At what point are we shifting from political commentary to laughing at someone with a debilitating mental illness?
There has been a great deal of dancing around the question of Donald Trump’s mental health, while it’s becoming increasingly obvious that he’s falling apart. He’s in worse shape than Reagan was, when the Alzheimers’ was starting to burn him up, and – everyone covered for him and kept him nodding in the meetings and got him through his second term in office. In other words, for better or worse, a president with debilitating mental health problems was marched through his final term and and treated with a modicum of decency and respect. It was ironic because Reagan famously gutted America’s public mental health capability, putting a lot of people who weren’t as badly off as he was out on the street. But, Reagan was a republican and we’ve come to expect that sort of thing from republicans.
One of my father’s colleagues suffered a severe stroke, which took out her Broca’s region. Other than being unable to assemble words into sentences, she was still sharp as a tack; one of the university’s top professors in the history of Jacksonian America. I used to sit with her and talk to her; I was fascinated by the way her sentences came out and she spoke as though the mechanism for assembling speech had been interrupted. If you imagine our speech center as a Markov-chain generator, it was as though the number of chains in her graph had been reduced to about 150 or so. Our neurological models of speech do not indicate that Markov chains are a good way to understand speech production; what we do is a whole lot more powerful and complicated, but it’s a model of speech production that AI researchers have used with some effect. Years later, when I first encountered Markov chain-based chat programs, I immediately recognized them as sounding like Professor R.
It was also painful and humbling to talk to her; she was furious, clearly, that her brain and mouth could not get the ideas out that she wanted to get out. Because I was interested, I finally asked her if it was OK if I asked her some questions about her experience – whether her impression was that she couldn’t form ideas, or whether she was forming ideas but not being able to get them to come out in words. She was fine at answering yes/no questions with a nod or a frown, so we had some interesting conversations about her experience. As you can imagine, she expressed a great deal of frustration. I tried to be respectful with my questions, and I hope I didn’t frustrate her too much. Unfortunately, people tended not to talk to her very much after her stroke, because it was hard to make out what she was saying – which just made it worse for her. It was humbling to see her pain and frustration, as if she was trapped in Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
As much as I despise the man, I feel like we’re laughing at an invalid when late night comedians poke fun at Trump’s mental disorder.
He’s not just an asshole; he’s an asshole who’s experiencing what must be a scary and disorienting problem. Imagine if you were a hyper-fluent liar and spewing bullshit was what you did and who you were: and then the bullshit-valve begins to jam up and it’s not working properly.
It’s going to be a bit tricky to parse apart things that I think Trump says which are ignorant lies, and what are cognitive problems, likely products of a neurological disorder. I used to think that his problem was drugs (specifically amphetamine diet pills) but they don’t cause the kind of verbal looping and failure to construct sentences that Trump is exhibiting. He fixates on the few things that he does understand, like his hatred of Hillary Clinton, but he seems to have difficulty adopting ideas and forming new strings of words. His speech reminds me bigly of the Broca’s aphasic professor; he’s just not as bad, yet. She used to assemble a string of words, and once she had it together, it sometimes came out over and over again, like she couldn’t stop it once it started. I remember that one of her things she said a lot was “it’s a little thing.” It was as if when she tried to go “um”, that phrase popped out, instead. A lot of Trump’s verbal mannerisms seem to be heading in a similar direction.
There’s another thing about Trump’s speech which is unusual to me: he has adopted a very simple and inflexible rhythm and cadence, reminiscent of a revival preacher. It includes this sort of drawl-pause thing that revival preachers do. Why do revival preachers do it? To slow themselves down, so they’re able to still be emitting a solid stream of noises while they are thinking of the next thing to blurt out. Trump’s repetition and drawling sounds like he’s doing it for dramatic effect, but what if he’s doing it because his brain is damaged and that’s how his speech has transformed?
Here is a good brief on various types of aphasias [apha], such as:
Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) is a neurological syndrome in which language capabilities become slowly and progressively impaired. Unlike other forms of aphasia that result from stroke or brain injury, PPA is caused by neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease or Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration. PPA results from deterioration of brain tissue important for speech and language. Although the first symptoms are problems with speech and language, other problems associated with the underlying disease, such as memory loss, often occur later.
Another point from Wikipedia regarding the repetition of phrases, as Professor R did: [wik]
Severity of expressive aphasia varies among patients. Some people may only have mild deficits and detecting problems with their language may be difficult. In the most extreme cases, patients may be able to produce only a single word. Even in such cases, over-learned and rote-learned speech patterns may be retained – for instance, some patients can count from one to ten, but cannot produce the same numbers in novel conversation.
A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of the Trump, Inc. podcast, and one of the things they had in it (I think it was that, or it might have been Intercepted) was a very brief audio clip of Trump being deposed. The speed with which he assembled sentences was completely different from how he speaks now. The complexity of his sentences was significantly higher, and they made sense; there was much less repetition. What if Trump’s off-topic outbursts about Hillary Clinton are rote-learned phrases leaking through the fog of a damaged mind?
What if one of the reasons he lies so much and so pointlessly is because he can’t remember what the truth is? He seems to be coming unglued about where his father was born; it seems like he’s confabulating – he’s under pressure to continue to make sounds with his mouth, but perhaps he can not call the facts to his memory fast enough and just reflexively blurts something out. It makes me wonder when one reads about Alzheimer’s patients demonstrating “behavioral changes” whether it’s this sort of thing: memory failures and speech failures might manifest in a person sounding quite different, and appearing to act quite different because they can’t remember how they thought and acted before.
Since I have been thinking about Trump in this way, I have begun to feel that Colbert and Seth Meyers, etc, are making fun of a person who is suffering from a severe, progressive, disorder. I’m 100% behind making fun of the evil and ridiculous policies of the Trump administration, or the antics of his sidekicks and frogspawn, but I’m starting to get uncomfortable with just mocking him for being stupid. It could be he’s not just a moral cripple.