Trump Isn't Unfit Because He's in Mental Decline
He's unfit because he's a fucking fascist.
Image: Adina Firestone, CC. Bottles of bleach.
Nikki Haley’s campaign has finally, and belatedly found a way to attack Trump. She’s targeted him for being mentally ill.
It’s not surprising that a far right, increasingly fascist GOP should embrace ableism. It’s somewhat disheartening that Democrats, and some leftists, also find these arguments compelling, funny, or useful. In any case, trying to discredit Trump by saying he is in “mental decline” is much less likely to damage him than it is to increase stigma against the mentally ill.
Just as bad, the discussions of mental competence distract from (and in Haley’s case are meant to distract from) the actual problem with Trump, which is that he—and his followers—are evil assholes pushing a program of authoritarianism and cruelty. Substituting language of “health” for morality plays into fascist tropes. And you aren’t going to defeat the fascists by acquiescing in their worldview.
Insurrection, yes. Old age, no.
There have long been Trump critics who have argued that he is mentally ill and therefore unfit for office. Many liberal and left commenters seem to hope that stigmatizing Trump as cognitively unfit will cause his campaign to disintegrate and finally bring him down—though if it hasn’t done so up to now, it’s unclear why it should going forward.
Haley’s campaign has gone further, and made attacks on Trump’s mental fitness central to its case to voters in a way that few of Trump’s electoral opponents have done. “We’ve seen him get confused,” Haley said in a recent interview, and suggested that Trump at 77 is scientifically experiencing cognitive decline. New Hampshire governorChris Sununu was even more explicit on twitter. When Trump asked why Fox was interviewing Sununu, he replied. “I suppose it’s tough keeping up with the conversation given your advanced age. Maybe try subtitles next time.” (Note: Subtitles are good and using them is not a sign of mental unfitness in any way.)
It's not difficult to see why Haley wants to talk about Trump’s mental decline. It’s a way to criticize the orange idol without criticizing his actions as president. It allowed Haley to say, “Trump’s presidency was awesome, but he’s not the man in 2024 that he was in 2016.” She can claim Trump policies are good, but that he’s not the best person to advance them any more.
More, attacks on Trump’s mental fitness resonate with longstanding (and baseless) right wing attacks on President Joe Biden’s mental fitness. Haley can say both Biden and Trump are old and in decline, insulating herself from the charge that she’s helping the Democrats by coming after Trump alone.
Trump has always been like this
For Haley, attacks on Trump’s mental health are congenial because Haley is herself irresponsible and callous. She doesn’t care that the people who are most harmed by reckless diagnoses of mental illness are disabled people.
We’ve seen this clearly over the last few years. The right has claimed that Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman is mentally incompetent because he has audio processing issues after a stroke. Similarly, Biden’s critics have used his stutter to make broad claims of mental unfitness.
Biden and Fetterman were both elected. But millions of voters had the idea drilled into their heads that people with hearing or speech difficulties are untrustworthy and intellectually incompetent.
Trump has not had a stroke and does not have a stutter. And he does make a lot of weird errors and garbled statements in speeches. Most recently, he confused former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley, claiming that the latter, not the former, was in charge of Capitol Hill security during the January 6 coup attempt. (The Biden campaign highlighted the gaffe.)
Some commenters have claimed that Trump used to be more on the ball. But did he?
Remember that Trump actually lied about the weather at his inauguration insisting that it did not rain, even though there was video footage showing that it did. Trump also urged his followers to protect themselves from Covid by injecting bleach. If the baseline is lying about rain and injecting bleach, what would decline from that point even mean?
The thing about Trump is that he lies absolutely all the time and seems to believe whatever is convenient for him to believe at the time. That means his connection to reality is tenuous at best. But that’s not a mental failure. It’s a moral one.
Conflating health and morality is central to fascism
Part of the reason that people on the right want to talk about mental health is precisely because they don’t want to condemn Trump morally. They think his morals are great. Haley’s argument is that Trump is not competent any more to enforce his great moral program of torturing children at the border, subjugating Black and queer people, and denying women bodily autonomy.
Democrats do think Trump is immoral—but they also are often uncomfortable using moral language, which feels insufficiently objective, and maybe a little too corny. “Trump is evil” comes across as a theological statement. “Trump is mentally deficient,” on the other hand, sounds like a journalistic, scientific diagnosis.
The fact is, though, that Trump is bad because he and his fascist program are evil, not because he is mentally ill. Lots of mentally ill people are not evil fascists. The vast majority of mentally ill people do not, like Trump, sexually assault women. The vast majority of mentally ill people do not encourage mobs to murder their colleagues. The vast majority of mentally ill people do not conduct vicious drone wars while removing virtually all oversight. For that matter, the majority of mentally ill people do not encourage their huge followings to mock disabled people.
Trump mocks disable people because he’s a fascist piece of shit, and fascists love conflating physical and mental disability with immorality. The Nazis sterilized and murdered mentally ill and disabled people. Trump himself has specifically said that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our nation” because “they’re coming from prisons, from mental institutions.”
Fasicsts are obsessed with purity and ideal, healthy bodies. They claim their opponents—leftists, Jews, Black people, Muslims, LGBT people, fat people, disabled people—are diseased and mentally ill. For fascists, “health” is morality and morality is “health.” Only the perfect Aryans are moral, because only the perfect Aryan in the perfect body is an exemplar of health.
When we attack Trump for being mentally ill, or old, or fat, we’re leveraging the same kind of stigma that Trump leverages against his opponents. That may feel like just revenge. But it isn’t. Trump’s base will see him as perfect and his enemies as diseased no matter what you say. And normalizing the conflation of mental illness and moral failure just cosigns the fascist ideology that justifies Trumpism.
There aren’t shortcuts to defeating fascism, and you’re not going to defeat Trump by using his own weapons against him. Nikki Haley is going to eventually endorse Trump while claiming he’s more mentally fit for office than Biden. But the rest of us should remember that most old people and most mentally ill people would be much better presidents than Trump. The problem with Trump is not that he’s disabled, mentally or physically. The problem with Trump is that he’s a fucking fascist.