As a science reporter, I never thought I’d be writing about President Trump’s mind. I’m used to describing rigorous published research and interviewing experts who know a subject backward and forward.
So when my editor proposed in January that I investigate the claim that Trump might have a mental illness, and then this month that I look into chatter that Trump’s speaking style is dramatically different today than it was decades ago, my first response in both cases was: Um, are you sure that’s a good idea?
Lots of readers, and some other reporters, think it’s a terrible idea. They argue, rightly, that no one who is not a physician and who has not examined Trump can say anything authoritative about his health, mental or otherwise.
That’s true. But experts can come close.
Besides asking their patients questions, psychiatrists and psychologists also observe their behavior, and get accounts of that behavior from the person’s family. That’s essentially what I’ve asked a range of experts — psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists — to do: observe.
The 10 experts I interviewed for our first story agreed that Trump can’t be classified as having a mental disorder, primarily because there’s no evidence that his distinctive behavioral compulsions cause him any distress or impairment. (Some readers have asked why I keep indicating whether an expert is a Trump supporter or critic. The reason is simple, if sad: Many studies have shown that when even the most esteemed scientists evaluate data, they can be influenced by their biases and conflicts of interest. I honestly believe the experts who helped me tried to avoid that, but they’re only human; this seemed like information readers should have.)
For this week’s story describing how Trump’s vocabulary and syntax have deteriorated over the decades, there was ample evidence for both me and outside experts to observe: The president has a voluminous public record going back decades. I spent hours listening to the 1980s and 1990s version of Trump and comparing them to his responses in interviews over the past year or so. I dug deep into my memory of diagramming sentences in elementary school to be sure I was charting shifts in his style appropriately.
The experts I enlisted sampled fewer clips, but enough, they all told me, to detect a clear deterioration in Trump’s speaking style.
Then I did what I’m more comfortable doing. I combed the medical and scientific literature for research on the association between language and cognition. I was looking in particular to see whether this type of deterioration is what researchers call a biomarker for cognitive decline. The answer was unambiguous: It is.
In every one of my “Trump’s mind” stories, I’ve made sure to include an important caveat: This behavior that we’re talking about — diminished linguistic ability, grandiose claims, paranoid accusations, refusal to acknowledge error — might not mean in him what it does in other people.
The president is a veteran on the public stage, and a pro at playing to an audience. So we have to consider that anything and everything Trump does might be deliberate and strategic, not a true sign of what’s going on inside his head. That’s why the story about his language noted that the deterioration might not reflect cognitive decline, but instead a deliberate talking down to appeal to his base — or possibly frustration, anger, or other emotion.
I’ve taken a scientific lens to politics before; when I was at Newsweek, I wrote about the science of polling, the psychology behind voter choices, and why President Obama hated to give up his Blackberry. But these stories about Trump have drawn more interest than most.
Here’s a sampling of the reader reaction, compiled by STAT social media editor Taylyn Harmon:
— Virginia Hughes (@virginiahughes) May 23, 2017
“You’re dismissing the strategic aspect of this much too quickly. Between the 1980s and now, Trump turned himself first into a popular figure (with reality shows) and then a political figure. Both of those required him to communicate at a much lower level than when he was a real estate developer in NY. Note that Obama’s speeches scored at the eighth grade level — no one is arguing that he’s undergoing cognitive decline.”
Comment on statnews.com
“Whatever might be happening in the brain of this person, I believe that the 140-character limit of Twitter, to which he clings to reach his ‘base,’ has also affected his speaking style. He (and many others) alter their ‘voice’ to keep each Tweet within the limit, avoiding longer words, nuanced syntax, etc.”
Comment on statnews.com
If grammar orders our relationship to the truth, a lifetime of lying would have this effect: https://t.co/jL6Nz7HoNf
— Matthew Anderson (@mattleeanderson) May 24, 2017
Not necessarily sure how responsible it is to speculate here, but the elocutive differences over time are striking. https://t.co/pGEFC7igo7
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) May 23, 2017
“Excellent article. I think this approach to analyzing Trump or anyone, as a matter of fact, is very worthwhile. The problem is how much ‘deterioration’ is necessary before any action should be taken?”
Comment on statnews.com