Was this petty, snarling man, utterly lacking in presidential temperament and heedless of the established rules and norms of politics, going to get us into a nuclear war? That’s what a lot of Americans wondered about Richard Nixon back in 1956. Chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s running-mate four years before, Nixon was seen as unscrupulous, mean-spirited and reckless in smearing his opponents. So in the 1956 campaign, with Ike still wildly popular, Democrats made Nixon’s character an issue. The Soviet Union had just detonated its first hydrogen bomb, and Eisenhower had recently suffered a heart attack and a bout of ileitis (a gastrointestinal illness)—putting Nixon, they warned, perilously close to the Oval Office. In the fall Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats’ nominee, invoked what the liberal New York Post columnist Max Lerner called “the triple issue”: should Eisenhower suddenly die, the unreliable Nixon would have his finger on the button.
Today, of course, we’re wondering the same things about Donald Trump, whose recent tweets about big nuclear buttons and his own “stability” have pundits buzzing about his mental health. His behavior—impulsive, erratic, petty and often cruel (to name just a few of the most salient qualities)—especially amid the prospect of a nuclear showdown with North Korea, makes it impossible not to think about his psychology, just as it was during the Cold War.
It’s an understandable impulse: The public needs to understand what moves our leaders to act as they do, including not just “rational” motives—pursuing policy objectives, responding to political pressures, working within economic and international constraints—but also the drives and responses that operate deep in an individual’s unconscious, formed by experiences and relationships long ago.
But more than a century after Sigmund Freud revolutionized the understanding of the human mind, the use of psychology to understand our political leaders has failed to realize its promise. The diagnoses we’re now throwing around for Trump, from incipient senility or venereal disease, are simplistic, facile and unhelpful—and possibly fueled by politics rather than objective analysis. As crucial as it is to recognize the psychological dimension of Trump’s behavior, history suggests that analyzing public figures is a dangerously fraught project—one that tends to descend into subjectivity, politicization and self-caricature.
Applying psychological insights to political leaders’ behavior started way back in Freud’s own day. Stanley Allen Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst, cites as the first such effort a March 1912 New York Times Magazine cover story titled “Roosevelt as Analyzed by the New Psychology,” about Theodore Roosevelt’s relationship with his successor as president, William Howard Taft. In it, Dr. Morton Prince, a professor of “nervous diseases” at Tufts, argued that Roosevelt was acting strangely because of an internal struggle: On the one hand, he consciously wanted to support his hand-picked successor and stand by his avowals to forswear a third term. On the other hand, he had a repressed, subconscious wish to win back the office he had loved so much. Over time, Prince explained, “the subconscious wish to be an active candidate became acceptable to his consciousness.”
But despite occasional invocations of Freudian theory in the press, it wasn’t until the Cold War that the psychoanalyzing of our presidents became a widespread pastime. The impulse had its roots in the work of the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services and its successor, the Central Intelligence Agency, both of which used psychoanalysis to study Hitler, Stalin and other leaders, to better understand their behavior and, perhaps, anticipate their actions. Then, in 1957, the Harvard historian William Langer, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association, urged his colleagues to avail themselves of the insights of “dynamic” or “depth psychology”—approaches to studying the mind, building on Freud, that look at the deep, even unconscious, forces that underpin human actions, feelings, decisions and struggles—in thinking about the past. Langer—who had served in both the OSS and CIA, and whose psychoanalyst brother wrote the OSS report on Hitler—argued that in light of the strides made by psychoanalysis, “the homespun, common-sense psychological interpretations of past historians … seem woefully inadequate, not to say naïve.”
The next year, Erik Erikson published his landmark psychobiography Young Man Luther, about the Reformation leader. It won a generally positive reception—though it was too overtly Freudian for some people’s tastes. Erikson used the harsh and demanding nature of Luther’s father to explain not only the boy’s deep sense of moral inferiority but also the conception of God he ultimately developed that would characterize early Protestantism. Even many critics of psychohistory conceded the book’s virtues.
More than academic fashion, though, it was the Cold War itself that put the mental health of political leaders on the public’s radar. The United States had emerged as a nuclear superpower, engaged in a hostile struggle with a rival nuclear power. Americans readily grasped the need for a president who was sane, stable and mature.
This new interest had consequences besides the psychological scrutiny of Richard Nixon. In the early 1960s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with doomsday movies like Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, brought home the importance of presidential sanity in a nuclear crisis. One nightmare scenario envisioned a hot-headed or irrational president starting a war; another had a Russian missile strike killing the president and others in the line of succession. As historian Rebecca Lubot, a recent Rutgers University history PhD, has argued, these worries spurred support for the 25th Amendment, which establishes the presidential line of succession. In June 1963, Nixon, now out of office, said as much to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who was planning hearings on a presidential succession bill. “With the advent of the terrible and instant destructive power of atomic weapons,” Nixon wrote, “the nation cannot afford to have any period of time when there is doubt or legal quibbling as to where the ultimate power to use those weapons resides.” Kefauver died weeks later, and with him the bill. But the next chairman of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Birch Bayh of Indiana, …read more
Read more here: What Happens When Americans Try to Psychoanalyze Their Leaders