Psychiatrist Justin Frank: Trump is "aroused" by conflict with female reporters

Author of "Trump on the Couch" on Trump's "love of obedient women" and the unconscious fantasies that drive him

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 13, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is an authoritarian and a would-be mad king. The coronavirus pandemic has only encouraged his worst impulses and behavior. There is no bottom to Trump's addiction to cruelty, mayhem, lying and overall evil.

Republican "moderates" — who in reality follow Trump's dictates almost to the letter — and other naïve and delusional souls in the media and pundit classes have kept hoping that Donald Trump would "learn his lesson" from impeachment and change his behavior. The truth is exactly the opposite.

More than 80,000 Americans are now dead from the coronavirus pandemic and the economy has been reduced to rubble. Trump clearly does not care about the former and is only concerned with how the latter will affect his chances of re-election in November.

Donald Trump continues to threaten violence against Democrats, journalists and anyone else he believes is plotting against him. Trump repeatedly calls reporters, journalists, Democrats, members of the Obama administration and other perceived enemies "human scum" who will "get what is coming to them."

Trump has even suggested that Barack Obama was personally involved in a criminal plot against him. He fantasizes openly about putting Obama and other leading Democrats, along with former officials at the Justice Department and the FBI, on trial, as though the United States were Russia under Stalin.

Several days ago, Attorney General William Barr even went to far as to say that history is written by the winners and that therefore there is no empirical definition of truth and reality. These are the words and logic of tyrants. In Barr's view of the law, there is one set of laws for Donald Trump and his cabal and another for everyone else.

On Twitter and elsewhere Donald Trump continues to write portentous proclamations as though he were God from the Old Testament. This part of a larger pattern of pathology in which Trump mentally "decompensates" on Twitter: Over the last few days he has posted hundreds of messages consisting of violent fantasies, conspiracy theories, self-praise and other exhortations of his greatness.

I recently spoke with Dr. Justin Frank about Donald Trump's spiraling escalation in his apparent anti-social, authoritarian and dangerous behavior. Dr. Frank 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 also the author of the book "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President," as well as bestsellers about the previous two presidents, "Bush on the Couch" and "Obama on the Couch."

In this conversation, Frank explains that Donald Trump is driven by "the unstoppable conviction of his neuroses" and explores the origins of Donald Trump's lack of empathy, care or concern for other human beings, as well as his troubling appetite for confrontational exchanges with female reporters. He warns that Trump is engaging in a powerful and pathological act of psychological projection and self-deception when he accuses the Democrats of not caring about the coronavirus pandemic and suggests that they have failed the American people during this time of crisis.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Donald Trump appears not to care about the tens of thousands of people — soon to be more than 100,000 — who have died from the coronavirus pandemic. He has repeatedly shown that he lacks empathy and human care and concern for others. Where did this man learn such values about human life?

Donald Trump learned from his father such values as being on time, being dressed for dinner, always obeying your father and not arguing with authority. Trump learned those values early on when he was a young boy.

Trump then learned from his father that if you are going to cheat, do it subtly. For example, Trump saw how his father was able to milk the government for money. Trump learned how to do that from his father. In learning that lesson from his father, Trump also learned that the government is naïve and like a type of cash cow. Trump's father made money in real estate through shady deals where he was able to get money from the government of the City of New York and not just the federal government. Trump learned how to play those games and to be a legal delinquent until he gets caught.

Trump also learned from his father that life is about money. Trump's values are centered around an assumption that people are aggressive and selfish, and they are always out to get you. Therefore you have to attack them first, strike first before they betray you. Ultimately, for Donald Trump the most important goal in life is winning. In total, Trump's core values in life are winning, having money, and tricking and outsmarting other people.

Trump is now trying to get the American people to accept the possibility of 3,000 people dying every day from the coronavirus. He is basically saying that's not a big deal. "Reopening" the economy and winning re-election matter more.

Donald Trump does not see human life as having any abstract value. However, Trump does feel that if he knows you very well then you have value to him. If you are in his family or close circle of friends, then your life has some value to him. But even then, it is fleeting. It is very hard for most people to understand the depth of his paranoia and rage at other people. Trump has lived his life always looking around for anybody who might be out to get him.

