Newsletter: Opinion: Donald Trump is crazy, but (probably) not insane

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Akron, Ohio, on Monday.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, The Times’ letters editor, and it is Saturday. Happy Independence Day, Moldova. Here’s a look back at the week in Opinion.

The presidential campaign has come to this: Barely more than two months out from election day, some voters (and at least one elected official) are wondering out loud if one of the major party nominees is mentally ill — as in diagnosably suffering from a condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Yale psychiatry professor Matthew Goldenberg writes in a Times op-ed article that he’s asked a lot about Donald Trump’s mental health. His response:

I’m not supposed to answer that question. To underline that point, the American Psychiatric Assn. issued a statement this month reminding its physician members, myself included, to avoid psychoanalyzing the presidential candidates.

That ethical standard has been in place for decades. In 1964, thousands of psychiatrists, in response to a magazine survey, openly questioned then-GOP nominee Barry Goldwater’s fitness for White House duty. Several psychiatrists offered specific diagnoses. The fact that so many psychiatrists were willing to casually diagnose a person they'd never met embarrassed the profession and led to the codification of the so-called Goldwater Rule — no professional opinions on people we have not personally examined.

So when folks ask me to speculate about Trump’s mental health, I have an easy out — I cite the Goldwater Rule. But increasingly, not engaging in these discussions seems both disingenuous and itself ethically dubious. For one thing, the void left by thoughtful professionals is filled with speculations by commentators, many of whom lack the expertise to appropriately apply diagnostic labels. Moreover, remaining quiet about the upcoming election feels like an abdication of moral responsibility.

Like many Americans, I have been personally appalled by much of Trump’s indecorous behavior as a candidate. He comes across as cantankerous, vain, impulsive, demeaning and ill-informed. I understand why people have raised questions about his mental health. It can be tempting to describe his behavior in familiar psychopathological terms. But there are several reasons why we should resist using a psychiatric framework to describe Trump.

For starters, we don’t have access to critical information. I haven't interviewed, diagnosed or treated Trump. I know only his public persona. It’s certainly possible that much of what I see in that persona is an act, a representation not of his true self but rather a character he has embodied in order to win votes or enhance his fame or riches.

Nor am I aware that Trump has been significantly troubled by psychological distress or impaired by any condition (a criterion for the diagnosis of any mental disorder). He is, after all, functioning well enough to be one of two people nominated by a major party to be the next president of the United States.

Furthermore, casually and pejoratively tossing around psychiatric labels to describe unusual or distasteful behavior is stigmatizing to those who are suffering with mental disorders. Calling Trump, say, a narcissist, does not adequately explain his toxic behavior or exemplify the condition. I know and treat plenty of people with narcissism, and none of them publicly incite violence or malign entire ethnic groups.

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She’s sick and tired of the sexist speculation that Hillary Clinton is sick and tired. In an op-ed article, Ann Friedman puts the right-wing rumor-mongering over Clinton’s supposed ill health in the larger cultural context of assuming women are inherently weaker than men. The speculation also places unfair expectations on working women: “Women of Clinton’s generation, who flooded the white-collar workforce in the ’70s and ’80s, were under intense pressure to maintain a facade of unwavering strength. That pressure has lessened somewhat for younger generations, but even today, most working women believe that we can’t let on how difficult it can be to juggle our careers and personal lives.” L.A. Times

Take the “Clinton” out of the Clinton Foundation. News that Hillary Clinton met with dozens of her namesake foundation’s donors while she was secretary of State did not include any evidence that she acted on their behalf while serving in the Obama administration. Still, you can’t blame Americans for wondering about any conflicts of interest, says The Times editorial board, but that doesn’t mean the foundation should shut down: “We would propose a different solution: that the foundation continue but that the Clinton family sever its connection to it so long as Hillary Clinton is in the White House.” L.A. Times

There’s an unspoken barrier to getting more black girls in the pool: the hair factor. Olympian Simone Manuel, the first female African American swimmer to win a gold medal in an individual event, might cause some people to wonder why more black women aren’t in the pool alongside other U.S. swimmers. Judy Belk has an answer based on her own experience: Swimming messes up people’s hair, and “throughout American history, the texture and length of our hair has been used, along with skin color, as a barometer, both within and outside of the black community, in defining the very essence of beauty.” L.A. Times

This is the kind of alliance California needs on climate change: State Sen. Fran Pavley, the author of California’s two biggest laws combating global warming who is in the final months of her distinguished legislative career, and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a young lawmaker from the Coachella Valley focused acutely on his constituents’ needs. This fledgling alliance is key as California shifts to a new generation of environmental leaders, says Joe Mathews. Zócalo Public Square

How many legal immigrants are we deporting? Op-ed article writer Susan Stellin relates her own partner’s tussle with authorities over a long-ago minor offense that nearly got him deported as a way to highlight how the U.S. immigration system often destroys the lives of fully documented foreigners living in this country: “My partner got a second chance and proved he earned it by overcoming his addiction, but far too many immigrants don’t get the fair hearing a judge gave him.” L.A. Times

Read this as a cautionary tale for Los Angeles’ Olympic boosters: “The modern Olympic Games, in other words, are wildly expensive — and wildly more so than host cities expect when they make their bids,” writes Clay Dillow for FiveThirtyEight. Although Dillow doesn’t mention Los Angeles by name, there’s plenty in his piece pegged to the recently completed Rio de Janeiro Games to make one react skeptically to claims made by those putting together the 2024 bid that the city can host the Summer Olympics on the cheap. FiveThirtyEight

Personal note: Several weeks ago I alerted readers that I may have to take time off on short notice; that time has come, and for the next five weeks my very capable colleague Matthew Fleischer will fill in for me. I will be back on newsletter-writing duty the first week of October.

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