Richard North Patterson has a long essay in The Bulwark arguing that the president is mentally ill and therefore unfit to govern. Actually, has been unfit. The former chairman of Common Cause said Donald Trump’s “narcissistic personality disorder” has been evident for years even to people inexpert in the workings of the human mind.
Patterson isn’t saying anything new. He’s adding to a growing conversation. What I want to contribute, however, is that this isn’t helpful. We shouldn’t see mental illness where there is plain ordinary sadism. We shouldn’t pathologize Trump’s ignorance, pettiness and greed. If we do, we don’t see what’s in front of us. Evil is rational.
What’s more, pathologizing evil glosses over intent. Trump has done bad things, but he can’t help it. He’s sick! Well, that won’t cut it. Trump and the Republicans are making choices for reasons. Making choices for reasons is rational. Seeing evil as rational, however, is unthinkable for some. So they instead search for mental illness.
If the president is crazy, about half the adult population is crazy. Half the adult population finds ways, even two decades into the 21st century, to rationalize inflicting violence on their own children. Once you understand that something as evil as beating, harming and humiliating children is commonplace, you understand why focusing on mental illness makes matters worse. Evil isn’t crazy. It’s wrong. We should say no.
Since becoming a father, I have known many parents of young children. They, like me, delighted in seeing our kids’ minds flower. They, like me, thrilled at the sight of their learning, experimenting and taking pleasure in small things. We loved them because we needed to love them the same way we needed to breathe. This held true even during those challenging moments when they melted down and lost their goddamn minds.
During these moments is when a parent makes choices that will affect a child pretty much forever. On the one hand, you can offer comfort and soothing words in the near-total absence of understanding in any coherent way what’s happening inside the child’s head. For reasons confounding to grown ups, the fact that the Beanie Boo was blue, and not pink, is real and legitimate cause for thrashing, wailing and sobbing. There’s nothing to be done for it. You can’t make her feelings less intense. You can’t reason with her. All that can be done can be measured in hugs and kisses, and time—time you may not have, but that’s the price of loving unconditionally. You love her because you must love her. Eventually, the very young child comes to her senses.
This requires good faith on the parent’s part, a commitment to believing that the child is not willfully throwing a fit, that she literally can’t not melt down for no reason a parent can identify, and that she does not intend to violate etiquette and other social norms by expressing ingratitude for a Beanie Boo that’s not the right color. Losing her mind is part of the experience of being a toddler, ergo part of the daily challenge of being a tired and bewildered parent. This experience is normal and natural and expected—for the child. For lots of parents, however, it’s not normal in the least.
More normal, more than most realize, is the exercise of bad faith in parenting, intended or not, the commitment to believing the child is willfully throwing a fit, that she is choosing to melt down and otherwise violate etiquette and other social norms due to being given a blue Beanie Boo instead of a pink one. To millions of American parents, such displays of disrespect must be addressed with correction, which is to say punishment, which is to say violence, which compounds the child’s suffering by orders of magnitude she won’t understand until adulthood, if ever. More than 50 percent of parents say they spank their children after three years of age, according to one study.
What are you going to do? Tell them their mentally unfit to be parents? No, they are making choices. Rational but bad choices. Evil requires a moral response, not a medical one. That’s the same conversation we should be having with respect to the president. “Narcissistic personality disorder” is beside the point. Or it should be.