Two (related) ways of understanding Donald Trump

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What is the organizing principle behind Donald Trump’s odd behavior, the driving force behind his self-damaging tweets and his confrontational decision-making? Or as my midwestern elders might have said, what makes him tick?

Today we offer two quite different but complementary analyses that we are presenting together, one after the other. The first is a political one by Masha Gessen, one of the few journalists who has had, as she says, “unscripted” conversations with Vladimir Putin. The second considers Trump’s behavior from a psychological perspective by a practicing psychologist in California, Michael Bader. Both are very much worth reading.

President Donald Trump at a rally in April. CreditAl Drago/The New York Times 

Can an autocrat be ridiculous? Can a democracy be destroyed by someone who has only the barest idea of what the word “democracy” means? Can pure incompetence plunge the world into a catastrophic war? We don’t like to think so.

We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.

But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader.

As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.

In the past few months, Americans too have grown familiar with the sight of a president who seems to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge. This similarity is not an accident (nor is it a result of Russian influence). The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.

Since taking office, he has been largely consistent, purging experienced staff from agencies like the State Department and appointing officials who have no relevant experience and often have nothing but disdain for the mission of their agencies. It’s hardly a coincidence that plagiarism has become a regular occurrence among the Trump team — from Melania Trump’s convention speech to the cake at an inaugural ball to an aspiring assistant secretary’s master’s thesis. If the value of political expertise is less than negligible, then the theft of expertise is barely a transgression. (The Putin government is similarly afflicted: A number of cabinet ministers plagiarized material for their dissertations, as did the president himself.)

Mr. Trump has communicated repeatedly his apparent belief that the presidency should be a job of simple decisions and clear gestures. This was why during the campaign he reportedly asked a foreign policy adviser repeatedly why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons “if we have them.” That is why, in the wake of using the “mother of all bombs,” he bragged of giving the military “total authorization” — because why complicate things by restraining the generals? It is also why Mr. Trump announced on Thursday that the United States will pull out of the complex, sprawling, painstakingly negotiated Paris climate accord, which he apparently made no effort to understand but every effort to recast for his public in deceptive, primitive terms.

That is why Mr. Trump fired James Comey, the F.B.I. director. Mr. Comey was annoying, and Mr. Trump, the most powerful man in the world, wanted him to go away. In his subsequent interviews, he displayed a clear lack of comprehension of why the news media and the Washington establishment insisted on creating so many complications in the wake of such a simple act as dismissing an employee. The sequence of events that followed — from the appointment of a special counsel to Mr. Comey’s expected testimony in the Senate — would have been predictable in a conventional, complicated view of the political world. In the Trumpian universe, however, one effective gesture simply makes a problem go away.

Mr. Trump has admitted that being president is harder than he thought. He does not, however, appear to be humbled by this discovery. More likely, he is, in keeping with his understanding of politics, resentful because his opponents — his predecessor, the elites, the establishment — have made things so complicated. If they had not, things would be as he thinks they should be: One man would give orders, and they would be carried out. He would not have to deal with recalcitrant legislators or, worse, meddlesome investigators. One nation, with the biggest bombs in the world, would dominate every other country and would not have to concern itself with the endlessly intricate relationships among and between all those other countries. The United States would run like a business, an old-fashioned top-down company of the sort Mr. Trump used to run, the kind of company managed through the sheer exertion of power.

Consider some of the latest revelations to have shocked the nation: Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, appears to have asked the Russian government, back in December, to provide the incoming administration with a secret communication channel based in Russian facilities. In the complicated world of American politics, Mr. Kushner’s behavior appears bizarre, dangerous and, most of all, inexplicable. In the Trumpian universe, there is likely to be a simple explanation, such as the incoming president’s desire to boast of a tremendous accomplishment before he took office, and his son-in-law’s being dispatched to negotiate an anti-terrorist alliance by making a few calls — the way Mr. Trump himself negotiated with Carrier, the air-conditioning company, a deal to keep several hundred jobs in the United States. Whatever the objective, pushing aside the accumulated national-security and foreign-relations expertise of the United States government came naturally to the budding Trump administration, which attacks institutions and attempts to render expertise irrelevant every step of the way.