Based on Trump's own words and policies, here is my analysis. When Donald Trump looks at America he divides the country up into his supporters and voters versus anyone else, Democrats and others, who oppose him. With the pandemic, he wants his "friends" to live and everyone else to suffer and die. Is that analysis correct, or is it too superficial?

No, that is not too superficial. What is most important is that we understand the power of projection and Trump's unconscious mind. In his Fox News interview last week at the Lincoln Memorial, Trump said the following about the Democrats: "I think they don't mind having lots of people get sick from a coronavirus. And the reason is, to make me look bad. That they would rather have people get sick, as a way to make me look bad. That's what they want."

Donald Trump does not care about the people who are getting sick from the coronavirus. Therefore, Trump projects his indifference and his lack of concern about the health of the American people onto the Democrats. In reality, the Democrats have wanted more testing and better safety protocols. The Democrats are upset that Trump has, for example, dismantled the CDC and so many other programs that would have prevented, or greatly lessened, the deadly impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Donald Trump is very gifted at projecting his sentiments on to other people. In that regard, he has a quality that I have not really seen except on in-patient psychiatric wards. Whatever Trump says, he ultimately ends up blaming other people when he is held accountable. Trump's mind is very powerful in that way. Deep paranoia is central to how his mind works.

Nothing stops Donald Trump. He is impeached and does not stop. He is exposed as a delusional liar and does not stop. He has no capacity for shame or critical self-reflection. If anything, his behavior is getting worse. As a clinician, how do you make sense of that dedicated, if not obsessive, behavior?

A paranoid person like Donald Trump engages in behavior that reinforces other people's criticisms of him. That in turn justifies Trump's feelings of always being under attack. It is not just that paranoid minds and people have enemies — that is true — but what is very important is how paranoid people like Donald Trump create enemies. Moreover, Donald Trump goes out of his way to do it, because that is his strength and his food for life.

Donald Trump has two fundamental sources of energy. One of them are his rallies, where he can feel loved, triumphant and omnipotent. The other source of Trump's energy is a feeling of always being embattled, accused and being a victim in his own mind. Trump loves those feelings, that dynamic. Such feelings do not fit together. Nonetheless those feelings are an essential part of Donald Trump.  

In an earlier conversation you observed that Donald Trump has what you describe as "the unstoppable conviction of his neuroses." Can you explain that in more detail?

There are people like the late Sen. John McCain who are heroic and have the courage of their convictions. By comparison, Donald Trump has the courage of his psychopathology. Trump has the courage of his neurosis. Trump's neuroses give him "courage," but his so-called courage comes from his character flaws. Trump's mental pathologies constantly reinvigorate him. Whenever Trump is at risk of losing his focus, he finds a new enemy.

He needs that. He feeds on that. Donald Trump has the courage of constantly seeing himself as being embattled. What kind of person would ever say they have had a worse time with the media than President Lincoln? Lincoln was attacked savagely on a daily basis. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Trump has experienced nothing at all like President Lincoln.

In a recent New York Post interview, Donald Trump talked about his longing for "1950s housewives" and the "good old days." He also revealed that he loves fighting with the female reporters during his coronavirus briefings, and of course that he loves the TV ratings more than anything else. As a psychotherapist, what did you see in that interview?

First, Donald Trump loves obedient women. Trump's love of obedient women is what broke up his first marriage. Ivana Trump worked at one of his hotels which meant that she did always have his dinner prepared on time — and it was him who wanted her to get a job. Trump would fly into a rage every time his dinner was not made on time. Ivana was an independent woman. This meant to Trump that she was no longer a woman of the 1950s, which is what he wants.

But understand that Donald Trump likes sparring with the female reporters at his press conferences and briefings. He likes the situation because he is safe because of the Secret Service, the television broadcast format and the expectations of how the reporters will behave towards him. It is not like Trump being confronted in private, where he doesn't have those protections.

Trump loves sparring with the reporters who are women. For Trump, being combative with them is like a type of aggressive fighting and jousting. It is very sexual for Trump on an unconscious level. He is aroused by the female reporters who stand up to him. It is a great turn-on for Trump. Conflict in general is a turn-on and arousing for Trump, but conflict with a woman is even more exciting.  

