Trump’s Reckless Tweets vs. Pakistan’s Democratic Hopes
Pakistan’s slow progress toward developing a stable and inclusive political system faced new challenges in the second half of 2017, and the US president's recent tweets could make matters worse. If Pakistan continues to falter in 2018, the consequences will be felt across South Asia and the broader Muslim world.
LAHORE – Pakistan has now joined the ranks of countries hit by one of US President Donald Trump’s characteristic tweet storms. In his first tweet of 2018, Trump declared that the United States has “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, while Pakistan had returned only “lies and deceit” and given safe haven to the terrorists America hunts in Afghanistan. “No more!” Trump concluded. And now the US is freezing its aid to the country.
Like his saber-rattling toward North Korea or his unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump’s attacks on Pakistan may play well with his base. But it will also have serious repercussions for Pakistan, where a number of shocks in the second half of 2017 have destabilized the country politically. And if Pakistan stumbles, the consequences will be felt across South Asia and in other parts of the Muslim world, where a functioning political system in Pakistan could serve as a valuable model.
The roughly 50 Muslim-majority countries stretching from Bangladesh to Morocco have largely struggled to develop politically. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey, which once boasted a functioning democratic system, has been slipping toward authoritarian rule. Bangladesh, too, seems to be turning into a one-party system, after having made notable headway, particularly on the economic front. Now Pakistan – in a sense, the region’s best remaining hope – is also facing potentially disruptive setbacks.
Contrary to Trump’s accusations, Pakistan has made steady, albeit slow, progress over the last decade, both in combating terrorism and in consolidating democratic institutions. That progress began in 2007, when a group of lawyers initiated a mass protest movement in response to an unconstitutional decision by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s fourth military president, to suspend the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The movement, backed by several political parties, ultimately forced Musharraf to step down in 2008, to avoid impeachment.
In the subsequent general election, the Pakistan Peoples Party won enough seats in the national assembly to form a solid government. The PPP’s political rival, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) won a majority of seats in the Punjab provincial assembly, giving it control of the country’s largest province. Competitive politics had come to Pakistan.
After the PPP’s five-year term, the PML(N), led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, won the next general election, while maintaining its hold over Punjab. The transfer of power occurred peacefully, with the PPP moving into opposition. Pakistan had passed another milestone.
The still-powerful generals watched these developments from the barracks to which they had retreated. After more than 60 years of changes in military leadership coming only after coups, the civilian-led government replaced the commander of the armed forces at the end of his term. This was the third momentous achievement for the rule of law and democratic development in Pakistan, which now seemed to be in a strong position to continue strengthening its political system and institutions. Its fairly well-developed political parties competed on a level playing field, elections were held when the constitution so required, and transfers of power occurred without violence.
Then, in 2016, the release of the Panama Papers exposed the extent of tax evasion by the world’s wealthy. Members of the Sharif family, it was revealed, had illegally transferred huge amounts of money into numerous offshore companies, which had then invested in expensive properties in London and the Middle East.
These disclosures opened the way for Pakistan’s own “Arab Spring” moment, with young people rebelling against the elite-dominated political system. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – a political party led by the former cricketer Imran Khan – provided just the platform for that rebellion.
Featuring a platform that includes a focus on justice and good governance, PTI had been gaining ground since the 2008 election, and received a new surge of support from urban youth demanding better services and less corruption. That is no small cohort: some 75% of people in Pakistan’s large cities are below the age of 25.
Wielding its growing influence, the PTI threatened to call its young supporters into the streets if the Sharif family’s financial dealings were not properly investigated. Given Pakistan’s history of military intervention in politics – in 1958, 1969, and 1977 – in response to popular protest, the PTI’s threat had to be viewed very seriously.
Pakistan avoided political escalation when the judiciary decided to investigate the Panama Papers’ revelations. In July 2017, the Supreme Court announced its verdict: Sharif had acted improperly, and could not remain a member of the national assembly, let alone prime minister. The PML(N) elected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a respected cabinet member, as Sharif’s successor as party leader and prime minister. Military leaders expressed satisfaction at how the situation was handled.
At the same time, given the fragility of its democratic institutions and the lingering threat of terrorism, the destabilizing potential of Sharif’s removal should not be underestimated. Trump’s insistence on playing to his nationalist and xenophobic (and, specifically, anti-Muslim) base, instead of advancing the real national security interests of the US, heightens the risk.
There is, however, some reason for hope. Pakistan’s response to its recent political challenges indicates a continued commitment to fight for democracy – a commitment that could serve as a badly needed model for many other Muslim-majority countries.
