By Abigail Moring
Early in Trump’s presidency, descriptions of him in bed at 6:30 pm eating McDonalds and yelling at unflattering news reports were in heavy circulation. The food he chooses to consume has been monitored and mocked, as if to lambaste him for what he eats equals throwing a dagger straight to the heart of his moral failings. When he underwent a presidential health exam, the results of which have historically been released (at least in part) to the American public, there was a veritable outcry about whether or not he fudged his height to escape having his BMI land in the “obese” range. Picking at Trump’s weight and physical health has become a national pastime, an outlet for the unparsable rage and fear we are confronted with as our politics and culture become more and more farcical. But this seemingly innocuous evaluation of Trump’s body is firmly grounded in fatphobia and in classist ideas of which foods and bodies represent moral goods (thin bodies, kale) and which represent moral ills (fat bodies, so-called fast foods).
Our bodies are one of the few things we tend to feel are under our ultimate control. We’re wrong of course, for we can’t control a lot about our bodies–sickness, genetics, environment, race, gender, sexuality, trauma, and so on are all out of our control. But one of the essential lies our culture tells us is that “wellness” is a goal that can be achieved if only we restrict our food intake, if only we exercise in just the right way, if only we buy the right supplements, if only we exert an iron will and bend and shape our bodies into lithe, pure “acceptable” things. To maintain the appearance of health (and beauty) is a multi-billion dollar industry. In Western society, in order to be morally “good” we must stave off illness and “ugliness” at all costs.
Criticizing someone’s physical appearance and mental health is a universalizing, acceptable form of condemnation and rage, where one doesn’t have to engage critically with the hurt and the fear brought on by the person–or their politics. We should judge Trump’s behavior–his lack of ethics, his racism, his misogyny–and label it immoral, corrupt, even evil if we care about our country. We must challenge his mental fitness for office, especially when his duty is to uphold democracy. But we have to acknowledge that to hold Trump or any president to any level of fit-ness is to hold him to our very skewed American definition of “health.” In the U.S., to be physically healthy equals not being fat. Aesthetic “wellness” is in, while fatness remains massively stigmatized as unhealthy and “bad”. We hyper-moralize body size, body fat, and food choice in a limiting good/bad binary. (How many of us have said, “I am so bad, I ate x and I didn’t exercise”?)
If our collective view of health is bigoted (and it is) how can we uphold it as any kind of standard? Where is the line of “healthy enough” to serve as a leader? If we’re upholding a fairly arbitrary and biased definition of mental health, it adds weight to the millstone telling folks with mental health issues that they are incapable of doing difficult and important work. And as we should know, but collectively seem incapable of recognizing, weight is not a determining factor of health. Trump’s weight is not what’s making him a horrible president and person, and Trump’s mental health is a red herring for the real cause of the white supremacist bigotry and violence he represents.
Mental health in America is defined even more nebulously. To be mentally healthy, besides presenting as someone with no overt struggles with anxiety, depression, and the like, seems to be a designation that belongs mainly to cis straight white men. Mental well-being equates rationality in our white patriarchy. Only those with rationality are deemed capable of making “rational” choices, which determines who should be followed, trusted, and believed. Women certainly don’t get to lay claim to rationality as our “hyper-emotionality” precludes our ability to reason.
Choices and statements that challenge the dominant power structure are viewed and labeled not just as “irrational,” but also “hysterical,” “fraudulent,” and even “dangerous.” These labels are hurled at those who challenge inequity–women demanding accountability for the perpetual sexual violence our nation supports, people of color demanding accountability for the perpetual racial violence our nation perpetuates, and low-income folks demanding accountability for the lack of opportunities that have been deliberately engineered into our economic system that sustains the ever-growing wealth and opportunity gaps, and more.
Picking at Trump’s mental (un)health gives people something to blame, a simple explanation for the complex, layered bigotry he regularly spews. Much like other situations where a group in power is exercises their dominance through violence—white male gun violence, white supremacist violence, sexual and gendered violence—pointing to mental illness in the perpetrator gives us a simple answer to a complex problem. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that Trump’s violence is a reflection of an oppressive power structures and that he is completely removed from the lived reality of most other people. It’s easier to label him as “crazy,” to see his actions as anomalous, something alien to the rest of us and our society, rather than contend with the arduous work of deconstructing the systemic power structures that have brought him to power.
This all said, Trump does seem fundamentally incapable of upholding democracy—but is this because he’s legitimately mentally ill in a way that precludes his ability to do his job, or is it because he’s never been in a position where he had to stay inline because of his position as an extremely wealthy white man? He’s always been empowered by our system to act however he wants and he’s still doing just that.