In 1998 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I won’t drag you through tales of the therapies, medications, hospitalisation, diets, Napoleonic highs and Lilliputian lows I’ve tried and endured since. I will say I’ve learned to live in a kind of armed truce with my mental illness. Let’s just further say that diet and exercise are vastly underrated and criminally under-utilized in the world of the treatment of mental health disorders and leave it at that.
One in five humans on our overburdened planet suffer from some kind of mental illness. Most of us don’t talk about it much because there isn’t much to say. Unless it’s a disorder of the obvious kind, such as schizophrenia for example, our conditions remain largely invisible and we are content to let them stay that way.
I can’t speak for the rest of the mentally ill but some of us in the manic-depressive club share a little secret: we wouldn’t change it for the world. We like our mountain top highs and put up with our cavernous lows as part of the price of entry. But one thing I guarantee none of us would do. We wouldn’t use bipolar disorder as an excuse to attack our own country.
It’s tempting to call the January 6th rioters crazy. It’s one of the many adjectives most of us have used, including me. But when they use it themselves as an excuse to betray democracy, I’m afraid I’m going to have to speak up on behalf of my brother and sister sufferers of actual mental disease and call, if you’ll pardon the expression, bullshit. They are, in fact spoiled, privileged little assholes who chose to follow a hateful, toxic bigot and were dumb enough to believe he’d stick his neck out for them if they got into trouble.
Take Jacob Chansley, for example. You all know who he is. He’s the so-called QAnon Shaman, the idiot with the Buffalo Bill outfit and quasi Native American paint job. Almost four months to the day after his first court appearance his lawyer is now asking the judge for a psychological examination. That’s right, he’s going to try the not guilty by reason of insanity argument.
Part of the problem, I will admit, is semantic. We have become so accustomed to characterizing people on the rightwing with terms that are also traditionally used to describe mental disorders that a lot of confusion has resulted. The irrepressible Keith Olbermann wrote a book called “Trump is F*cking Crazy,” for instance. Marjorie Taylor Greene is frequently diagnosed by armchair critics with mental problems. Apart from the diagnosis of malignant narcissism for Donald Trump, which I think is almost certainly true, most of these conditions attributable to Trump and Trumpists are harmlessly intended and flippantly diagnosed.
But it’s unlikely that any of the January 6th rioters will get away with an insanity plea. Why? Because they have no history of mental disorders. Mental stupidity, to be sure. But not mental illness. It is part of the banality of evil that people who would attack their own country live and work among us. We occasionally exchange pleasantries with them. We discuss the weather and pet their dogs as they walk by. They’re seemingly normal human beings with corrupt souls.
But even more to the point, we of the 20% who suffer from mental illness are not them. While it is unquestionably true that some of the mentally ill among us are evil, they are not evil because of mental illness. They are evil because they’re jerks. It’s an important distinction to make, and I can’t make it enough.
Some of the Capitol rioters are going to try the insanity plea in the coming months, and they are hoping that no one deciding their fates will notice that which we of the 20% know so well. Mental illness doesn’t cause treason. Evil causes treason. And mental illness and evil are not the same thing. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.