In 2017, a group of mental health professionals gathered at a “duty to warn” conference and then published their informed opinions in the book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, contending that he was unfit to be president (Lee, 2017). In the book, they illustrated their professional perceptions of Donald Trump (DT) with his statements and actions known to that point. (See also the 2020 film, Unfit, for more discussions of the psychology of DT by clinicians.)
Many of the mental health professionals drew a connection between DT’s behavior and extreme or pathological narcissism (narcissistic personality disorder) which entails entitlement, exploitation, and empathy impairment, along with the typical characteristics of narcissism:
- Believing you are superior to others
- Fantasizing about success
- Exaggerating talents and achievements
- Expecting constant admiration and praise
- Believing you are special and acting that way
- Failing to recognize others’ feelings
- Expecting others to do what you want
- Taking advantage of others
- Expressing disdain for the “inferior”
- Jealousy of others
- Easily hurt and rejected
- Having a fragile self-esteem
- Appearing tough and unemotional
- Setting unrealistic goals
- Unable to keep healthy relationships
Lance Dodes, M.D., reminded readers of the characteristics of antisocial personality disorder:
- Failure to conform to laws and social norms
- Irritability and aggressiveness
- Reckless disregard for safety of others and of self
- Pattern of irresponsibility
- Lack of remorse
- Conduct disorder (impulsivity, aggressiveness, callousness, and deceitfulness starting before age 15)
Dodes discussed sociopathy and its various descriptions, which all include cruel, callous, bullying, dehumanizing, sadistic, unempathic, predatory, devaluing and immoral behavior. Sociopaths project their feelings onto others, who are seen as aggressive and dangerous. Sociopaths exhibit a loss of reality, attack others with raging outbursts. People are categorized in the moment as good or evil, with loyalty critical for landing in the “good” category. He described DT's behavior as fitting into these categories.
John D. Gartner, Ph.D., adopts Erich Fromm’s (1964) term malignant narcissism to describe DT’s behavior. Fromm said malignant narcissism represented the severest of pathologies, the cause of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity. Malignant narcissism includes narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial behavior, paranoid traits and sadism. Gartner argued that DT’s behavior demonstrates not only the badness of malignant narcissism but madness—a hypomanic temperament needing constant stimulation.
What does Mary Trump’s book add to the picture?
Mary Trump, niece of DT and a mental health professional, has an inside scoop on the Trump family and writes about it in her book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. As a clinician herself, she gives us insight into his childhood and family culture, linking them to his behavior today.
Mary Trump describes a nightmare of a childhood, relative to a supportive ecological system for raising a human being. DT's basic emotional needs were reportedly not provided for during sensitive periods. He is described as having been an aggressive, uncontrollable child, suggesting that he was not provided with the responsive care needed in the first years of life.
Although she cannot show us his first two years of life, at the time when systems that undergird emotional and behavioral self-regulation, sociality and cooperation are being co-constructed by parental care, she tells us, he lost his mother to hospitalization and was left in the non-care of a “high-functioning sociopath” of a father, Fred Trump (p. 24). According to her, Fred Trump had no interest in the children. He rebuffed the attachment-seeking behaviors of DT and his younger 9-month-old brother, Robert, who learned to equate neediness with “humiliation, despair, and hopelessness” (p. 25).
“Child abuse is, in some sense, the experience of “too much” or “not enough.” Donald directly experienced the “not enough” in the loss of connection to his mother at a crucial developmental stage, which was deeply traumatic. Without warning his needs weren’t being met, and his fears and longings went unsoothed. Having been abandoned by his mother for at least a year, and having his father fail not only to meet his needs but to make him feel safe or loved, valued or mirrored, Donald suffered deprivations that would scar him for life. … As he grew older Donald was subjected to my grandfather’s “too muchness” at second hand—witnessing what happened to Freddy when he was on the receiving end of too much attention, too much expectation, and most saliently, too much humiliation.” (p. 26)
The world revolved around Fred’s authoritarianism. DT’s mother was reportedly narcissistic herself, “unstable and needy,” thinking more of her needs than those of her children (p. 23). She left the raising of the boys to her husband, who did not pay attention to anyone initially except DT’s older brother, Freddy (Mary Trump’s father), who was expected to take over the father’s business.
As Mary Trump tells it, DT watched as his father humiliated and smashed his elder brother’s spirit, a more sensitive and creative personality than his father or brother, characteristics unappreciated by his father who thought only of moneymaking and frugality—one’s financial worth was self-worth. DT watched and learned to be what his father wanted. His father was a successful real estate developer who benefited from government programs. Fred was impressed with DT’s brashness and boldness. They got along well because they had similar traits and DT did not seem to let his father’s cruelty affect him.
She gives extensive examples of sociopathic behavior in the father: He was emotionally abusive toward everyone; people were belittled and silenced. She describes a certain emotional numbness in the household, inability to express vulnerability or soft feelings even when people were suffering or died.
What vices were encouraged in the family, as Mary Trump describes it? Lying, selfishness, contempt, cruelty, low empathy, hubris, using people, ruthlessness, greed. What virtues were discouraged? Empathy, kindness, humility, honesty. What was encouraged? Obedience to the will of Fred Trump.
This account of DT is the epitome of how child raising practices in dominator cultures damage children (Eisler & Fry, 2019), especially boys, who may have less built-in resilience and need more nurturing due to their slower maturation (Schore, 2017). Under-nurtured boys often develop a focus on ranking, hierarchy, and dominance, not apparent in “harmonious” families who do not coerce their children (Baumrind, 1971), nor in our ancestral context (Sorenson, 1998). In a dominator culture, nurturing is undervalued. Competition and ruthlessness are encouraged. When human beings are alienated from relationship, insecurely attached to mother, family, community and planet, they may be especially likely to become destructive (Fromm, 1941) because the wrong capacities will be enhanced—for domination (primitive systems that are prehuman and innate). They “won’t know any better” because they are missing key capacities for social intelligence. They will have forms of dysregulation, such as emotional dysregulation—blaming others for their stress response. In the worst cases they will develop the pathologies mentioned above.
In the same 2017 book, Thomas Singer, M.D., puzzled over the American psyche that voted DT into office. He suggests, like others, that America has turned into a society expecting continuous entertainment and stimulation, not able to think too hard about complex topics. Slogans and spectacle are more attractive. He thinks the nation has a wounded collective psyche. The wound is exhibited in an implicit extinction anxiety, which encompasses not only a person’s personal security (mobility, income, job security) but the country’s inequality, perceived challenges from non-white groups, standing in the world community, and planetary wellbeing. When Americans say they “want their country back” they are expressing this complex anxiety.
A new movie, Unfit, interviews clinicians who discuss Donald Trump.
Baumrind, D. (1971). Harmonious parents and their preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 4(1), 99-102.
Eisler, R., & Fry, D.P. (2019). Nurturing our humanity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
Fromm, E. (1964). The heart of man. New York: American Mental Health Association.
Lee, B. (2017). The dangerous case of Donald Trump: 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts assess a president. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Schore, A.N. (2017). All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk. Infant Mental Health Journal, 38(1),15-52. doi: 10.1002/imhj.21616
Sorenson, E.R. (1998). Preconquest consciousness. In H. Wautischer (Ed.), Tribal epistemologies (pp. 79-115). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.