I was born with a hearing loss. I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life. And since a spinal-cord injury four years ago, I’ve walked with a cane and brace. I’m proud to identify as disabled. That’s why I’m concerned by the increasing dependence on references to disability as a political strategy, some of which have come from Donald Trump while others are aimed at him. Regardless of the source, ableist rhetoric that conflates disability with an inability to contribute meaningfully to society is toxic.
As a candidate for president, Trump’s preoccupation with the body was evident when he mocked disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, derided Hillary Clinton’s lack of stamina, and asserted that Heidi Klum is “no longer a 10.” But now it’s liberals who casually bandy about terms like “crazy” to criticize the president and spur calls to remove him from office in a process outlined by the Constitution’s 25th Amendment.
Those efforts have been fueled by Michael Wolff’s explosive book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which cataloged Trump’s troubling mental lapses, such as frequently repeating himself, and concluded that Trump is unfit for office. Similarly, Yale psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee, who testified before Congress on the president’s mental instability, edited “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.” In this book, 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts deem Trump a dangerous threat to national security despite having never examined him personally.
Pundits have also capitalized on these findings, convinced that impugning Trump’s mental fitness is an effective political strategy. The New Yorker’s David Remnick and radio talk show host Bill Press both warn of Trump’s “unfit” state. New York magazine’s Eric Levitz concedes Trump’s mental illness to conclude that you “don’t need a degree in psychiatry to call” Republicans’ willingness to keep him around “crazy.” And they are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are two major problems with these arguments.
First, many individuals whose “mental fitness” could have been questioned turned out to be great leaders, as Tufts psychiatrist Dr. Nassir Ghaemi points out in “A First-Rate Madness.” In a series of case studies that range from Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill to Ted Turner, Ghaemi suggests that mental illness can prove to be an advantage, especially in times of crisis.
Second, many commentators’ reliance on terms like “fitness” evokes a time when eugenics — a now-discredited movement aimed at improving the population’s genetic quality — was all the rage and led officials to curb the number of so-called unfit people by force. In 1911, Woodrow Wilson, who was then New Jersey’s governor, signed into law a policy to sterilize “mentally defective” individuals. In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes similarly declared in Buck v. Bell that “it is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized as a result of the eugenics movement.
Now we are seeing another wave of experts who haven’t thought through the devastating effects on disabled individuals of establishing an ideal standard of “fitness” for a particular position.
Make no mistake. I am not arguing that efforts to determine the president’s mental state are inherently problematic. What troubles me is weaponizing the rhetoric of disability to remove Trump from office, especially since his behavior has not significantly changed from before he was elected.
This strategy has a pernicious side effect: undermining the effectiveness of disabled leaders in politics, business, medicine, and many other fields. Many of the calls for Trump’s removal from office on claims he is mentally unfit lack any discussion of the asset that disability can be. Instead, it’s branded as a disqualifying trait that renders individuals incomplete, unacceptably broken, and unable to manage professional duties. This mentality contributes in turn to the ideology of ability which, as scholar Tobin Siebers put it, “simultaneously banishes disability and turns it into a principle of exclusion.”
Anyone who is disabled knows that these efforts are nothing new. They’re merely the latest additions to a long narrative of able-bodied individuals refusing to believe that those who think or act or hear or see or walk — you get the idea — differently from them cannot possibly be effective in a given capacity, much less possibly more effective, than able-bodied coevals. Disability historian Kim E. Nielsen’s “A Disability History of the United States” is chock-full of such stories.
In a similar vein, memoirists such as Stephen Kuusisto and Christina Crosby have explored the epistemological advantages that disability can confer. After my spinal cord injury, I too wrote about what I learned from this physical metamorphosis. Disability instilled lessons about the fragility of the human condition, the importance of asking for and accepting help from people in your life, and the realization that we’re all needy, in some way. Disability enables me, as it has done for many others, to see the world from a different angle.
It’s time, then, for critics who want to slam Trump for his comments on Clinton, Klum, and Kovaleski — or those who object to his calling Joe Scarborough “crazy” or Kim Jong-un “short and fat” — to stop stooping to his level and instead focus on the negative consequences of his behavior and policies. Instead of calling the president’s statement about the size of his nuclear button “insane,” argue that by inflaming tensions it could eventually lead to a nuclear event. Rather than deriding his fake news awards ceremony as “crazy,” discuss the chilling effect it exacts on First Amendment protections.
This realignment in thinking is essential. Resorting to the terminology of physical or mental difference allows divisive leaders to maintain discursive dominance because they’re willing to go the furthest to insult or debase their opponents. If we couch the debate in corporeal terms rather than focusing on substantive arguments, they’ll win because we’ve abandoned the high ground for their own territory. What’s more, most everyone has some “defect” that can be exploited by these individuals. After all, disability is a particularly fluid identity category.
Perhaps it now seems OK to resort to such tactics. Maybe they appear to offer a last chance to undermine the man who’s gutted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and supported Roy Moore. But tomorrow it could be a candidate with reduced mobility who some fear can’t take the physical toll of the presidency. It could be a deaf individual who critics might claim would cost taxpayers money by requiring interpreters.
There will always be reasons, some shiny with the veneer of legitimacy, to discriminate against disabled individuals. We must be especially vigilant in challenging this tendency so disabled people can engage in society as fully as their able-bodied contemporaries. Our world will be better for it. But this process depends on a shift away from language that explicitly casts aspersions on the capabilities of individuals with disabilities and towards rhetoric that acknowledges the value of their hard-earned perspectives.
I write this not to prolong Donald Trump’s tenure but because I fear what will happen to the disabled politicians of the future whose political enemies cash in on their physiological differences.
When that happens, I’ll try to refrain from saying, “I warned you.”
Pasquale Toscano is a Rhodes Scholar studying early-modern English at the University of Oxford.