It’s Trump’s Privilege, Not His Mental Illness That Brought Us Here

Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

For years, people have been talking about Donald Trump’s “mental state,” throwing around the term mental illness as a lazy catch-all for his erratic behavior, inexhaustible cruelty, and inexplicable recklessness. In the wake of the election, a growing choir has assembled singing the same refrain.

This has always struck me as particularly damaging, because it assumes something dangerous: that all mentally ill people are vengeful, bigoted, unrepentant sociopaths.

We are not.

As one of the 51 million Americans who battles a brain affliction, I can attest to the reality that the vast majority of us are not oblivious to the feelings of other people or unaware of the results of our actions—we are in fact, highly sensitive to them. It is precisely our illness that makes us feel the pain around us deeply, that causes us to notice the fractures and grieve the wounds of the world that many people are unaware of.

We are more emotionally tethered to humanity, not less.

Those of us navigating the daily minefield of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorders, do so while being profoundly burdened to be sources of healing and restoration here, to be agents of equity and fairness. We war with our demons while simultaneously fighting for other people in peril. Our illness and our kindness coexists every single day.

Mental illness does not make people more prone to racism, it doesn’t make them predisposed to misogyny, it doesn’t increase their enmity toward humanity. Donald Trump’s life is not characterized by such things because he’s mentally ill—but because he’s a really terrible human being who lacks empathy of any kind.

Simply calling Donald Trump mentally ill assumes that his predatory behavior, his inability to accept reality, and his complete lack of accountability in these days are a product of a brain affliction. They are not. They are a symptom of sustained and stratospheric privilege.

Trump is the product of a life continually shielded from accountability; one where money and power have always afforded the luxury of buying or suing or lying or intimidating his way out of any responsibility for his criminality or any consequences of the injuries he causes. His entire existence has been spent in the cloistered penthouse opulence of gold-plated privilege, where reality is whatever he can pay for. He has never been inconvenienced by the truth in the way that he is now and soon will be.

This is why we’re here: why nearly two months after a historic election loss, a sitting president is still tilting at windmills of fraud and generating flagged tweets and assailing the courts—and it’s why he’s calling Secretaries of State, trying to muscle his way into overturning the will of the people, like a cut-rate film noir mobster shaking down a store owner.

It is not just because he is mentally ill that he is willing to discard democracy and obliterate the law (and ignore a pandemic all the while), it is because he has never had to lose (even when he has lost) and he has never had to reckon with a reality not of his own making.

Not only that, it is because he is buttressed by a cadre of similarly privileged human beings who recognize that they live in the same fragile house of cards and that their survival is tied to his. They not only recognize his desperate machinations, they share them. It is not a collective mental illness on display in his party, it is simply a shared vile, ugly, garden variety lust for power that will hold on to it at any cost.

Yes, Donald Trump has undiagnosed and or untreated mental illness, but these things do not explain him. His wealth, his whiteness, his upbringing, and an experience of the world that has made him impervious to other people’s suffering, explain him. 

I hope we can be more precise when talking about Trump and people like him, because the twenty percent of the world afflicted with mental illness deserve better than to be compared to a man whose complete lack of goodness and profound contempt for other human beings is something we will never be afflicted with.