Donald Trump hugs the U.S. flag during CPAC 2019 on March 02, 2019 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Getty/Tasos Katopodis)

Dr. Justin Frank: "On a fundamental level, Donald Trump does not believe in America"

Psychoanalyst and author on Trump's "God complex" and our dangerous collective addiction to his unhinged behavior


Chauncey DeVega
February 16, 2020 5:00PM (UTC)

Donald Trump is living breathing proof of the truism that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Such an outcome is made even more dangerous when the person in question has shown himself to be mentally unwell.

Two weeks ago, the Republican Party crowned Donald Trump a de facto king and dictator through his show trial and "acquittal" in the U.S. Senate. Trump and his regime's enforcers, agents, sycophants and other minions have taken that travesty as permission to launch a full-on assault on the rule of law, the Constitution, democracy and the American people.

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Trump is now committing more of the same crimes for which he was impeached. Trump is now so extremely emboldened that he abuses his power in plain sight with the full knowledge that very little if anything can be done to stop him.

To that end, Trump has commanded Attorney General William Barr to harass and investigate the Democratic Party and anyone else who dares to oppose him. At Trump's command, Barr, is now interfering in federal trials to protect members of Trump's inner circle from being punished for their crimes. Barr is also gathering lies and other disinformation from foreign countries that he can funnel to the Trump campaign, with the goal of influencing the 2020 presidential election. Barr now appears to be functioning as Trump's personal attorney, rather than serving the interests of the American people as a neutral defender of the country's laws.

Donald Trump has publicly promised to destroy his "enemies" in the Democratic Party and elsewhere. Those patriotic Americans who testified about Trump's malfeasance and violations of the law in his Ukraine scheme are being purged from the government. Other government professionals who place their loyalty to the Constitution, the rule of law, and the United States above fealty to King Trump are also being subjected to the president's political vigilantism.

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Trump values personal loyalty to him above all else. As such, Mitt Romney, the only Republican to vote in favor of convicting Donald Trump in the Senate, has been threatened with political destruction and literal physical violence for his act of "betrayal."

In total, Donald Trump has shown himself to be a malignant narcissist. Trump also manifests a condition where he thinks of himself a type of god. He leads a political cult united by cruelty and collective narcissism.

How will Trump's acquittal for his obvious crimes in the Ukraine scandal worsen his mental health and other aberrant behavior? Is Donald Trump a "rageaholic" and anger addict? Are the American people addicted to Donald Trump and his chaos? Why does Donald Trump's transgressive, anti-social, violent and illegal behavior make him popular among his followers?

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In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Dr. Justin Frank, whom I have interviewed on several previous occasions. He is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and a physician with more than 40 years of experience in psychoanalysis. He is the author of the bestselling books "Bush on the Couch" and "Obama on the Couch." His most recent book is "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to my conversation with Dr. Justin Frank through the player embedded below.

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For more than three years, you and many other experts have been trying to warn the American people about how dangerous and destructive Donald Trump would be as president. Few if any people heeded the warnings. He is on the precipice of being re-elected to a second term. There have been no sustained mass protests. How do you explain this?

Many Americans identify with transgressors on a very deep level. This is true of Trump supporters and other Americans as well. We idealize people who break things they don't like, who break limits, who break rules, and who break regulations. Trump celebrates doing such things. Trump's delinquency is public. It is not done in private. It's out in the open and his delinquency is out in the open. I'm a family therapist. One of the things I have noticed when working with families where the children are delinquent is that some of the parents have a secret smile — they take pleasure — when they are talking about how upset they are that their child has done something wrong, and in some cases even broken the law.

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On an unconscious level, the parent enjoys what the child has done. This is something that's deep inside of all of us. Trump's corruption is one of the ways that he charms people. Trump's corruption is also one of hist greatest powers. There are people who are excited by what he is doing. It is an illicit thrill, like going into your mother's pocketbook or father's wallet and stealing money when you were a child. There is something about Trump's bad behavior and transgressions which is very appealing to many Americans and others.  

How can addiction science help us to understand the age of Trump? 

People who obsess about Trump and follow everything that he does all the time, to the exclusion of other things, are manifesting addictive behavior. It is akin to a fascination with a person who is openly transgressive to the extreme. With Trump's transgressive behavior, such as his lies and other actions, the public can internalize and project all their internal bad behavior and then point at Trump and say, "Isn't he bad! Isn't he exciting!" People are living vicariously through what Trump is doing.

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Getting away with lying in a world that seems to be dangerous can create a source of comfort. Lying and getting away with it is an assertion of power in an otherwise unsafe world. The more Trump asserts his power, the more people become addicted to him. Trump is constantly being punitive and punishing people. For example, he has gotten rid of people who told the truth about what is going on with Ukraine and other matters.  

Trump recently said that the United States should model itself after how an authoritarian government such as China deals with drug dealers and just have quick speedy trials and use the death penalty. One would think that Donald Trump would be saner after his acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial. Trump is a malignant narcissist. His behavior will not get better. It only gets worse. The more power he has, the more frightened he becomes. You would think it would be the opposite.

Trump keeps getting everything he wants. The Republicans have now made him a de facto king or dictator. Will Trump ever be satisfied?

No. In part, Trump is never satisfied because of his greed. Partly he's never satisfied because he has an empty part in his soul, in his heart, that constantly needs to be filled. But partly he can never be satisfied because he's paranoid. The more powerful a person like Trump becomes the more they demand absolute loyalty — and the more they are afraid of being killed. That is generally true of many powerful people. But for a malignant narcissist like Donald Trump, this behavior is on steroids. Trump is very desperate to attack any perceived critic. He will always find people to attack and there is no end to that behavior. There are no bounds to this. He will never be satisfied.

