Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declares the president’s gripes are psychological “projection,” which means he tries to paste his own flaws on others.
A couple dozen mental health experts publish “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” to warn the world about his condition.
Never has a living president been subject to so much psychological speculation. This is happening not because he is in obvious distress, but because so many of us are.
For a Trump biography I published in April 2016, I consulted psychotherapists, mental health journals, and medical texts in an effort to understand him. This isn’t standard procedure, but his public record was so confusing, and he was so difficult to track in interviews, that I needed extra help. Now that he is the most divisive president in modern presidential history, with an unprecedented reputation for sowing chaos, I find myself fielding countless questions that could be summed up as: Can you explain him to me, because I’m afraid?
Many are afraid. And many try to assess the problem that is Trump to make him seem less scary. When Pelosi said, “He’s a projector and that’s what it’s about,” she was defining the problem in a way that would inform a response.
The president does like to accuse others of the very sins he commits on a regular basis. An inveterate liar, he inveighs against what he insists are falsehoods perpetrated by “fake news” outlets. Bedeviled by Robert Mueller’s investigations into his possible collusion with Russia in 2016, Trump accuses the special counsel’s team of looking to impact the 2020 election. Renowned for his awful manners, he accuses others of being rude.
Trump indulges in projection because he thinks he should be better than he is, and interprets his fear, sense of inadequacy, and other normal feelings as unacceptable. When he calls people stupid or ugly or unfair, it’s probably because somewhere in his mind he fears he is all these things. Think of a child who, when called a nasty name, spits back, “I know you are, but what am I?” This is our president when he says members of Congress have a “low I.Q” or when he calls CNN’s Jim Acosta a “rude, terrible person.” This is not adult behavior. But a man feeling the upsetting emotions he knew as a child reacts as a child would.
Unfortunately, projection is just one of Trump’s compulsions. He also adheres to something psychologists call the “familiarity principle” when it comes to his behavior and the people he draws near. Raised by a father who both manipulated politicians behind the scenes and thrived on abusing government housing programs, businessman Donald Trump employed lots of manipulators (consider his prison-bound “fixer” Michael Cohen) and abused investors, creditors, and contractors. His longtime political adviser, Roger Stone, is a renowned dirty trickster who is under indictment. One of his presidential campaign managers, Paul Manafort, awaits sentencing to federal prison. It was no accident that one of his closest friends in the media is the disgraced supermarket-tabloid owner David Pecker, who labored to bury negative stories about Trump and threatened the owner of The Washington Post with the release of embarrassing photos.
In the White House, Trump has surrounded himself with the government-equivalent of Cohen, Manafort, and Pecker. His Cabinet members abuse their travel budgets, ignore ethics standard,and set cruel policies like the decision to separate asylum-seeking children from their parents and incarcerate them in detention facilities. The futile government shutdown, the disrespect heaped on allies, the denial of climate change — all of these behaviors can be credited to a man doing as he has always done, aided by the kind of enablers who make him feel good.
If they were inclined to challenge him, Trump’s associates might try to inhibit his third terrible inclination, which is his compulsion to replicate the chaos and pain of his early life. Trump is the son of an overly demanding father and often-absent mother who sent him away to military school. (His brothers and sisters got to stay home in the family mansion.) Troubled kids can become adults who cause trouble for themselves in an unconscious effort to see if they can finally make things right. Described by Sigmund Freud as “the death drive,” this process isn’t exactly suicidal, but it can make a person seem determined to create his own worst nightmares.
In Trump’s case, the nightmare scenario has always involved being revealed to be weak, ineffectual, or fraudulent. His history of business failures posed against claims of enormous wealth amounted to one long story of courting this ignominy and sometimes achieving it. The presidential campaign looked to be just the greatest example of this behavior until, probably to his own surprise, he prevailed. Now he’s targeted by prosecutors and investigators and journalists who surely must seem like monsters to him. Ignoring the advice of his lawyers, he compulsively taunts and attacks these “enemies.”
In ordinary life, repetition compulsion explains why a person abandoned as a child may make those around him so miserable that they abandon him too. Those enlisted in the drama, including friends, family, and co-workers, can feel confused and abused. In this case, the reenactor is a psychologically unchecked president of the United States, which means that people across the country and all over the world feel disoriented and even abused by a man who seems bent of self-defeat.
Defeat and the accompanying pain is the prospect that haunts every man who insists he must always be a winner. Those most tormented by their fear of this fate are driven to make it happen, if only to put an end to their feelings of dread. In the process, they can make those who depend on them feel equally pained and desperate. As citizens, we are all, in some ways, dependent on the president, and this is why so many of us feel so unsettled by him. We are living with him in his nightmare and won’t escape until he is humiliated, either by defeat in an election, or by forced resignation or impeachment, and he finally makes his fears come true. Too bad for him. Too bad for us.
Michael D’Antonio is the author of “The Truth About Trump.’’