Was Adolf Hitler a ‘psychopath’? Is Donald Trump ‘crazy’? Are psychiatric labels a useful substitute for political analysis?
Psychologists and psychiatrists think so. They insist that their legal authority to assess personal competence should extend to the assessment of political competence.
In 2017, Bandy X. Lee, professor of law and psychiatry at Yale University and president of the World Mental Health Coalition, authored The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. More recently, Lee joined other psychiatrists to insist that a panel of ‘mental health experts’ be included in Trump’s impeachment process.
Labeling distressed individuals as ‘mentally ill’ dismisses the impact of toxic social conditions. Labeling detested politicians as ‘mentally ill’ serves a similar function. Calling Trump ‘crazy’ prevents a political understanding of his role in the capitalist system.
Who decides who is ‘mentally ill’?
During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump repeatedly referred to rival Bernie Sanders as ‘Crazy Bernie.’ To some people, left-wing ideas seem ‘crazy.’ To others, right-wing ideas seem ‘crazy.’ Used in such ways, the term ‘crazy’ is simply a moral rejection of what anyone deems unacceptable.
In contrast, medically imposed psychiatric labels have serious consequences. The State equates ‘mental illness’ with mental incompetence, to the point that anyone with a psychiatric label can be legally taken into custody and subjected to medical interventions for indefinite periods against their will. It follows that any politician who is labeled as ‘mentally ill’ could be summarily removed from power on medical grounds.
Because there are no objective criteria for labeling someone ‘mentally ill,’ psychiatric labels can be used to discredit anyone. In practice, these labels are primarily used against those who disrupt or threaten the social order.
Historically, psychiatric labeling developed as a weapon of social control.
Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) is considered the father of American psychiatry. Rush was a signatory to the US Declaration of Independence; however, he opposed radicals who wanted to keep pushing to abolish all forms of oppression including slavery. Rush called this passion for liberation “a form of insanity.” His use of psychiatry to discredit rebellion would prove immensely useful to the capitalist class.
By the mid-1800s, opposition to slavery was growing in America. To defend the slave system, Dr. Samuel Cartwright insisted that Black people were biologically suited to bondage, and freeing them would damage their mental health. Cartwright invented two psychiatric ‘diagnoses:’ ‘drapetomania,’ or ‘runaway fever’ which presumed to explain why enslaved people wanted to escape; and ‘dysaesthesia aethiopica’ or ‘lack of work ethic’ which he used to describe slaves who were too sick or injured to work.
Indigenous peoples who resisted colonial genocide were labeled ‘crazy’ and incarcerated in places such as the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota. All imperial powers have used, and continue to use, this strategy to subdue Indigenous rebels.
In 1983, the World Psychiatric Association expelled the Soviet Union for using psychiatry to target political dissidents. On that basis, it could have expelled any nation.
In 1968, the American Archives of General Psychiatry published an article claiming that the rhetoric of the Black freedom movement drives Black men insane by causing a “delusional anti-Whiteness” that makes them a threat to “Caucasian values” and “White civilization.”
In 1992, the U.S. federal government announced its ‘Violence Initiative,’ a program of screening and psychiatric drug ‘treatment’ aimed at Black inner-city children with “presumed genetic and biochemical predispositions for violence.”
In 2009, New York City police officer Adrian Schoolcraft was abducted by senior officers and held in a psychiatric facility for exposing corrupt police practices.
In 2016, police escorted Rutgers University professor Kevin Allred to an involuntary psychiatric assessment after he made anti-Trump statements in class and on Twitter.
Thousands of American soldiers are being psychiatrically labeled with ‘personality disorders’ and given ‘less-than-honorable’ discharges for simply reporting a sexual assault.
In 2017, a young woman in Ireland who thought she was being sent to Dublin for an abortion was forcibly confined in a ‘mental health unit’ until another psychiatrist pronounced her ‘sane.’
In 2017, a legal investigator in Canada was fired on the false premise that she was ‘mentally ill’ and unfit for work after she blew the whistle on systemic failures in the medical system.
Psychological explanations blame individuals for social problems and let the system off the hook.
It is now standard practice to attribute individual acts of violence to ‘mental illness.’ When a self-proclaimed White supremacist massacred worshipers in a New Zealand mosque last year, the mass media uniformly depicted the killer as ‘mentally ill.’ In doing so, they discount the racist political climate that incites such violence and wrongly stigmatize everyone labeled ‘mentally ill’ as violent and dangerous.
“Psychological barriers” are proposed as the reason why more people are not actively involved in combating climate change. Locating the cause of inaction at the psychological level ignores how the capitalist system blocks and punishes political activism.