The Madness of King Donald
The risk of a US military confrontation with North Korea, coupled with President Donald Trump’s increasingly peculiar behavior, has put official Washington on edge. To put it bluntly: the worry is that a mentally deranged president might lead the US into a nuclear war.
WASHINGTON, DC – Much of America’s capital has entered a state of near-panic. In recent days, President Donald Trump has been acting more bizarrely than ever, and the question raised in the mind of politicians and civilians alike, though rarely spoken aloud, has been: What can be done with this man? Can the United States really afford to wait for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to wrap up his investigation (on the assumption that he’ll find the president guilty of something)? That could still take quite a while.
The question of timing has become increasingly urgent, given the heightened danger that the US will deliberately or accidentally end up in a war with North Korea. That risk, coupled with Trump’s increasingly peculiar behavior, has made Washington more tense than I’ve ever known it to be, and that includes the dark days of Watergate. To put it bluntly: the worry is that a mentally deranged president might lead the US into a nuclear war.
In just the past week, evidence of Trump’s instability has piled up. During an Oval Office ceremony to honor Native-American heroes of World War II, he offended them by issuing a racist comment. He picked an unprecedented and unnecessary fight with the prime minister of the United Kingdom, supposedly America’s closest ally, by retweeting a British neo-fascist group’s anti-Muslim posts. In an effort to win a Democratic senator’s vote for his pending tax-cut bill, he traveled to her state and told lies about her record (though the tax bill was so tilted to the richest 1% of Americans that no Democratic senator voted for it). And he continued to bait North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who seems equally unstable.
At the same time, both the Washington Post and The New York Times ran articles containing disturbing stories about the president’s private behavior. Trump, it was reported, told people close to him that he considers the infamous “Access Hollywood”recording of him joking, off-camera, about grabbing women’s genitals to be a fraud, even though he admitted its authenticity and apologized after the Post released it in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.
Trump has also been revisiting his mendacious claim about Barack Obama having not been born in the US – the bogus allegation that launched his political career, which, under pressure from advisers, he’d renounced prior to the election. He said in a tweet that he had turned down Time magazine’s suggestion that it would name him “Person of the Year,” because it wasn’t definite. (Trump sets great store by such appearances on Time’s cover). But a Time official said that no such thing had occurred.
The fact that Trump appears to have some mental disorder, or disorders, has created a dilemma for psychiatrists, politicians, and journalists alike. The American Psychiatric Association has a rule that its members may not offer diagnoses of people they have not examined. But, given what some psychiatrists see as a national emergency, many have broken the rule and spoken or written publicly about their professional assessments of Trump’s mental state.
The most widely accepted view is that he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder, which is far more serious than simply being a narcissist. According to the Mayo Clinic, such a disorder “is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” Moreover, “behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
This definition is all too reflective of traits that Trump regularly exhibits. Another view held by a number of medical professionals, based on how Trump spoke in interviews in the late 1980s and how he speaks now – with a far more limited vocabulary and much less fluency – is that the president is suffering from the onset of dementia. According to the highly respected medical reference UpToDate, a subscription-financed service used by professionals, the symptoms of dementia include agitation, aggression, delusions, hallucinations, apathy, and disinhibition.
Numerous Republican members of Congress are deeply worried about Trump’s capacity to handle the presidency – an incredibly demanding job. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, rumored to be replaced soon, is said to have called Trump a “moron.”
Trump’s heightened erratic behavior in recent days has been attributed to his growing anxiety about Mueller’s investigation into his and his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in the Kremlin’s effort to tilt the 2016 election in his direction – an investigation that could end in a charge of conspiracy. (Trump appears to be the only significant figure in Washington who won’t accept that Russia interfered.) And that increasingly bizarre behavior came even before the news broke, on December 1, that Trump’s first national security adviser and close campaign aide, retired General Michael Flynn, had agreed to plead guilty to one count of lying to the FBI in exchange for his cooperation with the investigation.
What made this highly significant was that Flynn is far and away the highest former official whom Mueller has “flipped.” Indeed, the generous plea deal makes it clear that Flynn is prepared to name figures higher than he was in the campaign and the White House.
That’s not very many people. It has already been speculated, with reason, that Flynn will point a finger at Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. But Trump’s several earlier efforts to steer prosecutors away from Flynn were strong signals that Flynn knows something that Trump desperately hopes that prosecutors won’t find out. We may learn what that is fairly soon.
Meanwhile, American and the world nervously await Trump’s reaction to this latest very bad turn of events for him.
Can Trump Prove His Sanity?
Given a lack of definitive and objective psychiatric tests, questions about Donald Trump’s mental health may never go away. And a famous experiment from the 1970s suggests that even if he stops ranting on Twitter or speaking in convoluted and incoherent sentences, at best he will be viewed as being in remission.
LONDON – Since Donald Trump took over the United States presidency a year ago, doubts over his mental stability and his very sanity have been mounting. With the release of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which claims to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the president’s dysfunctional administration, those doubts seem to have taken on a new salience and urgency. But, beyond claiming on Twitter that he is a “very stable genius,” what could Trump actually do to prove that he is psychologically fit for what, by some definitions, is the world’s highest office?
There is no clear physical test for mental illness. Even if Trump were subjected to a battery of blood tests and brain scans, the results would most likely prove nothing. The vast majority of people with psychosis would have normal results. Likewise, an abnormal test wouldn’t necessarily imply impaired mental capacity: a person can retain their intelligence, even after losing a significant amount of their brain.
For example, a recent study showed that all but four of 54 children who underwent a hemispherectomy, in which half the brain is removed to treat severe and intractable epilepsy, showed the same or even improved intellectual capacity. So Trump could literally have half a brain, and it still wouldn’t prove that he was mentally ill.
Another approach to determining Trump’s mental fitness would be to have psychiatrists examine him and share their findings. But, however unbiased the psychiatrists were, such assessments would ultimately be subjective. As any trial judge or criminal lawyer can attest, for every psychological expert produced by the defense in a legal case, prosecutors can produce one to argue the opposite.
Consider the case of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. At his trial, two teams of court-appointed psychiatrists disagreed with each other over whether he was insane. If psychiatrists can’t agree on whether a mass murderer is insane, what hope is there that they could agree about Trump?
In any case, Trump seems to have no interest in bringing in experts. Instead, he has pursued his own – and, from a psychiatric perspective, ill-advised – strategy for rebutting questions about his sanity.
One of Trump’s go-to defenses has been that he is highly intelligent – or, as he put it recently on Twitter, “like, really smart.” But, even if true, this, too, proves nothing. Many highly intelligent people suffer from mental illness.
In fact, studies have shown that the populations of countries with higher average IQs suffer higher rates of suicide. And suicide rates at the prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge are in line with average suicide rates for university-age people, highlighting again that being smart – or even smart and privileged – does not immunize a person against mental illness.
Trump also claims that he is too successful to be mentally ill. But Howard Hughes’s success as a film producer and airline owner made him one of the richest Americans to emerge during the first half of the twentieth century. He also set several world airspeed records. Yet he suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he died suffering from extreme malnutrition and possible drug addiction.
Likewise, John Paul Getty, the US-born industrialist who was the world’s richest person during his time, was so obsessively frugal and paranoid that, when his grandson was kidnapped, he negotiated down the ransom demand, even after the kidnappers sent him a lock of his grandson’s hair and one of his ears.
Trump’s third key defense is to turn allegations about his sanity against his accusers and political opponents. That tactic is not new. In the Soviet Union – and, many argue, in China today – political dissidents would be committed to psychiatric care, precisely to discredit them. Russia actually withdrew from the World Psychiatric Association for most of the 1980s, in order to avoid being expelled for such practices.
As an experiment led by David Rosenhan of Stanford University in the 1970s demonstrated, a label of mental illness can be difficult to remove. Healthy volunteers invented a hallucination, in order to find out whether the psychiatric system could distinguish genuine mental illness. The volunteers ended up being admitted to psychiatric institutions, where they behaved normally and claimed no symptoms. But, with the psychotic label already affixed to their files, whatever they did was assumed to be a symptom of their insanity. At best, they would be declared to be “in remission.”
Rosenhan’s experiment suggests that questions about Trump’s mental health might never go away, no matter what steps he takes to change his detractors’ minds. Even if he stops ranting on Twitter or speaking in convoluted and incoherent sentences, at best he will be viewed as being “in remission.”
Modern psychiatrists would argue that they have taken to heart the lessons of the Rosenhan experiment, and now make diagnoses much more cautiously and rigorously. Yet irresponsible political uses of psychiatric medicine still abound. To name one example, the British government recently attempted to recruit National Health Service mental-health professionals to report those suspected of being psychiatrically vulnerable to extremist ideology.
In the original Rosenhan experiment, the only people who reliably recognized that the “impostor patients” were, in fact, mentally healthy were their fellow psychiatric inmates. By this logic, perhaps we are asking the wrong people to assess Trump’s sanity. In any case, if Trump’s detractors hope to drive him from office, they will need more than armchair psychiatry.
When Obama Is Always Listening
Donald Trump's recent bizarre accusations have left many people wondering whether the US president is experiencing some sort of psychological disturbance. But for populists like Trump, belief in even the most outlandish conspiracy theories has become politically rational.
VIENNA – What unites “America first” President Donald Trump, Poland’s political puppet master Jarosław Kaczyński, and Russian President Vladimir Putin? Trump and Kaczyński, chest-thumping nationalists, should revile Russia’s revanchist leader for his expansionist policies in ex-Soviet countries like Georgia and Ukraine. Yet Trump warmly praises Putin, while Kaczyński increasingly emulates his autocratic methods. And all three seem predisposed not only to believe in outlandish conspiracies, but also to use those beliefs to shape policy and manipulate the public.
Putin sees clandestine plots to undermine Russian greatness everywhere, mostly initiated by the Western spymasters, the United States and the United Kingdom. The theories to which he subscribes often have no basis in reality, but one can at least understand why he might believe them: for a former KGB agent, himself a spymaster, a heightened degree of suspicion that things may not be as they appear is not exactly shocking.
Trump’s susceptibility to – even enthusiasm for – radical conspiracy theories is less easy to explain. Trump is far from a master of intrigue, unless the cutthroat world of New York real estate is even more Mafia-ridden than outsiders imagine.
It seems clear that Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, a life-long anti-liberal fabulist, reinforces his boss’s lumpen worldview. But not even Bannon’s influence can explain Trump’s feverish tweets, sent early last Saturday morning, accusing former US president Barack Obama of having Trump Tower’s “wires tapped” before the election.
Lacking any evidence for his allegation, Trump has called for an investigation, much like he demanded an investigation into widespread voter fraud (in favor of his opponent, Hillary Clinton) that never actually took place. So bizarre and implausible was this latest rant – extreme even for a cable news-addled, Twitter-addicted president – that one can only wonder (as many are) whether Trump is experiencing some sort of psychological disturbance.
Kaczyński has his own paranoid theories. He believes that European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, conspired with Putin to assassinate his twin brother, then-Polish President Lech Kaczyński. The plane crash near Smolensk in 2010 that claimed the lives of 92 Polish dignitaries, including Lech Kaczyński, has been thoroughly investigated – and none of the evidence supports Kaczyński’s claims. And yet, on the basis of his morbid delusions, Kaczyński engaged in a stealth plot in Brussels to have Tusk replaced.
What the late historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” has reached the commanding heights of political power in the US and Poland. The question is how these two democracies fell under the spell of leaders more reminiscent of Putin than of conventional Western leaders. Ordinary political analysis – and even psychology – may be incapable of providing an answer.
The novelist Joan Didion may come closest to charting a path through the politics of Trump and Kaczyński. In her essay “Notes Toward a Dreampolitik,” Didion describes people who move about the world “forever felling trees in some interior wilderness.” They are “secret frontiersmen who walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing” that characterizes modern life, and they “continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown.” They are “nominally literate,” yet “they participate in the national anxieties only through a glass darkly.”
It is scary enough that the US president refuses most of his daily briefings from the professionals at the State Department and in the military and intelligence services. The fact that he relies instead on Fox News, racist alt-right blogs, and the unhinged enragés of talk radio is truly, even existentially, terrifying. The leader of the free world has made his home on the manic fringes of US political discourse.
Under Kaczyński, Poland seems to be stuck in a similar Internet and talk-radio sinkhole. Indeed, a Roman Catholic Church radio station, Radio Maria, is among the most notorious of the “secret frontiersmen.”
But, as Putin’s leadership has demonstrated, the paranoid style is not just some personal weakness. In his book Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, the British journalist David Aaronovitch has described this political paranoia as a kind of voodoo of our social media age. The choice of words is telling. As the Voodoo doctor François “Papa Doc” Duvalier showed during his nearly 15-year dictatorship in Haiti, where no basis for political legitimacy exists, the ruler’s paranoia must be relentless.
Papa Doc turned fear into the blackest form of political magic. Anyone in Haiti who questioned his rule could expect to be dispatched – often in a public and theatrically violent manner – by Papa Doc’s dreaded Tonton Macoute. Foreign critics had their reputations trashed. Graham Greene, who witheringly dissected Papa Doc’s rule in his novel The Comedians, was called a Benzedrine addict – and worse – by the regime’s propagandists. Putin is no stranger to such tactics.
And now the West is experiencing something similar. US President George H.W. Bush once famously warned against “voodoo economics.” Today, we face a form of voodoo politics: rule based on “alternative facts” and unfounded and untestable theories that cast their own kind of spell on citizens struggling to comprehend a globalized world and economy from which they feel alienated.
Trump, Kaczyński, and Putin embrace this approach because it works. Regardless of whether, and to what extent, they believe their own claims, they can be confident that for many of their supporters, the magic will never wear off, no matter how badly they fail or how baldly they lie.