Dr. Justin Frank on the trial: For Trump, Capitol riot was a source of "incredible pleasure"

Author and psychoanalyst says Trump's followers are suffering a "psychiatric emergency" fueled by delusional rage

By Chauncey DeVega
February 12, 2021 11:00AM (UTC)
main article image
People participate in the “Million MAGA March” from Freedom Plaza to the Supreme Court, on November 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump marching to protest the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

On Thursday, House impeachment managers finished their presentation of the case against Donald Trump, arguing that he should be convicted for the crime of inciting an insurrectionist attack against the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The video, photographic and other documentary evidence of Trump's responsibility for the attack on the Capitol is overwhelming. He has no reasonable defense for his crimes, and his attorneys have not offered one. Instead they will lie, obfuscate, change the topic and present Trump and his followers as being the "real victims" of a dark plot centered on "political correctness" and denying "free speech" to "conservatives" (read: white, Christian and male). 

Advertisement:

House impeachment manager Joe Neguse explained the importance of convicting Donald Trump: "We humbly, humbly, ask you to convict President Trump for the crime for which he is overwhelmingly guilty. Because if you don't, if we pretend this didn't happen, or worse, if we let it go unanswered, who's to say it won't happen again?"

For Trump to go unpunished is to ensure that there will be more right-wing coup attempts and terrorist attacks in the future. If history is a guide, at some point these inevitable right-wing assaults will be successful and American democracy will be permanently broken.

In a just world Trump's second impeachment would end with a conviction and a permanent ban from any future public office. In that same world, Trump and his co-conspirators and other agents in his coup attempt would face criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

Advertisement:

But in the world as it exists, Donald Trump will not be convicted for his obvious crimes against the American people, democracy, the rule of law, human decency and the Constitution. Only a handful of Senate Republicans will vote to convict Trump, and no possible evidence could convince the others to do so.

During the impeachment trial this week Senate Republicans repeatedly showed their disdain and disengagement from the crucial historical task of holding Donald Trump, the de facto leader of their party, accountable for his evil behavior.

On Thursday, 15 Republican senators did not even bother to attend the trial. Throughout the Senate trial Republicans have been seen drawing pictures, reading and in general acting contemptuous of the proceedings.

Advertisement:

This is expected: Today's Republicans Party endorses right-wing terrorism and other violence as a way of winning and keeping power.

Moreover, many Republicans in Congress provided aid and comfort to Trump and his coup plot and attack on the Capitol. Three senators (Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee) actually met with Trump's defense attorneys on Thursday. This is the equivalent of a trial where the jurors are also co-conspirators and witnesses to the crime. In total, the Republicans have made a mockery of Trump's impeachment and trial.

Advertisement:

Writing at the Atlantic, David Frum summarizes this mockery of the rule of law and democracy: "There is no defense. There is only complicity, whether motivated by weakness and fear or by shared guilt. And the House managers forced every Republican senator to feel that complicity from the inside out."

Most importantly, Trump's second impeachment trial is not about one man and his crimes, or even how history will remember his time in office. Trump has given his followers permission to indulge in the worst aspects of human behavior. In that sense, Trump's racism, misogyny, authoritarianism, fascism, love of violence and other anti-human and antisocial behavior function as an intoxicating drug for tens of millions of his followers and cult members.

Trumpism, like other examples of authoritarianism and fascism, is a form of self-immolating death cult.

Advertisement:

Trump's attempted insurrection and a growing wave of right-wing extremism constitute a national emergency that should be responded to accordingly by the country's leaders and law enforcement.

A new poll from the American Enterprise Institute shows that 40 percent of Republicans believe it may be necessary to use violence to resolve political disputes in America. As a practical matter this means that if Republicans do not get what they want through "democratic" procedures, they now perceive violence as a legitimate means of achieving their goals.

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."

Advertisement:

In our most recent conversation, Frank offers the view that Donald Trump may be so delusional as to believe that he is actually still president, and suggests that many of Trump's followers believe the same thing. Frank says that Trump's followers — such as those who attacked the Capitol — are possessed by a deep rage and feelings of betrayal and anger, emotions that the demagogue ex-president is uniquely capable of directing and controlling.

Frank also issues an ominous warning, saying that thousands of Trump's most diehard followers are likely experiencing a form of dire psychological emergency which makes them a real and present danger to the public. One direct way to manage or limit this threat, he suggests, would be to try Donald Trump for treason and put him in prison.

