During the 2016 election, we've seen a shift from more run-of-the-mill (if particularly rampant) name-calling to the issuance of mental health diagnoses of candidates by unqualified individuals on both the right and left. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has joined in, telling Politico's Glenn Thrush that Donald Trump "has a lot of problems — physical, mental, emotional, cognitive."
Stein, who is actually a medical doctor, was more hesitant in her assessment than Trump himself has been when referring to Hillary Clinton as "unstable" and "unbalanced," or President Barack Obama's former campaign manager David Plouffe was when he recently "diagnosed" Trump as a "psychopath." But Stein didn't need to go down this route to make her point that Trump is inconsistent beyond comprehensibility.
Thrush asked Stein whether she agreed with the declaration on the doctor's note Trump submitted before the primaries, which asserted that he'd be the "healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." Stein acknowledged that she couldn't actually diagnose the Republican candidate, but nonetheless opined, "You know, I don't pretend to be able to do TV diagnosis, but I think the guy has a problem." She referred to Trump's flip-flopping on issues such as immigration and "birtherism" as suggestive of a "memory problem," then concluded, "Who knows what it is? But he's incapable of having a consistent thought or policy.”
Trump's lack of consistency is worth highlighting, but there is no reason to pin it on a mental health or cognitive issue. Given that his audience — the Republican Party and Republican voters — is fractured into rather disparate camps of conservatives, moderate conservatives, and whatever fresh hell Primary Trump represented, it's really no surprise that his rhetoric is all over the place. It only makes sense that the outsider candidate would back down from some of his most extreme positions, depending on his audience. Trump is more likely saying whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear than experiencing lapses in memory — and that's what Trump's detractors should be emphasizing.
One of Trump's greatest appeals to many of his supporters is the belief that he "says what he means." But there is a difference between saying what one means and saying what one thinks people want to hear. When the latter is the guiding force, inconsistency results. It exposes dishonesty and disingenuousness. Trump's opponents can choose to fill their echo chamber with empty, unwarranted jabs, or they can reach out to those who support the candidate and try to change their minds about him. The way to do so effectively is to undercut the mystique of authenticity that somehow clings to Trump despite his waffling.
Making unqualified assumptions about Trump's mental and cognitive well-being not only further stigmatizes such issues, but also removes the spotlight from the fact that Trump's positions change because he might not have any genuine positions. That's a far less problematic assumption, and possibly a more persuasive one, than a mental health "diagnosis."