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Is Donald Trump capable of having moments of internal peace?

Donald Trump is not capable of that behavior. Having a good day for Donald Trump is very challenging and complicated, because he never feels safe or at peace. The only time Trump feels good and positive is when he's at one of his rallies and there is a reverberation of adoration for him from his supporters. He needs to feel venerated to feel good. Trump and his supporters have a shared hatred of all outsides, the Other. But the real desire is a wish to destroy anybody who says anything against Trump in the form of the outsider.

There is a pattern of behavior that few have commented upon. If a person opposes Donald Trump — for example, Nancy Pelosi — he says that they don't really pray. By implication, they do not believe in God if they disagree with or otherwise criticize Donald Trump.

This is projection, but it's not about religion. It's about his own belief system. Every time Trump hugs the American flag, that is a fake gesture. Trump does not really love America or what it stands for, because the country ideally stands for the rule of law and for fairness and for people being treated with respect. On a fundamental level Donald Trump does not believe in America.

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Could it also be, given Trump's malignant narcissism, and the collective narcissism of his followers, that he believes he's a god? If a person disagrees with Trump, he or she is therefore refusing to worship him.

Trump does have a god complex. Trump reveals this through his constant use of the phrase "we'll see what happens." The only person who can say something like that is a person who believes they are a god, because only God can be all-knowing and see the future.

Trump's supporters worship him as though they are in a cult. Trump's supporters are devoted to him. The cult is based on veneration for Donald Trump. As such, on a deep level Donald Trump believes that he is god. On a basic level Donald Trump is the Jim Jones of American presidents.

There are also Trump followers whose relatives, sometimes a spouse or partner, have been deported by Trump's enforcers yet still support him. Moreover, Trump's policies have hurt many of his followers among the famous white working class. Yet they still support him. Such a level of devotion to Donald Trump is pathological.

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Addiction is an anti-life phenomenon. It is an addiction to death. Addiction is a wish to become completely still, at peace, zoned out, stoned. This process of addiction as a death cult is taking place writ large at Trump's rallies and through his followers.

Another aspect of Trump's power and pathology is that he is an anger and rage addict.

It is not exactly anger and rage. The real issue is destructiveness. It's an addiction to breaking things. Trump gives people that permission. Trump gives his followers freedom to express their rage and their destructiveness. Many of Trump's followers, especially the more fanatical ones, have felt marginalized in their lives. Trump really taps into that. He's got an instinct for tapping in those feelings of anger, rage and destructiveness because he felt that way when he was a child.  Even though he was born into a wealthy family, people couldn't stand to have him in the house. Trump's parents couldn't stand him. He didn't have any friends. He was always being punished in school. I mean, he was an obnoxious person and he still is. As an adult, Trump has just learned to control it to some extent.

If we consider America to be a type of family, how is Trump, as a parental figure, impacting the rest of us?

Our family is a family that's in a complicated state of being at present because some of the siblings are fighting with each other about their destructive father. In this case, that is Donald Trump. The difference is that the American people can vote Donald Trump out of office. If Trump is not voted out of office, there really is nothing that can be done about him and his behavior.

If Donald Trump is the father and husband in this dysfunctional American family, why are Republicans, in the role of his spouse, enabling and supporting him? 

This is all very common behavior. Partners do not leave the abuser because of fear. They would rather have father attack the children than be attacked themselves. Not leaving the abuser is also an example of the psychological phenomenon called "identification with the aggressor." The victim becomes like the abuser and aggressor to protect themselves.

That protection involves becoming like that person. There is another dimension at work here that needs to be emphasized. It is very hard for people to leave an abusive partner. They often just don't do it. And why is that? People on the outside will say, "You're crazy! Why don't you get away from this person?" The victim responds with, "I can't."

There are many factors at work there, but one of them is how the victim has often unconsciously given their personal power to the other person. The American people did that by thinking that Robert Mueller or Adam Schiff was going to save them through impeachment for Ukraine as well as through the Russia investigation. The American people did not go out and engage in massive protests or do other things to actively save the country.

If we use the family analogy, Mitt Romney is one of the children in Trump's Republican family. Romney also voted to impeach Trump. Now Trump and his agents are attacking — and in at least one case physically threatening — Romney for telling the truth about their father Donald Trump.

Mitt Romney is now the outsider who becomes the person that everybody else in the family wants to kill. Romney the sibling is telling his siblings and other relatives something they also feel but are afraid to say. If that sibling who tells the truth about the parent can be killed, then the rest of us will be safe from the truth about the situation. Of course, that is not true. 

I have been writing about journalists and other public figures who keep telling the American people that all of this is somehow going to be OK. I call such people "hope-peddlers." The facts are clear: The age of Trump is a disaster. It will not resolve itself such that everything will be fine. What is the role of these false prophets in this ongoing crisis? Do they actually believe what they are telling the American people and the world? 

The situation is not going to be OK. There are several levels of hope. On one level, hope is the denial of anxiety and fear and the denial of helplessness. The irony about hope is that it combines the denial of helplessness with an expression of hopelessness. That's what's paradoxical. There are people who hope for things but do not do anything to achieve that outcome. When a person is denying helplessness by hoping that things will work out, they are also acting helpless by hoping that somebody else is going to save them and somehow everything will work out. Hope can be an abdication of responsibility as a way of protecting oneself against anxiety. The hope-peddlers are behaving as though they are addicted on an unconscious level to death, because they are denying the work that is necessary to stay alive by protecting the United States.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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