DECEMBER 10, 2017
MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS have something they want to tell us off the clock. The president is dangerous, and likely mentally unfit for office. That’s the hard truth of the essay collection The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.
But there’s good news: Americans can make biscuits. At least, that’s what you might deduce if you pick up another anti-Trump compilation, Julia Turshen’s Feed the Resistance: Recipes + Ideas for Getting Involved, with essays and recipes for grassroots organizers to feed a crowd or take on a march.
Both collections are riding a wave of anti-Trump momentum, a mixed blessing for the audience-obsessed publishing business. They depict two essentially nonpolitical industries — food and psychology — putting a partisan stake in the ground. But what can we learn from them? Are these conceits merely gimmicks to cash in on a bad national moment?
The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump grew out of Yale’s “Duty to Warn” conference, a town-hall-style meeting organized by Bandy Lee, an Assistant Clinical Professor in Law and Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine who specializes in violence studies. In April 2017, she gathered two-dozen mental health professionals to discuss their ethical responsibility to warn the public of Donald Trump’s potential dangerousness. Hundreds in the industry followed online. Originally conceived as a traditional publication of proceedings, it grew in scope once the popular interest became clear. “It felt as if we had tapped into a groundswell of a movement among mental health professionals, and also an army of people who wanted to speak about the issue,” Lee writes.
The result is 350 pages that lay out three clear agendas: (1) assess President Trump’s mental health, (2) discuss the ethics of allowing professionals to comment on the mental health of a public figure, and (3) evaluate Trump’s short- and long-term effect on the United States.
Near pocket-sized and 141 pages long, Feed the Resistance is a smaller book with a more household aim, but it doesn’t take itself any less seriously. The editor, Julia Turshen, is a celebrated food writer known for co-authoring cookbooks for Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow, and hosting a podcast with Cherry Bombe, a periodical celebrating women in the food industry. Feed the Resistance comes on the heels of her own cookbook, Small Victories.
When she and her wife Grace Bonney, founder of the popular blog Design*Sponge, grew increasingly engaged with activism in their upstate New York town following Trump’s election, Turshen gathered other cook voices. Her mission statement: “I realized that the work I was doing in my own community could be exponential if I put some of it down on paper and shared it with you so that you can better feed your own resistance, whatever that looks like, and hopefully share it with those around you.”
The recipes are divided into three categories, with corresponding essays throughout. There are easy dishes such as Thai Yellow Curry Vegetable Pot and Greek Chickpea Salad for people “who are too busy resisting to cook”; the next on high-volume meals, like The People’s Grits and Easy Posole, that can feed a crowd; and the last on portable snacks and heritage recipes with their roots in earlier resistance movements, such as Persistence Biscuits and Spiced Brown Sugar Pound Cake with Rum Molasses Glaze.
These books show two ways of dealing with the post-Trump world: thinking about something big and out of the reader’s control, and doing something small that is easily within reach.
You can fix dinner, but you can’t fix narcissistic personality disorder. And so The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump seeks to answer a question many have been asking since Trump announced his candidacy: Is he crazy like a fox, or just crazy? Does he really believe what he says, or is he playing to the fears of his constituents? In “Sociopathy,” Lance Dodes asks, is Trump’s “indifference to the feelings of others for personal gain […] just being clever,” or is he suffering from “significant mental derangement”? A third of the way through the tome, the reader will deduce that Trump is likely “crazy,” but not with one simple diagnosis.
Philip Zimbardo and Rosemary Sword label Trump a present hedonist who suffers from a time bias that traps him in the immediate present. He’ll “say or do anything at any time for purposes of self-aggrandizement […] with no thought of the future of the effect of his actions.” Craig Malkin makes a case for Trump’s narcissism and tracks his psychotic spiral toward insisting on alternate realities as a manipulation tactic.
Gaslighting reassures pathological narcissists that their own grip on reality remains firm because they can’t bear to acknowledge their sanity is slipping away. We might ask if we’re seeing this now, as Trump and his closest advisors appear on TV claiming he didn’t make statements that journalists often simply play back.
