Dr. Justin Frank: Laughing at Trump is "unhealthy," and it won't "protect us from reality"

Physician and psychoanalyst says liberals mock Trump because they long to "believe the crisis is resolved"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 6, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump delivers remarks in support of farmers and ranchers in the Roosevelt Room at the White House May 23, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump delivers remarks in support of farmers and ranchers in the Roosevelt Room at the White House May 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, Donald Trump accidentally told the truth. During a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump actually said, "We have a sick country." That was true, but not at all in the way he intended. America is sick all right, with authoritarianism and white supremacy — a disorder that Trump and the Republican Party have made much worse.

American is sick with conspiracy theories, lies, anti-intellectualism and a widespread disregard for truth, reason and empirical reality. Once again, Trump and his movement have made this sickness much worse.

America is literally sick with the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 600,000 people in this country alone. Most of those deaths and much of the other human misery caused by the pandemic was preventable. Trump and his regime, through sabotage, indifference and overall incompetence, turned a potentially manageable public health crisis into an outright disaster. 

The Age of Trump made America sicker with right-wing political violence and terrorism. Law enforcement and other experts warn that the U.S. may experience a sustained right-wing insurgency or even widespread civil conflict because of the ways Trumpism and the Jim Crow Republicans have undermined and degraded the country's democratic institutions and political community.

America is sick in many other ways as well, and in virtually every instance the Republican Party and the right-wing movement have made both the cause and the symptoms incalculably worse. That's why Noam Chomsky has described today's Republican Party as "the most dangerous organization on Earth."

America's sickness is collective and manifests in the emotional and psychological lives of the American people, who largely remain in a state of denial and trauma resulting from the Age of Trump and the ongoing and escalating dangers presented by Trump and his followers. Ultimately, the American people understand that something is deeply wrong with this country — and that Joe Biden and the Democrats are not equipped to fix it.

In response, many liberals have retreated to a fantasy world in which Trump and other members of his regime will somehow be punished for their crimes against the country. Those most desperate for justice and a return to "normalcy" have even convinced themselves that Trump will be tried, convicted and sent to prison — an outcome that, almost to an absolute certainty, will not happen. Others choose to laugh at Trump and his followers as though mockery will somehow stop ascendant fascism and prevent the imminent demise of America's multiracial democracy.

In an effort to better understand the power of denial and fantasy in this moment, I recently spoke with Dr. Justin Frank, 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 has been the subject of many previous Salon interviews and is the author of the bestselling books "Bush on the Couch," "Obama on the Couch" and, most recently, "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President."

In our most recent conversation, Dr. Frank explains how and why people may engage in behaviors such as inappropriate humor, denial, childlike thinking and other unhealthy reactions as a way of managing anxiety and fear about Trumpism. He also warns that such behavior risks creating a state of passivity and inaction among members of the supposed "resistance," and may minimize the real danger that Trump and his movement represent to the country and world.

Dr. Frank also explores why Donald Trump's power over his followers endures — because he has given them permission to express violence and hatred, and to destroy, metaphorically or literally, those they deem to be the enemy Other. Since Trumpism is a type of cult movement, he argues, there is a deep and potentially unbreakable bond of shared antisocial and other pathological behavior between the leader and his followers.,

At the end of this conversation Dr. Frank warns that if Trump somehow manages to return to power, he may well seek to create a totalitarian state based on mass carnage and destruction.

Many public voices, yourself included, have tried to help the American people understand how dangerous Donald Trump and his movement were, and continue to be. In many ways, Trumpism is more dangerous now than it was a few months ago. What do the people who are sounding the alarm about this crisis understand that many other people, perhaps willfully, do not? 

What we see is the underlying hatred that Trump appeals to — and which exists in many people. When Trump was a child, he split his worldview into a simple binary of "good" and "bad." He has continued to view the world that way even as an adult. His understanding of the world is that people are either out to get you or they are not. Trump feels ready to be betrayed.

That is a source of his racism and his hatred. A simple, binary worldview is in some ways a prerequisite for racist hatred.

Trump has the ability to tap into people's fears and hatred. In that way, Trump's followers are actually scarier than he is. Trump unites his supporters in a shared idea of opposition to some other groups or individuals they revile. It doesn't even matter whether they are Black or Muslim or immigrants or migrants from Latin and South America, or Democrats, for that matter. They are all to be dehumanized. Trump has found a way to unite his followers around an impulse to be openly racist and contemptuous, and granted them that freedom. He has normalized hatred among his supporters.

