In February, 2009, the British medical journal Brain published an article on the intersection of health and politics titled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?” The authors were David Owen, the former British Foreign Secretary, who is also a physician and neuroscientist, and Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, who has studied the mental health of politicians. They proposed the creation of a psychiatric disorder for leaders who exhibited, among other qualities, “impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate.”
Owen and Davidson studied the behavior and medical records of dozens of American and British political leaders, from Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who took office in 1908, to President George W. Bush, who left office in 2009. Across that century, they identified a tendency among some otherwise high-achieving individuals to close themselves off from critics and to overestimate their odds of success. Neville Chamberlain wrongly believed that he could appease Hitler; Tony Blair supported the invasion of Iraq even after his envoy informed him that the plan had “no leadership, no strategy, no coordination,” among other defects. When a leader succumbs to hubris syndrome, the authors wrote, his experience at the top has distorted his personality and decision-making.
Owen was only partly interested in establishing a formal diagnosis. (Hubris syndrome does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.) More fundamentally, he wanted to call out a kind of public cognitive bias, in which voters and shareholders are often slow to acknowledge signs of irrational behavior in their chosen leaders because that acknowledgment reflects poorly on the decision to put them there. “You get rumors or people are telling you that things aren’t going all that marvellously, and either you’ve made a wrong choice or something has happened to him,” Owen told me. He helped establish a charity, the Daedalus Trust, which raises public awareness of hubris syndrome in public life, and he encourages institutions—banks, schools, political entities—to assess leaders’ mental health on a fixed schedule. “Then it’s easier to spot an incipient intoxication of power,” he said.
President Donald Trump, in the months since he entered the White House, has become a kind of international case study of mental health’s role in politics. To his friends and allies, he elicits an array of anodyne, even appealing, adjectives: unpredictable, fearless, irascible, sly. Many of his counterparts in diplomacy, and in American politics, are rapidly shedding the euphemisms that they once used to express their appraisals, however. When Trump, after a confused viewing of a Fox News segment, urged people at a rally to look at “what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” suggesting that an incident—which no one could identify; nothing notable had happened the night before—had something to do with Sweden being overrun by refugees, Swedes reached a judgment. “They thought the man had gone bananas,” Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former Prime Minister and foreign minister, told Susan Glasser, of Politico, in an interview published this week. “It was a somewhat unsettling thing to see the president of the United States without any factual basis whatsoever lunge out against a small country in the way that he did.”
LISTEN TO TERRY GROSS ~ FRESH AIR INTERVIEW