In Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, a political crisis strikes Great Britain when the monarch loses his marbles. You may recall Nigel Hawthorne’s riveting performance in the role of King George in the film version, at first indefatigable, if irascible, in performing his royal duties, then suddenly struck down by wild, raving lunacy.
“I talk and talk and talk,” he tells the queen forlornly in a moment of lucidity. “I hear the words so I have to speak them.” And the more the king raves, the more plausible the case becomes that his place should be taken, if only as Prince Regent, by his paunchy eldest son.
Historians continue to debate whether George III’s madness was the result of porphyria or some other affliction. Bennett suggests — doubtless fancifully, but it makes for good drama — that the root cause was shock at the rebellion of the American colonies (“a paradise . . . lost”).
Well, what goes around comes around. For these days it is in America that the question is asked with increasing frequency: is the head of state off his head? In a new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 psychiatrists and other mental health experts — including Judith Lewis Herman of Harvard Medical School and Bandy Lee of the Yale School of Medicine — warn that “anyone as mentally unstable as Mr Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency”.
Forget about special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry and the prospect of Trump’s impeachment should the Democrats win the House of Representatives in next November’s mid-term elections. These days liberal America is poring over article 25 of the constitution, which states that if the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet inform Congress in writing that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”, then Mike Pence takes over. And if Trump insists he is fine, just fine, he can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses.
The madness of King Donald is not news in Washington. But until last week the story in Britain was Trump’s badness, not his madness. Then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, the president retweeted three posts from the deputy leader of the fascist splinter group Britain First, each featuring a video purporting to depict Islamic violence.
When Theresa May expressed her disapproval, Trump shot back: “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” (Fine, just fine.)
Unfortunately, Trump addressed this response to @theresamay instead of @theresa_may. With one tweet he thereby directed the attention of his 44m Twitter followers — and hence the entirety of the world’s news media — at the hapless Theresa May Scrivener, 41, of Bognor Regis, West Sussex, along with her husband, children and six Twitter followers. (Some readers may believe that the last words of George III were allegedly “Bugger Bognor”, but that was George V.)
Not having read The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, the British political class reacted in the old-fashioned way. In the Commons, opposition MPs lined up to denounce President Trump as a “fascist”, “stupid” and “racist, incompetent or unthinking”. The British ambassador in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, made representations to the White House. Plans for Trump to visit London in January were shelved.
Do keep up. The president is mad, not bad. Or, if he’s bad, it’s because he’s mad. Just the other day he was telling people that the infamous Access Hollywood tape is fake. Last weekend he was fantasising that he had turned down Time magazine’s proposal to make him — for the second year running — Person of the Year. It’s only a matter of time before, like Hawthorne’s King George, Trump is seen running around the Rose Garden in his nightgown trying to rescue Melania from an imaginary flood.
The counterargument to all this comes from my good friend Bret Stephens. Far from being mad, he argues, Trump is cunningly exploiting the power of social media to drive his political opponents into their own form of madness, to mobilise his loyal supporters in Middle America — who love all this — and to distract everyone else’s attention from all that is going wrong on his watch.
I have a slightly different view. Like Bret, I don’t think Trump is nuts — not as nuts as King George, at any rate. He’s just crass and always has been. Unlike Bret, however, I don’t think Trump is failing. He has just secured a major legislative breakthrough, a package of corporate and personal tax cuts that are as popular on Wall Street as they are hated by Democratic economists.
Yes, I know. Fewer than 40% of Americans approve of the president. The Democrats are ahead in the polls with a reasonable shot at electoral success next year. But the US economy is growing at about 3.5%. The stock market is at record highs — up nearly a quarter since Trump’s election. And, although I have my doubts about adding to the deficit, respectable economists insist the Republican tax bill will benefit not just the rich but also working and middle-class families by boosting investment and growth — and that the Trump administration’s push to reduce burdensome regulation will have even more positive effects.
As for foreign policy, the moment of truth in the North Korean missile crisis draws ever nearer after Kim Jong-un’s long-range missile test last week. China must act or America will. In the Middle East, meanwhile, Isis has been defeated and, as part of an astounding revolution from above, the Saudi crown prince has turned on the jihadists.
The problem is that, in his incorrigible crassness, Trump consistently drowns out the signal of meaningful policy achievement with deafening yet inconsequential noise.
In this, unfortunately, he is not abnormal in the least. On the contrary, he is the incarnation of the spirit of our age. His tweets — hasty, crude and error-strewn — are just one symptom of a more general decline in civility that social media have encouraged. Fact: according to a recently published paper by researchers at New York University, a tweet is 20% more likely to be retweeted for every moral-emotional word (such as “hate”) that it uses. On Twitter and Facebook extreme views are second only to fake news.
One of many problems with the decline of civility is that uncivil discourse is so difficult for the remaining civil people to take seriously. As a result, serious issues — such as Islamic extremism or the North Korean threat — become trivialised and civil people assume, wrongly, that it is Trump we should really worry about.
Mahatma Gandhi is said to have been asked once what he thought of western civilisation. He replied, wittily, that it would be good idea. In these days of western un-civilisation, I find myself in agreement. The problem is not the madness of King Donald, nor even his badness. By George, it’s his infernal rudeness.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)