FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Is Donald Trump Responsible for His Bad Behavior?

Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, confirms in her book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Simon & Schuster, 2020) what many other psychologists and non-psychologists alike have concluded over the past three and a half years: Donald Trump is a psychopath.

Trump amply exhibits nineteen of the twenty attributes in Dr. Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist (PCL-R): glib and superficial charm, grandiose self-worth, need for stimulation or proneness to boredom, pathological lying, conning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callousness and lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioral controls, promiscuous sexual behavior, early behavior problems, lack of realistic, long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for own actions, many short-term marital relationships, juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility.

This popular diagnosis, if correct, raises two difficult questions. First, is it fair to hold Trump morally responsible — that is, to blame him — for his bad behavior? Second, if Trump has committed any crimes, is it fair to hold him criminally responsible?

To be sure, most Democrats and Never Trumpers want to “pay him back” for all of his lying, hate speech, corruption, authoritarian tactics, and reckless contributions to such harms as the spread of COVID, a sinking economy, hate crimes, rogue law enforcement, and general anxiety. But merely wanting retribution does not mean that retribution is actually warranted.

This is precisely the reason why most states, the federal government, and the military provide for an insanity defense. While different jurisdictions have adopted different versions of the insanity defense, they all share in common two elements: (1) the defendant must have been suffering from a severe mental illness or disability at the time of the crime; and (2) as a result of this mental illness or disability, he did not understand that his criminal act was wrong. (Some jurisdictions interpret “wrong” to mean immoral, others to mean illegal.)

If Trump were to be prosecuted for any of his alleged crimes (for example, conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, obstruction of justice, tax fraud, money laundering, etc.) and plead insanity on the basis of his psychopathy, he would have to show both that psychopathy is a mental illness and that, as a result of this mental illness, he didn’t know that his criminal acts were wrong in the relevant sense.

Both points are questionable. First, while psychopathy overlaps significantly with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, which is included in the DSM-V, psychopathy itself may not be a mental illness. Instead, it may be the case that psychopaths and non-psychopaths differ only in character, not necessarily in degree of mental health or competence.

Second, is it even possible that Trump has believed all of his alleged criminal acts to be both morally and legally permissible? This suggestion certainly seems implausible when it comes to Trump’s understanding of what acts constitute crimes and what happens to criminals when they are caught. But it is slightly more plausible when we speculate about Trump’s moral knowledge. What is obviously wrong to non-psychopaths is not always obviously wrong to psychopaths. They may know that society generally disapproves of certain attitudes and behaviors, but they may also think that society is wrong.

In the end, the idea of treating psychopathy as a version of insanity will strike many as fundamentally misguided. Far from treating it as an exculpatory or mitigating factor, they would prefer to treat it as just the opposite: an aggravating factor. On this view, psychopathy is nothing more than a euphemism for evil character. A psychopath is not mad (insane, crazy, sick); he is bad. And any attempt to reduce his badness to madness unfairly absolves him. We would not “psychologize away” the average murderer’s or rapist’s state of mind, so why would we cut psychopaths this slack?

Fair point. But this can’t be the end of the story because there are still two big questions left unresolved: Why is Trump a psychopath in the first place? And is this cause itself mitigating or exculpatory?

In her book, Mary Trump details the brutality of Trump’s upbringing and thereby lends support to the inference that Trump’s parents made him into a psychopath. Had Trump been brought up properly, he might very well be a very different person today — kind, honest, diligent. But through a combination of emotional abuse, neglect, and indoctrination, Trump’s parents effectively destroyed his “normative competence” — that is, his ability to understand and apply moral reasons. So if anybody is to blame for his bad behavior, it is not Trump himself — he really could not have done otherwise; it is his parents. But they are both dead and therefore beyond accountability.

I suspect that all but Trump’s base will scoff at this application of the “abuse excuse” to Trump. (One such scoffer might ironically be Alan Dershowitz, who repudiates all versions of this plea in his 1994 book The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-outs, Sob Stories, and Evasions of Responsibility.) Yes, maybe Trump had a rough childhood, but so have many other children who turned out to be decent adults. Trump, then, must have freely chosen to be a psychopath. And for both this free choice and his resulting bad behavior, he is responsible and must be held responsible.

This conclusion is no doubt appealing. But the reader should keep in mind that this retributive sentiment, this desire to give Trump what he deserves, is the very same kind of sentiment that continues to fuel mass incarceration and an overly punitive, inhumane criminal justice system. So if we wish to correct these problems, we will have to think very hard about whether these reforms should include white collar criminals, including the rich and powerful.

More articles by:

Ken Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Professor of Law at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University.

Weekend Edition
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Dean Baker
Rental Inflation Appears to be Slowing, Especially in High-Priced Cities
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
James Haught
White Christian Bigotry
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail