Followers in Front. Leader in the Back.

I yesterday wrote that President Donald Trump is intellectually and temperamentally unequipped to occupy the nation’s highest office. This presents a pressing problem absent a national crisis. This presents an existential problem present a national crisis. Particularly one that involves nuclear weapons.

It has been argued that past presidents failed to eliminate through conventional diplomacy the threat of a nuclear North Korea. There is merit to this argument. However, the off-the-cuff way in which Trump threatens unprecedented “fire and fury,” the almost casual way in which he invokes an event so catastrophic it has “never been seen before,” is unsettling to understate it. There appears no coherent national security strategy. There appears disorder and disunity among the president’s top foreign policy advisers. And there appears a diplomatic apparatus that is inexperienced and unseasoned, decimated and marginalized. It’s a state of the nation the nation cannot afford.

What to do? If the person at the top is disabled, or for some other reason not responsible, it is up to those close to the top carefully and cleverly to manage the situation. In this case, it is up to those close to the top to make certain that Trump does not abuse or even misuse his power.

Who in this case qualifies? Who might we trust to hold steady the ship of state? Whatever might be our misgivings, some obvious names come to mind.

  • Vice President Mike Pence.
  • Trump’s family, especially his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
  • Trump’s closest advisors, especially Generals John Kelly and H. R. McMaster.
  • Trump’s cabinet, especially Secretaries Rex Tillerson and James Mattis.
  • Members of congress, especially powerful and prominent Republicans, such as Senators Mitch McConnell and John McCain, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Which raises the question of how this group could organize itself to build a buffer between the president and his own most dangerous impulses. Could be that one of these individuals takes the lead. Could be that some sort of alliance forms, a smaller, like-minded group within this larger group that comes together for the good of the country.  I do not claim that the solution to the problem is easy. I do claim that the problem of coping with a president who potentially is extremely dangerous is of the greatest national urgency.

Jerrold Post (who is a psychiatrist) and Robert Robins have written about how difficult it is to constrain leaders who in some way are impaired. They write, for example, that “an illness that affects the leader mentally and impairs decision making ability and intellectual acuity is particularly threatening.”* It is precisely because Trump at the helm could be “particularly threatening,” that those who might mitigate the threat have a responsibility to act if the danger becomes acute.


When Illness Strikes the Leader (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 201.

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