Goldwater Rule

If Psychiatry was an exact science, the Goldwater Rule might make sense

In 1964, 1,189 psychiatrists said, “Goldwater is psychologically unfit to be president.” The reaction to that is what created the Goldwater Rule which stated, “it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person, and from whom they have not obtained consent to discuss their mental health in public statements.”

FiveThirtyEight recently revisited the issue with a Christie Aschwanden post, “’Diagnosing’ Trump Is More About Politics Than Mental Health.” This is very timely because the nature of Donald Trump, both before the 2016 election and since, is such that many people are asking WTF is going on?

Aschwanden talks about the confusion regarding the rule with three similar-sounding organizations weighing in: The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychoanalytical Association and the American Psychological Association. It should be no wonder that three organizations are not on the same page regarding the Goldwater Rule.

Professional organizations tend to get huffy about their territory and may not always take a global view of what is going on at ground-level. In the case of Trump, it is rather clear, at the minimum, that he is rather unique. It may be that some people think that he is a very healthy person, mentally. While many Americans are absolutely repulsed by his persona, there are millions who think that he is just fine. Fine enough to be president of the world’s longest-standing democracy.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, mental health assessment should be exclusively in the purview of the professionals, but in reality, most of us engage in analysis, or at least speculation. Chances are that the conclusions we draw are more a result of our own personal nature and nurture combination than any professional training. How we express it is also a reflection of who we are.

There are those who simply say that Trump is an idiot. Others will say that he is insane.

Those who give the situation a little more reflection might say that he does not seem to be mentally fit to be president, or that he has a narcissistic disorder that precludes him from distinguishing reality from fantasy. But as those on the left say such things, there are others on the right, particularly the alt-right, who think that he has all the qualities of an outstanding leader.

It is indeed difficult to distinguish between our amateurish psychological assessments of leaders and our plain and simple cultural biases. Again, to many progressives, Trump would be the nightmare guest at any gathering that one would attend. He would suck the oxygen out of the air while hurling insults at individuals and groups alike. Essentially everything that he would have to say would be about his one favorite topic, himself and how great he is.

Those of us who believe that modesty is indeed the best policy tend to be repelled by Trump and many of his associates. But there are millions of others who cannot construct a subtle way integrate their personality, so bragging and taunting is a natural way to feel good about oneself.

If the worlds of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and psychology were exact sciences, it would be easier to accept the Goldwater Rule. But we all know that one mental health professional can come to Diagnosis ‘A’ while a second comes to Diagnosis ‘B’ and so on.  So, the beat goes on. We will look at one another, and particularly our leaders, in ways that reflect our own personal values and even prejudices.

My frustration with the present situation is one that is common to almost everyone walking the planet. I wish that more people agreed with me. I wish that they would see the world as I do. If they did, we would never have anyone like Trump in the White House and we would live in peace with respect for economic, social and human rights.

But obviously, that is not the way it is, for any of us. For those of us who find Trump objectionable, we must try to find effective ways to convince others. More likely, what we need is for Trump to discover new ways to offend his base in ways that does not do too much damage to the world.

We all will continue to see things as they come most naturally to us. For those of us who wonder how we can be in a world in which Donald Trump is president of the United States, maybe our best solace is that “shit happens (not a psychological term),” and hopefully it will happen in a way that will be beneficial for us personally and the world in which we live. If we’re insightful and persistent, perhaps we can help influence what happens.

  • Stacy Mergenthal

    I wonder if it’s even possible to offend his base? He has called them uneducated and stupid. He has consistently and regularly insulted women on every level, and brags about sexually assaulting them. He has made many racist remarks, particularly about Latinos, who turned out to vote for him. He lies to them constantly. Through it all, his supporters have stuck by him–and maybe more to the point, their vote. (Sometimes I wonder how much of it is people supporting the ugly things he says and does, the hateful rhetoric, uninformed opinions, and unsound policies and how much of it is them defending their vote at all costs.)