Discover more from Journeys Into the Unconscious Mind
Why the Intelligent Interest in Trump?
Understanding the Unconscious Forces Driving Allegiance to Him (Vol. 3; Issue 37)
A thoughtful pulmonologist in Pasadena asked me a crucial question about Trump in a meeting last week, and responding to his inquiry drives this week’s missive. The physician feels surprised, as many do, that some well-educated, astute people—capable of critical thinking and of viewing life in shades of gray—remain steadfast in their support of Trump. The unconscious mind plays an immense role in such feverous dedication. It allows these persons to ignore Trump’s most frightening features: He is a criminal, a misogynist, and a malignant narcissist (if not an outright psychopath). Also, he strives to become the first American dictator.
In the process of answering the question, I focus primarily upon one psychological defense mechanism, namely dissociation. French psychologist Pierre Janet first used this word, in the late 19th century, to describe how persons’ mental processes fracture. Freud (1894), one of Janet’s students, first used the phrase, “defense mechanisms,” to describe these consciousness-splintering processes. These protective apparatuses arise, Freud thought, to defend the mind against internal and external threats. An analogue to the body’s immune system, the ego shelters itself from pain.
When stressed, the mind creates partitions much like how submarines are designed to break into self-contained sections. Each mental subdivision has unique characteristics. Mature defenses, like anticipation, neutralize threatening information by motivating people to prepare. Sublimation channels discomfort into productive activity. These various defense mechanisms are, essentially, varieties of dissociation. Humor, for example, separates out a painful experience by giving it levity.
The two most primitive defense maneuvers, splitting and projection, are most relevant in striving to understand how intelligent, reflective people still support a criminal, misogynist, and would-be autocrat. Splitting means rigidly seeing the world in terms of good and bad; projection involves taking parts of self and projecting them into others; it also involves receiving information projected by others into the self (technically known as introjection).
The more primitive the defense mechanism, the more problematic it is. The final psychoanalytic phrase of import is psychotic denial. Essentially an extreme form of dissociation, individuals in psychotic denial fail to perceive obvious pieces of information. I once saw a patient who drank three bottles of wine every afternoon after he returned from teaching community college courses. He told me, “I never have more than one glass in my hand at any one time,” thereby clearly illustrating psychotic denial. The man was not psychotic in any other way; he simply could not see that he was on the way to drinking himself to death.
One variation of psychotic denial was brilliantly described by Eric Hoffer (1989) in his classic book, The True Believer. His perspective was more sociological than psychoanalytic, of course, but he identified certain persons involved in mass political movements as “true believers.” By definition, they ignore information contrary to their particular belief system. Hoffer writes:
The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.
Notice how closely Trump’s popularity adheres to what Hoffer captures in two sentences: The quality of ideas matter little, the arrogance is astonishing, and the opinions of others are completely dismissed. Further, Trump certainly displays a “singlehanded defiance of the world.” Psychotic denial is evident in followers’ complete disregard of real, true facts, e.g., Trump’s failure to call for support during the insurrection, him threatening Kim Jong Un with a nuclear attack, and so on ad infinitum.
Another category of dissociation develops in reaction to some of Trump’s specific ideas. He promises revenge, for example, energizing people who believe that the Department of Justice is charging Trump for political reasons. (Even if true, why would the states of Florida, Georgia, and New York file charges against him also?) Trump promises to instantly end the war in Ukraine, and to permanently render abortion illegal. These themes may also cause some arguably intelligent people to split, to ignore or overlook, Trump’s exceedingly problematic behaviors—because of a single issue.
Some varieties of psychotic denial can enter consciousness. Mitch McConnell, for example, deliberately supported Trump because he knew he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices. McConnell ignored Trump’s character defects to achieve his goals.
Other highly educated politicians, like Harvard Law graduate Ted Cruz, display psychotic denial out of a pure desire to retain power. The saying that:
power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,
exemplifies psychotic denial par excellance. The word, “absolute,” in the second phrase exemplifies splitting. It is black and white; it is concrete and total. No shades of gray allowed. Republican politicians need Trump to retain their power, and they’ll ignore the risks of Trump’s attaining “absolute power” to keep theirs. In confirmation, the most recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Trump leading among Republican voters as the party’s candidate for President. Cruz needs the support of Trump followers to remain powerful. And, notice the psychotic denial evident in Cruz’ own words. In January 2016, when Cruz himself was running for President, he said,
In terms of a commander in chief, we ought to have someone who isn’t springing out of bed to tweet in a frantic response to the latest poll… the American people are looking for a commander in chief who is stable and steady and [has] a calm hand to keep this country safe.