Labeling Hitler a ‘psychopath’ to explain the Holocaust obscures the fact that a deepening social crisis compelled sections of the German capitalist class to back a fascist leader who promised to smash the unions and restore the flow of profit.
Political analysis enables us to learn from history. Psychologizing does not. On the contrary, the status quo is maintained when systemic problems are reduced to the level of individual psychology.
Political psychologizing faults individual politicians for doing what they must do to advance their careers under capitalism. Candidates who aim for high political office must audition before the ruling class. If they demonstrate sufficient political usefulness, they will be supported, whether they lean right or left.
In response to social crisis, the capitalist class have two options: they can back left-wing reformers to divert potential revolutions into safer channels, or they can back right-wing reformers like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and Augusto Pinochet to use naked force to increase the flow of profit. Which they choose depends on the balance of class forces, that is, whether the working class or the capitalist class have more power at the time.
A focus on individuals ignores the impact of class conflict. This leads to the ahistorical delusion that, under the right leadership, desirable policies that were achieved in the past or in other nations can be adopted anytime or anywhere without needing to recreate the social conditions under which they were originally achieved.
During the turbulent 1930s, American capitalists conceded a New Deal to avert working-class revolution. The working class today present no existential threat to the system and, until they do, the capitalist class will feel no need to concede anything.
Trump is not ‘crazy’
President Donald Trump is undeniably ruthless and cruel. However, he is neither stupid nor crazy. He is an accomplished con artist and a very successful capitalist.
To the voting public, Trump plays the rogue cowboy giving the middle finger to established rules and regulations. People want to believe this man has the answer, if only because of his overwhelming belief in himself.
To his class, Trump demonstrates that he will do whatever it takes to generate capital. On that basis, he is supremely qualified to help American capitalists maintain their dominant global position. They have abandoned any pretense of solving the many crises threatening humanity, and who better to lead them than a man who has abandoned any pretense of caring.
While Trump seizes every opportunity to enrich himself, he shrewdly shares enough of the booty so that his class stands behind him. That is why Trump was impeached for conspiring against his political rivals and not because of his racist immigration policies, his cruel attacks against poor people, his continuing destruction of the environment, or his dangerous launch of Space Force – all of which advance the interests of his class. They may be offended by his vulgarity or disagree with his tactics, but they will ride with him for as long as the party lasts. They will even support Trump’s willingness to launch WWIII if doing so will secure American interests in the Middle East.
Some say that Trump is delusional because his policies are so short-sighted. Of course they are. Like all capitalists, he strives to enrich himself at any cost. That is what capitalists do. That is why we are in the mess we’re in.
If anyone is ‘crazy,’ it is the rest of us for allowing the Trumps of this world to ravage our lives, our planet, and our children’s future. What is delusional is to believe that America was ever a democracy, or that late-stage capitalism can be cleansed of corruption, pollution, and war by electing different politicians to office.
Because they serve the same class, presidents differ more in style than in substance. Some display kindly faces and stylish manners, like Barack Obama, while they stab you in the back. Trump stabs you in the front, and twists the knife while laughing in your face, because he can.
Trump can revel in his power because he represents a triumphant capitalist class, a class that can defeat rebellions anywhere in the world and reverse concessions made to appease past rebellions. Currently, this class feels invincible, and Trump is their figurehead, the living symbol of their utter disdain for social constraints.
I would vote for Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump in a heartbeat, but not because Trump is ‘crazy’ or because Bernie can change the direction of US capitalism. Elected officials do not direct the capitalist class, but are directed by them. I would vote for Bernie because he embodies the mass hunger for something better, and the movement behind him could grow powerful enough to deliver it when Bernie himself proves incapable of doing so.
Like Jeremy Corbyn, Alexis Tsipras, Evo Morales, Lula da Silva, Salvador Allende, and so many others, Sanders is wedded to the capitalist system in the mistaken belief that he can make it humane. The inevitable compromises and defeats of left reformers prove they cannot, and Sanders is no exception. When the Democratic Party sabotaged his candidacy in 2016, he did not break from the Party but urged his supporters to vote for establishment candidate Hillary Clinton.
At this point in history, a populace that is sufficiently organized to elect a socialist president and force major concessions from the capitalist class would be powerful enough to end capitalist rule altogether and create a worker-run system that actually meets people’s needs.
Psychiatric labeling has no place in socialist or working-class politics. Our weapon is political analysis, and our primary concern is not whether someone is ‘mentally ill’ or ‘mentally fit’ but whether they are on the side of the capitalists or on the side of the working class.