More erratic, more often.
I spent the week talking with major media figures at networks and newspapers. And that was the consensus: President Trump’s behavior is getting worse in type and in frequency. It seems he’s acting more erratic more often. Calling Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell an enemy and comparing him to the communist leader of China — sending the markets into a free fall — is one of the most recent examples.
This raises a question: Are members of the news media tiptoeing around obvious questions about Trump’s instability? What do the daily lies, distortions and contradictions add up to?
This is a story that’s playing out every day on our TV screens and Twitter feeds. We can all see it happening, but it’s a very hard and very sensitive story to cover.
Some prominent figures, including the husband of counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, are pleading with the press to take this story more seriously. On Friday, George Conway said Trump is “decompensating” before our very eyes.
“Republicans need to face the fact that the president is mentally unstable and psychologically unfit,” he wrote.
Conway’s Twitter feed is practically devoted to this subject. On Saturday, Conway critiqued an editorial in the Wall Street Journal assailing Trump’s trade war tactics by saying the paper elided a question “more fundamental than that of the trade war: What does Trump’s irrational rage tweet against Powell say about Trump’s mental stability and fitness? The elephant is there, in the room, sitting on the couch, making itself at home.”
Conway, who asserts that Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, is far from alone. Trump’s mental health keeps being invoked by commentators online and on television.
In recent interviews the Trump-promoter-turned-detractor Anthony Scaramucci has been saying “mental breakdown.” Former congressman Joe Walsh, who announced a primary challenge to Trump on Sunday, simply says the president is “nuts.” Democratic candidates for president have made similar charges.
I recognize that some of this has been going on ever since the election. A vocal group of psychiatrists have been suggesting Trump is unwell for years. And Trump’s fiercest critics have been fantasizing about his removal under the 25th Amendment.
But the volume is different now. And this summer’s news headlines have given people plenty of reasons to worry. The list includes Trump making racist comments about Baltimore and Democratic lawmakers; repeating ridiculous claims about voter fraud; retweeting conspiracy theories; bragging about his visits to hospitals in Dayton and El Paso; and denying things everyone heard him say. At one point he called Meghan Markle nasty on tape, then claimed he never said it. The list goes on and on, but the list is necessary in order to cover the big picture of what’s going on.
That’s the challenge for national news outlets. All of these stories are covered in the moment, individually, by reporters who use words like erratic, volatile and unstable to describe Trump. But rarely are the words and actions covered in their totality.
To be fair, there’s not really a vocabulary for this. There’s not really a format for covering it. It’s natural to lead a newscast with, say, Trump wanting to buy Greenland. There’s a format for it. Newsrooms know how to cover that.
It’s a lot harder to cover concerns about the president’s wellbeing, because it’s really a series of questions that no one is able to answer. Why does he make it all about himself even while, to pick one example, visiting a hospital after a massacre? Why does he lie so often? Is there a method to the madness or is something wrong? Is he suffering from some sort of illness? Questions, questions and then more questions. No satisfying answers.
There is an understandable aversion to diagnosing a person — any person — based on what’s only visible on television and Twitter.
“I’m not Trump’s doctor, and I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Megan McArdle wrote in her most recent column for The Washington Post. “Very possibly, it’s simply a terminal case of ‘billionairitis ’ a well-known condition where very rich people slowly lose the ability to tolerate anything except the most obsequious flattery.”
“But,” she said, “I don’t need a diagnosis to know that the symptoms are pretty worrying.”
James Fallows made a similar point for The Atlantic, saying if Trump were a CEO or an airline pilot or “in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role.”
There are legitimate ethical questions about having this conversation. Journalists in newsrooms like The AP and CNN are trained to tread very carefully when entering the realm of speculation. The goal is to gather facts, not advance a political agenda.
But there are ways to cover the fact pattern around Trump and his actions that are reportorial, not political, in nature. Some writers and TV anchors are already doing it. By all means, let’s debate the ethics. But the press shouldn’t tiptoe around this story anymore.