Donald Trump, Insanity, and the Law of Subjective Moral Precepts

If Donald Trump decides to plead insanity in some future criminal proceeding, all the talk about him having a mental disorder is certain to come to an abrupt end. Everyone will say: “he’s not crazy, he knew what he was doing … he can’t get off on that.

For Trump, an insanity plea would not be an irrational defense strategy. The person third in line for Presidential succession, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already said that in her opinion, the President “does not know right from wrong.She also expressed compassion regarding his condition: “it's a very sad thing."

A criminal defendant can be found insane if as a result of mental disorder, they lacked the capacity to know the nature and quality of their act or if they lacked the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. 

Drummond mortally wounded by M'Naughten,
as dramatized by PBS Masterpiece 'Victoria'
Some form of this two-pronged insanity test (“did you know what you were doing and did you know it was wrong?”) is the law in most all U.S. jurisdictions, and is known as the “M’Naughten rule.” 

In 1843, Daniel M’Naughten shot and killed Edward Drummond, private secretary to British Prime Minister Robert Peel. At trial, it was said that M’Naughten labored under delusions of persecution, believing he was being tormented and threatened by Peel’s Tory Party. A jury found M’Naughten insane and the Court was compelled to explain the verdict - the Queen was not happy.

Since 1723, the Common Law insanity standard had rested on the case of Edward Arnold, where the Court noted that “it is not any kind of frantic humour” that renders a person insane, “it must be a man that is totally deprived of his understanding, and doth not know what he is doing, no more than an infant or a Wild Beast. 
M’Naughten did not act like a “Wild Beast.” He was not deranged or delirious, and he was not consumed by manic agitation. He was a “madman” of a different sort.

Justice Tindall explained that a person must also be found insane if they were acting under the influence of a delusion “which if true” would serve to justify or excuse their behavior. In the context of their delusional system, the person does not know right from wrong, even if they are otherwise seemingly rational. 

Pelosi said that Trump was as good as insane after Trump told George Stephanopolous that it is still OK for him to accept foreign help in his election efforts. Trump said he would welcome assistance from Norway and claimed that the FBI Director was “wrong” about the propriety and legality of such collaboration. 

If Trump ever does plead insanity - claiming he believed that everything he did was OK - a forensic examiner will have to determine whether he was delusional or just character disordered. Did a psychotic thought disorder impair his capacity for moral reasoning or does he just happen to have his own set of moral standards that run contrary to those of society?

If Trump has clinically impaired reality testing (i.e., psychosis), he could be found insane. If his actions are simply a manifestation of dissocial and antisocial beliefs (i.e., sick ideas and character pathology), he would be found sane.

In California, the case law that guides an expert’s opinion regarding this distinction is the precedent set in People v. Stress (1988), where the Court articulated what can be referred to as the “Law of Subjective Moral Precepts.”

In November 1985, Stanley Stress killed his wife, leaving “an ax embedded deep in her head.” His belief was that “drastic action” was necessary to gain attention and publicly expose a vast government conspiracy. Extensive psychiatric observation confirmed that Stanley was “a paranoid and psychotic man whose life was taken over by his delusional beliefs.”  

Stress knew that killing his wife was a crime. The trial judge instructed the jury that he therefore must also have known that it was morally wrong. The Appellate Court disagreed, saying that even though he knew his act was illegal, Stress believed it did not violate “society's generally accepted standards of moral obligation.” Because he was delusional, Stress thought that people would agree that he did the right thing. 

The situation is different when a criminal, a narcissist or a sociopath claims that what they did was OK or justifiable, based on their "own distorted standards” or their “prison-influenced standards” of morality.

The insanity rule applies when a defendant with clinically impaired reasoning fails to understand society’s moral imperatives. The Stress Court said that insanity does not apply when the excuse is based instead on “the subjective moral precepts of the accused.” 

In clinical terms, those “subjective moral precepts” are the equivalent of antisocial attitudes, values and beliefs, the markers of character pathology and personality disorder. 

On one occasion, a defendant pleading insanity told me that he killed a fellow inmate at new Folsom Prison because the guy called him a punk. He said that “if someone calls you a punk and you don’t do something about it, then you are his punk … and the voices said I should do it. 

This killer was mentally disordered, but he was also antisocial. He believed that violence and aggression are acceptable methods for resolving various interpersonal difficulties in life. His beliefs were of precisely the same character as Donald Trump’s core belief about vengeance. 

In a speech, Trump expressed his dissocial conviction as follows:
“If somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit ’em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You’ve got to get even. Get even. And the reason, the reason you do is … you have to do it, because if they do that to you, you have to leave a telltale sign that they just can’t take advantage of you.”
In other words, Trump’s moral creed is precisely aligned with that of a psychopathic killer who told me that you can’t just let someone get away with calling you a punk. 

And that is why Donald Trump will never be found insane. 

The experts might say that he has made some quasi-delusional statements (e.g., “I am the chosen one”), but they are likely to conclude that such utterances are a sign of malignant grandiosity and not evidence of actual delusions of grandeur. 

But the experts will also note that Donald Trump operates on the basis of his own distorted antisocial standards - his own subjective moral precepts. Depending on which crime triggers a prosecution, an expert might observe that Trump thinks there is nothing wrong with using a charity for his own benefit, bribing a porn star to influence an election, sexually assaulting women, obstructing justice or accepting emoluments. 

The question of psychosis versus psychopathy would also be triggered if Trump were ever to explain: “I knew I could get away with it, so I thought there was nothing wrong with shooting that guy on 5th Avenue.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.