December 24, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Trump’s Evil Is Rational

Stop searching for mental illness.

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Richard North Patterson has a long essay in The Bulwark arguing that the president is mentally ill and therefore unfit to govern. Actually, has been unfit. The former chairman of Common Cause said Donald Trump’s “narcissistic personality disorder” has been evident for years even to people inexpert in the workings of the human mind.

Patterson isn’t saying anything new. He’s adding to a growing conversation. What I want to contribute, however, is that this isn’t helpful. We shouldn’t see mental illness where there is plain ordinary sadism. We shouldn’t pathologize Trump’s ignorance, pettiness and greed. If we do, we don’t see what’s in front of us. Evil is rational.


Evil requires a moral response, not a medical one.


What’s more, pathologizing evil glosses over intent. Trump has done bad things, but he can’t help it. He’s sick! Well, that won’t cut it. Trump and the Republicans are making choices for reasons. Making choices for reasons is rational. Seeing evil as rational, however, is unthinkable for some. So they instead search for mental illness.

If the president is crazy, about half the adult population is crazy. Half the adult population finds ways, even two decades into the 21st century, to rationalize inflicting violence on their own children. Once you understand that something as evil as beating, harming and humiliating children is commonplace, you understand why focusing on mental illness makes matters worse. Evil isn’t crazy. It’s wrong. We should say no.

Since becoming a father, I have known many parents of young children. They, like me, delighted in seeing our kids’ minds flower. They, like me, thrilled at the sight of their learning, experimenting and taking pleasure in small things. We loved them because we needed to love them the same way we needed to breathe. This held true even during those challenging moments when they melted down and lost their goddamn minds. 

During these moments is when a parent makes choices that will affect a child pretty much forever. On the one hand, you can offer comfort and soothing words in the near-total absence of understanding in any coherent way what’s happening inside the child’s head. For reasons confounding to grown ups, the fact that the Beanie Boo was blue, and not pink, is real and legitimate cause for thrashing, wailing and sobbing. There’s nothing to be done for it. You can’t make her feelings less intense. You can’t reason with her. All that can be done can be measured in hugs and kisses, and time—time you may not have, but that’s the price of loving unconditionally. You love her because you must love her. Eventually, the very young child comes to her senses.


More than 50 percent of parents spank their kids.


This requires good faith on the parent’s part, a commitment to believing that the child is not willfully throwing a fit, that she literally can’t not melt down for no reason a parent can identify, and that she does not intend to violate etiquette and other social norms by expressing ingratitude for a Beanie Boo that’s not the right color. Losing her mind is part of the experience of being a toddler, ergo part of the daily challenge of being a tired and bewildered parent. This experience is normal and natural and expected—for the child. For lots of parents, however, it’s not normal in the least. 

More normal, more than most realize, is the exercise of bad faith in parenting, intended or not, the commitment to believing the child is willfully throwing a fit, that she is choosing to melt down and otherwise violate etiquette and other social norms due to being given a blue Beanie Boo instead of a pink one. To millions of American parents, such displays of disrespect must be addressed with correction, which is to say punishment, which is to say violence, which compounds the child’s suffering by orders of magnitude she won’t understand until adulthood, if ever. More than 50 percent of parents say they spank their children after three years of age, according to one study.

What are you going to do? Tell them they’re mentally unfit to be parents? No, they are making choices. Rational but bad choices. Evil requires a moral response, not a medical one. That’s the same conversation we should be having with respect to the president. “Narcissistic personality disorder” is beside the point. Or it should be.

—John Stoehr


Editor’s note
The Editorial Board will not publish Christmas Day. —JS


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

3 Comments

  1. Lincoln on July 30, 2021 at 8:02 am

    Trump shows clear signs of dementia. Everything you say about his sadism is true BUT… he also has dementia. The fact that he has dementia doesn’t change the fact that he’s evil but I submit that arguing both can and should coexist peacefully. In a way, not talking about his dementia gives him more weight that he deserves. I seem to remember reading somewhere that one of the most powerful ways of fighting a fascist is to tear down the faux alpha persona. This seems like a valid way to do it.

  2. EllTeacher on July 30, 2021 at 8:02 am

    I enjoyed the article–especially the anecdotal telling of raising children.  There are a few issues I have with this argument, as it takes us to the age-old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, especially using the rationale that spanking is inherently evil, that the adults are acting in bad faith, choosing to be evil.  It seemed to equate the correction of children as an act of bad faith.  However, I think it’s necessary in raising children to correct them on occasion.  The method of rectification is the issue.  

    Furthermore, the article states, “More than 50 percent of parents say they spank their children after three years of age, according to one study.”  So are 50 percent of parents evil? Though I am no advocate of spanking, I believe it’s wrong to label these parents as evil.  In general, most were probably spanked as children and do not know other ways of redirecting children from inappropriate or dangerous behavior.  Some may take an Old Testament approach of not “sparing the rod,” which is something that I find truly repulsive.  Unfortunately, trying to change this sort of behavior with societal pressure is just about useless.  Useless doesn’t mean there is nothing that others can do, but many people are afraid of reporting abusive behavior. Healthcare professionals have a mandate to report suspicious physical injuries, as do educators and social workers.   It’s not enough, but it’s a start.  

