August 22, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

No, Trump Isn’t Mentally Ill

His sadism, like that of other fascists, is rational.

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The thing about a sadist president is that he doesn’t care if his sadist policies don’t work. The other thing is that he can’t tell us that he doesn’t care if they don’t work.

He doesn’t care if they don’t work, because “working” doesn’t matter. Policies leading to appreciable outcomes are of no consequence. He can’t tell us that he doesn’t care if his sadist policies don’t work because sadism for its own sake is unthinkable to us.

When it comes to immigration and federal law, I think what really matters to Donald Trump is inflicting pain on people “deserving” pain. People having brown skin and speaking foreign languages who dare come here deserve the pain they get. If policies aimed at inflicting pain do not “work” as “designed,” that matters only to the extent that their “failure” is a rationale for devising more policies that are more sadistic.

Editor’s note

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Trump can’t tell the American people that children of immigrants held in detention centers deserve what’s coming to them, even if that means refusing to give them flu shots, even when some kids have already died from influenza. Trump can’t say that because sadism for its own sake is unthinkable. So the president says instead that his administration is withholding basic medical care as a deterrent to illegal entry. 

Of course, withholding basic medical care is not a deterrent to illegal entry any more than confiscating toddlers from mothers is a deterrent, any more than sabotaging the legal right to asylum is a deterrent. Immigrants are crossing the border improperly even as I type these words. But again, “working” is beside the point. The president’s point is punishing brown foreigners for the crime of being brown and foreign.

Similarly, it does not matter that locking up children indefinitely will not stop illegal entry. What matters is locking up people indefinitely who deserve being locked up indefinitely. Yes, some are kids, but so what? To Trump, a brown kid is as a subhuman as a brown adult. Again, he can’t say that nor can he say the point of sadist policies is sadism, not deterrence. So he says a new administration rule locking up children indefinitely makes “it almost impossible for people to come into our country illegally.”

In other words, a sadist president is never going to be honest about his real goals, because his real goals are unthinkable to us. He can’t be honest about his sadism, so he lies to us, and because he knows he must lie, the president is being quite rational. 

That’s my point. 

Trump’s mental state has been the subject of debate since he took office. There is now a growing chorus of psychologists, therapists and other mental health professionals exercising their “duty to warn.” That is commendable. They should be praised for their virtue and patriotism. But I believe attributing illness to Trump’s actions diminishes the genuinely mentally ill and obscures the darker reality of what’s really going on. 

Unless we’re prepared to call it a mental illness, we should see Trump’s racism for what it is.

Unless we’re prepared to call it a mental illness, we should see Trump’s racism for what it is—a deeply held belief that some of us are human while some of us are aliens, criminals, perversions, animals, or some other species of subhumanity. Liberals might call that crazy, but liberals must appreciate the binary thinking of the fascist mind. Once you understand the belief that some of us are human and some of us are not, you see, from the fascist’s point of view, that locking up immigrant children indefinitely for the sake of locking them up indefinitely is rational, because they “deserve” it.

Indeed, the fascist mind is hyper-rational.

It takes an enormous amount of ideological reasoning to look at a human child who is wailing for its mother, to overcome whatever compassion that the witnessing of suffering usually elicits, and conclude that the child totally deserves its suffering. 

Trump is not crazy. He’s not incapacitated. He’s consciously choosing to inflict pain on people he believes deserve pain. He knows the American people won’t accept sadism for its own sake. So he lies, and in the lying, the president is being rational. 

That’s how evil this is.

Attributing mental illness to Trump only masks that.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

    I only half agree. Yes, fascists are typically hyper-rational. There’s no doubt Trump is a sadist.

    But there is *also* something terribly, dangerously wrong with his mind. He can’t articulate complete thoughts. He lies *without realizing he’s lying.* He forgets things all the time — or proves incapable of learning them in the first place.

    He’s not a sadist because he is mentally ill. He is both a sadist *and* mentally ill. His presidency presents a moment-by-moment emergency that could literally end the world.

    It’s urgent that we say both things, loudly and repeatedly.

    • Carrington Ward on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

      I tend to agree: the best thing about Trump is his laziness and incapacity. As a sadist, Cheney was more skilled.

  2. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 7:53 am

    The fascist mind has its own ‘logic’: that some are worthy of pain, abuse, and death. As a quick thought experiment, I try to imagine what certain groups of current Americans would do if they had lived in Nazi Germany. Some of course would have opposed the Nazi regime. But, as so clearly articled by John Stoehr today, we should be completely clear that this oval office occupant and many around him (cough, cough, Miller, cough, Cuccinelli), would have happily shoved Jewish people and other undesirables into the death camps and the ovens.

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