A narrative is taking shape in Washington in which it’s clear to those telling the story that Donald Trump is mentally unwell. As evidence, they point to “Sharpie-gate.” There’s no reason, the storytellers allege, why the president would lie so obviously about something so trivial if he were not experiencing rapid cognitive decline.
Business Insider magnified that view Friday. One source said:
“His mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know his entire schedule gets tossed out the window because he's losing his s---.”
A Republican strategist went further:
“He's deteriorating in plain sight.”
Another source once close to the president’s legal team said:
“There's just no getting through to him, and you can kiss your plans for the day goodbye because you're basically stuck looking after a 4-year-old now.”
That’s the story. I’m skeptical. For one thing, this is pretty much what we’ve all come to expect from Trump. He is, after all, the first president in our lifetimes to have told more than 12,000 documented lies and falsehoods since taking office. The Trump who ran for president and the Trump who is the president now are the same Trump.
For another, such stories pathologize Donald Trump’s sadism. They in effect prevent citizens from facing fully the ugly reality of our political moment. Moreover—and I can’t stress this enough—stories that pathologize the president’s sadism in effect prevent the rest of us from fully facing the masochism that’s animating his base. It’s not that they don’t care that he lies. It’s that they derive pleasure from being lied to.
Here’s the backstory: For days on end last week the president insisted that Alabama was among southern states likely to be affected by Hurricane Dorian. Alabama was never in its direct path, but Trump said again and again that it was, even though government scientists publicly contradicted him. The president produced a weather map Wednesday in the Oval Office on which someone, probably Trump, used a black Sharpie marker to include Alabama in the hurricane’s trajectory. He wouldn’t admit his error. He denied that he erred. And he denied it over and over … and over.
Some, like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver said the “map controversy” was too tiresome to heed. Others, like The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner, said that “Trump’s psychological impairments are obvious to all who are not willfully blind. On a daily basis we see the president’s chaotic, unstable mind on display. Are we supposed to ignore that?”
Neither is quite right. On the one hand, Sharpie-gate (if you’ll excuse the suffix) explains everything about Trumpism and our moment. It cannot and must not be dismissed. On the other, he doesn’t have psychological impairments he didn’t already have. (He’s not getting worse. It’s more of the same. We’re just seeing it better, I hope.) Indeed, citing mental illness gives this authoritarian far too much credit. He’s not lying because he’s unhinged. Trump is lying because to him, it feels good to lie.
What began, I suspect, as mere error (misreading a map) turned into an opportunity for an authoritarian president to impose his will. He might have known he was wrong, but being wrong, or being right for that matter, is immaterial when the authoritarian’s objective is getting you to accept what he says as the only truth. Moreover, the more ridiculous his statements—like using a Sharpie on a weather map to “prove” he was right—the more pleasure he’ll derive from its ultimate acceptance. To the extent that he’s “not well,” it’s to the extent that your humiliation is to him a source of pleasure. (Later on, NOAA issued an official statement declaring that Trump was correct!)
As to masochism, I speak as someone who once inhabited an authoritarian religious environment in which the leader is the one and only source of truth. In such a climate, facts don’t matter because no truth exists outside the authority of “the father.” If he says the sky is green, it’s green. Over time, followers start feeling good being told what to think. They start feeling good believing lies, not in spite of knowing the truth, but often because they know—and yet surrender anyway. The psychic surrender of the will is, I think, an underappreciated aspect of Trumpism. For those inhabiting an authoritarian climate, which is to say for the president’s most loyal supporters, the absence of punishment for independent thinking is the presence of great pleasure.
Is sadism a mental illness? I don’t know. What I do know is if we’re talking about mental wellness that causes ridiculous, voluminous and vicious lying, we’re talking about the wrong thing. Trump isn’t imposing his will on us because he’s sick.
He’s imposing his will on us because that’s what sadists do.