by Ansley Skipper
In this era of an unpopular tweeter-in-chief, Ansley Skipper discusses the ways Americans have tried to cope with our electoral regrets.
Donald Trump has long been an active user of social media, especially Twitter, often in provocative ways. But after he made the transition from business mogul to President of the United States, debate has raged over the significance of a president’s tweets: whether they are to be interpreted as official statements, blanketed remarks, real policy, or none of the above. Controversial tweets about North Korea and the President’s apparent threats of force, including talk of the “nuclear button” and “fire and fury” sparked even more concern and discussion of the President’s use of Twitter and even his mental health. Everyone –– from politicians to psychiatrists to news anchors to average Americans –– seems to have something to say about the President’s mental state. In fact, a Yale psychiatrist told Congressional Democrats that President Trump’s behavior is “dangerous” and mentioned that he could be “committed to a mental institution.” As the American president is arguably the most influential leader in the world, his or her mental health is of global concern. Naturally, President Trump responded to accusations of his lack of intelligence and mental stability by firing off a series of tweets.
Of course, mockery of this statement grew rampant in memes and tweets and on late night shows. This time, however, legislators took further action. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) even went so far as to introduce the Stable Genius Act, which will soon go to committee. This bill, if passed into law, would require presidential candidates to file a record with the Federal Election Commission stating both that the fact that they had been given a mental examination by the Secretary of the Navy and the actual results of this examination.
Congressman Boyle defends his legislation saying, "Before voting for the highest office in the land, Americans have a right to know whether an individual has the physical and mental fitness to serve as President," he added. In this capacity, the legislation would serve as a safeguard against an ignorant voter base and provide voters with more information about presidential candidates.
However, in the case of President Trump, his behavior was the same during the election as it has been since his inauguration, and Americans knew exactly what sort of behavior to expect from him if they elected him President, even without an examination by the Secretary of the Navy.
A president diagnosed with a mental illness may be able to control that condition and effectively govern, but a president who behaves in a way that restricts his ability to effectively govern –– whether because his credibility is undermined or because foreign diplomats refuse to meet with him –– will not be able to fulfill the responsibilities of the presidency. Regardless to what extent President Trump is “mentally stable,” his behavior has always been dangerous. A candidate-turned-leader’s behavior is not information that requires an act of Congress to expose. President Trump’s supporters saw the same behavior as did those who voted against him.
Some believe that Congressman Boyle’s recently introduced Stable Genius Act would effectively add another criterion to be eligible for the presidency, a criterion created ultimately by Congress, not by amendment to the Constitution. As criteria for eligibility for the presidency are outlined in the Constitution, the Stable Genius Act standing as it is now would be unconstitutional, and the complex, arduous process for amending the Constitution would become necessary. Additionally, the 25th Amendment already creates a mechanism for removing a mentally incapable president from office, and the founders created a system of government with more safeguards against uninformed citizens than a direct democracy.
The founders, largely a group of educated elitists, comprised a system of government to guard against the ignorant masses who could potentially destroy democracy from the inside. They intentionally established a democratic republic wherein the citizenry vote to elect leaders to govern on their behalf and electors to elect a president on their behalf. This system gives the people a voice but not the kind of absolute power that can lead to tyranny or anarchy. The Stable Genius Act could either be seen as another measure toward protection from the ignorance of the people or as a hindrance of the right of any citizen of the United States to run for the office of president.
Legislation aside, President Trump’s controversial use of Twitter has caused many to consider all world leaders’ use and access to the social media platform and the possible negative consequences of its use. A popular suggestion has been a ban of world leaders from Twitter. Twitter, and social media as a whole, has always been perceived as a platform for free thought and open debate, not to mention the fact that it is steadily becoming the most popular way people keep abreast of current events. With this increased usage of social media, it is natural that leaders and politicians around the world are using it to communicate with their constituents. No leader has stirred such controversy with the use of this platform as has President Trump. Writer for “The Atlantic” Conor Friedersdorf points out the ease of communication provided by Twitter and says that, though the consequences of a reckless tweet from a private citizen are small, the case is not so for global leaders.
“But heads of state should not share ‘instantly.’ The weightiness of their pronouncements should be a barrier that causes them to pause before every pronouncement, for their words can carry immediate consequences, and can conceivably affect billions,” writes Friedersdorf.
While Friedersdorf makes a valid point about the gravity of statements by world leaders, Twitter has now assumed a role in society akin to a public necessity. It is an important platform for leaders to reach their citizens, and the restriction of information restricts the awareness of citizens and stifles debate over leaders’ statements. Ultimately this could give the leaders more unilateral power and stifle the kinds of conversations which could hold these leaders accountable to their citizens.
Twitter defended their decision to continue allowing world leaders to use the platform writing, “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
Some believe the behavior exhibited by President Trump on Twitter and other platforms proves that he is mentally ill or unstable. Even if President Trump has a clinical mental illness, he would not be the first president to have such a condition. A study conducted in 2006 by three psychiatrists concluded that about half of U.S. presidents between 1776 and 1974 likely had psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse.
One of the best known cases of mental illness in presidents is President Abraham Lincoln’s depression. Considering the likelihood that mentally ill presidents have already held office, this calls into question the need for legislation like the Stable Genius Act. It is difficult to know whether or not these conditions impaired presidents’ judgement. It is also hard to determine whether one’s actions are simply a result of his or her personality or of a mental condition. President Trump’s style of leadership might be the effect of a mental illness, but it also might be a result of his unconventional personality. Regardless of its cause, President Trump’s behavior was on full display for voters to witness in the 2016 election cycle, yet the majority of people in 30 states voted to elect him President of the United States.
The ability of a candidate to govern should be of concern to voters, but politicians, pundits, and engaged citizens must be careful about casually using mental illness to discount those with whom they disagree. As psychiatrist Ken Duckworth told NPR’s Jon Hamilton, "When you don't agree with someone, it's not helpful to label them as having a psychiatric illness."
Until Donald Trump is no longer President of the United States (and likely long after that,) politicians, pundits, and citizens alike will probably continue to find ways to compensate for an election outcome of which they disagree. The Founders understood that the people would likely make poor decisions in whom they elect –– in fact, the nation they designed allows for that result. Unfortunately, considerations as to the capability of a president to lead must be made at the ballot box, rather than in the form of new legislation or regulations after they have been inaugurated. Democracy — even in the United States — will yield some good leaders and some bad, but the moment we try to interfere with the ingenious system that is our country, we compromise its ability to run fairly and efficiently. The success or failure, or capability, of the president is subjective, too subjective to alter our political system because of one president. If we engage with and trust our system of government, America will withstand the administration of any elected president, including Donald Trump.