In a year of confusion, chaos, and controversy, the Trump administration has suffered one of the biggest attacks on its competency yet, in the form of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury.
Wolff’s book claims Trump’s entire administration think him unfit for office, but perhaps even more controversially, portrays the President as genuinely mentally damaged. It describes him as someone who solely eats McDonald’s to avoid poisoning, who finds the White House “scary” enough to order new locks on his door, and repeats the same story verbatim thrice in ten minutes.
Many of the descriptions within the book match descriptions of dementia, which prompted health professionals and political commentators to push for a full release of medical records from Trump.
The ‘Stable Genius’
One of the most notable of these pushes has been in the proposal of the Stable Genius Act by Democratic Representative Brendan Boyle, which would require Presidential candidates to fully disclose their physical and mental health records prior to each election. The name stemming from Trump’s infamous tweet to the world, claiming that he is in fact, a stable genius.
Naturally, the book’s allegations have been vociferously denied by the White House, who claim it is nothing but sensationalist, tabloid trash. Indeed many of the reports within Wolff’s book have been under intense scrutiny and skepticism from many within Politics and media. The manner of Trump’s defence was characteristically vain, dismissive, macho and insecure, appealing to his “genius” and how he is “like, really smart”. His statements have a characteristic lack of verisimilitude as well as displaying his trademark tendency to personally attack the character of his accuse. The possible critiques of Trump at this point then, are in abundance, and it’s nothing especially new to write a column adding to them.
The interesting question here is of Presidential privacy. Until now it has been fairly common for physical health evaluations to be made public; Trump’s personal doctor infamously declared him the “healthiest individual ever elected to the Presidency”. The reasoning behind this release is obvious; if an individual is to be responsible for the welfare of 300 million Americans, it’s only fair that they are proven to be fully capable of doing the job. As a result, the Presidential candidate must sacrifice the vestiges of personal privacy they may have left in order to secure the role. An appeal to history reveals the need- in 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that effectively ended his ability to run the country. This led to his wife, an unelected civilian, performing his duties in secret.
What this forces us to consider is the effect of ailment on elections. We saw in 2016 the impact of doubts upon Hillary Clinton’s physical health - her alleged pneumonia and fainting incident became a point of mockery from Trump’s camp, one of numerous factors that led to her eventual loss. While this is perhaps fair, an overview of mental health records gives reason for perturbation; in 1972, vice presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton dropped out of the race following the revelation that he had been hospitalised for depression. Many may consider it impressive to overcome personal adversity with treatment, eventually rising to one of the senior roles in US government.
In the context of the 1972 election, this became fair game to prey upon.
There have been a number of Presidential candidates who have outright refused to release medical records, including Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, which drew controversy marked by the deliberate release of his opponent Bob Dole’s health records.
For those who are suffering health troubles, the public revelation of their problems and the risk of ridicule from their opponents can prove to be one of the most damaging eventualities possible, most notably in the case of mental health issues.
Worse still is the impact this could have for mental health stigma as a whole. In the small world of today’s technological culture the gestures of world leaders and public are far reaching and more impactful than ever before. There would be a distinct danger in raising a child in a world where Presidential candidates may be criticised for having mental diseases such as depression or bipolar disorder, a disease as uncontrollable as pneumonia was for Clinton.
Feelings of shame and self-loathing are an already unavoidable part of many mental illnesses, and opening them up onto the world stage as a topic to be criticised will only further the issues of those feelings. Promoting a negative image of mental health issues will do more harm than good.
In all, it is clearly important to know who exactly you are electing, and if they will be able to fill the role for its full duration. But there are potentially dangerous consequences to mandating full transparency in all areas, as Rep. Boyle is attempting to do. As a result of this, perhaps it is wise to trust the word of the White House doctor in Presidential fitness and not probe too heavily for detail. If it’s dubitable after all, there’s nothing to stop them lying anyway.