Just after his second birthday, his mother gave birth to a baby brother and then she almost died. After childbirth she got an infection, had to have a hysterectomy then several other surgeries. From a psychoanalytic point of view, for the boy this was surely terribly traumatic. First there was this brute fact that mommy was going to give birth to a rival, then there’s possibly some murderous rage for her doing this, then after that murderous rage she does in fact almost die, and then she’s gone—for how long?—in the hospital, almost dead, almost gone. The boy’s one true love has first defied him by giving birth to a rival, then in fantasy has been killed by him, then almost dies and is gone, and he feels terrible guilt and is unable to repair it. The good mother that most of us are lucky to have had and internalized is not there for him.
If this admittedly armchair analysis of Donald Trump is right, then that early crisis could explain a lot about his subsequent character. From an object-relations point of view, the early loss of his mother, even if temporary, coinciding with his infantile murderous rage would set up what Melanie Klein called a “paranoid schizoid” position (where everything is black and white, persecutory of idyllic, alternating with fears of being devoured from the outside and phantasies of killing the other from the inside). This is a normal part of development, usually followed by a “depressive position” in which the child is overcome by grief about its sadism and seeks to make reparations so as to internalize the good object of the mother, an internalization that provides some ballast through life, the ability to tolerate ambiguity and forego paranoid phantasies. But the child who does not negotiate this passage well may grow up to have an obsessional character. Or as Freud put it in 1926:
In obsessional neurosis and paranoia the forms which the symptoms assume become very valuable to the ego because they obtain for it, not certain advantages, but a narcissistic satisfaction which it would otherwise be without. The systems which the obsessional neurotic constructs flatter his self-love by making him feel that he is better than other people because he is specially cleanly or specially conscientious. The delusional constructions of the paranoic offer to his acute perceptive and imaginative powers a field of activity which he could not easily find elsewhere.[i]
In fact, the boy Donald grows up to be a bully, likely trying to undo that early trauma. In a traumatic situation one is rendered helpless and bereft. All subsequent anxiety, Freud noted, is a “repetition of the situation of danger.”[ii] But why repeat this and not simply forget it? In order, perhaps, to undo it. Maybe this time it will turn out differently. Undoing, Freud also notes in this essay, is the obsessional neurotic’s attempt to “blow away” the original event. Akin to a magical act, repeating offers the possibility of trying again in order to undo what was done, to undo the terror of the loss of the primary object, mother.[iii]
At his private school where his wealthy father is a big benefactor, the young Trump becomes a troublemaker and little tyrant, and eventually his teachers persuade the father to send him elsewhere. At military school, the boy learns the lessons that he is special and great and, in the course of this, he almost kills his roommate for not folding the linens correctly. He becomes fastidiously neat and develops a fear of germs, of anything that might invade his body. He goes on in life to purge any imagined invaders, including in his fantasies Muslims, Mexicans, and those who’ve deigned to ruin his imagined perfect kingdom.
And he imagines that he is the king! He perfects the great defense of undoing, trying to do something all over again in a way that turns out better. How to undo mother’s death from his life when he was just beginning to become a little self? Maybe he could be a big self, maybe he could be so perfect and important and big and great that she would finally notice and love him. Maybe he could be so important and smart and wealthy that she would love him more than anyone else in the world.
Maybe also he could avenge his father’s loss, his father who had to grow up and take over the family business as a young adolescent when his own father died, the grandfather who made his wealth as a poor immigrant by setting up brothels where fools went looking for gold. And in the process maybe he could avenge his mother’s shame, a poor immigrant “domestic” from Scotland, leaving home at 17, arriving at 18, with only $50 in her pocket. So now he rails against all those low-skill immigrants trying to take away the jobs of real Americans—just as his Scottish mother took from America?
So the child who suffers these losses and shames sets out to avenge and to undo the harm. He cannot help himself; he isn’t even conscious of what he is doing. His loss turns into narcissism and grandiosity. At his rallies, he throws out protesters and crying babies; he proclaims that he’ll build a wall, which his enemy will pay for; he derides his imagined enemies as rapists and thugs; he excoriates women, grieving parents, disabled people, and anyone else in order to show off his omnipotence. He doesn’t see his effects on other people, though most everyone around him is painfully aware of this great malformation. There’s an immense disjunct between how he acts and how he thinks of himself. Something is terribly wrong with him. In public he makes great proclamations about his greatness, intelligence, bigness, and more bigness, and has no sense of how bizarre all this sounds. He insults other people for their “smallness,” and seems totally oblivious that he is exhibiting his own obliviousness. In this respect, he is thoroughly delusional.
He is like a person play-acting being a person, a person who is big and great and wonderful, whose enemies ought to be imprisoned, purged, or done off by a firing squad. He is the quintessential false self, playacting being Donald Trump, a person who within is nothing but desert buffeted by hot air.
He has no tolerance for criticism, no ability to appreciate other points of view, no capacity for self-reflection. Or as 50 Republican national security former officials put it in a letter denouncing his candidacy,
He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
In all his attempts to purge his imagined perfect world of invaders, he purges his own internal shames and demons: the mother who entered the country as a poor domestic servant, the grandfather who made millions by prostituting land and women, all those immigrant foreigners who are trying to infect us. He befriends those like him, other authoritarian figures. He belittles anyone who doesn’t try to be as strong as him.
And because of his appeal to all those in his country who harbor similar wounds, who feel cheated, infiltrated, abandoned, and wronged, the people project their own anxieties into his anxieties and identify with his ways of acting out. He does for them what they cannot do for themselves. Where they are trapped in powerlessness, he can be their power player, their avenger, their hero. And so they nominate him to be their candidate for the presidency of their country.
And here’s the real rub: from a democratic point of view he has all the credentials he needs to run for this great office; but from a psychological point of view he is tremendously out of touch with how his own internal fantasies are at great remove from reality. In other words, he is thoroughly delusional, and that should, one would think, disqualify him from office.
If the people of a democracy get this, then the dilemma can be solved. They could say no to electing someone delusional, someone whose internal world is at a great distance from the real one.
[i] Freud 1926, 99.
[ii] Freud 1926, 137.
[iii] Freud 1926, 137-138.