• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Genius Or Madness

January 2018


It's said that within every genius there’s a touch of madness. There’s a scintilla—somewhere—and in all great minds you’ll find it. History is rife with such crazed and clever, mad and brilliant minds.


The great classical economist Adam Smith had such a mind. It’s well-known that the celibate Scotsman had a tendency to talk to himself, as if his invisible hand indeed extended from an invisible friend. Albert Einstein also was a bit mad, but in his own inimitable way. That sage of quantum science was able to conquer the space-time continuum, of this there’s no doubt, but he failed to comprehend simple directions given him. More than once during his tenure as professor at Princeton he required from his students’ assistance to help him find his way home. Edgar Allan Poe, most macabre of American scribblers, devoted much of his time to phrenology or the study of human skulls and the characters they might reveal. John Maynard Keynes, most effete of financial wizards, chose for his crazed pastime chirognomy, or the judging of one’s character based on his or her hands.


Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist, Plato an idealist, and President Donald Trump is a narcissist. All geniuses—and all just a bit mad.


But none of the others were made to defend their genius in the way President Trump has been made to do. He felt it was necessary, like a modern-day Oscar Wilde, to declare to a suspicious world that he is, indeed, not only of sound mind, but of a prodigious mind as well.

Questions surrounding his mental fitness have been drifting around as of late. They first arose in anticipation of Michael Wolff’s forthcoming book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Passages of Wolff’s highly critical, and by some accounts, largely apocryphal work have been made public. In them, Trump is depicted as being something of a bumbling buffoon, a sort of megalomaniacal man-child, incompetent, incurious, and—above all—dangerous. Wolff sketches a profile of an impetuous vulgarian, a senile, seventy-one-year-old fool incapable of controlling his whim. All this, one might add, to the quiet and accepting chagrin of those around him; his staff can neither subdue nor sublimate their boss’s instinct. They’re simply bystanders—a cabinet bound by oath but forced into a corner.


Based on the furtive opinions of the cabinet-members and the skewed conclusions of the author, Trump hasn’t the erudition, the discretion, the stoicism, nor the subtlety of thought that the job demands. Instead, Wolff reveals to us—or to our pre-conceived notions—those attributes for which we secretly hope: an unhinged, unqualified president, flirting with the limits of lunacy and stumbling toward impeachment one day, one mistake at a time.


So, you can see why Trump felt compelled to go on Twitter and defend his mind and his name. I’ll admit, I might’ve done the same had I been confronted with a similar attack. And I am, unlike him, a generally placable guy. He’s rather more combative, shall we say, what with his infamous tendency to double-down. And double-down he did, when he tweeted on Saturday an absolute gem—one that’ll no doubt land atop his greatest hits. As the sun rose over Camp David during his weekend retreat, he tweeted a celebration of his life’s greatest assets, chiefly, his mental stability and his being “like, really smart”.


Naturally, this sent the media into a tizzy. There was a torrent of re-tweets and cable news segments dedicated to the topic. It gave every tired comedian a punchline for a week, and for good reason: it’s funny. All of it is. The fact that he actually typed out the word, “like”, as if dishing to a high school friend by the locker after class, or that he rambled off a list of life-long accomplishments from business to television to politics, or that he took the always-easy dig at Hillary Clinton—it’s a circus that you just can’t script.


But some Democrats aren’t so easily amused. They’ve long kicked around the idea that Trump is, to put it mildly, off his rocker. They’ve clamored for months, if not a year at this point, that he’s dangerously feckless and impetuous and thin-skinned—all concerns Wolff stirred up again. Heretofore, the Democrats’ only motivation for saying these things was simple animus, not a mental health diagnosis. But, in the past week, that’s precisely what they’ve sought to do.


From Yale University (the Clintons’ alma mater, no less), some Democratic congressmen brought in Dr. Bandy Lee, a practicing psychiatrist at the medical school at New Haven. In an obvious yet unapologetic breach of the Goldwater Rule (which bars medical practitioners from making diagnoses of political figures without having first “examined” the patient in a personal setting), Lee concluded that “Mr. Trump is showing signs of impairment that the average person could not see”. She went on, comforting us all with her sober analysis when she said that the president is “becoming very unstable very quickly” and that a more thoroughgoing evaluation is apropos. This, she said, would “demonstrate his capacity to serve”.


