A Therapist's Thoughts on Donald Trump and How to Make a Difference
The Psychology of Donald Trump
When I was a teenager, my therapist explained, “A superiority complex always covers up an inferiority complex.” Arrogance or narcissism is not born from an experience of being overvalued or coddled, but rather from being not seen or heard. The defenses we associate with narcissistic personality disorder are formed to protect the individual from a sense of being small, powerless, and invisible. Often the narcissist develops gifts or talents to cover up these feelings of insignificance or emptiness. These proclivities may be reinforced and rewarded, thus solidifying patterns in behavior leading to the development of the diagnosis of a disorder. Accomplishments assure the sufferer that their place is secure—that they matter. The problem is that the “I matter” feeling for narcissists is fleeting and tenuous. The narcissist is seeking for connection, meaning and worth, but these feelings cannot be realized if the individual is valued based on their giftedness.
Much of the discourse regarding Donald Trump and his moral compass is grounded in the sensibilities of right and wrong, good and evil, or smart and stupid. As a mental health practitioner, this context is inadequate to describe the dimensions we observe in the President or his supporters. Often, I hear dialogue debating the intention, direction, objectives and even genius of Trump and his movement. Yet, as a mental health professional my observations tell me that the President is constitutionally incapable of being something other than what he is: he is mentally and emotionally compromised. He is consistently a man who suffers from a lack of intellectual and emotional integrity. Therefore, no matter what he does, like fire Steve Bannon or providing clarification for his initial remarks on Charlottesville, or visit Harvey’s victims, his detractors will not be pacified. They will not be mollified by such actions because they do not have a problem with what he does, but with his character. And character is deeper and more central than any one specific action.
Some argue. “If he is so compromised, why has he enjoyed such great success in his professional career? And why does he continue to enjoy success and surprisingly adequate support in his political career?” Commentators debate his strategies and suggest that he acts with shrewdness evidenced by the support he garners from a group large enough to elect him president and to fill convention centers with animated, adoring, crowds. Yet, the effect of a certain thing is not evidence of intention. We can imagine limitless examples where one’s behavior leads to a certain outcome without one consciously trying to achieve that end. Donald Trump’s success isn’t necessarily due to masterful strategies. On the contrary, he consistently demonstrates impulsiveness and a lack of restraint or intention. What adds to the illusion, common in those who maintain defenses consistent with narcissism, is that when his behavior obtains a certain effect he purports that it was his intention all along—as in his assertion that he announced the pardon of former Sherriff Joe Arpaio on a Friday night not to bury the news, but to highlight it due to the increased ratings associated with Hurricane Harvey.
Many who suffer with mental health disorders, addiction disorders, and personality disorders experience success in popular culture. Our culture is often captivated by these personalities. Regardless of Trump’s accomplishments in business, finance, and T.V., his mental health is demonstrably fragile. He, like many who struggle with mental health, also possess characteristics that are magnetic for some. Artists, public figures, and performers can demonstrate great charisma and talent along with characteristics consistent with mental health issues. Sometimes, as in the cases of Charlie Sheen or Britney Spears, the public watch their unraveling with fascination and an almost morbid enjoyment. Watching such a personality unravel may offer consolation that, like us, even the beautiful and talented are human. Robin Williams, Heath Ledger, Ashley Judd, Brandon Marshall, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jackson Pollack, Elvis Presley, Phillip Seymour Hoffman—the list or artists, athletes, and performers who have battled mental illness and addiction (and its stigma) is virtually endless. Sometimes it seems that their talent is interwoven with their challenges, almost suggesting that their deep pain and turmoil cannot be understood apart from their creative talent. For example, in the business sector Steve Jobs was able to make a “dent in the universes” while many observed his struggles with personal and interpersonal deficits. It left some to wonder if he would have been able to attain as much success without many of the traits that people found extraordinarily offensive. So, we may be drawn to them, unconsciously resonating with our own shadow elements. In the most extreme cases, individuals are even drawn to the macabre, falling in love with serial killers and sadism.
