Dr. Justin Frank: "It is terrifying to have a president who is psychotic"

Author of "Trump on the Couch" discusses Mary Trump's book — and why our president hates anyone who is loved

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 31, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 28, 2020. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks to the press in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 28, 2020. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump is a very obvious person. He is the equivalent of a character in a comic book with a huge thought bubble over his head that everyone can read. But Trump goes even further than that. Because he has no internal censor, Trump shares his private thoughts and impulses with the world without shame or fear of consequences.

Through his public behavior Trump has repeatedly shown that he is mentally unwell. His apparent pathologies include malignant narcissism, delusions of grandeur, an attraction to violence, sadism, a lack of impulse control, utter disregard for rules and norms, and a pathological tendency to lie. In sum, our president can be reasonably described as a psychopath or a sociopath.

The most recent examples of Trump's mentally unwell behavior, among many include his obsession with his popularity and "ratings" when more than 150,000 Americans are dead from the coronavirus. His easily-injured sense of self is more important than showing any care or concern for the suffering of others. Because Trump is incapable of empathy, the lives of the American people mean nothing to him. Trump "cares" about his followers only as a source of narcissistic fuel.

During a "press conference" on Tuesday at the White House, Trump made a remarkable statement, saying right out loud, "Nobody likes me."

It came in the context of Trump comparing himself to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease specialist. Here's how this episode was reported by The Hill:

"It's interesting. He's got a very good approval rating, and I like that. It's good," Trump said during a press briefing at the White House. "Because, remember, he's working for this administration. He's working with us. We could've gotten other people. We could've gotten somebody else. It didn't have to be Dr. Fauci. He's working with our administration, and for the most part, we've done pretty much what he and others ... recommended."

"He's got this high approval rating, so why don't I have a high approval rating ... with respect to the virus?" Trump wondered aloud. ...

"It sort of is curious," Trump said. "A man works for us, with us, very closely, Dr. Fauci and Dr. [Deborah] Birx, also highly thought of, and yet they're highly thought of, but nobody likes me. It can only be my personality. That's all."

He may be the most powerful person in the world, but Trump possesses a deep sense of grievance, victimhood and vulnerability. Although his press conference was supposed to focus on the coronavirus pandemic, it was almost entirely devoted to feeding the president's ego. Trump's narcissism, again, showed itself to be more important than the safety of the American people.

Trump continues to tell obvious lies in an effort to twist reality to his will. Trump claimed he had been invited to throw out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game on Aug. 15. That was not true. He continues to claim that the drug hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19. That's not true. Indeed, it's a potentially lethal drug if not taken as directed and under the guidance of a medical professional.

For several years leading mental health professionals have tried to warn the public that Donald Trump's mental health makes him a danger to the United States and the world. In cowardly fashion, senior Republican officials as well as members of Trump's own administration have offered the same warnings in private.

Donald Trump's niece, Dr. Mary Trump, a psychologist, is the first member of the president's family to issue similar warnings. In her new best-selling book "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man," Mary Trump reflects on her personal experiences in the Trump family and her belief that the president's apparent mental illness can be traced back to abusive parenting, an intolerant household where racism and other forms of bigotry were common, and an overall environment of cruelty and lack of care or concern for other human beings.

Dr. Justin 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 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."

In our most recent conversation, Dr. Frank shares his thoughts about Mary Trump's book and what it reveals about how Donald Trump's relationship with both his father and mother led to his embrace of cruelty and lack of human warmth, and why Trump is incapable of "maturing" or "growing" as so many reporters and journalists have deluded themselves into believing he may.

Frank also warns the American people that Trump is a violent and emotionally abusive bully and that they will need to find the moral and personal courage to confront him. In order to do so, Americans will first need to confront their own shame and culpability for allowing Trump to become president in the first place.

You can also listen to my conversation with Dr. Justin Frank on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

This hasn't been a good few weeks for Donald Trump, has it?

