What does Donald Trump's behavior in response to the Ukraine scandal and his likely impeachment reveal about his core character and psyche? What is Trump likely to do in response to his feelings of threat and fear, and the possibility — however slim — that he may be removed from office? Why does Trump hate the Ukraine whistleblower so much? Will Trump's supporters and cult followers ever abandon him? If he is impeached, will there be violence? How can good Americans mitigate or manage the emotional pain and confusion that Trump and his regime are inflicting on the country and the world?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Dr. Justin Frank. He is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and a physician with more than 40 years of experience in psychoanalysis. He is the author of the bestselling books "Bush on the Couch" and "Obama on the Couch." His most recent book is "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with Dr. Justin Frank through the player embedded below.
This is a frightening and dangerous time for America and the world. Given Donald Trump’s attraction to violence and his apparently disordered mind and lack of values or decency, anything seems possible. What is Donald Trump capable of when he feels threatened?
Donald Trump is very dangerous when he's cornered. Trump has lived in so much of a bubble that I believe he is genuinely surprised that the Democrats are moving to impeach him. He does think he's doing this great job. Trump was surprised last year when he spoke at the UN and the diplomats laughed when he talked about what a great job he's done. That is because Trump has lived in a world of his own creation. It is really disturbing.
I keep going back to my conversation several months ago with author Jonathan Lethem, who explained that Donald Trump is in a dream and that there is an entire industry invested in keeping him asleep. What happens when Donald Trump is forced to wake up? That is, to confront reality?
The only other time Trump was ever caught lying and being delinquent was by his father when he was 13. His father sent him away to military school because of the lying. Trump was also sent away because he was disobeying his father’s rules. Donald Trump is doing the same thing now with the Constitution.
At first I thought that Trump was going to turn the American people into his parent, and therefore, the American people would be the ones to set limits on him. Instead Donald Trump has turned his supporters into some version of his little brother Robert. Trump’s little brother believed everything Donald said. Now Donald Trump has millions of his supporters, a huge group of people, who naively follow him and believe him. That reinforces Trump’s sense of power.
Special counsel Mueller represented the next father for Donald Trump. On a deep subconscious level Trump was afraid that Mueller was going to throw him out of the White House — instead of out of his father’s house in Queens. Because Trump was not kicked out of the White House, it emboldened him.
Now what happens, with Congress confronting Trump and finally telling Trump “no” through impeachment? What happens when Trump really must face the facts? In my opinion the easiest thing for Donald Trump to do would be to say, "This is nonsense. I'm a great president. They want to get rid of me. I'm going to leave office. I've never done anything wrong.” Trump would be thinking that he must make sure he and his family are safe. Trump will then ask Mike Pence to pardon him and the entire Trump family from any possible lawsuits. Trump will then tell the public, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and if I did do anything it wasn’t illegal.”
Is Donald Trump an antisocial personality? Given all of his threats of violence, is he a deviant?
When Donald Trump is cornered he becomes more of his true self. Donald Trump is psychopathic. He is cruel. He is like a mob leader. So, yes, in that sense Donald Trump is antisocial. To understand Donald Trump fully one would have to be an expert in all of psychiatric theory because he really reflects every single kind of pathology there is. One of which is antisocial personality. Another is malignant narcissism. Another is delinquency, grandiosity, sociopathic behavior and racism, misogyny, and paranoid character.
Trump believes that people are out to get him. Trump also has what is known as “the defensive use of contempt.” For Trump, this means that he has contempt for the news media and a feeling that they are out to get him because they understand what he is up to.
That sounds like a miserable existence.
It is a miserable existence. I thought what James Comey said was quite powerful. Comey explained that he's never met a more empty, hungry person in his life. Hungry for approval and empty. And I think that is true. If you're not loved by your parents, it makes it very difficult for a person to ever feel love. The original “fake news” people were Trump’s parents. They gave him the fake news that they loved him — but they didn't act like it. Donald Trump’s parents were the first fake news people in his life, before he started projecting and becoming the fake himself. Donald Trump compensated by loving himself more. The best way to deal with not feeling loved is to love yourself totally.
