WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump was every bit as naked, figuratively speaking, when he rode down his escalator two and a half years ago as he is today.
Yet it took author Michael Wolff to point out what many campaign staffers, White House aides, lawmakers, journalists and others who have dealt with the former reality TV host have privately acknowledged from that first day: There is something wrong with this man.
Just as all the adults in Hans Christian Andersen’s make-believe kingdom only admitted the obvious once a small boy had pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, so now has the national conversation settled on the idea that the president may not be mentally fit to serve in the job.
“Really? We’ve been chronicling it for two years now. It’s not surprising. None of it’s surprising,” said Rick Tyler, who worked on the 2016 GOP presidential campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “The book confirms what everyone has been thinking.”
Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, portrays a delusional, ignorant and impulsive chief executive who may also be suffering from a loss of his cognitive skills ― a description that has brought into public discourse what had previously been off-limits. Trump himself appeared to legitimize the question about his mental fitness by declaring himself “a stable genius” over the weekend.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Monday said a White House source had told him Trump exhibits the early stages of dementia. News outlets from the BBC to USA Today have been discussing Trump’s mental stability. And last week, in the White House daily news briefing hours after the first excerpt from Wolffe’s book had been published, press secretary Sarah Sanders was actually asked about Trump’s mental fitness in light of his statement that his nuclear button was bigger than that of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s. Curiously, Sanders did not defend Trump, but instead said that people ought to be worried about Kim’s mental fitness.
Why the sudden break in the dam?
“Because fuel building up in the forest isn’t a fire. It needs a spark,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who has railed at reporters who appear to trade access to the White House in return for less critical coverage.
Indeed, the types of behaviors being cited to question Trump’s mental health are nothing new and were evident from the very start of his presidential run. Trump’s campaign announcement on June 16, 2015, was a rambling, barely coherent mishmash of untruths and boasts. The only real policy pronouncement was his call for building a wall along the U.S. southern border, which Mexico somehow would be forced to pay for.
“We were watching it on all three networks and we were falling over laughing,” Tyler said.
Days later, at his first campaign stop in New Hampshire, Trump spent the bulk of his remarks reading aloud his standing in various polls and insulting his opponents and the journalists covering the backyard event.
The belligerent attacks, meandering phrasing and clear ignorance of policy continued through the debates ― perhaps most notably when the limit of his knowledge about nuclear weapons was illustrated by his comment that their “power” and “devastation” were “very important to me,” or when he could not detail his health care plan beyond eliminating “the lines around the states.”
Trump’s behavior and the possible pathologies behind it, though, escaped widespread scrutiny for the whole of the campaign and during almost all of his first year in office, for a variety of reasons.
In the months before any primary ballots were cast, the other GOP presidential candidates and most observers assumed that Trump’s support would collapse as more voters began paying closer attention. With the exception of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who consistently called Trump emotionally ill-equipped for the presidency, the other candidates saw only disadvantages to attacking Trump and angering his reality-TV fans.
Only as Trump appeared as if he could win the nomination did the other GOP candidates start questioning his mental stability, by which time the criticisms seemed like desperation tactics. After Trump secured the nomination, most Republicans fell into line to support him, hoping that they would somehow hold onto the Senate in what they expected to be a landslide loss in November. While they would privately question his behavior, they refused to publicly speculate on his fitness to serve.
Only a core of “Never Trump” Republicans and some Democrats openly questioned Trump’s sanity, while even then-President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton resorted to euphemisms like “temperamentally unfit.”
The societal taboo against calling people crazy worked to Trump’s advantage even more after he pulled off a victory. In fact, the election win seemed to advance a theory that Trump’s success proved he was only pretending to be unhinged, when instead he was engaged in high-level strategy. Under this theory, the apparently crazy tweets were an ingenious distraction, designed to put his opponents off guard.
“I have friends and relatives who say he’s playing five-dimensional chess,” Tyler said. “And I’m saying: He’s not playing chess. He’s not even playing checkers.”
Now that the question of Trump’s mental health is out in the open, it remains to be seen what, if anything, will change. Despite having promised in 2016 to be “boring” and “presidential,” Trump has shown no inclination to alter his behavior at all. In fact, his increasingly light work days give him even more time to watch the cable television news shows that get him riled up and often spark his tweetstorms.
The only mechanism for removing him from office over his mental stability is the 25th Amendment, which requires Vice President Mike Pence and a majority of the Cabinet to agree that the president is unable to carry out the duties of his job.
In a new academic paper about Trump’s “rhetorical signature” that she co-wrote, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is doubtful that could ever happen. “The likelihood that those personally selected by a president would invoke this amendment is, of course, vanishingly small and the evidentiary burden to warrant such action, daunting,” she wrote.