BOSTON – Is being absolutely crazy an impediment to high public office?
It’s a question much debated here in the Disunited States. As Donald Trump continues his ever-downward descent into the darkest, dankest depths – praising neo-Nazis and white supremacists, threatening to shut down the U.S. government if Congress doesn’t give him his wall to keep out Mexicans – many serious people are asking serious questions: Is the president insane? Is he nuts? Is he now, at long last, fit to be declared unfit?
Trump represents uncharted territory for the world. But the dilemma of what to do when a politician loses his or her marbles – not so much. It’s happened before and not just in the United States, a nation now fully at war with itself.
It happens all the time, all over. What isn’t so ubiquitous is how nations deal with the madmen at the top.
In Canada, we’ve had a leader who communed with his dead mother and regularly talked to his dog. He thought Adolf Hitler was a saint. That man – Mackenzie King – was our longest-serving prime minister, no less. Many knew he was certifiable but there were no successful attempts to separate him from his office.
The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution anticipated the madman named Trump. America’s constitutional forefathers were not so wise about everything – their idiotic Second Amendment pledge to permit citizens to maintain “militias” carrying around assault rifles, for instance, has rendered U.S. schools and workplaces veritable shooting galleries.
That amendment was what allowed everything from Sandy Hook to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers to happen. It made this country a preferred jurisdiction for modern mass-murderers.
But the 25th Amendment, in contrast, was smart. It was prescient.
It reads: “Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”
The amendment is mainly preoccupied with process. As with lawyers, as with founding forefathers: the solution to process is more process. And the 25th is certainly mostly about process.
But it’s those 10 slender words – “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” – that bedevil many Americans in these dark days. What does it mean to be “unable” to be president of the United States? What’s the standard? What’s the threshold?
When a president brags about sexually assaulting women? When he calls the citizens of other nations – allies – rapists and murderers? When he mocks the disabled? When he breaks laws, over and over? When he discriminates? When he aligns himself with the Ku Klux Klan and – on Twitter — threatens a nuclear war that will claim the lives of millions? Then?
The 25th Amendment has been used before, in real life and on TV.
On the TV series Designated Survivor, starring Canadian Kiefer Sutherland as president, the 25th Amendment is invoked when Sutherland’s character must go under a surgeon’s scalpel after an assassination attempt. It’s a big deal, taking up a couple episodes.
And in the real world – which frankly seems far less real, since Trump was sworn in as America’s 45th president – the amendment has been applied only a half-dozen times since it’s adoption. When Gerald Ford succeeded Richard Nixon as president; when Ronald Reagan needed a colonoscopy; when George W. Bush needed one, too; and so on. Resignations and colonoscopies: that’s been the history of the 25th Amendment, until now.
So how does one go about determining that Trump is unstable and therefore unable? Who determines that and how?
It’s no simple thing.
Trump is not the first lunatic to lead the Republican Party. In 1964, the leader was Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, a far-right autocrat who called extremism a virtue and who wanted to use nuclear weapons against anyone who disagreed with him. Goldwater was not dispatched by a constitutional amendment – he was destroyed in the presidential election by a Democratic Party ad called Daisy (and after which I named my own firm). Daisy worked because it called Goldwater’s sanity into question.
But in the days leading up to the November 1964 vote, a few psychiatrists also opined on Goldwater’s mental stability from afar. Without having examined him up close, the psychiatrists declared Goldwater mentally ill and therefore unable to discharge presidential duties.
That set off a huge controversy in the American psychiatric community. And it led to the creation of what is called the Goldwater Rule – that is, a psychiatrist can’t now diagnose a person without them having first been a patient. It’s probably a good rule: if unpopular politicians could be removed from office by a stranger’s psychiatric speculation, then there wouldn’t be many politicians left in office.
For the 75 per cent of Americans who want Trump gone, the Goldwater Rule is a dilemma. Trump’s regime, even as it’s enveloped in crisis and scandal, is unlikely to offer up its president for examination by anyone’s head shrink. If he’s to be removed, it won’t be through the constitution’s 25th Amendment.
Besides, it’s not enough to call Trump crazy. He’s far worse than that. He’s a serial liar and a cheat, a swindler and a con man. And, by his admission, he’s a ‘man’ who sexually assaults women.
In one of his masterworks, In A Dark Time, poet Theodore Roethk writes:
“What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?”
There’s nothing noble about Donald Trump’s soul. He may be a madman, but he doesn’t belong in an asylum. He belongs somewhere else.
Troy Media columnist Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.