America's George III moment: What to do when the sovereign is mad?

People walk near the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 7. Former FBI Director James Comey testified June 8 before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

There has been so much commentary on former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before Congress yesterday, as well as the truly bizarre testimony the day before by top intelligence officials in the Trump administration. I cannot pretend to have discerned a "Distinctly Catholic" angle on these stories. I suspect most Catholics, like most Americans, are disturbed by what we are learning about the president's behavior, whether they voted for him or not.

What is unprecedented here is the degree to which both days of hearings were not about politics but about the character and psychology of the president, and the way that those who work closely with him must interact in ways that no previous presidential staffs have had to do. True, in the last days of the Nixon administration, the president's overall psychological state was in serious decline and his staff had to work around it, but he had an administration in place by that time and there were competent people in key positions. No one questioned Nixon's leadership in going to China or negotiating with the Soviets or creating the EPA because of his nefarious behavior in the Watergate cover-up: There was no spillover.

Today, people feel uneasy about Trump's presidency in a more comprehensive way. Comey's testimony did not produce the proverbial smoking gun regarding Trump's ties to Russia. The testimony did produce evidence that the president thinks of his presidency the way a mafia don thinks of running the family business. The most fascinating thing about Comey's testimony to me was the former FBI director's description of his decision to document his conversations with Trump precisely because "of the character" of his interlocutor. Comey said his longest discussion with President Barack Obama was a substantive discussion of race and policing. With Trump, it was a dinner for two in which the president tried to seduce Comey into his famiglia.

Some months ago, when I was discussing the Trump administration with a wise friend, he said it made him think of the reign of mad King George III. I consulted two biographies, one by Christopher Hibbert, which I read in total, and the other by Jeremy Black in which I read the relevant parts. I am not suggesting Mr. Trump has porphyria, the disease most historians believe caused the King to lose his mind, nor that he is otherwise crazy in any clinical sense. It is obvious from Comey's testimony, however, that the president is not psychologically equipped for the office he holds. The question, then as now, is this: How does a government react when they reach the conclusion that the sovereign is mad?

It was in the year 1788 that George III's behavior became a cause of concern. His contemporaries did not know about porphyria, they only knew that his physical illness had begun to affect his mind and that his behavior was increasingly eccentric. In the autumn of that year, Sir George Baker, his physician, was chastised by his patient because of the medicines he had given him. The King "harangued" him for three hours after which, Baker records, "Having no opportunity of speaking to the Queen, I wrote a note to Mr. Pitt immediately on my return to town, and informed him that I had just left the King in an agitation of spirits nearly bordering on delirium." We cannot know if Sir George wrote this with the intention of merely informing the first minister or of covering his own tracks but, like Comey, he recognized some documentation might come in handy.

Another time, in a particularly revealing incident, the king went to look for the queen and found others in her room but not her. "Under pressure from the others," writes Hibbert, "Sir George [Baker] made a few hesitant attempts to persuade the King to return to his room; but his nervous shilly-shally so exasperated his patient that he turned upon him in a fury, upbraiding him as 'a mere old woman' for knowing nothing of his complaint." I find it fascinating that the king had enough of his wits about him to be exasperated by others. Indeed, in reading about the king's illness, what is clear is that his mental incapacity was not an all-or-nothing thing until his last years.

The doctors of the king's day were somewhat unrefined. They had recourse to a straightjacket to restrain him. They found themselves caught between loyalty to their monarch and concern for the kingdom, just as you could see Comey explain that he wrestled with his desire to be supportive of a duly elected president and with his growing awareness that such support was being demanded on terms that would eventually require the abnegation of his oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of this country.

In 1788, this tension was made more complicated by the interest of the Prince of Wales in there being a regency proclaimed. It was a tradition of the Hanover dynasty that the king hate his eldest son and heir, and the prospect of the regency did nothing to improve the relations between George and his son. The political players in Parliament began to gravitate towards one or the other so that the family tensions spilled beyond the walls of the palace into the rest of the governing institutions of the realm, the king's ministers rallying to his side and opposing the regency, the opposition seeing the potential for a return to power in a regency. "As with other monarchs supposed mad," writes Black, "the perception of George's mental health in part mirrored political interests."

I imagine that there are those close to Mr. Trump who worry that if his presidency goes down in flames, they will go with him, but that they know there are other people in the White House who would welcome the presidency of Mike Pence. It doesn't require much imagination to consider how Jared Kushner views Mr. Pence after reading a story about potential impeachment, just as King George might of reacted to news that a regency bill was being crafted in Parliament.

Some in the orbit of the king were simply cavalier in their reactions. "The behavior of the pages, some of whom began to treat him with insulting familiarity, exasperated and on occasions enraged him," we learn from Hibbert. Sources report that the president is repeatedly frustrated, but one suspects most of the insulting familiarity is directed from him not towards him.

Of the king's second bout of illness in 1804, Hibbert notes that his behavior towards the queen was so atrocious "she locked the door to her boudoir against him. To people outside the family, however, he [the king] still seemed both well in health and cheerful in spirit, despite his failing sight." The king could appear normal to some people and insane to others. Finally, in 1811, his condition was believed terminal by all, and a regency was proclaimed. The king died in 1820 having ruled for 60 years.

Americans have never really had to pose the question: What to do when the sovereign is mad? (They were not informed of the degree of Woodrow Wilson's incapacity after his stroke.) But it is the question that really lurks behind Comey's testimony. Our president is not equipped for the job he holds; he can't distinguish between what is good for himself and what is good for the country; he can't see why it is wrong to gloat to the ambassador of a hostile nation about firing a top law enforcement official because said official was investigating that foreign nation's nefarious influence on our elections; he seems not to grasp that sometimes "good guys" do bad things, and that there is more to being a "good guy" than being one of his pals. Comey explained how he coped with the narcissist in front of him, and his testimony certainly sounded convincing. How many other administration officials are, like Comey, wrestling with how to deal with a sovereign who is, if not precisely mad, at least psychologically unequipped for the office he holds? It is the question that will stalk the Republican Party from now until the end of this presidency.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]​

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