self-described neoreactionary Curtis Yarvin) "a more effective organizing tool than the truth.” In this case, the seemingly psychotic behavior within and around the Trump administration would have to be understood as deliberate — an act, a tactic, a strategy.
I suppose it would be a relief to learn that the president and several members of his staff aren't as mentally deranged as they often seem, that they're merely lying intentionally and repeatedly. Yet would that really be more consoling? To know that the president of the United States and his senior staff are actively and cynically feigning a kind of madness?
What kind of politics engages in that kind of deception? It certainly isn't a politics based in reasoning and persuasion. Rather, it's a politics of confusion, manipulation, obscurantism — one seemingly designed to drive the rest of us insane, or perhaps to undermine the very distinction between sanity and insanity in our public life.
I'm honestly not sure which option is worse. But I'm certain that both are very, very bad.