“Unfit”: Trump’s Psychopathology, Why It Matters, and What We Should Do About It

“Unfit”: Trump’s Psychopathology, Why It Matters, and What We Should Do About It August 23, 2020

If you want some psychological context for last week’s statement by 74 Republican national security officials declaring Trump unfit for the Presidency, or for Obama’s pull-no-punches assertion at the Democratic National Convention that “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” this is the documentary for you.

But before I proceed, let me get the personal disclosures out of the way.  As my regular readers know, I’ve been writing and speaking about Donald Trump’s leadership-disqualifying psychopathology for over three years.  When mental health professionals organized a nationwide “Duty to Warn” weekend to share their expertise with the public in Fall 2017, I was the keynote speaker in Chattanooga.  When my professional (not licensing) organization, the American Psychiatric Association, morphed their policy against recklessly diagnosing public figures into an inflexible gag rule, I resigned in protest.

All this to say I have a vested interest in seeing Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump succeed, and am acquainted with our main tour guide through the bulk of this documentary, psychologist and Duty to Warn founder John Gartner.

An animated Donald Trump, from “Unfit”

So I heaved a deep sigh of relief when I turned off my screener last night, appreciating that director/producer Dan Partland has crafted a solid, persuasive audiovisual essay.  (I suppose this should’ve been no surprise, as he’s earned two Emmys for series that broadcast on PBS and A&E.)  Indeed, Unfit goes beyond the diagnostic box-checking I anticipated, to dig into the reasons why Trump’s malignant narcissism is so dangerous, psychological explanations for his appeal, and fruitful avenues of response.

Partland and Gartner have gathered a Murderer’s Row of heavy hitters to make their case.  Mental health professionals from institutions like Hopkins and Harvard give us an overview of malignant narcissism.  Big-name Republicans and public servants under GOP Presidents – George Conway, Bill Kristol, Richard Painter, Anthony Scaramucci – discuss how Trump is uniquely toxic to democracy.  Experts on fascism and authoritarianism spell out Trump’s use of the same playbook as Mussolini and Hitler.

So much data and information are crammed into Unfit’s 83 minutes that it’s one of the rare films that would’ve benefited from an additional 15 minutes, to expand on its contentions and give viewers time to catch their breath and reflect.  It seldom meanders, well-organized from start to close.

After George Conway tells how a chance perusal of a Rolling Stone article on Trump’s psychopathology gave him the key to understanding our Chief Executive, the experts elucidate Trump’s malignant narcissism.  A diagnostic framework first developed by psychologist Erich Fromm to comprehend the evil he’d witnessed as a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany, it’s defined by the poisonous quartet of narcissism, paranoia, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and sadism.

While these are illustrated in some ways you’d expect – paranoia in Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories, sadism in his vile tweets – this section takes us in surprising directions, too.  Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal, expounds on the President’s lack of empathy.  ESPN sportswriter and witty raconteur Rick Reilly, who’s known Trump for 35 years, relates how his golf cheating explains his mendacity, disloyalty, and infidelity.  (Encroaching on North Korean dictator territory, he even festoons the walls of his resorts with trophies for tourneys where he was the only competitor!)

Unfit doesn’t break the mold of standard documentary filmmaking, but uses it competently nonetheless.  There’s clever animation sprinkled throughout, of a caricatured orange Trump; during the opening credits, he’s striving to outrun Sigmund Freud.  The contentions by the talking heads are effectively underscored with movie clips, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey for Trump’s alpha primate appeal and Spielberg’s Lincoln for how some forms of mental illness can actually enhance leadership.  And of course, there are plenty of examples of Trump’s logorrhea to choose from, conveying his paranoia and sadism (“I love getting even”), and ultimately, his danger to the world (his infamous “fire and fury” threats of nuclear war).

Frankly, if you’re not sphincter-clenching frightened about our democracy’s critical condition and Trump’s threat to our world by the end of Unfit, you weren’t paying attention.  Partland smartly brackets his film with words from intelligence and terrorism expert Malcolm Nance.  At the start of Unfit, he discusses the Personnel Reliability Program, a tool determining whether a military person possesses the qualities allowing proximity to our nation’s deadliest weapons – clearly implying that Trump would fail this test.  Near the documentary’s conclusion, Nance describes how the American President is a “nuclear monarch,” able to unilaterally fire nukes, accountable only to himself.  The question hangs in the air:  do you trust your children’s future with an impulsive, nuke-fixated malignant narcissist?

However, Unfit makes just as clear that we are not flies in a spider’s web, helplessly awaiting our demise.  Ruth Ben-Ghiat, one of the fascism experts, highlights the importance of street protests, to show Trump and the world that we refuse allegiance to his cult.  Vigilance and vocal righteous indignation are kryptonite to a narcissist’s gaslighting.  To this end, I hope Partland and Gartner’s film will spark my till-now silent colleagues into speaking out, in defiance of our organization’s efforts to suppress free speech (thus marching in time to the authoritarian playbook).  I likewise hope that the quietly horrified in our general populace will be jolted into lifting their voices, while they still can.


(Unfit will have a limited theatrical/virtual release on August 28, before dropping on all major streaming-on-demand platforms on September 1.)

(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )


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