Harvard psychoanalyst explains why Trump’s ‘grandiose paranoid character’ appeals to his supporters — despite his broken promises

Harvard psychoanalyst explains why Trump’s ‘grandiose paranoid character’ appeals to his supporters — despite his broken promises
Donald J. Trump/Shutterstock
Donald J. Trump/Shutterstock

Over the weekend, President Donald Trump addressed the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), making multiple misleading claims about the economy, the wall and his tax cuts. According to the Washington Post, the speech contained 104 misleading claims, bringing his total number of false or fishy statements to roughly 9,014 over the course of his administration.


Raw Story spoke with Dr. Henry J. Friedman, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about why the President finds it so easy to lie and the unique dynamic he has with his base that lets him get away with it.

Friedman is a contributor to “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” edited by Bandy X. Lee, the expanded edition of which is to be released this month. He brings a psychoanalytic perspective to understand the totalitarian mindset, which presents a multifold threat to the world.

Tana Ganeva: According to one report, Trump’s CPAC speech contained 104 instances of lies. Why do you think the President finds it so easy to lie?

Dr. Henry J. Friedman: When facing an audience that responds to him with adulation, he is inclined to present his worst tendencies in excess because he knows it pleases his base if he is extremely opposed to established standards of truth and politeness.

Trump’s base love him for liberating them to hate illegal immigrants and indulge their hatred of social change, of same sex marriage or woman’s rights and the rise of African Americans as a powerful political and social presence in the United States. His stance against equality for disavowed minority groups is exactly what they find attractive in him. He liberates their worst inclinations and fights against those who want to see the best in humanity dominate our society.

Tana Ganeva: How is the President different in front of his supporters?

Dr. Henry J. Friedman: He is empowered by such an audience to state things he wants to believe in as facts, as truths. He flirts with open totalitarian positions because these please this particular audience who find his authoritarian positions compatible with what they desire in a leader.

His base prefers a leader who is authoritarian and ruthless about getting what he personally wants, as this often reflects their experience with parents, particularly fathers who insisted on obedience. Trump demands that the world operate as he wants it to be, not as it actually is. Authority isn’t authoritarianism, hence it is easy to confuse a strong leader who represents all of our citizens from an authoritarian leader who panders to the worst desires of some groups in terms of their destructive impulses directed at other less powerful citizens.

Tana Ganeva: Can you explain why the President still has such a fervent following, despite arguably breaking a lot of his campaign promises, such as having Mexico pay for a wall at the Southwest border?

Dr. Henry J. Friedman: They respond not to his campaign promises or even to his actual accomplishments, which may be against their actual interests, but because his grandiose paranoid character appeals to them.

He always is ready to attack anyone who opposes him. His enemies are constructed by him, but they are what many individuals personally do in their own relationships with those around them. What his followers want is his immoderate, rash and destructive “self directed against an enemy.”

His followers are pleased with his leadership because they believe in the dangers that he insists are present when in fact they are non-existent except in his paranoid thinking. A grandiose paranoid leader appeals to and preys upon the paranoid fears of the many citizens who constitute his base.

Tana Ganeva: How does your psychoanalytic background inform you about what is happening?

Dr. Henry J. Friedman: Absolutely, this kind of grandiose paranoid character is frequently encountered in our work with patients, but in a much attenuated form or only directed at those in the grandiose paranoid individual’s family or who are employed by him or her. Those of us who work with paranoid patients understand the insistent need to find an enemy, to see an exaggerated form of danger coming from the hated others who will damage you unless they are contained and ultimately destroyed either by deportation or simply being kept out of the country.

Tana Ganeva: How can mental health expertise help the nation?

Dr. Henry J. Friedman: By giving words and concepts from our work that help the public in putting words and concepts to the anxieties that they feel, without being able to label it in such a way that they understand why Trump must be opposed, not allow to do his “Hitler routine” and destroy the free press and any criticism of his behavior and desires.

The more Trump is able to destroy the free press by denouncing it as fake news, the more he will be able to keep the public uninformed and unable to oppose his draconian approach to anything or anyone who threatens his domination and control. We in mental health can see more clearly what others see, because we recognize it from our work in treating and evaluating those who are fearful and aggressive because they are filled with hatred and loathing of all who are different from them.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.