The idea that Trump is delusional cannot be disproven by the fact that he enjoys success even to the level of being elected President of the United States. Throughout history we have seen delusional leaders rise to great heights, while their motives, actions, ideologies, and tactics obviously expose delusional personality features. The forceful dictator who promises social order and economic success at the cost of humanity and civil rights, can stimulate those who feel disempowered. Movies commonly depict this fundamental philosophical division. Star Wars pitted The Dark Side against The Force. One philosophy was fueled by fear and anger and sought to control by the use of force and intimidation, while the other side sought to overcome these base impulses by resisting fear and anger, appealing to the higher sensibilities of love, compassion, and courage. Darth Vader and Kylo Ren represent that element in humanity, that element in each of us, that seeks to assuage feelings of powerlessness, loss, fear, and pain by replacing it with the bodyguard of anger. The process of covering our pain with anger is one of the simplest ways to understand human behavior and justify such means to the desired end of mitigating unbearable emotions. Resisting violent urges or the impulse to bully another to assuage insecurities is one of the first lessons in childhood. In a healthy childhood, our parents taught us walk away from a fight or to stand-up for those that are picked-on or those who have less than we do. For some, the message was never given or it was never incorporated. For these people, the use of force, fear, violence, mockery, shame, or any other means doesn’t just justify the end, but these means offer the individual a sense that they are strong and powerful.
With an education in mental health, Trump’s compromised self and his limitations are blatantly apparent. I have explained my perspective this way:
If you erased my memory of everything Donald Trump has ever said or done and subsequently I was asked to listen to him talk about almost any subject for a period of 10 minutes, it would be obvious to me that he was mentally, psychologically, and emotionally compromised.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) list these following criteria required to receive a diagnosis of NPD (to qualify for the disorder, one must meet 5 or more):
- Grandiose sense of self-importance.
- Preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
- Believes he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by others with those qualities.
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement.
- Is interpersonally exploitative, takes advantage of others to achieve their goals.
- Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize with others’ feelings and needs.
- Is often envious of others and believes others are envious of them.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.
The hallmark of the disorder is that any information or feedback that does not support the sense of self-importance is wholly disregarded. Because the threat is so severe, the individual suffering with the disorder cannot consider such information and they make meaning of it by attributing negative feedback as a deficit in the other person. That is to say, if you criticize them or offer constructive feedback, they interpret that to mean you are stupid, unenlightened, or lying. And yet with all this information, we respond to Donald Trump in the context of morality and conscious decision making. His behavior occurs due to a psychological deficit which also magnetically attract those who feel disempowered or alienated. Many political commentators criticize him with the standard that should only be applied to someone who is psychologically intact. Reasoning and logic cannot be internalized by one afflicted by such deficits—it is beyond their capacity. Their rejection of reasonable arguments and common-sense evidence “has much more in common with a psychological defense” than it has to do with intellectual capacity (Gill, 2014). Therefore, we would be wise to employ techniques and responses that tend to lower defenses. Taking a hammer or a crow bar to someone’s defense does not tend to lower it but rather provokes it. In this line of thinking, the way that a psychotherapist thinks, one becomes partly responsible for the irrational response.
Identifying with the Bully.
In his landmark work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl observed how the Capos, the Jews that were placed in charge of their fellow prisoners, were often the cruelest. Similarly, some children who experience abuse often repeat the pattern by becoming an abuser themselves. The concept of “identifying with the abuser” or the bully is not uncommon. In the case of Donald Trump, one of the characteristics that draw people to him is that he is a bully. He promises to usurp the status quo—to punch the face of the politically correct, progressive, and liberal-elite—individuals from whom Middle-America have felt a condescending stare. Those in Middle-America, who felt left behind and invisible, achieve a sense of power by identifying with Trump as he hits back harder each time he is hit. It is worrisome to watch him attack anyone who opposes or challenges him, but what is far more troubling, even terrifying, is that all anyone has to do is to like him and support him and all else in their conduct is pardoned. This kind of bifurcation is the hallmark of those plagued with narcissistic or borderline functioning. This simple separation—if you are not for me, you’re against me--is what make Putin, Russia, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and those that marched under swastikas and chanting anti-Semite and racists slogans exempt from his attacks. His moral compass only considers their comments and actions directed at him as the measure for their goodness or badness.
How to Respond More Effectively.
