Identifying with the Aggressor

Part 2: Mary Trump's new memoir helps to fill in the inter-generational picture.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

A Developmental Perspective

Some time ago I wrote a blog post in which I attempted to address the issue of why so many politicians within his own party were inclined to endorse Donald Trump's positions on so many issues that were racist, xenophobic, and mean-spirited, beginning with the ride down the golden escalator. Here is a follow-up.

In that initial post, I referred to writings by an early psychoanalyst (Sandor Ferenczi) who, in describing adolescent development and the emergence of identity (see also Erik Erikson on identity) addressed the issue of how teens (in particular, boys) might come to embrace the identity of an aggressive and threatening parent. The answer, he suggested, was rather simple: better to embrace and emulate an aggressive and threatening parent than run the risk of being attacked and psychologically destroyed. 

At the time of that writing, I argued that—given the fact that Trump was now in the role of the powerful parent—many fearful republicans chose the safer course of cozying up to (indeed identifying with) him as a simple means of survival. I still believe that is true and is born out by the moral compromises that many have made. That said, the recent memoir by Trump's niece, Mary Trump, adds an important inter-generational perspective to this picture, beginning with her description of her grandfather, Fred, Donald's father. 

Mary describes Fred Trump as a full-blown sociopath: A man devoid of empathy, self-absorbed, emotionally cold, without moral convictions (e.g. lying and cheating as normal), and who regarded kindness as a weakness to be ridiculed. Added to a father, who young Donald could not form a comforting and secure attachment to, was a frankly disabled and unavailable mother. Under these circumstances Donald had but two choices: develop some of the traits contrary to his father (and risk being outcast) or embracing those very traits so as to secure some degree of approval. Clearly, he chose the latter path, as evidenced by the following.

Trump as Demagogue

The Merriam Webster Dictionary offers the following definition for the word demagogue: A leader “who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims in order to gain power.” 

I would argue that it's obvious Trump meets this definition of a demagogue. He has promised, for example::

  • To build a great, impenetrable wall separating the United States from Mexico, to keep out immigrants he has described as rapists and drug dealers.
  • To block or deport millions of immigrants (who presumably are either snapping up all the good jobs or importing terrorism).
  • To build “the greatest military the world has ever known” (though the U.S. already has that).
  • To put China in its place (good luck with that).
  • To “cherish” women, Blacks, and Latinx.

By virtue of the above few examples alone, Trump meets the definition of a demagogue. His appeal is to the pervasive dissatisfaction that certain segments of the American population that are reflected in survey after survey.

Trump as Bully

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? Americans actually respect, even admire aggressiveness, insofar as it leads to success. But bullying is different. Bullies seek social dominance through intimidation. 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 a degree of social status (and safety) by working their way to the top: not by being tough, but rather by ingratiating themselves to those at the top, in one way or another. 

Bullies maintain their social status by threatening, but also by attacking and, or, demeaning anyone who they see as a threat to their position at the top. Does Donald Trump meet these criteria? Of course, he does. Trump is unquestionably a bully, as well as a demagogue, as evidenced by his behavior. For example, Trump often describes himself as a “counter-puncher.” That amounts to a warning to all potential competitors, should they dare to challenge him, that they will suffer retaliation. The record of his years as president are replete with examples of his pursuit of perceived enemies and those who betrayed him in one way or another. How else to explain his persistent disrespect for the late senator John McCain, who he claimed was not a war hero because he was captured?

As yet another iconic example, Trump sues, or at least threatens to sue, others seemingly at the drop of a hat, in response to any perceived disrespect.

Identification with the Aggressor

The above may define what Donald Trump is, but not how he came to be that way. For an answer to that, we may have Mary Trump to thank. In addition, it can help 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, hostile forces they cannot control.

As an analyst, Ferenczi was focused primarily on parent-child relationships and the personal identity that emerges from that during adolescence. And I would suggest that the dynamic he identified—identification with the aggressor—may very well help to explain the Trump family 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.

What better explains the relationship between Fred and Donald Trump than the above? What better accounts for a president who lacks empathy, who regards kindness and compassion as a weakness, and who would callously sacrifice the health and welfare of millions of Americans to a selfish desire to win an election, come hell or high water? The answer: a sociopathic president, a chip off the old block. 

Mary Trump's notable memoir helps to fill in the picture of how Donald Trump chose the development he chose, and how he came to be the person he is. There is a consensus among psychologists that sociopaths represent a destructive force in civil society. Many end up incarcerated. But some can end up titans of industry, and one can end up as President of the United States. And surveying the Trump family, who among his children might inherit the mantle of identifying with Trump the Aggressor?

References

Trump, Mary L. Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020.