If you type “Donald Trump mental illness” or “Donald Trump insane” into Google News, you’ll get a lot of results.
The conversation about Donald Trump’s mental health — and the mental health of his supporters — has recently intensified. Last week, California Rep. Karen Bass (D) started a petition calling for a mental health evaluation of Donald Trump that reached 100,000 signatures.
“Our #DiagnoseTrump campaign is a very serious attempt to draw attention to Trump’s erratic, offensive, and often compulsive behavior,” Bass spokesman Derrick Rogers told the Daily Dot, though he acknowledged that mental health professionals “are the only people qualified to diagnose any individual with a mental health disorder.”
But demanding a mental health evaluation of Trump does suggest that Bass and others believe they are qualified to recognize mental illness. It also stigmatizes mental health issues to suggest that people with mental illnesses are dangerous or unfit to serve in any leadership position.
Lacking the leadership qualities to be president is an issue that’s entirely separate from being mentally ill. On top of that, calls to evaluate Trump’s mental state are distracting people from the real reason Trump should scare the American public — the fact that he stands for the unabashed celebration of white supremacy and misogyny.
The mainstream media is leaning into harmful stereotypes
Bass’ petition isn’t the only example. The words “crazy” and “insane” are being thrown around liberally this campaign season. Trump’s interviews are often called “insane” and Trump himself has been called “dangerously insane.” On MSNBC, Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough suggested that Trump could be a sociopath. Democrats have used the phrase “unstable” quite often to describe Trump, which avoids directly calling him mentally ill but still accomplishes the job of conveying the same thing.
“Is Donald Trump just plain crazy?” asks an opinion piece that ran in the Washington Post earlier this month. The evidence for this “craziness” is his constant lying, his “tenuous” grasp on reality, his “thin-skinned” nature, and the fact that he is a bully. Perhaps all of these qualities could belong to someone with a mental illness, or perhaps they represent the flaws of a very self-absorbed man who has grown accustomed to people catering to his whims for his entire life. Perhaps both of those statements are true. But throwing around a stigmatizing word for mentally ill people is not the way to thoughtfully explore Donald Trump’s psyche. It is, however, a convenient scapegoat for his actions that also serves to categorize every quality we find dislikable in people and attribute it to mental illness.
The media has a responsibility to consider how to avoid stereotypes when covering mental illness, because research shows that mass media affects how we perceive people with mental illness. And unfortunately, mass media often gets it wrong or associates mental illnesses with negative stereotypes, research consistently shows. We often see mental illnesses characterized as always being very severe, mentally ill people assumed to be more prone to violence, and the implicit assumption that people can’t function and live full lives with mental illness.
“The worst stereotypes come out in such depictions: mentally ill people as incompetent, dangerous, slovenly, undeserving,” Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California–Berkeley, told U.S. News and World Report. “The portrayals serve to distance ‘them’ from the rest of ‘us.’”
Much of the public discussion of Trump’s mental health may stem from this interest to distance ourselves from the GOP presidential candidate. We can separate ourselves from him by saying his behavior is rare, that he’s illogical, and that he’s not worth giving the time of day.
But relying on stereotypes that are inaccurate and harmful to people living with mental illness negatively affects a large group of Americans. According to the University of Washington, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans 18 years old and above are experiencing a mental disorder — which works out to be 57.7 million people, if you apply that percentage to the 2004 U.S. Census data.
Focusing on mental illness obscures what’s really going on
We can’t lose sight of the reason that Trump has galvanized so many supporters in the first place — which has nothing to do with mental health.
In fact, Trump’s celebration of white supremacy and misogyny, without coded language or the pretense of an interest in “equality,” has touched a nerve in a population that perceives itself as losing its grip on the nation. Other Republican candidates have similarly called on the anger of white straight cisgender men who feel displaced in a country they say belongs to them, but Trump speaks much more candidly.
As the country becomes more racially diverse, as conversations about race, gender, and sexual orientation become more prominent, and as the Democratic Party and country as a whole moves further left, this population becomes angrier and more receptive to a figure like Trump.
The research bears this theory out. As U.S. demographics shift, the pro-white and anti-minority attitudes of white people become more apparent, according to New York University and Northwestern University researchers. And those who often read about these demographic changes are more supportive of conservative policies and are more likely to identify themselves as conservative.
Research has also found that Americans’ perception of social progress for minority groups does not align with reality, which can help explain why some white men may feel “attacked” for being white men.
For instance, Harvard University professor Michael I. Norton looked at polls throughout the decades and found that white people are under the impression that discrimination against black people has almost disappeared. White people are also more likely than ever before to believe that anti-white discrimination exists, and that it is currently a bigger problem than discrimination against black people. This phenomenon isn’t limited to race, either. Other research has shown that men tend to perceive that there is more gender parity in their workplaces than there actually is, or more gender parity than their female colleagues perceive there to be.
Our Congress is still overwhelmingly male and white, and so is our media, which helps explain why our societal perception of the dramatic progress for women and people of color is so flawed.
You can see this distorted view in Trump’s assessment of the current political atmosphere for blue-collar white men — it’s abundantly clear, for instance, when Trump claims Hillary Clinton is benefiting from the “woman card.” In May, Trump said, “All of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore … The women get it better than we do, folks.” Back in 1989, Trump said, “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market,” and although he made the statement decades ago, it’s not too far out of step with some of his more recent comments and actions over the years or the comments of his supporters. In his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump called out to the “forgotten men and women,” and his statements over the past year tell us that it’s white men he considers to be the most “forgotten.”
Trump supporters have certainly embraced a distorted view of the world, but it’s not fair to suggest this distortion stems from mental illness — rather, it’s their immersion in and embrace of white supremacy and misogyny that is owed all of the credit.