By Michael Sandlin.
Dan Partland’s well-intended but flawed documentary has at least done its democratic duty and created a forum for these previously silenced psychiatrists to outline just how much of a deranged wingnut Donald Trump really is.”
In some ways, it seems almost unfair to single out Donald Trump as being somehow unusually unfit for Presidential office. Other than perhaps Barack Obama and FDR, most American presidents have been more or less unfit for office. Let’s face it, Yankee democracy has gotten us 200-plus-years of elected narcissists, liars, racists, sex fiends, petty crooks, war criminals, xenophobes, melancholics, slave owners, and even a Baptist peanut farmer. But don’t the flaws of our presidents reflect our imperfect presidential electoral system and ultimately our flawed electorate? In our system, a hound dog in a tuxedo could get elected president as long as it was born in America and enough people voted for it.
Dan Partland’s well-intended anti-Trump documentary Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump trots out a pretty impressive dream team of Ivy League PhDs and other professional frontal lobes, most of whom are serious academic heavy hitters in the psychiatry/psychology racket. Yet none of these fancy PhDs can tell us lowly MAs anything we didn’t already know about Trump: he’s a malignant narcissist (or in lay terminology, “asshole”). True, producer/director Dan Partland’s film can often seem like just another MSNBC-style limousine-liberal gang-up on Trump, utilizing a hit squad comprising familiar politically center-left TV mainstays like security expert Malcolm Nance, corporate lawyer Richard Painter, hedge fund guru Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, former Iraq War apologist Bill Kristol, and hotshot lawyer and onetime Laura Ingraham lover George Conway, among others.
However, Partland’s documentary starts out with a higher purpose than simply lining up a gaggle of smarty-pants psychiatrists to deliver boringly sober analyses of Trump’s tiny tweet-filled brain. What we learn is that maybe the real flaw is not so much that in 2016 we elected a bona fide sociopath as the US presidency: the problem may be more about just how a Mussolini mini-me from Queens could fall through the cracks in our electoral system and land behind the most powerful desk in the universe. The film ardently reminds us that the highest political office in the country has no real psychological vetting process other than voter opinion. Most government employees who are, for example, entrusted with crucial tasks – like say manning missile silos – have to go through a rigorous psychological evaluation before they’re given the hypothetical responsibility of starting World War III. While of course the president, who has total autocratic power to authorize Armageddon at any time, only has to answer to an increasingly apathetic and mostly misinformed electorate.
What’s worse, as the film tells us, is the continued application of the “Goldwater” rule by the American Psychological Association. Under this undemocratic and anti-free speech mandate, the US psychiatric community isn’t allowed to make public judgments on the state of a prominent public figure’s mental health unless they’ve examined said public figure. So an obvious rubber-room-ready lunatic like Donald Trump can bypass the scrutiny of the psychiatric community altogether. The rule was brought into force in 1964 to, ironically, protect reckless war-mongering psychopaths like Senator Barry Goldwater from the American public instead of protecting the American public from unhinged nuke-mongering psychopaths like Goldwater. So Partland’s documentary has at least done its democratic duty and created a forum for these previously silenced psychiatrists to outline, in officious-sounding clinical detail, just how much of a deranged wingnut Donald Trump really is.
But despite all the psychobabble bluster in this film, the most convincing case for Trump being unfit for office is made not by some glorified head-shrinker from Princeton but by sportswriter Rick Reilly, author of the endlessly clever Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump. Unlike the other distinguished talking heads here, Reilly has actually done empirical research on Trump’s acute psychosis: he’s played hundreds of golf matches with Agent Orange. And Reilly’s observations are nothing short of staggering. Turns out, Trump has a bit of a cheating problem on the green. “He even tried to cheat Tiger Woods on the golf course once,” says Reilly, visibly still shaken by this unprecedented event in sports history. “He tells people he’s won club championships that he never even played in.”
The trouble with Partland’s film is also the trouble with almost every political documentary, whether slanted to the right or left. Unfit simply preaches to the converted. In this way, the film fails to find a truly subversive edge. Toward the end the film’s discourse sadly goes off the rails into what by now seems like hysteric scaremongering. Is Trump as likely to start World War III as Unfit’s histrionic chattering class sources say he is? Of course not. Trump is only interested in personal monetary gain: until he can find a way to personally profit from mutually assured destruction, we can probably all count ourselves safe from nuclear war. If Partland’s goal is to help erode Trump’s support base, then use of introductory attention-grabbing graphics displaying his interviewees’ academic credentials onscreen is a puzzling strategy for winning over Trump voters, the majority of whom, as studies show, have never set foot on a college campus. Does Partland really think the average seething Trump-voting gun nut will suddenly feel a warm sense of trust and reverence for didactic academic elites telling them that their beloved Tang-colored overlord is completely insane? Someone should inform him and future Trump documentary filmmakers that flashing words like “Harvard” and “Yale” at the average Trump voter is like waving a giant red cape at an angry bull.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.