Never has a sweeter tune trickled into a Democrat’s ear. The trouble is though, that her prescription pad stops where the Oval Office begins. She’s a well-versed clinician, of this much we can be sure, and she represents an eminent school in the Northeast, but her acumen is confined to the patient upon whom she can look and with whom she might directly interact. It’s fitting, in an ironic way, that Lee’s an alienist—a term once synonymous with psychiatrist, but now means, simply, foreign. And it’s her remoteness that’s at issue here. She has no professional right to throw in her two cents when judging a man from afar.


Nevertheless, Democrats have taken urgently to Lee’s diagnosis. They’ve latched themselves to it, running full tilt and clenching it to the chest, all while Wolff’s book works to lengthen their stride. The finish line that they so desperately seek ends with Trump’s removal from office. This is nothing new, but they now sense it’s closer than ever before. To get there, they have but two paths: impeachment in 2018 (which would require they secure a solid majority in the House of Representatives and Senate) or the 25th Amendment. The former is plausible; the latter, less so. That said, Democrats have long salivated at the thought of invoking it. And while it was once a pipe-dream, it now stands, in their minds, a well-nigh possibility.


The only trouble, though, is that—in truth—it’s not. The Amendment, which was enacted in the 1960’s after President Kennedy’s untimely death, sets in place the process whereby a vice president accedes the office or a president leaves it. The most salient part of the Amendment is its “section four”, which describes in great detail how a president can be removed from office, not from without but from within, should he prove incapable of discharging his duties. It’s a process that’s not yet been put to task, but I’ll admit, I’d be curious to see how it would fare (not for the sake of the American republic, which would be in shambles and for the first time, in a legitimate crisis of succession, but for my own personal viewing pleasure. Trump thought the ratings were good now…could you imagine them if a fight for the throne were to ensue?)


To be invoked, it would need to be obvious and incontrovertible that the president was mentally unwell. The criteria for this goes far beyond childish trollery, insults, or early-morning, ego-infested tweets. Trump would have to be clearly, irrefutably, and pathologically indisposed. If not in an outright vegetative state, he’d have to look something like a mad king—Shakespearean or Hanoverian, Lear or George—take your pick. He’d have to be crazed, running about the castle non compos mentis. He’d have to be driveling, analphabetic—nothing short of a blank, drooling stare sitting behind the Resolute Desk. Then, and only then, the Executive Branch could try for a coup. That’s what makes this Amendment so dramatic and compelling. It would require the vice president and all of Trump’s immediate underlings to move as one movement against him. His own cabinet would have to initiate this coup d’état, but not without it being contested.


Assuming that he retained even an iota of his prior sense or presence of mind, Trump could make the claim that, in fact, he’s fine; he could deny any such alleged disability and set the stage for an actual crisis. At that point, the stakes would rise to a fever-pitch. His cabinet members, those beholden to him and his cogency for their livelihood, would be faced with a decision; they’d gone this far, dipped their toes deep into the roiling waters of a coup d’état—that whirlpool of tumult from which a state seldom escapes—to turn back now would be treason. However, if still they’re steadfast in their opinion and committed to usurpation, they’d repeat their position in a second written letter to Congress. This would be the cabinet’s last act. From there, the final decision would hasten down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Capitol Hill. On the Congressional floor, a vote would be held to determine the administration’s fate. With a two-third majority vote, by both the House and the Senate, the president would be removed and the vice president installed. No further recourse could be taken and the deed would be done—a fantastic fait accompli. Democrats would flood the streets in jubilation (perhaps before realizing that Mike Pence would accede the throne) and Donald Trump—perhaps in the warm embrace of a straight-jacket or in Hannibal’s mask—would be taken away never to be seen again.


Does this sound to you like a likely scenario? Can you see this sequence of events playing out? If you can, you’re more imaginative than I. And while I envy your creativity, I’ll resign myself to the boring reality: Trump is no genius, but he’s no madman either; he’s no erudite, but he’s no rube; he’s no doyen but he’s no dotard. He’s no Newton, Keynes, Einstein, or Smith, but he has a head on his shoulders and the faculty of thought. That might not be a high bar, but it’s enough for our president and for our country—for now.

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