Updated: Aug 23, 2019
Donald Trump's behavior is defined by the emotional ghosts of his past, which continue to haunt him outside of his awareness. As Robert Mueller draws near, Trump probably feels increasingly threatened without even knowing it. Raised by a stern and perfectionistic father and an emotionally distant and unnurturing mother, young Donald learned, at a premature age, that the world was a dangerous place and he had to decimate potential threats before they could harm him.
It is not surprising, then, that he rants against critics who challenge him, fires people who don’t enable his lawlessness, and attempts to distract attention from his latest scandal by inflaming an already incendiary cultural climate. And this only intensifies apprehension about his mental health and the destructive effects he will have on any number of national and international issues, policies, and relationships.
Discussions about Trump’s competency often get polarized between critics who pathologize him—invoking reductionistic psychiatric diagnostic categories—and devotees who celebrate and rationalize away even his most provocative and puzzling behavior. Each interferes with understanding why Trump behaves the way he does. For that to happen we need to draw on a staple of good psychotherapy, namely empathy, the steadfast effort to understand a person from within their own frame of reference. The chief lesson my patients have taught me in nearly forty years of practicing psychotherapy is the inestimable importance of valuing human experience and searching for the emotional logic underlying even apparently bizarre and crazy behavior. My patients — even the most obviously troubled ones — have repeatedly shown me that their words and actions make sense; that there is a secret meaning they are striving for that I must struggle to understand. So when I hear something that seems self-destructive such as ‘delusions’ or suicidal ideation or self-mutilation or hostile tweets in the middle of the night, I try to find the underlying meaning, which makes it possible to reach people who feel lost and alone and locked in a private world of torment.
“I’m…very much of a germaphobe,” Donald Trump admitted during a news conference on January 11, 2017. Trump describes himself in The Art of the Comeback in 1997 as a “clean hands freak,” who washes his hands “as much as possible” because it makes him “feel much better.”
These days, as President, Trump worries that our country will become contaminated. Illegal immigrants, he has tweeted, will “infest our country.” He likens immigrants to bloodthirsty gang members and terrorists and under the guise of protecting national security and the rule of law adopted a Draconian policy that separated immigrant children and parents and willfully inflicted untold trauma and suffering.
While handshakes spread bacteria, and some immigrants—along with far more home-grown fanatics—threaten our welfare, Trump’s fear of contamination may actually be more about his own family history than germs or foreigners.
“The most important influence on me, growing up, was my father, Fred Trump,” Donald wrote in The Art of the Deal. Most commentators accept his account uncritically, which seems, at first glance, convincing because Trump reveres his father and says very little about his mother, Mary, which renders her a more opaque and marginalized figure. But the truth seems more complex. Mary MacLeod Trump has been described as “an acquiescent housewife, a spouse who didn’t hassle her dour, driven husband, a mother who relished pomp and planted the seeds of her second son’s acumen for showmanship and promotion,” writes Michael Kruse in “The Mystery of Mary Trump.” In addition, she was from all accounts, cold and withdrawn, an absent presence in her son’s life.
Human beings, in my experience, thrive when they are loved and cherished and are emotionally harmed when they are neglected, rejected, or degraded. An attuned and dedicated mother sets the stage for her children’s subsequent psychological development and maturation. She makes her offspring feel seen and valued, which cultivates a sense of basic trust and security. She also aids her child in recognizing what he or she feels, regulating his or her emotions, and empathizing with other people.
When Donald was two his mother had to have an emergency hysterectomy because of severe hemorrhaging while giving birth to her fifth child, Robert, which led to a severe abdominal infection and more surgeries—“four in something like two weeks,” Maryanne Trump Barry told Trump biographer Gwenda Blair. “My father came home and told me she wasn’t expected to live,” Barry added. We can only imagine the emotional impact on Donald, who probably internalized its force even though he was too young to comprehend its meaning.
Everything points to Mary Trump’s illness profoundly disrupting her connection with her young son, which rendered Donald’s world unpredictable and terrifying and undermined his sense of personal stability, safety, and identity. His sense of personal security was shattered.
Mary Trump’s emotional distance the rest of his life not only reinforced this childhood trauma—it deprived him of warmth and empathy, two prerequisites for feeling loved and benevolent toward other people—and pushed Donald toward his father.
By all accounts, Trump’s father, a New York real estate developer with racist leanings and Mafia dealings, was a stern and fiercely ambitious autocrat, who demanded perfection. He was “strong and tough as hell…[and] an unbelievably demanding taskmaster,” according to Trump. “We had a relationship that was almost businesslike.” “That’s why I am so screwed up, because I had a father that pushed me pretty hard,” Trump acknowledged in his 2007 book, Think Big.
From early childhood Fred Trump told his son: “You are a killer…you are a king…you are a killer…you are a king,” Henry Hurt III wrote in Lost Tycoon, a biography of Donald Trump. He has imagined himself a king, a “ruler of the world”, according to second wife Marla Maples.
