Dangerous New World

What the New National Security Adviser Says about the Mind of the President

Posted Apr 06, 2018

Jackman Chiu/Unsplash
Source: Jackman Chiu/Unsplash

“Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.” - Hannah Arendt

We are entering a new era as we reach another milestone in the dangers of the current presidency.  The new national security adviser, whose appointment begins next week, holds ultra-hawkish views, in line with the president’s propensities for violence and war.  The announcement itself happened chaotically, amid White House denials of any intention to fire the seasoned army lieutenant in the position ahead of a planned U.S.-North Korea summit in May.

John Bolton will take over the post, which does not require a Senate confirmation, on April 9, 2018.  In 2005 and 2006, when he served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, President George W. Bush had named him to the post as a recess appointment, amid fears that the Senate would not confirm him.  His appointment is disturbing not only for his lack of qualifications, but his reflections of the president’s state of mind.

Bolton’s appointment unmistakably puts the nation on a path toward war.  Scorning diplomacy and disdaining international law, he has openly suggested military engagement with Iran and North Korea.  He is an unrepentant supporter of the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Earlier this year he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled, “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”  In 2015, while the Obama administration was negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, he wrote a piece for the New York Times titled, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”

Some believe that Bolton contradicts the president’s alleged far-right isolationist views and his separation from Bush’s interventionist, nation-building wars.  Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, however, is psychologically more consistent with Bush’s establishment, neoconservative one than not—for both are about violence and war.  The president’s attraction to violence and war come from his psychological need to burnish a sense of power, and the greater the show of power through military might, the more appealing it is to him.  So far, not only his rhetoric but his policies have reflected this attraction: the subtle ending of the “no first strike” policy (U.S. Department of Defense, 2018), the advocacy to use “smaller-scale” nuclear weapons, and now the appointment of a national security adviser who advocates for preventive wars in both North Korea and Iran.

As a rule, however, gratification of these types of desires does not placate.  Bolton’s appointment follows a period of many disruptions in the White House.  The president has systematically removed disagreement, not to mention any attempt at moderating his impulses.  The expulsion of Rex Tillerson and Andrew McCabe may be seen as a sign of exuberance and confidence in the president’s own power, and the nomination of pro-war and pro-torture Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel a push toward policies of his liking.  But pursued out of compulsion, or a drive to satisfy an internal void, the pursuit is misplaced, since a severe internal lack is rarely satisfied through external compensation; when extreme, it becomes an unlimited need that will not abate until all are consumed.  The outcome is as inevitable as any unopposed disease.

For this reason, the role of mental health professionals has never been more important in geopolitical affairs—where the world’s very survival now has a direct link to mental health.  “Now I’m fucking doing it my own way!” is how the president allegedly expressed his satisfaction at his appointments.  It is incumbent on experts to distinguish between healthy, life-affirming decisions from those of abnormality and impairment.  They must point out when the patterns are dangerous.  Decisions emanating from disease states are particularly uncompromising, and as the outside world comes to echo an inner, chaotic world, trends will accelerate—until we arrive at the endpoint of all disease: damage, destruction, and death.

Certainly, past presidencies, both Democrat and Republican, were not without their dangers, and some are even worse in terms of result.  However, they did not arise from dangerously unpredictable pathologies that irrationally risk the very survival of the human species for a leader’s internal needs.  The perspective of mental health professionals goes beyond ideologies, policies, and other political affairs and can help prevent deaths and disability.  They are trained to look at deeper personality structures and larger behavioral patterns, applying scientific knowledge over decades to the hundreds of patients they see routinely.  They apply these observational skills to understand a deeper, emotional logic to how personality unfolds in the objective world, and furthermore how personality dysfunction can disrupt in extraordinarily pernicious ways.

With enough information, these types of observations are possible to make from a distance.  Dangerousness, in particular, is the assessment of an overall situation that should be responded to when there is enough information of risk.  Mental health professionals may see in the president not just his actions, but the underlying unfolding of character or defects of character that are consistent, recognizable, and predictable across many individuals.  Disease states, in particular, become more rigid, unlike the wide range and flexibility that healthy states bring.

When there is news of chaos and disruption in the White House, mental health professionals may simply see an external unveiling of internal chaos and disorder.  When there is a subversion of reality and a drive toward violence, they may see a common state of poor mental health playing out in the public sphere.  When a president makes an appointment more obviously to fulfill disordered, compulsive, inner urges, rather than through logical, rational, and reality-based consideration of consequences, they might question the president’s mental capacity.  Just as an internist might suspect liver failure through someone’s complexion, or consider cancer by another’s appetite pattern, even if not her patient, there is different expertise that mental health professionals bring to the same information.

Mental health professionals have a duty to society as well as to individual patients: this is outlined at the very outset of professional ethics.  At times like this, however, their voice is critical in lending credibility to those who are rightly concerned.  Anxiety is augmented when people cannot put a description to it.  While the public may be confused or split, medically a consensus is not difficult to reach.  Therefore, they must be a witness to what is not normal and what will quickly become a mass movement toward self-destruction for an entire nation, because of the position that the impaired individual holds.

Mental health professionals already have a consensus about the president’s dangerousness.  Dangerousness has nothing to do with diagnosis, but there are standards of care: dangerousness is an emergency, whereby one must contain, remove from access to weapons, and urgently evaluate an individual who poses a risk.  A full examination then leads to a diagnosis—and the ability to offer precise recommendations.  Even a president deserves medical standard of care.  And the people, who elected a president to protect them, have the right to demand it.


Bolton, J. R. (2015).  To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.  New York Times.  Retrievable at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/opinion/to-stop-irans-bomb-bomb-iran.html

Bolton, J. R. (2018).  The legal case for striking North Korea First.  Wall Street Journal.  Retrievable at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-legal-case-for-striking-north-korea-first-1519862374

U.S. Department of Defense (2018).  Nuclear Posture Review.  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense.  Retrievable at: https://www.defense.gov/News/SpecialReports/2018NuclearPostureReview.aspx

U.S. Department of Defense (2018).  Nuclear Posture Review.  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense.  Retrievable at: https://www.defense.gov/News/SpecialReports/2018NuclearPostureReview.aspx