Sympathy for the Devil | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Sympathy for the Devil

Disliking Donald Trump is no excuse for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about mental illness, argues Music Editor Thom Dent

In 2014, The Daily Mail took excessive delight in extensively covering the tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, focusing their attentions on the mental health of the man responsible, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. ‘Why On Earth Was He Allowed To Fly?’ screamed the headline to an article that detailed how the proclaimed ‘suicide pilot’ had a long history of depression, and how this should have disqualified him from any and all employment. While it is true that far more could have been done to prevent the tragedy, the treatment of mental illness as a scapegoat for Lubitz’s crime was incredibly insensitive, and a troubling insight into the way mental health is perceived generally.

I write this in January 2018, four years on from the Germanwings crash and a year on from Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. It has been a year continually and extensively mired by scandal, farce and endless thinkpieces. Besides the growing threat of impending nuclear apocalypse that has ceaselessly terrorised the minds of humankind for the last twelve months, for those of us not responsible for electing the current leader of the free world it has been a vintage year for taking the piss.

What fun we have had: from ‘Idiot-in-Chief,’ through to ‘President Cheeto’ via Kim Jong Un’s inspired use of 14th-century pejorative ‘Dotard,’ creative insults have been flowing in a rich flood from celebrities, political rivals and the general public ever since Trump first announced his candidacy back in 2015. This last year, though, has seen the ridicule increase to insatiable levels in tandem with the growing madness of the most bizarre government in living memory. It’s all very good and entertaining, but lurking beneath this mirth making is a dark undercurrent of intolerance, which has damaging implications.

Approximately 20% of adolescents will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives

As Trump’s presidency has gone on, the name-calling has become more and more abusive. Michael Moore named him ‘Donnie Dementia’ and is just one of several public figures to have called for Trump to be classed as ‘unfit to serve’ due to his supposed mental incapacities. And with every Tweet the President sends out, be it a garbled midnight ‘covfefe’ or a vitriolic tirade against some senator, nation or basketball player, comes a fresh barrage of outraged Twitter folk calling him every name under the sun. In a year which has already seen a notable spike in mental health cases across the Western world (according to an Antioch University study, mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in the U.S., and approximately 20% of adolescents will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives), turning Trump’s mental health into an argument against him is a trend that can only do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the publication of Michael Wolff’s White House exposé Fire And Fury last month brought about even more speculation over the president’s psychology – prompting Trump to undergo the first medical check-up of his tenure and fight back against suggestions that he is mentally unfit, declaring himself a ‘very stable genius.’ With statements like this, he is not doing himself any favours, but the reaction both of Twitter (with thousands of accounts parodying the claim and declaring themselves ‘very stable’) and of publications across the world was deeply worrying. ABC questioned the lack of a mental assessment, and some sites even went so far as to question the health of the Doctor who gave Trump the all-clear. Wolff himself has led this attack, using every television and print interview available to him (as well as a plethora of vitriol inside the book itself) to scorn the president, and portray him as some kind of infantile madman who has, in his words, ‘lost it.’ The content may be correct, nothing has been proven so far about the president’s mental stability – but the language, the blasé way in which it has become normal to insult Trump… therein lies the issue.

It seems if you are talking about a figure you despise, anything goes

By all means, do everything that you can to undermine the Trump presidency. There is no denying that the ex-TV star and exploitative billionaire was never going to be the right man to lead the free world, and it is obvious to most that he is doing a shambolic job so far. But the Trump shambles is a composite of a number of different hilarities: surely we have better ways in which to scrutinise him than simply weaponizing his mental health. We’re better than this.

This is something of a problem generally when it comes to the left’s treatment of people they dislike, an issue heightened significantly by the rise of Trump. It seems if you are talking about a figure you despise, anything goes – all pretences of decency and respect can disappear in the excitement of satire, and the results are often problematic. When stories of Russian collusion first began to appear following Trump’s election, the news was treated with a widespread trend of homophobia, with lewd suggestions of some kind of sexual congress between him and Putin emerging as the primary brand of political satire. Amidst all this, it seemed as though nobody had the tact necessary to examine what kind of effect this mainstream homophobic slur was having on the world’s LGBT community.

Mental health has already emerged as an issue amongst our MPs

Obviously, this issue stems from all ends of the political spectrum – take the Andreas Lubitz case, for example, or the appalling abuse that Labour MP Diane Abbott has had to endure ever since her infamous LBC interview in May. Abbott’s stumbling with numbers turned her overnight into a figure of ridicule, with a smorgasbord of public figures, comedians and members of the Question Time audience taking every opportunity to paint her as the figurehead of the opposition party’s apparent incompetence – with encouragement from tabloids and the enabling force of Twitter creating torrents of vitriol that soon became incredibly insensitive, personal and often racist. Abbott has faced racism ever since she became a civil servant, but this new wave of unrelenting scrutiny as to whether she has the mental fortitude to serve her country has had damaging ramifications upon the perception of mental health in the UK, not to mention the effect it may have had on the next generation of aspiring BAME politicians.

Mental health has already emerged as an issue amongst our MPs. Alastair Campbell opened up about his ongoing struggles with depression back in 2011, admitting his fear of ‘the stigma’ surrounding mental health issues and how it affected his decision to take on a role in Blair’s election campaign back in 1997.

Being depressed is not funny, whether you are a right-wing demagogue or not

More recently, Ken Livingstone came under fire for his comments on fellow Labour MP Kevan Jones, who he called ‘obviously very depressed and disturbed’ in response to comments made about Livingston’s policies on defence. Jones made a speech in Parliament in response, detailing his depression and stating, ‘offensive statements like this just reinforce the stigma about mental illness.’ Livingstone, of course, has since been ostracised from the party, but his refusal to rescind his comments remain indicative of a far bigger problem.

Now, as what the internet loves to call a ‘straight white dude,’ I am not at liberty to suggest that any person of colour should necessarily have taken offence to any of the hatred directed at Diane Abbott. Likewise, it is not for me to say that LGBT identifiers should necessarily be offended by any of the Trump-Putin slash fiction. But as a man suffering from depression, I can say that I personally don’t find tongue-in-cheek thinkpieces about Trump being ‘sad and alone and gaining weight’ (GQ) all that funny, especially when the main takeaway we are expected to get from this is that he deserves it.

Being depressed is not funny, whether you are a right-wing demagogue or not. Frankly, if you are unable to mock Trump without reducing mental illness to a punchline, you are not trying hard enough.

I like music and writing. You can see why I'm here. (@thomdent)


8th February 2018 at 9:00 am

Images from

Gage Skidmore