Psychoanalysing Trump isn't a distraction - it helps us stay sane in troubled times

Oliver Burkeman
·3 min read

It’s one of the less obnoxious self-help cliches – because it’s true – that virtually any everyday psychological problem can be traced back to some kind of fear. Procrastination is the fear of failure (or sometimes success). Relationship issues often arise from a deep-seated fear of being abandoned (or being overwhelmed by too much closeness). If you’re perpetually overworked, or feel others are taking advantage of you, it’s probably because you fear standing up for yourself. And so on: scratch the surface and you’ll find the fear.

At the root of all those fears, generally speaking, is the fear of having to experience certain feelings. As the therapist Bruce Tift puts it, most of us are subconsciously deeply invested in “making sure we don’t have to feel the feelings that were overwhelming to us as children”. To a small child, this theory goes, ordinary emotions often do feel overwhelming, and experiences such as rejection really are matters of life and death, because you can’t survive without your caregivers. The problem is that we carry these attitudes into adulthood – and end up, say, procrastinating on a work project, because deep down we’re convinced that experiencing the shame of failure would be more than we could handle.

Which brings us, I’m afraid, to Donald Trump – and specifically to Too Much And Never Enough, the memoir by his niece Mary, which reached the American public, despite the best efforts of the White House, in early July. Many of its revelations weren’t so revelatory: the orange authoritarian really is as spiteful, lewd, heartless and dishonest as you thought. But as a clinical psychologist, Mary Trump knows to look for the fear at the bottom of it all – and finds it in Trump’s ceaseless quest for approval from his “sociopath” father, and the desperate need to avoid what he saw happening to his older brother Freddy, bullied and disdained throughout their childhood. (He died from alcoholism, estranged from the family, at 42.) For Trump, writes his niece, “there has never been any option but to be positive, to project strength, no matter how illusory, because doing anything else carries a death sentence… He can never escape the fact that he is and always will be a terrified little boy.”

Psychoanalysing Trump this way tends to annoy people: his supporters, of course, but also those who see it as a distraction from understanding him as a symptom of wider forces. Others fear it’s an argument for sympathy. For me, though, the motive has always been more selfish. It’s simply easier to remain sane through insane times – and perhaps even do something to improve matters – if you can grasp why terrible people ended up that way. Otherwise, you’re left fuming in impotent rage at what looks like inexplicable, almost transcendental (and unconquerable) evil.

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It isn’t, though. It’s just a bunch of scared children, trying to avoid feelings they can’t bear to feel, and ruining the world in the process. Britain is serially governed by boys sent off to boarding school in their very early teens, or even younger, for goodness sake. What did we think would be the result? The fact that they’re motivated by buried fears doesn’t let our leaders off the hook. But it does bring them down to earth. Which, after all, is the only place we’ll ever be able to change anything.

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A CIA profiler probes the bond between the “quintessential narcissist” Trump and his followers in Dangerous Charisma, by Jerrold Post and Stephanie Doucette.