He has always had a split mind. It is split between two sides. This is called "binary thinking." In this way of thinking a person is either right or wrong. You like me or you hate me. You're loyal or you're disloyal. Trump's world is very clearly demarcated. Now he is likely upset by Fox News because of his interview with Chris Wallace. In his mind, Fox News is now a very difficult organization. How is he going to place them? Good or bad? Friend of foe? A person develops binary thinking as a way of protecting themselves from anxiety. Trump has made his world very simple. If anyone questions or challenges him they are "nasty" and must be retaliated against. That's how his world is.

Every child feels that way until they're five or six. Sometimes children do not engage in such simple thinking for long, it may stop at age two or three.   

Donald Trump's interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News was not difficult. Wallace asked easy questions. Trump simply fell flat on his face and embarrassed himself. But is Trump even capable of feeling embarrassed?

He is not. Trump is able to be shamed in the presence of someone else and that's what happened to him with Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011. Obama really did humiliate Trump in public by making fun of him. It was very upsetting to Trump. I believe those feelings were converted in Trump's mind from humiliation and shame immediately into aggressive hatred. This is a feature of Trump's mind.  

The problem with binary thinking is that unless you learn to think complex thoughts, you have a very limited range of responses to adversity or trouble. A person who thinks in that way either tries to run away from adversity or to kill it somehow. Over the years Donald Trump has compromised his ability to think critically. Trump can only react using a simple good-or-bad binary.

Trump has now returned to his daily "press briefings," which are really just mini-rallies that can get him attention and narcissistic fuel. There are still too many reporters and journalists who praise Trump for "maturing" and treating the pandemic with more "seriousness." It is laughable and pathetic. Donald Trump is mentally pathological and cannot change. Yet mainstream American journalists keep trying to normalize him.

Those people want Donald Trump to be normal because it is terrifying to have a president who is psychotic. People do not want to believe a president would commit genocide, attack Black and brown people, separate children from their mothers, and cheat and steal all the time. Trump is a man who is both criminal and dangerous. Most people, including the journalist class, cannot accept that reality because it is too frightening.

The American news media wants to normalize Trump for another reason, not only because they're scared to stand up to a sadistic and disturbed and paranoid president, but because they are also guilt-ridden about trying to normalize him in the past. When a person tries to normalize an abnormal and dangerous person then guilt sets in. The news media keeps trying to normalize Trump, so they rush to praise any positive thing Trump does as a way of justifying their previous need to normalize him.

Donald Trump is America's bully in chief. So many Americans are afraid to stand up to him. They likely have never confronted the bullies in their personal lives either.

They are afraid of him and he knows it. One of the things Donald Trump has done psychologically is that he projects his own fear and weaknesses on to the people he is bullying. Trump is capable of bullying people with great strength and force and that scares people. Likewise, Republican elected officials are afraid to stand up to Trump because they don't want to get beaten up at the polls, believing Trump is so powerful. They want to keep their jobs.

Triumphing over Trumpism and repairing the country will require a new level of maturity for the American people. Part of that new maturity will require confronting bullies and getting over fear.  Many people are scared of Trump and his regime — as they should be — but they don't know what to do about the situation, so they sink further into learned helplessness.

That is true on one level. But there is another dimension as well. The American people need to mourn what they did by electing him president. We have to mourn who we've become by electing him. We have to mourn the fact that many of us have normalized him. We have to mourn the fact that we're ashamed of being Americans. We have to mourn the fact that it's humiliating not to be allowed into any foreign country because of the pandemic and what he did to the country. We have to grieve what's happened here in America with Donald Trump, because we will not grow as a people otherwise.

I believe that we can grow and mature as a people. But we have to confront the truth and our collective role in Trumpism. People don't want to do that hard work. Those Americans who are binary thinkers will find it especially difficult to confront their decision to vote for Trump and then to mourn and mature.

Standing up to a bully in the form of Donald Trump is very important. But we also need to recognize internally that we didn't stand up to him in the first place — and the reason we didn't stand up to him was out of fear and weakness. We must also mourn the fact that so many people were in denial about just how bad Donald Trump as president would be.

You wrote a book several years ago about Donald Trump's psychology and behavior. You were trying to warn the American people about the danger Trump represented. What are your thoughts about Mary Trump's new book?