Two days after the election, I attended my session with my therapist. I shared overwhelming feelings of despair and confusion at the election results. After sharing her interpretation of the reasons that led to the outcome, she offered something toward the end of our session that gave me hope. If it is the liberal-elite who miscalculated Trump and his movement, then it is they who need to find a solution. Most importantly, we should use our education and “supposed” enlightenment to remedy what, in our estimation, has gone astray. Yet, what I have seen from my friends on the left is an intellectual degradation of the dialogue that President Obama warned of in his speeches leading up to the election. “Stay focused!” he urged rally audiences when they would become emotional and reactive to Donald Trump’s latest rhetoric or when they became distracted by a lone protester who had made their way into the Obama-lead Clinton rally. Obama was begging those audiences to stay focused on the message and not get distracted by the intoxicating and contagious hate that Donald Trump was promoting. Don’t get distracted by what the first lady wears or by inflammatory rhetoric from the opposition. Focus on the mission and message. Teach, lead, and engage in a discourse of ideas and principles central to your values. Michelle Obama suggested that “When they go low, we stay high.” Very few on the left have followed her guidance, but have settled to wrestle in the mud and peddle in the hate, leaving the left with a want of leadership. They justify their approach because the ideals they oppose are xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, and homophobic. While it is true that Trump’s agenda is most often inhumane, we must embody the humanity even in those situations where we find it most difficult to be compassionate. This is not a call for silence or acceptance of what we see out of the current administration—on the contrary. It is a call for a response that is inspired by and rooted in love. Peaceful protests, clear and assertive dialogues, sit-ins, boycotts, voting, support for the free-press, and adherence to the rule of law can be motivated with this love.
The Buddha offered, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” This is the same idea that Dr. Martin Luther King espoused in his leadership of the civil rights movement—it is how Jackie Robinson responded to hate and bigotry. Nietzsche warned, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” And Jesus warned, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” This approach does not suggest that we shouldn’t resist hateful and unenlightened ideas, but that we learn how to respond on a higher plane—that we not get down in to the mud with those ideas and those who profess them.
What I am speaking of here is more than an ideal—it is a movement and for it to be a movement, it mustn’t merely suggest ideas but embody them.
One of the first things a therapist learns is the distinction between process and content. Content is what is being talked about and process is what is happening. We cannot talk about love and acceptance while embodying hate. And we mustn’t conflate the concept of love with acceptance or tolerance of an idea. Taken to an extreme, we must love those that we criticize and those against whom we protest. We must listen to understand. Just like Obama did when he was heckled during a speech, we must ask questions and understand how others are hurting because that pain is what is fueling the opposition of our ideas. Listening, seeing, empathizing are what narcissists need, but is often so difficult for us to give it.
A central problem in developing a healing response is that when narcissism shows up as inflation, it can have the effect of triggering us to want to “knock the other person down to size.” Because the narcissist’s puffed-up demeanor disregards any and all responses that don’t reflect this inflation, and he rails against anything or anyone that doesn’t reinforce this grandiosity, others experience the narcissist as seeing themselves as better than others and the subsequent error is that we believe they need a reality check: they need to be “called-out” and deflated. The response often includes anger, disgust, judgment and hatred. See the problem here? We are responding to a wound by reinjuring the one suffering from the wound.
The wound is the narcissistic injury: a lack of connection and attachment in childhood.
Judgment will not lead to change in our culture. Judgment is a short-term response serving the individual who holds it to protect them from an awareness of their own issues. Therapy is not about judgment, but about compassion and understanding. When we get angry or frustrated with an Other, it is most often the clearest indication that we have lost contact with the Other. For if we understood and saw the Other, we would know their symptoms make sense, given the contexts in which that person had been raised. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed,
If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
The solution to a movement grounded in narcissism is resonating, understanding, connection, and focus. Individually speaking, long term psychotherapy is often the only way to heal these wounds but we can cultivate a culture that is consistent with the compassionate agenda we support. If we want to be helpful, we will practice compassion, born out of these insights. We will refrain from hate and name calling—towards the narcissist or the generations that came before them. We will stop judging these people and start helping and teaching them. We will teach them about the patterns described above. And we will be patient when they struggle to grasp them, because we will know that their wounds and their symptoms came to them honestly. Joseph Campbell taught, “the us-them position is more primitive…this required the suspension toward empathy. Empathy was strictly reserved for in-groupers only.” (as cited in Gill, 2014) Perhaps most important, we will be patient with others because we will know that we too need that same patience. We will know this because we have gone into the dark corners of our own psyches and recognize that our demons share so much with the ones we see in others.