You wrote a book on Trump's personality and mind. How is Trump feeling right now as he watches his second impeachment trial?

Trump has what is known as a "grievance addiction." Trump experiences it when he believes that he is being unfairly treated or the media is attacking him, or that Congress is attacking him. Trump is addicted to grievance and he wants to attack back. In one of Trump's books, he talked about it. He said when somebody attacks you, you attack back 10 times harder. There is actually research about the human brain being addicted to grievance. The brain develops a type of craving and then need for relief. It is very similar to an alcoholic or a drug addict who needs relief because of the anxiety that the craving generates.

Advertisement:

In that way Trump is like an alcoholic. He has these cravings for attention, revenge and destructiveness. I also believe that Trump's craving for grievance has impacted his capacity to perceive reality. There is this narrative that Trump used the "big lie" and in fact knows that he was defeated by Biden during the election. But I have a deep intuition that Trump believes that he really won the election. Trump cannot believe that he lost because he went to so many rallies. He believes that everyone loves him.  

Trump's followers, especially the ones who attacked the Capitol, also have a grievance addiction.

Yes, they do. Trump tapped into it. Trump understands narcissistic injury. He has instinctively tapped into it for political purposes. Being on "The Apprentice" was a gift to him because he could gratify this addiction on a daily basis. It made him more powerful. He could then tap into the feelings of narcissistic injury among his followers. In their minds they felt injured by the elites in Washington, or they felt injured by the immigration changes and believed they were going to lose their jobs to foreigners. They felt somehow injured that they were not getting what they wanted out of life even though they had white skin. In the minds of his followers, they had many reasons to hold a grudge. Trump understood their sense of grievance and tapped into it. There is also a great deal of anger in people who have been narcissistically injured. There is lots of hatred and resentment in such people which can be summoned.

Trump is now in Florida where he is scheming and plotting. He has established an "Office of the Former President" and is considering starting his own TV network. He still commands the support of a vast majority of Republicans. In fact, a recent poll shows that Republican voters are more loyal to Trump than to the party. I see this as evidence that Trump still believes he is president. His supporters do as well. It is a collective delusion.

Advertisement:

It is in fact a collective delusion. Trump is the kind of person I would see when I was running the inpatient ward at Cambridge City Hospital and at Mass Mental Health Center. There are certain patients who have delusions of grandeur. You cannot reach them. In their minds they really do believe that they are Napoleon. They really do believe that they are the most powerful person on earth. They love the power they have. They also crave attention, even from other people on the inpatient unit. They demand to be paid attention to on the ward. Such patients are very hard to reach. They usually require medication to help calm their massive anxiety.

This is former President Trump. He is distorting the actual world in a way that is more crazy than not. I could not make a diagnosis from afar to determine whether Donald Trump is psychotic or not. Trump knows he's in Florida. He can tie his shoes. He knows how to eat. He knows how to play golf. He can do all kinds of things, such as talking and bantering with people. But Trump has a fixed, focused delusion that he won the election.

Trump's aides have been telling the news media that he is watching the impeachment trial and really doesn't care. Trump does not believe that he did anything wrong. One of the aides reportedly told reporters that Trump loves seeing his followers in action and doing things for him as in the Capitol attack.

It is actually erotic for him. It turns him on. Trump's supporters make him feel powerful. They are like an unconscious extension of himself. They're doing the things that Trump was always afraid to do. For example, the one thing that he was always afraid to do was to stand up to his father. He never could do it. Then he was afraid to stand up to Robert Mueller and he got Bill Barr to do it. Trump is afraid to directly stand up to people. He can do it through tweets. He can do it by menacing people. He can do it in front of a large audience, but not face to face. He is afraid of Adam Schiff. He is afraid of the Democrats who are managing his impeachment. Donald Trump is a frightened man, which is the same person who had "bone spurs" to avoid going to Vietnam — because he was scared, not because he had principles.

Advertisement:

Trump's love of watching the people attack the Capitol is the equivalent of being at a rally where they all yell, "Trump! Trump!" and "Lock her up!"

With the attack on the Capitol and the coup attempt Trump is tearing down the foundations of this country, and it really is a source of powerful, deep and incredible pleasure for him. Trump's followers are the extensions of his sense of self. Instead of his hands, they're like artificial extensions of his power and they express it. Trump sees the men and women who stormed the Capitol as unconscious parts of himself, the extension of his own sense and need for power.