    It was also mentioned in the article that many are quick to write-off Trump’s behavior as “Narcissistic personality disorder.”  I too have read where many in the mental health field have suggested that this ‘disorder’ is the root of Trump’s behavior.  Labeling something as a disorder is another way of making sense of the chaos Trump exhibits and causes. Human beings really want to “understand” the world around them.  It’s why we invent categories and sort things, including people, into them.  

    When it comes to human behavior, most “issues” can be categorized as ‘US versus THEM.”   Trump is a master of defining ‘us versus them’ problems.  Republicans v. Democrats; women against men; white America against brown Latinx; coastal elites v. midwestern farmers; Scandanavian immigrants against those from $hithole countries; coal against green power; climate hoax v. climate change.  Everything boils down to this extreme type of human categorization: you’re with me or you’re against me.  And yes, that is narcissism at its worst.  

    Trump is often compared to a toddler and in many ways, that is a correct assessment.  From what I’ve seen of his behavior, he never learned what the education profession calls “executive skills.”  Executive skills (See Peg Dawson and  Richard Guare’s Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, Third Edition: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention (The Guilford Practical Intervention in the Schools Series), available on Amazon.).

    As a short prolegomenon, executive skills are learned actions that become unconscious regulators of behavior.  They are the foundation of higher-order thinking, allowing us to act more efficiently and effectively, which leads to problem-solving and setting and reaching goals. Executive skills include planning, organization, time-management, working memory, and metacognition.  

    I don’t think anyone can realistically believe that Trump has any of those traits.  

    Therein lies the predicament.  It is obvious that Trump has no metacognition.  He is incapable of stepping back and really looking at his actions and their ripple effects.  His answer to criticism is to “punch back,” a behavior he learned from his mentor, mob lawyer Roy Cohn.  Because of this “hit back harder” or, as Cohn would say, “F— the law,” bravado has worked before, it’s the only way he can behave now.  

    Because of his lack of executive skills, I just don’t think that Trump is evil.  He, however, is a CONDUIT for evil.  

    Getting rid of the military leaders he had installed in key positions and with Mulvaney “letting Trump be Trump,” have let the reins of appropriate and legal fall away completely.  

    And because evangelical Christians continue to have unwavering support for the man and the Senate, under Moscow Mitch’s leadership, exercises no oversight or accountability, Trump has begun to see himself as King of the World.  All Trump wants is adulation.  That’s not inherently evil.  

    As a conduit, however, we can find quite a lot of evil that has attached itself to Trump.  First and foremost must be Stephen Miller whose racist beliefs underlie all of the loathsome policy decisions made on immigration.  McConnell comes next.  His decision to withhold a vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court was the zenith of his evil against the Democratic, first black president.  He’s already stated Trump will be found not guilty in a Senate impeachment trial.  He’s blocked over 100 legislative acts of the Democratic-led House of Representatives.  And he’s stated he’d see a Trump-nominated justice confirmed for the Supreme Court if a seat became available during the coming election year.  He laughed at the hypocrisy.  

    Mulvaney would be my bronze medal winner, though Pompeo nearly makes it a tie.  I almost dread the coming reveal of their misdeeds when their communications finally become available to the public.  I have no doubt their bad acts will be a  punch to the gut when they are revealed. 

    Miller, McConnell, Mulvaney, and Pompeo are evil.  VP Pence should probably on this list as well as he has never disagreed with Trump on any of the evil being done by their administration. They are rational in their decisions.  They know wrong from right.  They understand what ethical behavior is and is not.  

    They are clearly using the Trump conduit for their own agendas, whether it be for personal animosities, power and prestige, or for religious convictions.  The end is the same: using Trump to do evil.  

    I stand by a previous comment I posted.  Believing that Trump was sent by God to lead the nation should lead a thinking person to ask what God’s intent was.  Because Trump is such an empty vessel, I think the purpose was to let men and women use their free will, to make rational decisions to do good or to do evil.  

    What a dilemma, caught between alternative facts and reality; caught between rightness and false morality; caught between the devil and the deep red sea.  

    The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.  John Philpot Curran in 1813  

  3. Rob Benjamin on July 30, 2021 at 8:02 am

    Psychology professionals have long recognized Antisocial Personality Disorder as a mental disorder (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/antisocial-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353928). They are also largely united in that it differs from other mental disorders in one crucial respect: By its very nature, most of those who have it don’t feel any physical or emotional suffering from it. Physical or emotional suffering seems to me to be a fundamental prerequisite for a disorder to qualify as an actual illness.
    Donald Trump has, according to Tony Schwartz, Michael Cohen, Richard Branson and a host of other people who have known him up close and personal, never shown any physical or emotional suffering, including guilt or remorse, from his behavior. In fact, as we have all witnessed, he openly revels in the harm he does to others. Regardless of its roots in his biology or upbringing, his disorder seems undeniably what theologians – and our own common sense – would call metaphysical evil.
    His rationality starts with a lifelong, a priori assumption of his entitlement to whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, and from whoever he wants it. Regardless of what we think of a priori assumptions in general, they have been the basis of philosophical arguments since the ancient Greeks. His a priori assumptions lead inescapably to a rational conclusion that NO human being has independent value, and that ALL human beings are measured by how well they deliver that to which he’s entitled.
    That’s why it doesn’t matter to me what are the root causes of Donald Trump’s mental disorder. It’s why all that matters to me is that he is, by OUR rational calculations, a fundamentally evil entity.

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