This is one way an autocracy can come into being. In other words, it is Mr. Trump’s insistence on simplicity that makes him want to rule like an autocrat. Militant incompetence and autocracy are not in opposition: They are two sides of a coin.

Psychoanalyzing Donald Trump

Mental health professionals have a “duty to warn” people about the danger posed by Trump.


Photo Credit: Secretary of Defense / Flickr

I’m going to psychoanalyze Donald Trump. In doing so, I may seem to be violating the “Goldwater Rule” that enjoins psychotherapists from diagnosing public figures based on secondhand information. However, I happen to agree with the consensus of a recent conference of mental health professionals at Yale University that argued mental health professionals have a “duty to warn” people about the danger posed by Trump’s mental illness.

I’m going to analyze Trump because I think that media analyses have been too superficial and that understanding Trump more deeply can help us decipher actions and attitudes that might otherwise seem bewildering. In my view, there isn’t anything quirky or confusing about Trump’s psychopathology. It makes perfect sense if seen through the right lens.

Most approaches to psychotherapy assume that people naturally avoid painful emotions. One person can’t tolerate feeling dependent; for another, it’s anger; and for still another it might be guilt. People do all sorts of things to avoid painful emotional states. They might simply deny them (“I never feel sad”). They might exaggerate the opposite (“I’m happy, not sad”). Or they might project these feelings outward, making an internal problem into an external one (“I don’t hate the world, the world hates me”). These are examples of psychological defenses. More often than not, the difficulties people experience in their lives—or create for others—come from their attempts to defend themselves against emotional pain. Their solutions, in other words, become a problem.

So, for example, if someone fears feeling angry, she might assume an exaggerated position of meek compliance which might then lead to situations in which she is inauthentic or self-sabotaging. Or such a person might externalize feelings of anger and become paranoid about imagined aggression in others, believing she is the target of others’ anger. Such a person is chronically defensive and mistrustful of others. A paranoid person is very hard to get along with.

Our psyches are wired to seek to eliminate or escape painful feelings. Sometimes, however, emotional states feel so dangerous that a person’s efforts to safely avoid them have to be similarly extreme and involve distorting reality. And if that person has a lot of power—the president, for example—such extreme defenses pose a serious threat to others. Donald Trump’s psychopathology is expressed primarily by his defenses against certain painful feelings. I would argue that the emotions he dreads the most are inferiority, helplessness and shame. This triad lies at the heart of what makes Trump crazy.

Trump can easily be diagnosed, as many have done, as a “malignant narcissist”—someone who has, according to the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition), a narcissistic personality disorder, but who shows prominent symptoms of paranoia and an inability to feel guilt or remorse. Such a diagnosis, while accurate, is simply descriptive and doesn’t go deep enough into the real sources of his pathology. It’s not enough to diagnose him. Instead, we have to understand how a man with such a diagnosis is likely to feel, the fears and desires that motivate him and the strategies he uses to escape painful emotions. Understanding how Trump is constantly defending himself against feelings of inferiority, helplessness and shame brings us closer to the truth. Viewed this way, malignant narcissism is merely the shape that Trump’s defenses—the defenses of any malignant narcissist—take as he struggles against the threats of this triad of feelings.

Take Trump’s extreme grandiosity. He is always the biggest, the best and the greatest. This self-aggrandizement makes sense if it is seen as a defense against feeling small and insignificant—in other words, inferior. The exaggerated degree of his grandiosity is a measure of the depth of his dread of being inadequate. Similarly, Trump surrounds himself with a type of garish luxury (gold fixtures in the bathroom, and golden trophy wives) to counteract feelings of lack of worth. In other words, this surface is absurdly glorified in order to counteract feelings of internal damage. Further, his incipient dread of feeling small (for example, his obsession with proving his hands are not small) is also defended against by projecting “smallness” onto others. So he called Marco Rubio “little Marco,” and he calls people he doesn’t like “losers,” thereby reducing the pressure of feeling that way about himself. Over and over again, he paints his critics as losers, petty powerless people, momentarily escaping a dreaded belief that he is the real loser.