Trump has a fantasy of dominating these women. I also think that Donald Trump also has a deep desire, perhaps passive or latent, to be dominated by a confident strong woman. Donald Trump has a very complicated relationship with women where he likes to fight with them but also wants them to be submissive to him.

Donald Trump has even written about how women are more powerful than men because he believes that women can use their sexuality to get their way. Trump also believes that women are more comfortable being deceptive than men are.

Trump is constantly watching women. He can describe a woman's body in great detail, and he likes talking about their bodies in those terms. The way that Trump talks about women dehumanizes them. Trump turns women into objects of lust, almost like they are a piece of meat. Again, this is a reflection of Trump's core traits and values, because he is a man who hates regulations and limits. In his mind, he should be able to do whatever he wants.

What happens when a person like Donald Trump who craves power finally gets it?

Attaining real power is never enough because it is driven by a fantasy. The problem with a person like Donald Trump is that when they get real power they do not stop. The issue for them is not having the power. Instead, the real issue is going after power and then getting it. That is another example of the "courage" of Trump's psychopathology.

No matter how much power Trump has, he will feel that at any moment he can be victimized and attacked. That fear keeps him alive and awake. I believe that is the real reason why Trump sleeps only for a few hours at night. Trump does not want to be in danger. Sleeping means that Trump feels that he is not going to be safe.

That is why he locks his bedroom door. He's the first president in the history of this country to lock the door to his own bedroom. Even the Secret Service cannot get to him.

Over the last two weeks or so, we have seen Donald Trump suggest that people should inject themselves with poisonous cleaning products. Then he literally began issuing proclamations on Twitter as though he were God. Trump is acting like the leader of a suicide cult who is channeling divine power for the cult members. The American people and the world should be terrified, given that Trump has the power to destroy the world.

Donald Trump is the Jim Jones of American presidents. I have said that before. He keeps providing examples. I believe that Donald Trump is a sadist, a paranoid and a narcissist. Trump's psychopathology means that he will never back down. As shown by Trump's interview in the New York Post, Trump hates for people to have minds of their own. That is why Trump suggested putting detergent and cleaning supplies in people's bodies to fight the coronavirus. Trump is making an extreme request as a way of undermining people's free will.

After saying these things, he always has a retort: "I'm just kidding. That's me being sarcastic." How do you assess that move?

Trump says he was being sarcastic because he did not expect the negative response he received from his comments about the virus and poison. The public saw his cruelty. More people are seeing it now with those comments and they are correctly responding with outrage. Trump then responds by saying, "I was just kidding." He was deflecting. When Trump said that people should drink or inject cleaning chemicals he was not kidding.

Trump knows he has a powerful effect on other people. He loves it. He loves having people do what he tells them to. That is part of Trump's God complex. He wants to be so powerful that other people will simply do what he tells them to.

Last week Trump was interviewed on Fox News at the Lincoln Memorial. The spectacle was grotesque. A man who is one of the worst presidents in American history being interviewed by his own propaganda channel while a statue of perhaps one of our greatest presidents looms over the whole event. What did you see when you watched that?

Trump's interview at the Lincoln Memorial was both very brilliant and very sick. What made it brilliant was Trump basically saying, "You want Lincoln? Here's Lincoln. Everything's great." Trump was also saying, "If I didn't take action, we'd have over a million dead people by now from the pandemic." Trump is taking 80,000 people or more being dead from the pandemic and claiming success. To me, that is what made Trump sitting there Lincoln's statue grotesque.

Trump has found a way to turn something so terrible and disastrous, so destructive and so negligent into something that he can be proud of. Trump was using Abraham Lincoln and that special location to claim that he is some kind of great, heroic person.

The recent "Mourning in America" political ad, paid for by former Republicans who oppose Trump, made him very angry. What advice would you give to groups such as the Lincoln Project, Joe Biden's campaign or the Democratic Party about how to attack Trump?

If I were to advise on a political ad campaign, I would show all the times when Donald Trump said that he is doing a "great job" and then follow it up with images of people dying from the coronavirus pandemic. Trump must be shown to be the fool he is, and that all his claims of greatness are hollow and empty. Show Donald Trump to be the fundamentally destructive person he is.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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