Cruz witnessed, up close and personal, Trump repeatedly “spring out of bed to tweet.” He closely observed him having anything but a “stable and steady hand.” In supporting Trump, Cruz ignores realities he personally observed. His behavior can be classified as psychotic-denial-motivated-by-power.
Another driver of psychotic denial is suspiciousness bordering on the paranoid. Many competent citizens, capable of reflection and deliberation, fear “socialist” movements in the Democratic party. They worry that potential policies like universal basic income, Medicare-for-all, or national legalization of abortion will pass under a Democratic administration. Their anxieties have some limited merit. However, the fact of Trump’s preventing the peaceful transfer of power in 2020, cozying up to Putin, admiring President Xi’s lifetime appointment, and displaying other clear indicators of a slide into autocracy should unequivocally overshadow these concerns. (Timothy Snyder’s two recent books speak clearly to such autocratic risks, and they are compelling and easy reads.) By failing to place their worries into the context of Trump’s literal dangers to American democracy, these individuals also qualify as showing psychotic levels of denial.
Finally, even bright people who read left-wing, moderate, and right-wing periodicals, and who are engaged in the political sphere, are not immune from propaganda. Trump is inarguably a charismatic figure. While certainly not eloquent, he emanates charm. Like Hitler who, by the way, was democratically elected before he became a dictator, Trump knows how to motivate a crowd. He pounds home clear, simple messages with broad appeal like, “make America great again.” Trump understands the power of symbols, oratory, and image. His slogans are basic, concrete, and emotionally appealing. Many ingest them whole.
Further, and unlike prior American politicians, Trump frequently uses the word “love.” He sends out Christmas cards to supporters each year, which end with the phrase, “I love you all, Donald Trump.” He often tells masses of supporters of his undying love for them. At a talk before the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), of all places, Trump said, “I love you, I respect you, there is nobody I respect more.” What other President would tell the CIA he loves them?
Here, we see more the primitive defense mechanism of splitting than psychotic denial. You’re good and righteous if you support Trump; you’re a fool, idiot, or moron if you don’t. Concrete thinking, to be sure, but some citizens are literally seduced by the love to resist it. They want to be in the loved group. If falling for the flirtation, they, too, display a psychotic denial by failing to see the brightly flashing, neon warning signs surrounding Trump’s being.
Before bringing the missive to an end, and thereby helping the pulmonologist to breathe easier (pun intended), I save this brief review of Trump’s unsettling behaviors for last. Most readers know of them. Nonetheless, consider these major highlights (or lowlights) evident in Trump’s character. He recently earned the unique status of being the first American president to be indicted for state and federal crimes. Trump faces a total of 91 charges across four criminal cases—44 at the federal and 47 on the state level. This is the first time in America’s 234-year history that our chief executive has been fingerprinted, booked, and arraigned.
In Florida, Trump faces 40 felony counts for hoarding classified documents and impeding efforts to retrieve them. In Georgia, he faces 13 felony counts for his election interference in that state. In New York, he faces 34 felony counts in connection with hush money payments to a porn star. And in Washington, D.C., where the US Department of Justice has charged him, Trump faces four felony counts for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Furthermore, Trump was impeached twice—another record for any American president.
On an entirely different level, consider Trump’s history of misogyny. He has long bragged about “liking beautiful women.” He’s on his third marriage—to a woman 24-years younger than him. Well before he entered politics, Trump repeatedly sexualized his own daughter’s appearance. These comments reveal a generalized dehumanization of women. Trump views them as useful primarily (or entirely) for their sexual appeal; their ability to be “first rate” depends on their bodies. His sexism moves in two directions: Women who are young, slim, white, and conventionally attractive are sex objects; women who fail to fit this narrow ideal of femininity are dismissed as “pigs” or “dogs.” There is no way in Trump’s world for women to achieve status as “human being.”
The most important theme in this response to the pulmonologist’s question is the fact that Donald Trump poses a real threat to the American experiment in democracy. The primary goal of any psychodynamic psychotherapy is to bring the unconscious mind into consciousness. I can only hope that, in addition to increasing the lung capacity of my friend, perhaps some readers will reflect on these ideas of denial, splitting, and projection, will feel the terror of having an American dictator, and will work arduously to prevent Trump from ever entering public office again.
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Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defense. Standard Edition, 3:43-61.
Hoffer, E. (1989). The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper and Row.
Snyder, T. (2017). On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Crown.
Snyder, T. (2018). The Road to Unfreedom. New York: Crown.