First of all, I think it is a really good book. She's a very good and thoughtful writer. There was not any one thing in the book that surprised me about Trump's psychology or psychodynamics. He's a sadist. He's a misogynist. He's grandiose. He has no empathy. He's not competent. He can't really manage things. He's always been rescued. Those are all things I wrote about in my book "Trump on the Couch." She and I are in agreement.  Mary Trump was able to share specific details about Donald Trump that I would have had no way of knowing. For example, Trump mocked his father when he became senile. That was a very interesting detail because Donald Trump was always afraid of his father. He was never able to stand up to him. It was only when Trump's father fell ill with Alzheimer's that Donald Trump could stand up to him by mocking him.

I knew that Donald Trump had a learning disability. But I did not know that Trump paid someone to take his SAT exam.  

Mary Trump identifies Trump's father as the root of his mental pathologies. Do you agree?

Trump's father and mother are both the source of his problems. Trump's mother was cold and unavailable. How can you ever feel empathy if you're not held? How can you ever feel love if you're not responded to in a loving way and not paid attention to? Donald Trump was not mothered. This means he is unable to soothe, care for or empathize with the American people and their troubles.

What did you think about Mary Trump's observation about his lies? In her book she writes, "It is a defense mechanism to protect himself against the reality of who he really is and if he actually understood it, he couldn't bear it." Your thoughts?

There are multiple levels of Trump's lying. The first level, which is what Mary Trump writes about, is that Trump lies to compensate for his weaknesses and the fact that he knows that he is not who he pretends to be. Trump is not as strong and as big and powerful as he pretends to be. That is the origin of his lying as a child. When Trump was older, he lied to get money. Trump lied as part of his business.

But now, as president, Trump is being threatened with investigations and other consequences for his misdeeds. Now Trump is lying to save his life. He's lying to protect himself. Trump may destroy America by sending his federal troops into the cities. Trump is doing other horrible things as well to save himself. Trump's lies are directed at protecting himself.

All these types of lying are based on one thing, which is the original lie. Trump lies so much because he was lied to as a child. He was lied to when his parents probably told him, "I love you." Trump knew that his parents did not love him. Trump knew he wasn't loved by his father or his mother. With compulsive liars they are usually lying because they are deflecting outward a trauma that happened to them. Because Donald Trump was lied to as a child, he has lied to everyone else ever since.

Donald Trump thinks that people do not like him and that they are all out to get him.

What are some details from Mary Trump's new book that you found particularly provocative and insightful?

The most painful thing about Trump to me is that he really envies people who are loved. Trump hates people who are loved. Trump hated Obama not just because he made the mistake of being president while black, Trump also hates Obama because he was loved. Trump hates these children of immigrants where the mothers carry their babies from El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and other dangerous places to find safety in America. These mothers love their children. Trump's reaction is to break up the families, to separate the mothers from their babies. It is an attack on children but also an attack on love. When Trump breaks up the families of migrants and refugees he is really saying, "You're going to feel what I felt because my mother was separated from me and I'm going to punish you. I can't stand the fact that I see someone being loved and it's not me. Every time I see someone being loved, it reminds me of what I was missing. It reminds me of my yearnings, which I have to deny always."

Given his psychological profile, how is Donald Trump likely responding to Mary Trump's book?

He's very angry at her because anybody who criticizes him is betraying him. Again, Trump is lying to save his life right now. Her book helps to confirm Trump's criminal behavior. That is also why Trump did not want John Bolton's book to be released either. Trump does not want anyone to speak the truth about what he is doing. It is not about his reputation, ultimately. Donald Trump hates Mary Trump because she could put him in jail.

What counsel would you offer the American people about overcoming the terror they feel about Donald Trump and what he represents and then moving from inaction to action?

Together, we can be stronger, and we need to find other people with us who will help stand up to the bully. The Black Lives Matter movement is doing this. We will need determination, which is what Rep. John Lewis' life stood for.

A person must be determined when he or she stands up to a bully. Having a moral compass makes this easier. When you stand up to the bully you may still get beaten up. But you have to stand up to the bully anyway. That is why interdependence and cooperation are so very important in this moment when we need to stand up against the national bully Donald Trump. What makes a person stand up against the bully and do the right thing? Having a sense of right and wrong and not being dominated by fear. 

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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