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[COMMENTARY] Trump’s Health and the Threat of Political Amnesia

President Trump recently announced by tweet that he definitely did not go to Walter Reed Memorial Hospital last November to get treatment for a series of mini-strokes. The president’s physical and mental well-being has been the subject of concern for years, but his tweet added specificity to those concerns.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 04: Protesters demonstrate during the arrival of the motorcade carrying President Donald Trump.

Ironically, Trump has made attacking Biden’s mental fitness a focal point of his campaign, even as he’s deflected questions about his own.

Whoever is in the Oval Office, Americans have every reason to worry about their President’s health, especially if it influences his or her decision-making. But beyond the immediate concerns about Trump’s mental well-being, there are also potential long-term political consequences if he did have mini-strokes.

President Trump has systematically attacked and undermined America’s democratic institutions and norms. He has weakened the social safety net, accelerated government corruption, and encouraged violence and disorder. In these efforts, Trump has been aided and abetted by Republicans in the judicial and legislative branches. The possibility that Trump is mentally-impaired—whether because of malignant narcissism, dementia, strokes, or something else—represents a potential challenge for anyone who wants to hold him or his Republican enablers accountable.

This may seem like a trivial concern, but it has historical precedent. In 1994, Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, a degenerative brain disorder that disrupts a patient’s decision-making abilities, memory, and social skills. Reagan was out of office for five years before his official diagnosis, but signs of his dementia were apparent as early as 1984. In 1987, senior staff even considered invoking the 25th Amendment because of Reagan’s increasingly frequent mental lapses.

During his presidency, Reagan’s mental instability was occasionally remarked on, but it didn’t gain traction in the press. It did, however, provide a handy alibi.

When questioned about the Iran-Contra Affair, for instance, Reagan gave conflicting testimony about his knowledge of the arms-for-hostages deal. Asked by reporters for comment, Reagan said, “It’s possible to forget.”

Whether or not he actually forgot about his involvement in Iran-Contra, the open secret of Reagan’s mental lapses gave him plausible deniability.

Reagan’s Alzheimer’s also shaped his legacy. During his time in office, Reagan had some incredible successes. But he also presided over a devastating AIDS crisis, two economic crashes, and a failed intervention in the Lebanese Civil War. The Iran-Contra Affair, which came to light after his re-election, built on other prominent scandals, including the Savings and Loan Crisis, the Housing and Urban Development grant rigging scandal, and several Environmental Protection Agency scandals. And by the time he left office, Reagan’s administration had more officials investigated, indicted, or convicted than any other administration in U.S. history.

Even as details of his administration’s scandals were coming to light in the mid-1990s, however, Reagan’s approval numbers bounced significantly. The authors of a Gallup poll review suggested that sympathy and concern over his Alzheimer’s diagnosis “are in part responsible for the elevated retrospective job approval ratings he has received since.”

Reagan’s public struggle with Alzheimer’s aroused Americans’ compassion, which is commendable. But it also quickly obscured actual details of his presidency, which enabled a sort of political amnesia about his administration’s behaviors.

In the years since, notwithstanding ever-increasing evidence of scandal and corruption, Reagan has been lionized by Republicans, who continue to run on his legacy without having to account for his administration’s failures. A number of key players in his administration’s scandals even went on to prominent roles in the government.

As we approach the 2020 election, Reagan’s whitewashed legacy should be fresh on our minds. Given what we’re learning about Trump’s trip to Walter Reed, every American should reach out to their Congresspeople and Senators to urge them to designate a 25th Amendment review committee, at the very least.

Still, whether or not Trump is re-elected, his mental and physical health will continue to shape Americans’ understanding of his administration. If he is unwell, he deserves our compassion. But with dozens of ongoing lawsuits and investigations into the president and his associates, it’s crucial we don’t allow ourselves to be lulled into the same sort of Reaganite political amnesia no matter what news about Trump’s health ultimately comes to light.

About Ryan Skinnell

Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author “Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump,” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project



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