What makes Donald Trump happy?
What makes Donald Trump happy is telling himself that he solved a problem. Donald Trump also feels happy when he tricks people. Trump likes doing what his parents did to him, which is tricking and deceiving other people. So instead of being the victim of fake news and being told that they loved him when they didn't, Donald Trump is now the purveyor of fake news. He tells other people, meaning the public, how great he is and how the other people are the real fakes.
When Trump says, "I'm going to bring jobs back and I'm going to make coal mining a good thing," those are all lies. Because of what his parents did to him, Trump loves being the person who dishes out the fake news as opposed to receiving it. Trump loves the reverberation between the rallies and himself. Trump and his audiences feed off each other.
Donald Trump recently referred to his son, Barron, as "Melania's son." What was your reaction to that strange comment?
It was unbelievable. That was very disturbing. But again, Donald Trump is doing to that little boy what was done to him as a child. Donald Trump is constantly repeating the traumas he experienced as a child. Trump is inflicting his traumas on the American people. And then when he's not inflicting them on us, he becomes the child that expects us to set limits on him. But once that public or someone else puts limits on Trump he goes crazy and hates it.
Trump is very afraid of older women, middle-aged women, women who are not seduced by him. Whether those women are Maxine Waters or Nancy Pelosi or any other woman who stands up to him and tells him what he really is — which is a hypocrite and petulant little boy. He tries to fool everybody the way his parents fooled him. But Trump can’t fool Pelosi or Maxine Waters and that drives him crazy
The people who support Donald Trump the most are products of traumatic childhoods. Many of Trump’s supporters are Christian fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalists grew up with and still have a deep fear of their parents, which then becomes a need to worship a pastor or minister if they are Christians. These are very disturbed people who are easy marks for Trump. They see all the bad things Trump does and they just put them aside, because Trump is their man and he’s great in their eyes.
Several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a profile of Donald Trump’s most loyal followers. These are people who have been to dozens of Trump’s rallies. Most do not have much money. One of Trump’s loyalists even said that he is full of Trump in his heart. The man lives on a modest fixed income but spends it on these rallies and supporting Trump. The man also said that Trump and patriotism are connected in his heart.
Not in that order. Those people are full of Donald Trump and then patriotism.
There are dozens of examples where Donald Trump has either threatened violence against his enemies or celebrated it. These are examples of “stochastic terrorism.” Trump is now threatening the whistleblower and whoever helped him, and has also threatened Rep. Adam Schiff, who is chair of the House Intelligence Committee. When the authoritarian leader speaks, he or she should be taken very seriously. Nothing he says is a joke.
There are two problems. One is what he's doing. The other is the reaction of other people to Trump’s behavior. Donald Trump is doing what his father did to him. Donald Trump’s father terrorized his family. He was a frightening man when Trump was growing up. Donald Trump had an authoritarian childhood.
Only Trump’s father set limits on him. Donald Trump is an authoritarian personality who acts in the same way as his father did towards him. In psychoanalytic theory there is a dynamic called “identification with the aggressor,” In essence, “If you can’t beat them, join them”. But it is much more than that: With Trump it is, “If you can't beat them, become them.” Donald Trump became just like his father.
Why are there still people who think that Trump is kidding? Or who have become numb to his heinous comments and behavior? What would you say to such a person?
I would tell such people that they sound just like Trump. The issue is that many of Trump’s enablers and supporters make such excuses because they are in fact disconnected from their own hatred. They do not want to face their own hatred. It is very frightening to look inside oneself, to be introspective. People who claim that Trump is just kidding when he threatens violence are just protecting themselves from their own anxiety, from what bothers them about themselves and their own minds. Trump’s enablers and defenders don’t want to acknowledge that they are cruel or full of hate, or potentially could be whipped up into hatred and a hateful way of life.
