As a British academic schooled, from an early age, in the niceties of public debate, I’m struggling to understand the acceptability of a president behaving as Donald Trump did in his recently televised confrontation with former Vice President Joe Biden. I know the House of Commons can have rowdy shouting by opposition members that can interrupt a person giving a speech, even the prime minister. But these are controlled by the speaker who acts as the ghair of the debate, with his famous shout of “order!” Furthermore, the public at large tend to regard these interruptions as ill-mannered and essentially childish. Anyone making a speech in the British Parliament, by tradition, addresses their remarks to the Speaker of the House, never directly to the person whose views they are challenging. This maintains a certain decorum in what can be very heated debates.
At school I was introduced to the Latin tag ad hominem, that has parallels in U.K. football. Just as it is a foul to attack the player rather than the ball, so in reasoned argument it is unacceptable to attack an opponent rather than their ideas and evidence. Politics around the world has seen these noble principles eroded. Physical brawls have broken out in parliaments as far apart as Turkey, South Africa and Taiwan. Perhaps an understanding of the cause of the fiasco of the recent U.S. television debate can be found in the fact that in US football detailed strategies are built around physically engaging every member of the opposing team whether they have the ball or not. As I understand this complex game, one of the aims of these tactics is to hide from the opposing team, where exactly the ball is.
Is there an analogy here, perhaps to Trump’s constant interrupting Biden when he spoke? The aim being to hide from view any serious discussion of key issues, in effect hiding from public view the ball the president is holding. Such a strategy assumes that the president is a consummate tactician, well versed in discombobulating his opponents. There is another possibility, though. This is one explored by a group of psychiatrists and their colleagues in a report published in in 2017 and expanded in 2019 entitled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.
The American Psychiatric Association criticized this report because it went against what is known as ‘The Goldwater Rule’. That was named after an earlier consideration of whether Senator Barry Goldwater’s mental state made him unfit to be president. The central argument of this rule is that no psychiatrist should give an opinion on a person’s mental condition unless they have had the opportunity to carry out a direct clinical interview in person with the target of their assessment. However, that has not stopped some very useful, and interesting, assessments being made of major public figures without actually clinically interviewing them. Perhaps one of the most intriguing was the “Analysis of the Personality of Adolf Hitler: with predictions of his future behavior and suggestions for dealing with him now and after Germany’s surrender“. This was written in 1943 by one of the leading U.S. psychologists of its day, Henry Murray. He predicted, amongst other interesting insights, that in defeat Hitler would commit suicide.
Unfortunately, no such detailed analysis has been carried of Trump’s personality. The view of the 27 psychiatrists and their colleagues are much less thorough than Murray’s consideration of Hitler. They revolve around finding a diagnostic label to assign to the president. A bundle of such labels is offered, including narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder and even early stages of dementia. From a psychological, rather than the pseudo-medical psychiatric perspective, these diagnoses simply summarize the actions that Trump’s public appearances fully illustrate. Their value is in arguing that they are fundamental characteristics of the individual, not just a strategy for gaining supporters and defeating opponents. Whether they are dangerous or not depends on how much they influence his decision making rather than his social interactions. It becomes clear that Trump’s embarrassingly unpresidential, unpredictable and disquieting mode of interaction with Biden is characteristic of how Trump relates to others.
If this is regarded as an acceptable way of dealing with opponents, as in the vicious tackles in American football, then I can see how it might be allowed in U.S. television debates. However, that certainly reduces the office of president to little more than the leader of a schoolboy gang.