In business and as president, Trump has more often behaved in a despotic rather than regal manner—abusing his power, circumventing the law, and oppressing and obliterating those who disagree with him. When therapists, pundits, and lay people consider Trump’s sense of entitlement, difficulty empathizing with other people, and exploitation of everyone, it is tempting to assume he is a narcissist. But could it be that Trump’s self-absorption masks—and is actually a manifestation of—something more profound and horrifying: the way Fred Trump hijacked his son’s life when he told Donald who he should be and how he should live? The parents are the only game in town for a vulnerable and defenseless child. I wonder if Trump had to accommodate his father’s agenda for his life and surrender to him and then lost his birthright—a life of his own. That Trump lives in a kingdom ruled by his father is suggested by his admission two years ago that if Fred Trump were alive he would have “allowed” Donald to run for president, as Jason Horowitz reports in The New York Times (August 12, 2016). There’s a supreme irony in Trump’s 2016 attack on John McCain: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump’s inability to admit error or to feel or acknowledge regret or apologize for mistakes helps him push away the fact that he is a fallible human being, not a king, which would raise the terrifying specter that the father he worshipped was wrong. And that would differentiate and alienate him from his father and cast him adrift in the universe like an astronaut cut off from home base, lost and alone.
The mandate to be subservient to his father seems to have created a massive emotional hunger in Donald. At the end of his acceptance speech on November 9, 2016 Trump said: “…And we’re going to be doing a job that hopefully you will be so proud…You will be so proud …” [italics mine]. It is easy to hear this as a simple-sounding prediction about how he hopes American citizens will view him in the future. But it also evokes the yearning of a boy who never received his father’s love, who is desperate to be appreciated, and who will say or do anything to attempt to make that happen—including lying about his failures, not apologizing for mistakes, and exaggerating his triumphs.
Trump is consumed with convincing other people of his imagined greatness. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he divulged in The Art of the Deal. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do…People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular...It’s an effective form of promotion.”
But it is a disastrous method of self-healing. None of Trump’s strenuous efforts to fulfill his father’s plan for him, or fix the damage inflicted upon him by his parents can quell the deprivation and fury inside.
As Trump himself has revealed, even as a boy he lashed out at other people. He threw erasers at his teachers in elementary school and cake at classmates at parties. In second grade he gave a music teacher a black eye because he didn’t think the man knew a lot about music. I wonder if the young Trump was really upset with someone closer to home.
“As an adolescent, I was mostly interested in creating mischief,” he disclosed in The Art of the Deal. “I wasn’t the most well-behaved person in the world and my parents had no idea what to do with me and they heard about this school that was a tough place.”
Wrenched out of his home, Trump was sent to the New York Military Academy. Essentially, he was punished and abandoned for rage his parents had triggered and perpetuated.
“Why does Trump want to build a wall?” my nine-year-old grandson recently asked me.
“He’s afraid,” I replied.
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid of being contaminated.”
“What happened when he was a kid.”
“He was invaded and taken over.”
“By an army?”
“No, by his father.”
“Grandpa, are you joking?”
“I wish I was.”
Growing up with a cold, critical, domineering parent Trump seems to believe he has two untenable options: crush everyone in his path or risk being dominated. “[W]hen you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder,” as his wife, Melania noted in a speech on April 4, 2016, an approach he learned from his mentor, Roy Cohn. That may be why Trump is impressed by absolute monarchies and reveres tyrants who enjoy inflicting suffering on other people, is in a continuous war with everyone he meets, and adopts sadistic policies that sabotage families.
But Trump’s identification with his father and his attempts at self-glorification are, at best, a makeshift solution to the horror of his childhood that crumbles whenever his self-esteem or power are threatened. Underneath Trump’s supreme self-assurance may be an emotional vulnerability which is unknown to him and he would vociferously deny. When he is challenged he emulates his dictatorial father and ruthlessly attacks his detractors.
There’s a tragic symbiosis that occurs between Trump and some of his supporters: Trump appears to give voice to their grievances and desires—some have lost the world they knew and feel culturally marginalized and others resent governmental intrusion in their lives and want to pay less taxes and have less money taken from them. Trump also feeds nostalgic fantasies of an idealized past that perhaps never was (Make America Great/White Again) and offers the promise of fixing what his followers fear and are enraged about. Their adulation confirms his supposed worth as a human being. And with each new attack against the media, undermining of the democratic process, and brazen violation of long-standing cultural norms and diplomatic protocols, some of Trump’s devotees adore him even more, imagine they partake of his borrowed omnipotence and power, and are swept up in the invigorating resurrective fantasy that they are strong and important not vulnerable and sidelined.
And this helps explain what has baffled us: how 60+ million people voted for him and the majority of Republicans still support a president that “continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of the republic,” in the words of a senior official in the Trump administration—lying incessantly, disregarding the rule of law, signing executive orders that harm those he promised to help and adding to the swamp he vowed to drain.
Trump’s so-called “supporters” do him a grave disservice. Trump is further emboldened by their adoration—the bully is encouraged by the zeal of his audience —which like a drug fix numbs his emotional wounds and feelings and precludes addressing what truly haunts him. And that tragically insures that he becomes more deeply ensnared in the self-imprisoning strategy he has fashioned since childhood to try to protect and heal himself.
“Nobody gets better by blaming their parents,” an older colleague once remarked during our psychotherapeutic training. “But everyone needs to understand the impact of their parents.” Those who don’t study their history are condemned to repeat it, as the philosopher George Santayana knew. We need to understand the significance of those experiences that shaped us. Otherwise we act out in the world the personal history we haven’t integrated.
“I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” Trump admitted to Michael D’Antonio in The Truth about Trump in 2015. And the most disturbing thing he’d see is that his life was stolen and warped by the people closest to him. Trump identifies America with his own precarious sense of self, and is thus obsessed with erecting a wall to keep out what he dreads, even though it happened many years ago. But of course what poses the greatest threat to Trump is not immigrants or their children or people of color, but his own past—the infestation at home that he pushes away because it would be too terrifying and disturbing to face. And that no wall can keep out.