A disturbing footnote in a sad election season

Donald Trump has provoked Michelle Obama to make one of the best political speeches of my lifetime. She spoke in New Hampshire on Thursday 13th October 2016, supporting Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. She displayed a rare authenticity and a passion that I found genuinely moving. It is worth watching all 25 minutes here.

It is impossible to ignore Donald Trump at the moment, much as most of us would like to. His attempts to deny that he is a bullying sexist with a seriously bad attitude to women are futile because he condemns himself every time he opens his mouth. If he wanted to demonstrate his “respect” for women, glowering intimidation of Hillary Clinton in a televised debate was not a clever move.

Trump may have broken his campaign through his own misogyny. Actually, he has rather a lot of bad attitudes. It is tempting to think he has adopted these for electoral purposes, but he seems to have complete lack of self-awareness. His claimed smartness is not evident in anything he says or does. I am driven to the conclusion that he must be genuinely horrible. It seems reasonable to infer that he is a very bad man. I sincerely hope that Trump’s campaign is now doomed to failure. He appears to think so, as he seems to be preparing to be one of the worst bad losers in history.

There have been misguided attempts to understand Trump’s obnoxiousness in terms of psychiatric diagnoses or symptoms. This is very wrong. I have spent my lifetime working with people with mental illnesses, with personality disorders and other mental health problems. Very few of them have been habitually unpleasant. Not one has come close to Trump’s achievements in this regard. Trying to understand Trump in terms of psychopathology completely misses the point. What is really frightening about Trump is his popularity. Millions of Americans see something that they aspire to reflected back from a podium occupied by a grotesque, a Marvel Comic bad guy. Right there beside him is our own Nigel Farage, in his own way just as much the stereotypical bigot as Trump: a saloon bar bore with mysterious electoral appeal.

In case anyone has forgotten, Farage has been dramatically successful in changing British political values. He has provoked a major constitutional change. It seems that leaving the EU does not represent the full extent of Farage’s political ambitions. He would not bother with supporting Trump if he was sated. He stands beside Trump and they survey new horizons beyond the referendum and the election. It is hard to believe that Trump’s constituency will simply shrug their shoulders if their champion loses. There is something rotten in the state of this special relationship.

Hard worn liberties can disappear quite suddenly. Look at what happened to trade union rights. One of the things about Brexit that really shook people who do not buy the Daily Mail was the realisation that liberal social values have much shallower roots than we ever realised. We thought that we had won a cultural revolution over equality; rights for women, BME and LGBT people as consolation prizes for losing the political battles of the 1980s and 1990s. It turns out that the ground that we thought we had won was not securely held. The success of events like Gay Pride may have lulled us into a false sense of security. It is now evident that opposition to, and therefore the struggle for, equal rights is likely persist for the rest of my lifetime and beyond, which is to say, for the foreseeable future.

Discrimination is a significant issue affecting people’s mental health. In better times, mental health services across the UK developed projects for BME populations and women. I had involvement with some of these. The need arose because women and people from BME backgrounds wanted them in response to high rates of mental disorder and low rates of satisfaction with mainstream services. The projects I worked alongside were important and successful, but they were swept away when money got tight. This exposed a systemic lack of commitment to equality, not necessarily from individual decision makers, but deeply embedded within the mechanisms that determine spending priorities.

Relative privilege does not necessarily protect against discrimination. In my own profession, women occupy leadership positions in British medicine. So do doctors from BME backgrounds. This does not mean that we are home and dry. Discrimination is still out there. One of the key issues in the junior doctors dispute was discrimination against women, which is astonishing because we have an increasingly female workforce. Two-thirds of medical students are women. Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt have said that foreign-born doctors are here for ‘the interim’, until we can train sufficient doctors ‘of our own’. Shallow roots indeed.

Nearly all inequalities disproportionately affect women. Men have a role in addressing this, if only by contradicting assertions by Trump and Farage that boasts of recurrent sexual assault are part of everyday locker room talk. They are not. I have never heard any man say anything like that. Remarks like that are skin-crawlingly creepy and they have to be challenged by other men.

Michelle Obama said:

“The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.”

Who could possibly disagree with that?