Mommy dearest: a psychiatrist puts Donald Trump on the couch

Dr Justin Frank thinks the president has an erotic attachment to his daughter and a fixation with faeces and dirt

It all begins with the mother.

This is the opening line of Dr Justin Franks book, Trump on the Couch, a deep dive into the psyche of the 45th US president which argues that a distant mother and authoritarian father are key to understanding how Donald Trump became Donald Trump: infantile, impulsive and ill-suited for office.

Yes, we should be scared, Frank, a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, told the Guardian. We have to accept that he is the president and we also have to accept that hes never going to change because he cant. Once we accept those things, we can then figure out what to do with our fears.

For Frank, the dynamic between infant and mother has a profound influence on a persons psychological outlook and health. Trumps mother was Mary Anne MacLeod, who arrived in New York from the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis in 1930. After six years as a domestic worker and nanny, she married the property developer Fred Trump and they had five children.

Donald Trump with his sister and mother at Mar-a-Lago in 1995. Photograph: Davidoff Studios Photography/Getty Images

The otherwise garrulous president has said little about his mother. Notably, for his first few months in the Oval Office, the only photo behind his desk was of his father. His mother was added later. Yet, Frank points out, 72-year-old Trumps gravity-defying hair is a very deliberate homage to his mums.

The fact that he tries to get us to feel his anxiety and he externalises responsibility makes me feel that, as a young child, he did not feel contained or held by his mother or other caretakers, he says. He didnt have a strong maternal force in his life.

The one thing we do know biographically is that when he was two, the last child in the family was born, but when his mother went to the hospital she didnt come home right away. She had a haemorrhage, she had four surgeries and came close to dying and there was virtually no talk about that in the family. His older siblings just went to school as if it were normal while theyre terribly worried about their mother.

His mothers frequent absences, Frank suggests, left Trump devoid of empathy.

One of the things that you do when youre feeling ignored and abandoned in some way, he says, is develop contempt for that part of yourself. You have the hatred of your own weakness and you then become a bully and make other people feel weak, or mock other people to make it clear that youre the strong one and that you dont have any needs.

In fact, at one of his rallies recently somebody was complaining about something and he said, Why dont you go home to your mommy? I was struck that he must have been reading my book.

Frank adds: Thats why I think some of his relationships with women are not just based on sex. It had to do with a real contempt for womens boundaries and autonomy because hes so angry and so bereft and I think thats so deeply unconscious.

Fred Trump: A kind of tyrant

Trump on the Couch is the third in Franks series of psychoanalytic presidential profiles, following Bush on the Couchand Obama on the Couch. It draws on two years of study of Trumps tweets, speeches, interviews and overall behaviour to conclude that he is mentally unfit and psychologically unsuited to the presidency. The approach represents a break from the Goldwater rule, the principle that bars psychiatrists from giving professional opinions about public figures without examining them in person.

Frank suggests that Trumps authoritarian father was also a formative influence on his childhood in Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York.

Trump talks to his father, real estate developer Fred C Trump, in the 1980s. Photograph: Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images

When his father was there, Frank says, he ran the house like a kind of a tyrant, where there were so many rules that everybody had to do what the father said. [Donald Trump] was, I think, frightened of his father. His father would take him aside and say, You have to be strong. You have to be tough. Never apologise. Never complain. Never say youre sorry. You have to learn to be a killer. You have to be a king. Its over and over again, drilled into him.

But it didnt work when he went to school, and his father actually joined the school board because he thought maybe he could help control things but he couldnt. When he was about 10, 11, 12, Donny would sneak into New York in a delinquent way and go to shows with a friend of his. Then he saw West Side Story and that got him very excited. He decided to start buying switchblades and developed a fairly elaborate collection of large ones and his father eventually found out and just read them the riot act and made arrangements to send him off to military school.

Trump manifests what Sigmund Freud identified as repetition compulsion, the author continues.

People unconsciously repeat inner conflicts that theyve had that didnt get resolved when they were younger, he says. Trump is re-enacting his teenage impeachment fears and is now doing it with [special counsel Robert] Mueller and all these people. He was going to do everything he could to sneak into Manhattan to undermine his father to do whatever he wanted, and now hes doing it with Mueller. Instead of being thrown out of the Jamaica Estates, hes afraid of being thrown out of the White House.

Frank has more than 40 years of experience in psychoanalysis but he acknowledges that he has never encountered a subject like Trump.

He is infantile. Hes dominated by impulses, by suspicion, by a need to always win, by a fantasy that he has to do everything himself, which is what you see in children when they say: Dont help me, mommy. Im going tie my own shoes. Then you wait for 45 minutes for the shoes to get tied before you can get out of the house. Hes, like, anti-dependent.

Does he think Trump is capable of feeling love? No. He needed his first wife, Ivana, but once they got together he really needed her to be subservient to him, like many men do. So I dont know about love or real, deep concern for her wellbeing. Love involves being able to have ruth, as opposed to being ruthless. Being able to feel concern and care, and I just dont think he had that.

I also dont think he ever felt loved and I think thats also partly why he tweets so much and has to say Im getting an A+ as president so often, because if he didnt get love outside, hes going to compensatorily love himself. If dont get love from you guys, I know Im the best.

Unconscious incestuous fantasy

Frank devotes a chapter to the psychology of sexism and misogyny. In it he notes that Trump reportedly told the model Karen McDougal and the porn star Stormy Daniels, with whom he is alleged to have had affairs, that they reminded him of his daughter Ivanka. The psychoanalyst suggests this enabled Trump to enact an unconscious incestuous fantasy and use the image of his daughter as a kind of psychological Viagra.

Ivanka Trump speaks, Donald Trump listens. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Trumps body and verbal language around Ivanka has often been unsettling.

I think that he does have an erotic attachment to her, Frank says, but he leads with his unconscious so he doesnt have to be dominated by it. If he gets it out of his system by saying it and joking about it, he doesnt have to live with it and sit with it. Its like releasing a pressure cooker. He has the courage of his neurosis.

Then there is the mendacity. According to the Washington Post, Trump has made more than 5,000 false or misleading claims since taking office.

I think that most of the time he does believe the things hes saying, Frank says, because, at his deepest level, he lies to himself. The purpose of lying is to hide yourself, first, from others, but then at a deeper level to hide yourself from yourself.

He doesnt want to look at who he is, so what he does over time is distort reality, and lying involves changing reality and making it into ones own wish or fantasy. Thats where the term fake news is so important, because he hates the fact that the news functions almost for him unconsciously like a Greek chorus. Part of his lying is also to deny rules and deny regulations, to deny laws, to deny limitations. Its rejection of learning and thinking. Rules remind him of having to accept truth.

As for Trumps scattergun tweeting, Frank has an unusual metaphor.

Its a form of what I call the faecalisation of the environment. He is covering all of us with his productions, which I think unconsciously have a faecal quality. Theyre smearing things in a playpen all over the place. Its something that we see in young children who are both exuberant and angry at the same time.

He expands: He talks about shithole countries, he talks about shit, he talks about dirty Mexicans, people who are dark and dirty. Those are all related to germ-phobia and related to his own faecal fantasies and issues.

Trump is the most powerful man in the world and arguably the strangest American president of all time. Yet novelists might struggle with his shallowness and lack of hinterland: he would not necessarily make a great literary character.

Frank muses: Hes quite two-dimensional. I dont think I could really ever engage with him. I would not find him a good patient or subject for a novel. He doesnt have the depth and I think that, if he were not president, I would never think twice about him.

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