Throughout Trump's presidency he encouraged violence by his followers. In the video of the Capitol attack his cult members are running amok in the Capitol building while they search for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi and others, perhaps to kill them. Some of Trump's followers were literally screaming such things. That video is proof that Trump's followers were doing what he commanded. What happened on Jan. 6 was just a crescendo of sorts.

In Trump's mind, they are an unconscious part of himself. Trump is so identified with them that they are fused internally in his mind. Trump's followers are extensions of him. Moreover, in Trump's mind his followers are not actually real people. His crazy sense of power dehumanizes other people.

Would Trump have cared if Mike Pence had been murdered by the mob?

No. Donald Trump would not have cared if Pence were killed. What Trump cares about is that Mike Pence did not go along with him. He cares that Pence suddenly had a mind of his own and was no longer an extension of Trump. Everybody is required to be an extension of him. Once you show that you have a mind of your own, whatever it is, you are dead to Trump. You are just written off. You are evil, you are bad. He wants you out of his life.

Let us assume that Trump's coup and attack on the Capitol had been successful and the Democrats and Pence had been massacred. What would Trump do after that?

It is very interesting that somebody can be that grandiose and also be paranoid. What Trump would want to do is have everybody obey him and agree with him. Trump would like to turn the country into one of his rallies. He would want to get rid of anybody who disagreed with him, who had a mind of their own. Donald Trump hates independent thinking. He is terrified of it. Therefore, Trump cannot stand autonomy and he must stop it.

The attack on the Capitol and the behavior of Trump's most extreme and loyal followers, especially the QAnon believers and other right-wing extremists, is a type of psychiatric or psychological emergency. How does that concept help to explain what happened on Jan. 6?

They were high on an emotional drug. There's a chemical change that takes place when a person is feeling overwhelming rage. People who are experiencing a psychological emergency, as you describe with the Capitol attack, are deranged and reinforced by rage. It's a version of what the French call a "crime of passion." The people in that mob were so overwhelmed with rage that they felt like a betrayed lover who wanted to kill the other person. That was all they can think of. Once the people who invaded the Capitol got going as a mob — again, that is why it is a psychiatric emergency — it became a group crime of passion. There was no way to stop them except with force.

If a person who was experiencing such a psychiatric emergency came to you for treatment, what would you do? And what if it is millions of people in such a state, as we are seeing with Trump's followers?

If I were dealing with an individual, I would be afraid to see them alone in my office. I would have to see them with two or three other people in the room. I do not believe that millions of Trump followers are experiencing a psychiatric or psychological emergency. The number is likely in the thousands.

The Republicans in the Senate are in all likelihood not going to convict Donald Trump. They are protecting Trump, even though he commanded a crazed mob to attack the Capitol, which presumably would have hurt or killed some of them too. Why do they keep supporting him?

Why do people put up with being abused? Because they need the other person in some way. They're afraid of the other person. Those are the two main motivating factors. Perhaps the abuser is a husband who brings home most of the money. People often tolerate abuse even though they hate it. It is also too common that victims will deny what is happening because they are afraid of retaliation by the abuser. They also need the abuser, in their mind, for their own survival. The Republicans who are not going to convict Trump feel they need him because otherwise they are going to lose their jobs and their prestige.

Perhaps a solution would be to decide the impeachment trial by a secret ballot. If the votes were secret, I am convinced that there would be a 90% conviction vote.

If Trump is convicted and then banned from public office, would that do anything to weaken or diminish his power over his followers?

It's the first step towards helping stop the momentum and convicting a dangerous person. I would prefer that Trump be convicted, not for insurrection and incitement of a riot, but instead for treason. That would be much more powerful a conviction. He has committed treason against the United States. A treason conviction would diminish Trump's influence, especially if he went to prison. A treason conviction would also force some of Trump's followers to start becoming deprogrammed. They really believe what they hear from Trump. The people in the mob that attacked the Capitol really believed that they were saving the country at Trump's command.

If you were called by the Democrats to testify in the impeachment trial, what would you say?

Trump needs to be convicted because he must be stopped. Trump will continue being dangerous even from his Florida White House. The American people also need to have their anxieties and fears contained and managed. They need to know that they are stronger than Trump's destructive force. Convicting Trump will also help people to develop or reclaim a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong and that we are responsible for our actions.


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.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVegaFOLLOW chaunceydevegaLIKE Chauncey DeVega