The problem with Donald Trump is not that he is crazy, but that he is crass
Niall Ferguson disagrees with the liberal view that the US president is mentally unstable or incompetent. He is just uncivil, and such behaviour is the norm in this age of declining civility
In Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, a political crisis strikes Great Britain when the monarch loses his marbles. You may recall Nigel Hawthorne’s riveting performance in the role of King George in the film version, at first indefatigable, if irascible, in performing his royal duties, then suddenly struck down by wild, raving lunacy.
These days, it is in America that the question is asked with increasing frequency: is the head of state off his head? In a new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 psychiatrists and other mental health experts – including Judith Lewis Herman of Harvard Medical School and Bandy Lee of the Yale School of Medicine – warn that “anyone as mentally unstable as Mr Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency”.
Not having read The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, the British political class reacted in the old-fashioned way. In the Commons, opposition MPs lined up to denounce Trump as a “fascist”, “stupid” and “racist, incompetent or unthinking”.
Trump casts doubt on the Access Hollywood video
The counterargument to all this comes from my good friend Bret Stephens. Far from being mad, he argues, Trump is cunningly exploiting the power of social media to drive his political opponents into their own form of madness, to distract everyone else’s attention from all that is going wrong on his watch.
The problem is that, in his incorrigible crassness, Trump drowns out the signal of meaningful policy achievement with inconsequential noise.
One of many problems with the decline of civility is that uncivil discourse is so difficult for civil people to take seriously. As a result, serious issues become trivialised and civil people assume, wrongly, that it is Trump we should really worry about.
Mahatma Gandhi is said to have been asked once what he thought of Western civilisation. He replied, wittily, that it would be good idea. In these days of Western uncivilisation, I find myself in agreement. The problem is not the madness of King Donald, nor even his badness. By George, it’s his infernal rudeness.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power