I wrote this because I have been listening to political commentary since the Summer of 2016. I have never been much interested in politics, but this election cycle captivated me. And since the inauguration, I have watched political commentators and talk-show hosts muddle their way through understanding Trump and those who support him. I have also seen many of my friends and acquaintances become seemingly obsessed with the current administration. One thing is certain, the current administration is successful at occupying a significant amount of space in our heads. Of course, there are gravely important issues at hand and there is a need for people to speak out and become socially active. In the context of being a therapist, I have been frustrated with the response. If we stoop to using hate or fear speech, we become like Nietzsche warned, “the monsters we are fighting.” We need an inspired voice. A focused voice. We need to teach and inspire. Listen to what Barak Obama said leading up to the election and watch now how and when he chooses to make a difference. John McCain modeled it well in his speech after returning to Capitol Hill subsequent to his cancer diagnosis. Commenting on the current climate in our government he said, “I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly, I have.” Most importantly, he is saying we all must look in the mirror as Gandhi implored us, “Be the change we wish to see in the world.” Embrace truth, no matter where it comes from. We will have differences and some of those differences seem to be at the core of our ideals, but we can exercise greater patience, compassion, and respect.
I remember a discussion with a friend during George W. Bush’s presidency. I asked him if there was anything about President Bush that he respected. After a moment of feigned contemplation, he simply said, “No, I can’t think of one thing.” I told him I found it hard to trust the opinion when one paints someone all one color. I understand that some come closer to embodying the incarnation of evil or of an angel, but my training offers me a clearer picture. We have a President who is compromised. This compromise happens to give those who feel left behind, disempowered, and condescend to a powerful ally. Our yelling and name calling will not help to resolve this divide. Recently, President Obama implored those on both sides to avoid the us-them. In a speech followed by a question and answer at the Gates Foundation, he reminded citizens that it is okay to acknowledge “someone from a different political persuasion has done something really good” citing an example of a policy of George W. Bush.
I believe the key characteristics we must embody in order to improve our situation are empathy, love, and the ability to listen. We must teach and inspire but we will not accomplish this if we come from a base of fear and anger. And evolving the dialogue beyond “we are right and you are wrong” must be how we approach things if we are to heal. Because even if we (anyone) are right, we won’t make a difference if the others don’t see love and respect in the way we comport ourselves.
Lastly, allow me to borrow a principle from psychology to view our current dynamics of polarization in a new light. Projective Identification is a defense whereby someone goes beyond simple projection. Projection is where we project onto others denied aspects of ourselves. Projective Identification is where an individual projects something “into” someone, provoking certain feelings or reactions. Often, the individual using this defense provokes the same feeling they are feeling into this other person. For example, when frightened a person takes an intimidating or threatening stance in order to provoke fear in someone else. As a supervisor, I encourage clinicians to consider their powerful emotional responses to clients in this light: “Your frustration, powerlessness, or helplessness…might your client be feeling this same way too?”
Currently, many reasonable people along with those on the left are dumbfounded with Trump and his base. The left cannot believe what they see happening and are beyond frustrated with the deafness of the administration, the President, and his base. They express outrage through humor and a constant barrage of social media posts. They watch Late Night comedians mock the President and those who represent him. They are experiencing powerlessness, hopelessness, fear, confusion, and rage. Might these feelings be the same or similar to those who voted for Trump? They felt misunderstood, left-behind, confused by the mainstream and the folks living in the big cities. They don’t understand the social changes or direction promoted by the liberal elite on issues related to LGBTQ individuals, race, and gender equality. I am not suggesting that we, the more liberally minded progressives, abandon this march. I am suggesting that we muster some compassion for those who felt left behind. We can still move forward, but we can embody the ideals that we so vociferously purport. Maybe I am an idealist, but I think we have a better chance at changing a mind or educating someone when we approach them with empathy rather than derision. “Nirvana may not be possible, but improvement is.” (Gill, 2014). For us to make progress, let us be the first ones to demonstrate our strength by taking accountability for our own contribution to the problems and acknowledge any positive efforts by those who generally oppose us. And in the end, we will follow the counsel given more than 100 years ago to “not become the monsters” that we are trying to address.