A psychiatrist dissects Donald Trump: A lonely, terrified boy — afraid of his father and unloved by his mother

A psychiatrist dissects Donald Trump: A lonely, terrified boy — afraid of his father and unloved by his mother
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Mary Trump’s book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, gives an unprecedented firsthand look at a president through the lens of a mental health expert, echoing the unprecedented first-time-in-history consensus of thousands of mental health experts who came forth with concerns about a U.S. president. Dr. Justin Frank, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Washington, DC, and former clinical professor at George Washington University Medical Center, was among those voices, publishing his book, Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, two years earlier. 


For this, Part 3 of our series, “Inside the Mind of Donald J. Trump,” Frank was interviewed by Bandy X. Lee, a Yale forensic psychiatrist and a frequent contributor to DCReport. She is the editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.

Lee: You studied psychoanalysis in Boston, at the same institutions I graduated from, and so I know your training is impeccable. I also endorsed your in-depth study of Donald Trump because I felt it was an invaluable contribution to society. How does Dr. Mary Trump’s book compare with your analysis of the president “on the couch”? What did you think of the Trump family’s generational transmission of “chronic criminality, arrogance, and disregard for others”? Does this family disposition explain how someone apparently more humane, such as Fred Jr., would perish in this context? 

Frank: First, Mary Trump’s book is powerful, full of new examples of Trump family cruelty, and extremely well-written—even with bits of humor. Her experiences fleshed out my findings, though none was inconsistent with my analysis. In fact, I felt her book confirmed the validity and usefulness of applied psychoanalysis in helping us understand our political leaders. What she wrote about her loving father Fred Trump Jr. was deeply moving.

Your question about what happens to a family member so obviously different from the family ethos is answered clearly by how abused and rejected Fred Jr. eventually was. I wrote a chapter about Donald’s relationship with his older brother, about his envy of everything from Fred Jr.’s natural popularity to his being named for Donald’s father. Donald saw what happened to Fred Jr. when he stood up to Fred Sr. and decided early on to just obey his father’s demands.

Mary Trump’s book mostly focused on Donald’s father. I found Donald’s mother just as problematic and devoted my opening chapter to her. She was unavailable—Donny was two—when she was suddenly rushed away to give birth to his brother Robert. She had a hemorrhage that led to a hysterectomy, and she almost died. I didn’t know, however, how sickly she was upon returning home. She had severe osteoporosis and became physically fragile.

The roots of Donald’s inability to feel empathy or compassion lie in the relationship with his mother. When a child has rarely been held, it is hard ever to feel loved.

But those infirmities weren’t the only source of her being emotionally unavailable. I think the roots of Donald’s inability to feel empathy or compassion lie in their relationship. When a child has rarely been held, it is hard ever to feel loved enough—making the title of Mary Trump’s book so perfectly apt. She also could have changed “is” for “and” —especially since we have daily witness to Trump’s greed and his desperate need to golf even, and maybe especially, during the pandemic. Then the title might have been, “Too Much Is Never Enough.”

Does the absence of Donald’s mother explain the separation of children from their parents at the southern border? Will his own children be just as criminal and cruel? 

“Not having enough” links with Trump’s envy and your question about immigrant children. Donny was always deeply envious of mother-child love, and as president he suddenly had the opportunity to spoil that love by keeping children in cages, separated from their loving mothers.

As for tyrant father and terrified son, Mary’s revelation that Donny mocked his father after Fred Sr. became demented was a surprise to me: Donny had been too afraid to stand up to him until then. President Trump’s relentless Twitter bravado—courage from afar while wrapped up in an Oval Office blanket—reveals his arrested psychological development.

Trump’s children already are chips off the old block, without compassion or scruples. Ivanka tries to sound compassionate but fails miserably. A softer version of her father, she pushes her way into conversations where she’s not wanted, just like her father forcing himself into New York’s elite circles. Videos of her trying to interact with foreign leaders are painful to watch, especially one when she tries to get between French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and IMF Chair Christine Lagarde. Her father never got over being an outsider, while Ivanka seems surprised by her new outsider status.

Mary Trump lets us see the embattled Trump family attitude. They think only of winning or losing. That kind of thinking made Trump’s presidency such a disaster for us all. All presidents make decisions, but when thinking rejects subtlety and complexity, it’s not thinking at all; it’s reacting. And options are limited. Trump can yell at a reporter, walk out of a meeting, or accuse an interviewer of lying. And he only understands force, never negotiation. It was not America First that led Trump to abandon all our treaties—it was that he fears complexity, having never learned to think properly.

I thought your description in your book about how a neurological learning disorder in Donald Trump developed into a psychological problem was insightful. Dr. Trump goes into this as well. How do you think the shame of not being confident enough to take his own SAT’s has affected his sense of self and his development?

I had no knowledge that Trump asked a friend to take his SAT’s. But it fits. Shame is involved, prompting his need to cover up for his inadequacies. I didn’t use the term “compensatory grandiosity” in my book, but clearly that’s what he displays regularly. He has the “best words,” the “best knowledge,” and he appoints the “best people.” Again, binary thinking—winning or losing—allows him only two options. Just witness the vicissitudes of his interactions with Dr. Anthony Fauci. Your question about his sense of self is extremely important—because even as he’s arguably the most powerful man in the world, he remains thin-skinned, easily wounded, and needs to puff himself up.

Dr. Trump describes a striking “institutionalization” most of his adult life. How has his “total dependence on a caregiver” under his father groomed him to be an easy tool for dictator figures such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdoğan, or Mitch McConnell? 

Simple: he admires dictators because they remind him of his father and of what he’s not. Being easily manipulated by flattery makes any POTUS dangerous to our well-being. And Putin is more like his father because somehow Trump seems unconsciously afraid of him.

Trump admires dictators because they remind him of his father and of what he’s not... Putin is more like his father because somehow Trump seems unconsciously afraid of him.

A president like that cannot preserve, protect, or defend our Constitution or govern effectively. Just look at the deaths from COVID-19, polluted drinking water around America, and our massive unemployment. Clearly not simply a result of Putin. Trump’s character defects are the problem: arrogance, binary thinking, inability to learn—not to mention cruelty and attacks on loving relationships—make him incapable. He cannot think or solve problems. His grandiosity helps him call facts “fake news.”

Mary Trump makes it vividly clear that her uncle cannot govern. It’s not that he won’t. His father, [attorney] Roy Cohn, and [TV producer] Mark Burnett once rescued him, making him passively hope his base and Attorney General Barr will do it. But nobody can rescue him from his profound character deficits. Thought is trial action, but Trump acts without being able to think. We mental health professionals keep trying to make sense of who Donald Trump is. But that clearly must be a prelude to taking direct action. Mary Trump makes that crystal clear.

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