Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
For years now, professional psychologists and armchair pundits alike have been diagnosing Donald Trump with a variety of mental illnesses, all from afar. This has proven roughly as effective at stopping him as the Democrats’ impeachment efforts. Yet, such impotence has not impeded A Duty to Warn, an organization of mental health professionals who still seem to think they can make a difference by pointing out that Trump is anything but “a very stable genius.” Their crowning effort, the crowdfunded documentary #Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump (yes, the hashtag is part of the title), is now available on VOD.
Here’s a wild idea: What if being a giant asshole isn’t a sign of mental illness? What if you can’t easily wave away all the troubling questions raised by Trump’s ascendancy with that label? What if all the shitty, glib discourse about Trump’s mental state actually functions less like attacks on him and more like attacks on people with confirmed mental illnesses? You know, people who aren’t in positions of considerable power, who are far more likely than Trump to be harmed by furthering the stigma around their conditions. (Adding literal insult to the injury of his administration cutting funding for mental healthcare.)
Does Donald Trump have some form of mental illness? Possibly. I, not being a professional psychologist and having never met the man, am not qualified to make a judgment there. One would think that others could abide by this very basic guideline, and yet now we have a whole-ass movie proving otherwise. #Unfit brings together a variety of experts and “experts” to attest to its “official” diagnosis of Trump as someone with malignant narcissism, and how this makes him unfit for the presidency. What precisely they would like to be done about this is unclear. Vote? That didn’t exactly work out so well the last time. As last-ditch efforts to sway public opinion before a presidential election go, this one actually manages to be even less persuasive or relevant than Michael Moore’s Trumpland (2016).
Curiously, most of the film isn’t even devoted to Trump’s mental health, but rather to reiterating all the terrible things he’s done over the course of his presidency, from separating and caging immigrant families to attacking the press. I suppose this might be useful if you’ve been completely ignoring the news for the past five years, or if for some reason you want a few solid hits of rage-nostalgia. This could be a side effect of the documentary making the mental health element a hook when it’s really just generic anti-Trump agitprop. Or the point may in fact be to pathologize Trump’s destructive policies, while ignoring the fact that they’re the natural result of the Republican Party’s evolution over the past few decades.
It’s astonishing how poorly this film constructs and positions its arguments. It denies that diagnosing Trump from afar violates the “Goldwater rule” of the American Psychiatric Association’s ethical guidelines by essentially saying “Nuh-uh, it doesn’t,” citing the “duty to warn” concept as justification. It tries to head off criticism around stigmatizing mental illness by claiming that other presidents have performed the job just fine with their own psychological issues, in the process again violating the Goldwater rule! (One talking head, John Gartner, has made it his whole thing to try to convince people that Bill Clinton has hypomania.) It furthers the aggravating conflation of politicians lying with the phenomenon of gaslighting.
Best (read: worst) of all, a sizable segment is devoted to an old golfing buddy of Trump’s discussing how he cheats at the game. This sequence is more in-depth and detailed than anything the film delves into about his racism, misogyny, or authoritarianism. Now, if I were of the same inclination as the makers of this #Unfit, I might hypothesize that this suggests they are more offended and disgusted by someone cheating at golf than they are by concentration camps, rape, or the restriction of civil liberties. It’s almost as if to them, decorum and tone matter more than actions. And it doesn’t seem to matter to them if they throw mentally ill people under the bus when calling Trump out.