Presidential derangement syndrome: a brief history

If you pay attention to the sillier parts of political debate (that is, their largest and most dominant parts), you will have heard defenders of Donald Trump accuse his critics of something called “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Here is a recent example from Geraldo Rivera, in which he says, “I think that Trump derangement syndrome is a real thing.”

And here is a video of Fareed Zakaria taking the concept seriously on CNN.

The concept has a history. Here, for example, is an essay on The Economist‘s Lexington Blog from early in the Obama presidency. From the essay:

The economic crisis has transformed this cultural suspicion into a much more potent political force. It is true that Mr Obama’s solution to the recession—spending public money in order to stimulate demand and trying to prevent a run on the banks—is supported by most economists. Mr Bush would have done much the same thing. But it is nevertheless driving many Americans crazy. April 15th—the last day on which Americans can perform the melancholy duty of filing their tax returns—saw rallies (dubbed “tea parties” after the Boston one) in every state, 500 or so in all. The protesters, some of whom dressed in three-cornered hats and waved “Don’t tread on me” flags, repeated a litany of criticisms that has been mounting since Mr Obama won the election—that he is a big government socialist (or fascist) who wants to take people’s money away and crush their freedoms.

The essay notes that Obama Derangement Syndrome had an earlier parallel on the political left, and uses it to predict the future:

Bush-hatred eventually spread from a molten core of leftists to set the cultural tone of the country. But Obama-hatred could just as easily do the opposite and brand all conservatives as a bunch of Obama-hating cranks.

Indeed, nearly every commentator writing about the concept of presidential derangement syndrome locates its origin during the Bush era. As Ezra Klein writes,

In 2003, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer diagnosed a new affliction in some of George W. Bush’s fiercest critics. He described the condition as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” He called it Bush Derangement Syndrome.

Here is the piece by Krauthammer. Incredibly, there is a subsection devoted to the concept in the Wikipedia entry for Bush’s public image, here. (Note how far we’ve fallen even from our already-fallen state: Trump Derangement Syndrome has its own devoted entry.)

It’s true that Krauthammer coined the terminology of presidential derangement syndrome. But readers may be interested to know that he certainly didn’t invent the concept. In 1997, Philip Weiss wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called, “The Clinton Crazies,” here. Says Weiss:

The Clinton crazies — I’d first heard the term used, with tongue only slightly in cheek, by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a British journalist who is one of them — are of different types. There are haters like Nichols and Pat Matrisciana, a film maker, who have developed a monstrous view of Clinton as Satan’s nephew. Then there are the professional reporters of a conservative and sometimes conspiratorial bent who tend to portray the President as a figurehead for a corrupt political organization that has its roots in Arkansas. Evans-Pritchard, who writes for The Sunday Telegraph of London, is in this group. Martyrs are in another class: they tend to be Arkansans who feel they have been victimized by what they see as Clinton’s political machine, and they have been embraced by anti-Clinton warriors. Finally there are the freelance obsessives, the people for whom the Internet was invented, cerebral hobbyists who have glimpsed in the Clinton scandals a high moral drama that might shake society to its roots. Prominent in this group is Hugh H. Sprunt of Farmers Branch, Tex., who has made himself an expert in the matter of the death of Vincent Foster.

I am fairly confident that even Weiss can’t lay claim to truly inventing the attribution of president-specific mental illness to political opponents, but I’m not nearly the historian of presidential politics that I should be. I will run over to Twitter and tag all of the presidential historians I can find to see what they know. If anything else turns up, I’ll report it here in updates to the post.


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