“This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history.”
That is what President Trump tweeted in response to the news about emails provided by his son Donald Trump Jr., which revealed what each of them has repeatedly denied: senior members of the Trump campaign met with a lawyer representing the Russian government in order to obtain information damaging Hillary Clinton. The more President Trump makes extreme statements like the one above, the less he should be believed—because too often they turn out to be projections: accusations that reflect one’s own behavior and motivations, rather than others’. It was his son, son-in-law, and former campaign manager who were seeking damaging information when they met with the Russian lawyer.
It is puzzling that political commentators are frequently confused by President Trump’s erratic behavior. He provides a window into his mind just about every time he says or does something extreme. Trump is a case study in what psychologists call psychodynamics, the emotional forces that shape personality.
Consider these traits. Trump requires people to endlessly admire him. He surrounds himself with sycophantic advisers, hosts campaign-style rallies six months after taking the oath of office, and reflexively mocks those who don’t admire him. His compulsive tweeting betrays a hypersensitivity to criticism of any kind. Even as President, he feels entitled to special treatment. Why should he have to release his tax returns or place his holdings in a blind trust? Why should he not say to the FBI Director, “I hope you can let this go?" If someone doesn’t feed his sense of entitlement, they become the next victim of his rage. When he feels the need to inflate his significance or power, he either creates his own reality or lies: about the size of crowds at inauguration, his accomplishments as President, the existence of tapes of his meetings with former FBI Director Comey. Finally, Trump shows little empathy for others—women (the Access Hollywood tape), students (the Trump University scandal), Mexicans, Muslims, and the many business contractors whom he has reportedly stiffed.
These traits are all self-protective. What underlies them is the need to establish an omnipotent—invulnerable and invincible—state of emotional being. “It’s as if God would not be God if the hand of a single man were raised against him,” wrote the psychoanalyst Harold Searles. Trump presents himself as very, very tough, but in the ways described above he is actually fragile, requiring regular shoring up of his touchy self—which reportedly is Jared Kushner’s expertise. There seems to be nothing more threatening (and thus infuriating) to Trump than for his power or significance to be questioned.
And every day, the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency is called into question.
The FBI investigation of his associates’ ties to the Russian government drove Trump to self-inflict a series of political crises. He asked the FBI Director James Comey to end the Flynn investigation, fired Comey when he wouldn’t end it, only to reveal the real reason he fired Comey when Lester Holt wisely let him talk in a TV interview. The Russia matter likely disturbs Trump not just because he may fear that certain things will come to light, but because it is a stinging emotional injury - a resounding blow to his tenuous sense of omnipotence, which does not go away.
One might question the psychological meaning of these acts, regarding them as calculated. Yet Trump took them in contradiction of his closest political advisers. Further, they have all been terribly damaging to him, causing the Russia investigation to engulf his presidency and the FBI to investigate him for obstruction of justice.
More recently, Trump has responded to the Russia story by branding it “fake news”. He could not make the story go away in reality, so such characterizations make it not real in his mind and the minds of his supporters.
The problem, however, is that the hits just keep on coming. His son's emails may only be the beginning. Investigations by the press, FBI, and both houses of Congress will go on for months, possibly years. Thus, Trump will likely continue to experience fits of rage and react in outlandish ways to the Russia matter, which will likely to continue to generate evidence further calling his legitimacy into question. Because of his psychodynamics, the Russia matter will continue to make Trump an offer that he cannot refuse.