Cartoon man in a spiral

A cartoon occasionally stands in for Donald Trump in the documentary #Unfit.

Political commentators have spent nearly four years trying to understand why Donald Trump spreads lies, ignores constitutional norms and otherwise fails to act like the president of the United States. In a new documentary by Dan Partland, mental health experts take on the challenge.

Their conclusion is spelled out in the film’s title: #Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump. The 45th president, they believe, is so psychologically impaired that he’s incapable of functioning responsibly. Specifically, they say he has “malignant narcissism,” which is marked not only by self-importance but by paranoia, anti-social behavior and sadism.

It’s actually George Conway—lawyer, Trump critic and husband of departing presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway—who first makes the charge. But health professionals such as psychologist John Gartner agree, which may raise a question or two in viewers’ minds:

First, can psychologists really diagnose someone they haven’t met? Yes, says Gartner. In fact, he claims that observing an individual’s behavior—as we’ve all had a chance to do with Trump since he took office—can yield a more accurate diagnosis than an in-person interview.

And second: Aren’t mental health professionals supposed to refrain from psychoanalyzing public figures? Yes, the American Psychiatric Association did issue a ruling to that effect following a misguided attempt to psychoanalyze 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.  

But Gartner and others say the ruling was never intended to limit speech that’s backed up by evidence. Besides, they point out, analysts have a legal duty to speak up if they learn a patient is an immediate threat to others. And if Trump is incompetent, he obviously represents a threat to billions due to the tremendous power a president wields, including the ability to launch a nuclear attack.

A film that discusses whether Trump is unfit for office might sound like a dry affair, not to mention one that preaches to the long-converted choir. However, director Partland enlivens the proceedings with the help of occasional cartoon figures and comments by non-health experts.

Among them is sports writer Rick Reilly, who says Trump is a strong golfer but one who cheats incessantly. Trump even goes so far as to ensure he has the fastest golf cart so he has time to reposition a bad lie before others catch up, Reilly charges. He warns that someone who cheats at golf is equally likely to cheat in an election.

Offering a bit of balance is the colorful Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump’s communications director. He admits Trump is obnoxious but adds that he has a genius for attracting people who feel disadvantaged by the status quo. Scaramucci recommends that Trump opponents listen to such people rather than dismissing them as racists or “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

As for Trump himself, Scaramucci says he’s not a racist but simply someone who treats everyone like shit. In a similarly backhanded defense, Conway says he used to dismiss the president’s apparent racism as a manifestation of his narcissism, changing his mind only after Trump attacked a man from his mother’s native Philippines.

#Unfit begins by describing the military’s “personal reliability program,” which analyzes soldiers’ personalities and histories to determine the level of trust that can be placed in them. A sliding scale determines whether they can be entrusted with everything from an M-16 up to a nuclear button.

The point: There’s no such program for determining whether someone should be entrusted with the presidency, the most powerful position in the world. It all depends on the voters.

Coming out two months before the election, #Unfit is a timely reminder that the results can be disastrous if the voters get it wrong.     

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5) 

#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump is available from VOD outlets beginning Sept. 1.

More reviews by Richard Ades can be found on his blog,