I logged into Twitter this morning to encounter this article from Raw Story, which interviews Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and one of the authors of the report that seeks to answer the question “Does Trump have adequate mental capacity to perform the tasks of the Presidency?” (Their answer: He does not.)
I did both my law school internships in criminal law, one on each side of the aisle. During the first, I represented several people who, for various reasons, lacked competency; during the second, I worked with an assistant prosecutor whose job was to push back against competency claims at the state mental hospital.
While I couldn’t have recited the criteria Dr. Lee and her co-authors use in the report, they were immediately familiar to me in practice, based on my internship experiences. And when I read the Raw Story article, something else became immediately familiar to me as well.
Trump’s racism, itself, isn’t news. Trump has a history of subtle racism, including but not limited to his thirty years of accusing the Central Park 5 of rape, despite DNA evidence exonerating them.
But, until the last few years, the keyword there has been subtle. Trump hasn’t expressed that racism in a way that would raise eyebrows in polite company (in fact, raising one’s eyebrow would be seen as the impolite thing to do). He hasn’t, historically, attacked in the way he has now attacked Reps. Omar, Pressley, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez.
The racism has always been there. It’s just louder now. Why?
I Submit: The reason Trump’s racism is now laid bare is because that’s what dementia does.
Dr. Lee doesn’t attempt to diagnose Trump with dementia. In fact, she and her co-authors are very clear that they can’t diagnose Trump without seeing Trump in person.
Nevertheless, the question “Does Trump have dementia?” has been discussed in several venues (I find Tom Joseph’s particularly persuasive – here’s just one part of it).
And while I’m not a doctor, I am someone who has (a) worked with adults who lacked mental capacity and (b) had multiple grandparents with dementia. I can’t diagnose Trump or anyone else, but I can talk about what I see.
Here’s what I see.
For my grandparents, as with most dementia patients, dementia was a gradual slide. They didn’t turn incoherent all at once; the word salad built up over time. For a period of several months to several years, the word salad was sufficiently related to current events that one could pretend it was an actual conversation.
This, in hindsight, was also the point at which personalities began to change – or rather, to be laid bare.
Everyone has a certain category in their heads of things they think and feel, but that they don’t feel it’s proper to say. Typically, these things are “improper” because they conflict with the person’s self-image, the image others have of them, or both. They don’t fit with the role the person plays in their family, society, or the greater world.
Saying these things would rock the boat. It would provoke comments like “That’s just not like you!” It would erode trust. So we don’t say them. Even if the things are totally innocuous.
Before dementia makes you forget those things, though, it makes you forget why you decided they were off-limits.
For one of my grandmothers, this meant an abrupt change from Sweet Little Old Lady Who Uncomplainingly Endures Everything Including the Depression to torrents of invective about what a whore Mabel down the street was for using six eggs in her meringue and self-pity about how lonely she was now that childhood friend Beatrice (d. 1965) had stopped talking to her for Mean Girl reasons.
For my grandfather, it meant a change from Stalwart Businessman Community Leader Yes I Have Always Been This Rich Real Men Don’t Cry to telling me stories about his boyhood fishing in the Ozarks and how proud he is of me and my psychology degree.
(N.b. I don’t have a psychology degree. I suspect he always wanted one.)
At both those times, I realized that I no longer had to guess at what either grandparent was “really” thinking. I knew. They were telling me. Because they had forgotten not to.
We’re at the same point with Trump.
Trump has gone from genteel rich racist to bloviating invective racist because that part of his brain that used to tell him that Bloviating Racist was incompatible with his image is now gone.
He hasn’t forgotten the racism, any more than my grandfather had forgotten how it felt to catch his first catfish or my grandmother had forgotten how much it hurt to be cut by Beatrice for no reason. He has forgotten what his personal reason was not to talk about it.
He has forgotten that he ever had a reason not to talk about it.
I hesitate to say Trump is more reliable now than he was 20 years ago. Lacking capacity brings with it an instability with memory and reality, and Trump in particular has succumbed many times in the public eye to a reality dictated by his feelings, rather than facts. (Just ask our intelligence agencies.)
But there is a certain reliability in the emotions he expresses now, which is to say that they’re no longer filtered through his own constructed self-image or others’ image of him. He does still have an ego; in fact, that ego is perhaps even more easily bruised now, because he no longer has the protection afforded by playing the role of Rich Man Above Your Nonsense (a role which, arguably, his tiny hands never fully grasped in the first place). But he doesn’t play a role anymore.
He can’t. He’s forgotten that there was a role.
What we see from Trump now is pure, unadulterated Trump. We’re seeing what Trump has thought and felt on the down-low for decades now.
In the past, Trump was a highkey racist playing a lowkey racist in public. Now, he’s just a highkey racist, because he’s forgotten how to be an actor.
I am not looking forward to finding out what else Trump downplayed back when he still knew how to act.