Other contributors present evidence of the president’s sociopathy, delusional disorder, and even “daddy issues.”
If they can’t pinpoint one diagnosis, it’s because US psychiatrists haven’t agreed on the ethics of making one at all. They grapple with the Goldwater rule, a dictum in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) documentation that restricts psychiatrists from diagnosing a public figure they have not examined in person, and without the figure’s consent to discuss the results publicly. The rule collides with another standard in psychiatry, the “duty to protect.” That concept grew out of a California Supreme Court ruling that if a patient threatens bodily harm, mental health professionals must warn those who stand to get hurt. At scale, that’s the American people. Staying quiet may be technically “ethical” for a mental health professional. But it may also be immoral.
The strongest moments are when the authors go beyond symptoms and behavior markers, and illuminate Donald Trump’s dangerousness — and the extreme risk of keeping him in office. Michael J. Tansey’s engaging piece tells an anecdote that would likely have had a much different ending with a volatile Trump making the decisions. In 1979, President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski got a 3:00 a.m. call alerting him to 250 Soviet missiles headed toward the United States. With only five minutes to act, he asked an aide to verify the report — it was a false alarm. For Tansey, no argument “is more compelling or terrifying than [Trump’s] control of the nuclear codes.”
Edwin B. Fisher uses President Kennedy’s steady hand during the Cuban Missile crisis as a foil for Trump’s impulsive decision making. While Kennedy cultivated relationships with many advisors of “divergent views” and with Premier Khrushchev himself, Trump’s trusted confidants include nine millionaires and billionaires who are mostly white, male, and older, and all loyal to Trump. With counselors too afraid to disagree, he’s left to make tough decisions alone. “That President Trump might ever occupy the loneliness of deciding about a potentially catastrophic course of action is rightly our most urgent and greatest fear.”
Several pieces ask the reader to look beyond immediate physical threats and consider the insidious effects of Trump’s toxic behavior on individuals. Betty P. Teng poignantly asks the reader to consider the mental health of Americans who suffer from “post-Trump stress disorder,” particularly those in marginalized groups who have been targeted by the president’s policies and remarks. The near-constant news coverage can be “a compulsive fixation” that “is particularly overstimulating and blocks us from recruiting the tools so necessary for healing from trauma.”
Harper West posits — amusingly and frighteningly — that the American people are in an abusive relationship with a narcissistic president. She tracks classic “other-blamer” behavior in abusers to the president’s emotional reactivity, lack of accountability, entitlement, and deception, along with his tendency to depersonalize his victims. In abusive relationships, there is often little energy left over after managing the narcissist, who sucks the air out of the room. “I could be working to improve the mental health care system,” West says. Instead, she’s writing about our leader’s sanity. What’s worse, Trump’s behavior may encourage “millions of Other-blamers” to act out as well, creating a generations-long ripple effect of trauma.
William Doherty points out new conceptual categories he addresses with his clients public stress, stemming from forces in the neighborhood and broader cultural environment, and political stress, the result of “words, actions, and policies.” He sees psychiatry as political action in that it “promote[s] the kind of personal agency that’s necessary for a self-governing, democratic people.” Trump’s sickness has crept into the collective psyche, and to treat it, we need to recognize it.
At times though, the essayists are tongue-tied by what John D. Gartner disparagingly terms “the Goldwater gag order.” They spend ample pages proposing to break the rule, uphold it but evade it, or reinterpret it. Judith Lewis Herman and Bandy Lee insist “only in an emergency should a physician breach the Goldwater rule. We believe such an emergency is now.” Michael J. Tansey dodges the question by detailing the symptoms of delusional disorder. “You now have the simple diagnostic criteria. You make the call.” Leonard L. Glass takes the position that a psychiatrist is also a citizen, and can speak out from that role.
