Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of the new book, The Square and the Tower.
In Alan Bennett's play The Madness of George III, a political crisis strikes Great Britain when the monarch loses his marbles.
Historians continue to debate whether King George's madness was the result of porphyria or some other affliction. Mr. Bennett suggests that the root cause was shock at the rebellion of the American colonies ("a paradise … lost").
Well, what goes around comes around. For these days, it is in the United States that the question is asked, with increasing frequency: Is the head of state off his head? Has the President lost the plot?
In a new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 psychiatrists and other mental health experts – including Judith Lewis Herman of Harvard Medical School and Bandy Lee of the Yale School of Medicine – warn that "anyone as mentally unstable as Mr. Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency."
The madness of King Donald is not news in Washington. But until last week, the story in Britain was Mr. Trump's badness, not his madness. Then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, the President retweeted three posts from the deputy leader of the fascist splinter group Britain First, each featuring a video purporting to depict Islamic violence.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed her disapproval, Mr. Trump shot back: "Don't focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!" (Fine, just fine.)
Unfortunately, Trump addressed this response to @theresamay instead of @theresa_may. With one tweet, he thereby directed the attention of his 44m Twitter followers – and hence the entirety of the world's news media – at the hapless Theresa May Scrivener, 41, of Bognor Regis, along with her husband, children and six Twitter followers.
That's not all. Just the other day, he was telling people that the infamous Access Hollywood tape is fake. Last weekend, he was fantasizing that he had turned down Time magazine's proposal to make him – for the second year running – Person of the Year. It's only a matter of time before, like King George, Trump is seen running around the Rose Garden in his nightgown.
The counterargument to all this comes from my good friend Bret Stephens. Far from being mad, he argues, Trump is cunningly exploiting the power of social media to drive his political opponents into their own form of madness, to mobilize his loyal supporters in Middle America – who love all this – and to distract everyone else's attention from all that is going wrong on his watch.
I have a slightly different view. Like Bret, I don't think Trump is nuts – not as nuts as King George, at any rate. He's just crass, and always has been. Unlike Bret, however, I don't think Trump is failing.
Yes, I know. Fewer than 40 per cent of Americans approve of the President. The Democrats are ahead in the polls, with a reasonable shot at electoral success next year. But the U.S. economy is growing at around 3.5 per cent. The stock market is at record highs – up almost a quarter since Trump's election. And, though I have my doubts about adding to the deficit, respectable economists insist that the Republican tax bill will benefit not just the rich but also working- and middle-class families by boosting investment and growth – and that the Trump administration's push to reduce burdensome regulation will have even more positive effects.
As for foreign policy, the moment of truth in the North Korean missile crisis draws ever nearer, after Kim Jong-un's long-range missile test last week. China must act, or the U.S will. In the Middle East, meanwhile, the Islamic State has been defeated and, as part of an astounding revolution from above, the Saudi Crown Prince has turned on the jihadists.
The problem is that, in his incorrigible crassness, the President consistently drowns out the signal of meaningful policy achievement with deafening yet inconsequential noise.
In this, unfortunately, he is not abnormal in the least. On the contrary, he is the incarnation of the spirit of our age. His tweets – hasty, crude and error-strewn – are just one symptom of a more general decline in civility that online social media have encouraged. Fact: according to a recently published paper by researchers at New York University, a tweet is 20 per cent more likely to be retweeted for every moral-emotional word (such as "hate") it uses. On Twitter and Facebook, extreme views are second only to fake news.
One of many problems with the decline of civility is that uncivil discourse is so hard for the remaining civil people to take seriously. As a result, serious issues – such as Islamic extremism or the North Korean threat – become trivialized and civil people assume, wrongly, that it is Donald Trump we should really worry about.
Mahatma Gandhi is said to have been asked once what he thought of Western civilization. He replied, wittily, that it would be good idea. In these days of Western un-civilization, I find myself in agreement. The problem today is not the madness of King Donald – nor even his badness. By George, it's his infernal rudeness.
©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London