Trump’s Iran belligerence conveniently mutes Stephens’ concerns about his mental fitness
Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens believes President Donald Trump is likely mentally ill. As a self-identified member of the bafflingly influential clique of #NeverTrump conservative columnists, Stephens has at various times expounded on Trump’s manifest unfitness for high office. In March 2017, he asked in a (since deleted) tweet: “When will Republicans acknowledge that the President of the United States is mentally ill?” When he deleted the tweet, he backed off ever so slightly from that position, writing that he’s “not a diagnostician,” but adding: “That something is deeply amiss, I have no doubt.”
Last December, in a conversation with fellow Times columnist Gail Collins, Stephens said that he goes “back and forth” on the question of whether Trump is mentally ill, explaining that he’s “not expert enough to say at what point mental decline slides into senility or dementia, but there’s clearly been a decline.” He ventured that perhaps Trump has “narcissistic personality disorder” and that the president’s “frequently unhinged and spasmodic tweets suggests a guy who isn’t in control of himself.”
That damning assessment of Trump’s faculties, however, doesn’t stop Stephens from trusting that the out-of-control and potentially mentally unwell president can nonetheless competently pursue policy goals Stephens happens to favor.
Under the headline “A Courageous Trump Call on a Lousy Iran Deal,” Stephens writes today that Trump was “absolutely right” to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “assuming, that is, serious thought has been given to what comes next.” After slogging through the rote right-wing criticisms of the deal and contradicting himself on the threat of Iranian nuclear enrichment, Stephens concludes that Trump’s withdrawal “will clarify the stakes for Tehran. Now we’ll see whether the administration is capable of following through.”
Every indication thus far is that the administration has given precisely zero thought to what comes next. Trump pulled the rip cord and the White House is offering nothing but mealy-mouthed promises that everything will work out because a “better deal” can be made. The Washington Post reported that Trump’s decision was driven by his desire to fulfill a campaign promise and his “instincts to be a disrupter on the world stage.” Trump’s actions here more closely align with Stephens’ assessment of a president who acts without thinking and is driven primarily by the demands of his overriding egotism.
But Stephens won’t say that. Instead, he calls Trump “courageous.” His analysis doesn’t grapple with what the administration is saying, what our European allies are saying, or the difficulties in negotiating a new diplomatic framework to replace the one Trump precipitously blew up. Stephens’ concerns about Trump’s mental fitness have conveniently evaporated because Stephens agrees that the Iran deal is bad. He just idly hopes that “serious thought has been given” to whatever policy will replace it.
This is a feature of Stephens’ commentary and #NeverTrump posturing in general -- all the venting and sharp-tongue rebukes of the blundering and feeble-minded president disappear the moment #NeverTrump pundits spy an opportunity to advance their own interests. Just a month after Stephens called the president “mentally ill,” Trump fired his first salvo of Tomahawk missiles into Syria, prompting Stephens to urge the president he believed was mentally incompetent to launch a full-scale war against the Assad regime.
Thus we have a curious situation in which a New York Times columnist feels that the president is too unstable to be trusted with a Twitter account, but is capable of renegotiating complex diplomatic frameworks and pursuing regime change in the Middle East