Press coverage and splashy contributors — like Noam Chomsky, who features in the epilogue, and even Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote The Art of the Deal — will attract a wide audience, but tangled industry discussions might distract from the book’s goal of educating. There is only so much ethical pontificating that the reader can stand. But in the last essay, Nanette Gartrell and Dee Mosbacher make a suggestion for acting on this knowledge. They urge Congress to gather a panel of mental health experts to assess the president’s “fitness to fulfill the duties of the presidency,” and to do the same for all presidential and vice presidential candidates. Sounds idealistic. Also sounds completely implausible.
The Dangerous Case might leave the reader wishing for a more actionable next step, but Feed the Resistance holds up the concrete power of food, both as literal fuel for the people working against the Trump administration’s policies and as a gateway to larger issues. “Being interested in food,” Turshen writes, “really caring about it, has a domino effect. You start caring about where it comes from, what it means to the people you are feeding, and what it means to be fed.”
The first essay, by Caleb Zigas, executive director of the San Francisco business incubator La Cocina, celebrates the “informal entrepreneurs” of the food industry who struggle to hurdle social and financial barriers to entry. “It’s not just the woman selling empanadas, it’s also the man selling barbecue out of the back of his truck in parking lots, the pop-up in the back of a bodega, the meal delivered to a high-rise apartment building, and the pies for sale on a country road.”
The most appealing recipes are tied to stories like these. Executive director of FoodLab Detroit Devita Davison writes in the foreword to her Southern-Style Boiled Cabbage with Smoked Turkey: “I personally believe that the rest of the country is just now catching up to what Southerners have known for decades. That we can grow our food as an act of independence from, and resistance to, an unjust food system that is structurally racist, economically oppressive, and environmentally toxic.” She recalls her mother’s cabbage growing to fame at communal dinners in Alabama. Erika Council of Atlanta’s Sunday Supper Club contributes the Persistence Biscuits her grandmother used to “serve to the kids she felt might not have money for breakfast.”
Some dishes are more practical, like Sheet Pan Sausage, Potatoes and Red Cabbage, and Pizza Frittata for a Crowd. Several essays have a tangible application as well. Organizer Callie Jayne’s “Ground Rules to Organized Activism” include passing the microphone to “people who aren’t often heard” and a “non-martian clause” to ensure activists avoid exclusionary “or elitist language.” That’s one of the strengths of Feed the Resistance — it passes the microphone to a diverse group of 22 activists who don’t always occupy the spotlight.
But the contributors should have compared notes before publishing. In the foreword to Baked Japanese Sweet Potatoes, Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce, and Baked Polenta, writer Stephen Satterfield adds qualifiers: “ingredients should be readily available nationwide, even in underserved areas,” and dishes should be easy to make and cheap. Yet the first recipe in Feed the Resistance (Spiced Mung Bean Wraps), requires sprouted beans from a farmers market, or a five-day process of at-home sprouting. It doesn’t sound simple or cheap, and not likely to be stocked in every grocery store. The more complicated concoctions, like Spicy Tandoori Cauliflower with Minted Yogurt, assume a breadth of culinary knowledge that could be construed as exclusionary, and even elitist, fulfilling a certain stereotype of left-wingers.
Still, those desperate to do something will appreciate the real action items Feed the Resistance offers. Lists at the back of the book compile local, state, and national, and interest-group resources for asking and offering help. A section on getting engaged includes tips around voting with your wallet, becoming a mentor, running for office, cooking for first responders, and supporting after-school programs. The book closes with “Ten Things You Can Do in Less Than Ten Minutes,” including calling representatives, registering to vote, dining at a restaurant run by people who don’t look like you, and reading a book “by an author who has had a completely different life experience.” Despite the book’s gimmicky leanings (you can already follow #FeedtheResistance on Instagram), simply purchasing it will have a real effect — all proceeds will go to the ACLU.
How to take collective wisdom from psychiatrists and food activists? Call your representatives and tell them Trump is dangerous. Then cook some soup.