I do not believe that there is any way to convince Donald Trump’s supporters to turn on him. What worries me is the potential for violence from Trump’s supporters because they have so many guns. Trump’s supporters are very different from other people. Donald Trump is not the kind of leader who would tell people to stop being violent.
He instills fear with his language. He talks about rapists and terrorists, infestations and murderers. He is skilled at encouraging many people’s deepest fears. When Trump says, “Only I can save you," he presents himself as being some type of rescuer, which of course he absolutely is not.
What of the dozens of people who apparently are involved in Trump’s Ukraine scandal and other abuses of power?
The one thing about a certain kind of narcissistic person is that they have to be separated from the people around them. The way to do that, of course, is by either turning them against Trump in some way or putting them in jail. The real solution is that Donald Trump needs to be isolated from other people. It's really quite startling how Trump can get people to completely throw away any moral compass that they might have had before entering his orbit.
Is it only damaged people who care about power and money that are attracted to Donald Trump? Or does he get a hold on otherwise decent people and bring out the worst in them?
Donald Trump gives people permission. A leader such as a president fulfills a kind of superego function for a country. The leader is like a conscience. Donald Trump gives people permission to be bad, to not have to control their own impulses, to not have to say “no” to themselves when they have bad or violent impulses. It is all OK because Trump does those things. Trump’s bad behavior is very seductive for a certain type of person.
Given the stress and anxiety that Trump’s regime has created among the American people, how should they manage those feelings? This is especially important given the mix of happiness and fear many people are feeling because the Democrats are finally standing up against Trump by moving to impeach him.
It is very important to realize that you're not alone. Even though some people find it affirming to interact on social media there is nothing more affirming than actual, real, human, physical interaction. Go to a protest march. Be around people who are like-minded. It is very affirming to be with people who share your values.
It is also very important to be able to turn your back on Donald Trump and what he is saying. People must develop a capacity to say, “There he goes again.” Do not argue about what Trump says. Focus on what he is doing. Find a way to keep a healthy perspective about what is really going on.
How should people manage the emotional whiplash they are experiencing more generally in the Age of Trump?
If you're a person who gets disappointed — there is an old term called the “schizoid maneuver,” which is when you disconnect from your feelings — instead of feeling the full force of your rage toward Donald Trump and his people, you really try to get rid of those negative feelings. What a person does is they feel either indifferent or disconnected. Or perhaps they withdraw so they don’t get upset again.
Many people are saying, "Trump will never get impeached. It's never going to happen. I'm not going to get my hopes up. I don't care." And other people who are saying, "I finally feel proud to be an American again!" I have no idea what's going to happen with Trump’s impeachment. But I do believe that people who have not let themselves be hopeful have been given a great deal of hope and energy by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats finally moving toward impeaching Donald Trump.
When Richard Nixon was facing impeachment he resigned for the good of the country. Donald Trump seems unable to do such a thing.
Nixon did, in his own perverse crooked way, really care about America. Donald Trump is not like that at all. Donald Trump would never resign for the good of the country. He just wouldn't do it. Donald Trump could incite people to riot. That has been a very real possibility for some time.
What do we know about the psychology of a person who is going to be a whistleblower, as compared to someone such as Donald Trump?
A whistleblower is someone who finally says, "Enough is enough. I do believe that there's a difference between right and wrong and I have a moral compass and I can't do it anymore." A whistleblower is a very courageous person. But they do not see themselves in that way. They are just doing the right thing.
The whistleblower reminds Donald Trump of his failure to stand up to his father. When Trump’s father said, “Obey me,” Donald Trump could have responded, "You don't love me and stop with this mess about getting me to obey you no matter what."
Donald Trump is the opposite of a whistleblower. Donald Trump is a frightened child who could never stand up to his father or his mother. Because Trump couldn't do that, a whistleblower who stands up to him must be destroyed. Donald Trump envies them. Donald Trump hates the whistleblower’s strength. Donald Trump hates their courage.