Trump is constantly battling feelings of shame and humiliation. We know that because he is frequently expressing “disgust.” Disgust is a way to keep shame at a distance. It’s a way of saying that something bad isn’t inside, it’s outside, and disgust warns us to keep away from it. Trump can barely contain expressions of disgust and contempt. During the campaign we saw this defense emerge in regard to women; he was disgusted by Hillary’s use of the bathroom during their debate at Saint Anselm College, and he fulminated about Megyn Kelly’s bloody secretions after she was tough on him in their first debate. Trump is obviously extremely vulnerable to feeling shamed and humiliated. I would argue that in general, he finds women to be essentially disgusting and he avoids getting too close to this dangerous feeling by using women as things. Relationships with things are safer than actual intimacy and exposure.

Shame, helplessness and inferiority are mutually reinforcing. Helplessness and inferiority are shameful and being exposed as pathetic or inferior increases feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. The threat of experiencing all three of these emotions can be seen in Trump’s now famous inability to pay attention in meetings and his lack of interest in reading. When he has to pay attention for too long, he may begin to feel anxious, as if he is being helplessly cornered and made to feel one down, and he can’t stand it. Further, if he has to consider a difficult problem or focus on material about which he is ignorant, Trump has to face feelings of being flawed, helpless and embarrassed. In other words, he begins to feel like a stupid loser, which he can’t tolerate. So he has to interrupt and quickly change the subject to one with which he’s comfortable or one that features his greatness. In this way, he relieves himself of dreadful feelings of being defective. Such feelings trigger his private fear that he is, indeed, insignificant and weak.

For someone plagued with feelings of helplessness, shame and inferiority, the danger of exposure is ever-present. Such a danger is captured by the colloquial expression “being caught with one’s pants down.” It shows up in our dread of incontinence, of an involuntary disclosure of one’s private secrets, of being found out. But found out as what? In Trump’s case, it’s found out to be dirty and bad, unworthy and defective, instead of deserving and greatly valued. This is why he is a conspicuous spender—also a defense. Trump is consumed by this conflict. His paranoia reflects his constant worry about the critical judgment of others, a worry that in his heart, Trump secretly fears is justified. As a result, he is angrily fixated on being “found out” by investigative reporters or exposed from within by “leakers.”

In the context of such a formulation, it makes sense that more than anything, Trump dreads revelations that make his electoral victory last November seem illegitimate. He simply cannot tolerate the fact that he lost the popular vote, nor even a hint that the Comey letter and/or the Russians helped him defeat Hillary Clinton. In Trump’s disturbed mind, this makes sense because he is horrified by feelings of being a loser, horrified by evidence of the dirty fraudulent underbelly that might lie at the foundation of his personality and his life. He has to stamp out this accusation—which is really a self-accusation—at all costs.

In his years as a real estate tycoon, Trump could exercise enormous control over his environment, sanitizing it of any evidence that contradicted his idealized version of himself. He could surround himself with flatterers and the trappings of wealth and power—the external cues that he is special. As president, however, he finds himself under constant hostile scrutiny, and this scrutiny threatens his defenses. He is constantly compelled to preemptively reassert his invulnerability, his power and greatness, which come across as what they are: boorishness, a braggart desperately trying to save face.

If reports are true, Trump frequently loses his temper, striking out and blaming others for chinks in his narcissistic armor. These outbursts are a belated attempt to master and control an environment that is relentlessly whispering—at times, shouting—that he’s a bad, inferior, defective man. He can’t stand being the helpless victim of these whispers and shouts. He’ll do anything to shut them up—fire press secretaries, obstruct justice, bribe allies, anything to restore the moat defending him against criticism.

Knowing what makes Trump tick doesn’t allow us to make specific predictions about his likely political positions, but it should make his chaotic and sociopathic maneuvering around the Russia investigation seem quite understandable. I’m sure that intelligence agencies around the world already have a book on how to deal with Trump that is based on analyses of his personality similar to this one. As part of his domestic opposition, we ought to understand at least this much; namely, that Trump will always be propelled by his defensive need to prove he’s good, not bad; powerful, not weak; a winner, not a loser. This need will be behind everything he does.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of “More Than Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World” (Blurb, 2015).

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