Sigmund Freud's couch. / Karen Apricot

The Trump Psyche

Does it take a professional to diagnose this creep?

Sigmund Freud's couch. / Karen Apricot
w
o
r
d

f
a
c
t
o
r
y

You know that the Trump distemper in our body politic has risen to a new threat status because our journalistic thought leaders are enlisting the help of mental-health professionals. The new issue of the Atlantic, for one, features a stem-winding cover story by psychologist Dan P. McAdams devoted to divining just where the tangle of Trump pathologies falls along the spectrum of personality disorders of presidents past.

The answer will not likely surprise you. Yes, Trump is an angry, rampaging narcissist in the mold of Andrew Jackson—but unlike most classic narcissists, he shows no evidence of crippling parental neglect in his early childhood development. (Old Hickory also came by his self-love the hard way, battling for distinction along the white-trash frontier of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Trump’s domineering parents were already presiding over a multimillion-dollar real-estate fortune.) And yes, Trump is a callous manipulator of the unfortunate souls he thinks may be cluttering his career path, in the winsomely paranoid style of Richard Nixon—yet unlike that scheming whack-job, Trump is an incurable extrovert, feeding on mass adulation as he glides joyously from rally to primary-victory celebration to radio interview and cable news hit. (This insatiable “extroversion,” McAdams observes, places Trump in the approval-craving ranks of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Teddy Roosevelt.) That tortured Shakespearean prince Nixon, meanwhile, would prowl around Nixon-hating peace rallies in the dark of night; revenge, rather than approval, was his drug of choice. So at great length, McAdams alights on his diagnosis: Trump embodies the archetype Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung called “the warrior.” Here the historical framework widens considerably, even as the overall terms of analysis begin audibly to creak:

Going back to ancient times, victorious young combatants enjoyed the spoils of war—material bounty, beautiful women. Trump has always been a big winner there. His life story in full tracks his strategic maneuvering in the 1970s, his spectacular victories (the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Trump Tower) in the 1980s, his defeats in the early 1990s, his comeback later in the same decade, and the expansion of his brand and celebrity ever since. Throughout it all, he has remained the ferocious combatant who fights to win.

In other words, even though Trump was a coddled, silver-spoon scion of a Queens real-estate fortune, he still comes bearing a trademark American personal narrative of dogged triumph over adversity—the adversity in question here being mostly self-inflicted bankruptcy. One certainly appreciates the impulse to seek out hidden depths in a character that’s composed as completely of surface impressions as Trump’s is, but this seems too much of a stretch into the storehouse of American political myth-making to pass muster (as a true archetypal warrior prince might say). Just for starters, warriors in Western tradition are bound by fairly stringent codes of conduct—they don’t lie and gleefully promote torture, or belittle weak or disabled civilians. And when they do, they’re supposed to be punished, not lavishly rewarded with mass adulation and media attention the way Trump has been. And surely none has gone to the trouble of inventing pseudonymous alter egos for the sake of spinning their travails in the media. No, the more dispassionate, European verdict on Trump’s character recently assayed by the Financial Times writer Gideon Rachman seems more on point: like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, and countless other contemporary world leaders in fraying democracies or full-blown oligarchies, Trump is simply a strongman and a bully. Like Trump, Rachman writes,

All these men have promised to lead a national revival through force of their personalities and willingness to ignore liberal niceties. In many cases, the promise of decisive leadership is backed up by a willingness—sometimes explicit, sometimes implied—to use illegal violence against enemies of the state.

From this global perspective, the woolly features of the Trump psyche emerge in plainer relief as well. Putin, Erdogan, et al. are all incorrigible show-offs, eager to parade their wealth, influence, and macho derring-do before what they’re firmly convinced is an admiring global audience. And as Rachman notes, this ethos of alpha showmanship “goes hand-in-hand with extreme sensitivity to criticism”—another non-warrior trait that we need not belabor in Trump’s case.

It’s not the psychological personality profile that Donald Trump best fits, but the kind of long-term psychological harm he thoughtlessly, and grandiosely, inflicts on others.

And if we frazzled voters still feel the urge to flesh out the Trumpian psychological profile, well, it so happens that the New York Times has made some estimable recent strides there, with its blowout investigation of the presumptive GOP nominee’s heavy-breathing way with women, in both his personal and professional life. To take just one among many, uh, fragrant examples from the exposé, he pressed Brook Antoinette Mahealani Lee, at the time the reigning holder of the Miss Universe crown—the beauty pageant that Trump took over in 1997—for her views on the pulchritude of his own daughter, Ivanka: “‘Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?’ Mrs. Lee recalled [Trump] saying. I was like, ‘Really?’ That’s just weird. She was 16. That’s creepy.”

No less creepy, or abhorrent, than the way Trump would viciously turn on women who failed to meet his own exacting standards of hotness. When another Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, began to add weight to her svelte pageant form, the Maximum Leader’s retribution was more savage than any of the managerial play-acting he loves to indulge, either at his many luxe properties, or during his tour before the Apprentice cameras. When Machado repaired to a New York hotel to start in on a weight-loss regimen, she found her personal travails laid open for the tabloid press corps that Trump has spent his life cultivating. After she thought the Miss Universe board had agreed to help her navigate a medically sound weight loss regimen,

the next day, [pageant officials] took me to the gym, and I’m exposed to 90 media outlets. Donald Trump was there. I had no idea that would happen. I was about to cry in that moment with all the cameras there. I said, “I don’t want to do this, Mr. Trump.” He said, “I don’t care.”

This exchange—virtually the only story in the Times package that Mr. Great America doesn’t dispute—sent Machado into a downward spiral. “After that episode, I was sick, anorexia and bulimia for five years,” she told Times reporters Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey. “Over the past 20 years, I’ve gone to a lot of psychologists to combat this.”

And that would seem to be the real point, for both the members of our press and the psychological professionals they solicit opinions from: not the psychological personality profile that Donald Trump best fits, but the kind of long-term psychological harm he thoughtlessly, and grandiosely, inflicts on others. Sometimes, they say, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dick is just a dick.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

You Might Also Enjoy

Baffler Newsletter

new email subscribers receive a digital copy of our current issue.

Further Reading