Donald Trump and 'Identification With the Aggressor'

Could a psychoanalyst be right?

Posted Oct 20, 2015

Donald Trump is getting a surprising amount of mileage on empty promises. Why?

Trump as Demagogue

The Merriam Webster Dictionary offers two definitions for the word demagogue, one contemporary and one older. The first refers to a leader “who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims in order to gain power.” The older definition refers to a leader who "champions the cause of common people.”

I believe we could argue that “The Donald” meets both definitions of a demagogue. He promises, for example:

  • To build a great, impenetrable wall separating the United States from Mexico, to keep out the illegal immigrants he uses as scapegoats for the country’s ills.
  • To deport millions of illegal immigrants (who presumably are snapping up all the good jobs).
  • To build “the greatest military the world has ever known” (we already have that).
  • To put China in its place (good luck with that).
  • To “cherish” women and be the best thing that ever happened to them.

By virtue of the above few examples alone, Mr. Trump surely meets the definition of a demagogue. His appeal is to the pervasive dissatisfaction that Americans report in survey after survey.

Trump as Bully

In order to understand how Trump has been able to amass the following he has, we need to consider two additional factors. The first is bullying.

Bullying differs from aggressiveness. Is Trump aggressive? Do ducks quack? Americans actually respect, even admire aggressiveness, in so far as it leads to success. But bullying is different. Bullies seek social dominance through intimidation. In my experience as a clinical psychologist working within the correctional system I had ample opportunity to observe the bully system in operation. Some inmates rose to the top of the social chain through brute physical intimidation. They were the biggest and baddest of all. Fellow inmates deferred to them out of simple fear. Others achieved the same social status by working their way to the top echelons of gangs. They too could be tough, but they didn’t need to be the strongest as they had others who could do their bidding. In both cases, any perceived "disrespect" would be promptly met with retaliation in one form or another: a beating, or a demand for the offending inmate's commissary provisions.

Bullies maintain their social status by threatening, but also by attacking and/or demeaning anyone who they see as a threat to their position on top of the heap. Does The Donald meet these criteria? Of course he does. Trump is unquestionably a bully, as evidenced by his behavior.

Trump often describes himself as a “counter-puncher.” That amounts to a warning to all, competitors — should they dare to challenge him — will suffer retaliation. He has, for instance, referred to Jeb Bush as “low energy” and “a loser.” He’s ridiculed Carly Fiorina’s appearance. He’s called Marco Rubio “lazy,” and “sweaty.” He’s similarly alluded negatively to Paul Rand’s looks and accused him of betraying his Kentucky constituency by simultaneously running for President and senator. And prior to his dropping out of the race, Trump called Scott Walker a “disaster” as governor.

One might be inclined to write off the above as typical behavior in a competitive race for the presidential nomination. Yet to the degree it is personal—making fun of someone’s face, for instance—it seems to go beyond that. Moreover, Trump has shown a willingness to assert his personal dominance by belittling respected public figures. He has said that John McCain is not a war hero because he was captured. He recently implied that responsibility for the 9/11 disaster should be laid at the feet of George W. Bush.

Trump sues, or threatens to sue, others seemingly at the drop of a hat, in response to any perceived disrespect.

Trump’s status as an intimidator is captured in nothing more iconic than the two words he has become famous for—“You’re fired!”—spoken in none too respectful a way.

Identification with the Aggressor

The above may define what Donald Trump is, but not why he has amassed such a large and enthusiastic following. For that we need to take a look back into the early work of psychoanalysis, and in particular the work of an analyst by the name of Sandor Ferenczi. Ferenczi was a contemporary and student of Freud, but he broke with his mentor in significant ways. Most importantly, Ferenczi believed that the accounts of childhood sexual abuse that were reported by so many female patients were true, whereas Freud famously opted to consider them fantasies. This in turn led Ferenczi to think about how people react when they find themselves in situations where they are confronted by overwhelming forces they cannot control. As an analyst, Ferenczi was focused primarily on parent-child relationships, but others following him have suggested that the dynamic he identified—identification with the aggressor—may apply on a broader scale. Indeed, I suggest it does, and that it helps to explain the Trump phenomenon.

Ferenczi argued that a child who is raised by a threatening, bullying, or abusive parent may attempt to survive in that relationship by “identifying” with the aggressive, dominating parent. The molested daughter, for example may seek to become that parent’s “partner.” The abused son may seek approval and safety by trying to curry favor by becoming a tough guy. The common denominator in both instances is that identification, ironically, becomes a source of safety.

When placed in a position in which they feel helpless, powerless, perhaps even victimized by overwhelming forces beyond their control, large numbers of people can react, en masse, in the same way that a single child does. Few could argue that this describes the way many Americans feel today. And the reasons are not difficult to name: stagnant wages for decades, a declining middle class for just as long, unaffordable education, outsourcing of jobs that once were plentiful, to cite but a few. Trump promises to remedy all of this— to “make America great again”—if only we place our faith, blindly, in him.

Does “The Donald” represent the kind of dominant figure that masses can choose to identify with as a solution to their shared vulnerability, anxiety, and helplessness? You can reflect on the above and decide for yourself. Sadly, if it is true then it is no more realistic or healthy to our society as a whole in the long run than is the helpless child’s efforts to survive by seeking safety though identification with someone they perceive as all powerful.


Ferenczi, S. (1933) The Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and Children: The Language of Tenderness and Passion. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 30: 4, 1949 (English translation version).

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