It is uncommon for Trump to get through an entire day (or night) without tweeting aggressively at somebody or another. The targets of his scorn are often political opponents who are no longer competing with him for power. They may be sports figures or celebrities who he feels have spoken about him critically. He boasts whenever somebody attacks him, he attacks back harder, even when his response keeps those attacks in the news. As the direct result of some of his comments, he has put himself in legal jeopardy. Of course, this has been pointed out to him by people he trusts, including his lawyers, but according to different reports, his staff has given up trying to control or limit these off-the-cuff remarks. This behavior seems integral to who he is.

I have an anecdote to relate that is not about Trump, but strikes me as relevant somehow. A few years ago, I saw a patient in psychotherapy who had a history of getting into minor trouble with friends and/or authority figures. Along the way, he told me he was having an affair with a fellow employee. Both he and this woman were married to other people. He had reason to be suspicious of her since he knew she had had other affairs and ended up threatening her lovers with exposure. Despite this unprepossessing picture of a romantic partner, he intended to persist in the relationship. He did not, however, want to endanger his marriage. I was taken aback, therefore, to read some of the texts he had sent to his paramour. These were explicit and borderline obscene.

My instinct as a therapist, and as a human being, is to prevent my patients from getting into trouble. Putting aside the advisability of his participating in this affair, (not to mention the morality of it) I wanted to warn him of the danger he was putting himself in by writing to this woman anything confirming an illicit affair. She had proven herself untrustworthy. His job was at stake, and also his marriage. I told him that, in general, he should not write anything to anyone that could embarrass him if it became public. He agreed.

A few moments later he left my office, stopping by the door first to tell me: “I know you’re right about my texting, but, you know, I’m gong to do it anyway!" Then he left.

I was dumbfounded. Why would he persist in a behavior that he himself recognized as dangerous? Then, I realized I had misunderstood him. I thought he was writing to her to promote their relationship and, of course, at the same time, avoid trouble. Actually, his risking getting caught and getting into trouble was part of the appeal and excitement of the affair. That was why he was communicating to this woman recklessly. To quietly have an affair would have been a different experience altogether.

Trump is not tweeting to advance his causes, or to convince anyone of the correctness of his positions. Often, he picks fight with senators, for instance, whom he needs to advance his agenda. He tweets in order to fight with opponents. Sometimes, for this reason, when he has run out of political opponents, he picks on fellow Republican or others entirely unconnected to him, such as sports figures. He enjoys hitting back. The persona he wants to project is the tough guy who doesn’t take anything from anybody. It is simply for the sake of tweeting that he tweets. For no other purpose. He is a variant of a type of poker player I have run into from time to time.

There are a number of ways of being a good poker player. Some people can memorize every card that has been played. Others know the exact odds of a particular hand coming up. My strength was that I knew what cards everyone was holding. There was no special trick to this. If someone would ask me, as they did sometimes, why I knew that a player was going to fold, or raise the bet, or engage in some other specific act, I could tell him that it was because that player had looked disappointed when a particular card had showed up on the table, or the fact that that player was ignoring someone with certain cards showing, or that he bet previously in a certain situation, or failed to bet—or for some other reason.

Similarly, there are different versions of a bad poker player: the blowhard who bluffs all the time, the conservative who never bluffs, the player oblivious to the play around the table, and so on. There is a type of player I was always glad to run into. He was the macho type who would not allow himself to be pushed around. “You’re not going to bluff me,” he would demonstrate, both in his actions and sometimes by saying so explicitly. Well, someone who demonstrates that he is never going to fold his cards no matter how high someone bets against him is going to lose a lot of money. But it is more important for this type of player to seem strong than to seem sensible. I remember a Major in the army who displayed a variation of this behavior. I would buy him drinks, telling him that I expected him to play badly as a result. He took this as a personal challenge and regularly got drunk. Needless to say, he lost regularly. For these individuals coming on strong is more important than actually winning.  

I think it is more important to Donald Trump to seem strong than to achieve some other purpose. For example, I think it is more important to him to excoriate Kim Jong-un than it is to seduce him into behaving the way we want him to. I am afraid that Trump can’t back off, even temporarily, even if his purpose, in this case, the removal of atomic weapons from North Korea could be satisfactorily achieved by doing so. Oddly, Kim Jong-un is afflicted by a similar need to threaten and bluster—which brings to mind another psychiatric encounter.

Psychiatrists, dealing with disturbed and often psychotic individuals, are not infrequently threatened by them. There are ways of dealing with these situations; and I lectured on the subject to psychiatric residents when I was the director of training at a psychiatric institution. If a patient threatens you with a gun, I told these residents, sit down and talk to the patient. Point out to him that you are not his enemy. You are a friend. You wish to help him. Whatever you do, do not pretend to be unafraid. Do not be dismissive of the threat. And do not get up and walk away. Behavior of that sort comes across as a challenge and is likely to precipitate a violent reaction.

There was a young female psychiatrist in those years who was accosted near her home by a patient of hers. He pointed a gun at her. I think she would have behaved more sensibly if it were not for the fact tthat she had her baby near her in a carriage. She pushed on the carriage and tried to get away from her assailant, who shot her in the back, killing her.

I am afraid that Trump, being Trump, is going to taunt Kim Jong-un, who is cut from similar cloth ,and the North Korean leader will respond similarly until one of them, probably Trump, will turn up the pressure too far and war will be the outcome. There has to be a more subtle way of dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threat than by threatening devastation in return. But what is most important for Trump is looking tough.

(c) Fredric Neuman M.D.

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