There are so many Democrats, liberals and others who love to laugh at Donald Trump. There was the social media meme that his pants were on backward (they were not) or the idea that his rallies are pathetic and that only idiots would continue to follow him. There are so many examples of this liberal schadenfreude, but none of this is funny to me. The country is in extreme peril.

It is unhealthy humor. The humor you are describing is defensive in nature. It's defending against anxiety and fear. Specifically, it is a defensive use of contempt. Through it, people can demean and insult Donald Trump, which in turn means they don't have to be afraid of him. One of the ways a person can express contempt is through laughter. Thus it is a denial of one's vulnerability, because contempt means the other person is harmless, therefore he or she cannot hurt you. In that way, Trump is made into a pathetic fool. "If I laugh, it's not going to hurt me."

Ultimately, defensive contempt is a way of dismissing Trump's dangerousness. However, that type of contempt toward Trump is really an attack on reality. It is also an attack on one's own perception because you have actually undermined your own ability to understand just how dangerous Donald Trump is.

I was in a severe car accident some years ago where the car actually rolled over in the air several times. I walked away unscathed. But when the car was upside down in the air, I heard someone laughing — and then I realized it was me. I have often used that metaphor to describe the American people in the Age of Trump, and in the months since his coup attempt. Many Americans are experiencing hysterical laughter because they are terrified of what is happening: The American fascist movement is winning, even though Biden is president and Trump is out of office. 

Hysterical laughter is an unconscious expression of feeling triumphant. You were triumphant over death and serious injury, so you laughed. Hysterical laughter is a way of protecting ourselves from the actual terror of a near-death experience. But such a psychological process does not protect us from reality. One of the ways of managing their anxiety, especially among liberals, is to laugh at Donald Trump. Trump's power to stir up hatred scares a lot of people. When I see people laughing at Trump, it disturbs me. There is nothing funny about what he represents and what he is doing.

What happens to people psychologically when they experience great relief that Biden is president but then they come to see that the emergency is not over?

Many Americans and others want to believe that the crisis is resolved. When an evil leader such as Trump is no longer in power and a man like Joe Biden has replaced him, there is a fantasy of good triumphing over evil. It is almost like a Hollywood ending. What is happening in the United States right now is that many people do not want to relive the terror of Trump's time in office. They don't want to think about it.

What about these fantasies of Trump somehow going to jail? There are all these folks on Twitter and across the news media, many of them with large followings, who keep on peddling that hope. There are other fantasies as well, that Trump will somehow get his comeuppance and his inner circle will face justice. Trump is not going to jail. Other members of his de facto political crime family are not going to face serious punishment either. In this context, what is a healthy versus an unhealthy fantasy?

It's essentially a sense of triumph, and a fantasy that Donald Trump is going to be punished. It is a deep wish that somehow Trump will get his just deserts. Such feelings and fantasies are also a psychological way of avoiding his dangerousness. "He's going to go to jail and be punished. He's bad." In the real world, Donald Trump is probably never going to be put in jail.

How do adults maintain such an infantile understanding of the world?

It is like a Disney movie, where wishing makes it so. If you just wish hard enough, everything will be fine. It is magical thinking. As children we believed in Santa Claus, for example. We believed in all kinds of things that are just not true. Many Americans actually believed that the president of the country really cares about us — until Donald Trump took office.

Every day of every week it seems like there is some new "revelation" about Trump's apparent criminality, apparent sociopathy and disregard for the rule of law, as well as overall corruption and his persistent attempts to overthrow democracy. Given what we already know about Trump, why is any of this a surprise?

Most people do not want to believe that a person could be as destructive and evil as Donald Trump. That fact changes their worldview and their fantasies about life having a happy ending. The fantasy is that we are all protected, we are all going to be safe, which is a very childlike way of thinking. This is why many people do not want to acknowledge what Trump really is: They do not want to face the fact that Donald Trump, in my opinion, has shown himself to be a psychopath.

Former Attorney General Bill Barr has said that during an intense argument with him, Trump repeatedly referred to himself in the third person. What does that reveal about how his mind works?

When someone speaks of themselves in the third person, they are removing a fear of being vulnerable. For Donald Trump, it is a way of removing the immediacy of the attack, because he's actually scared. Trump is a coward. He is always pretending to be a tough guy. It is an act.

In several recent interviews, Trump appears to be admitting that, in fact, he did lose the 2020 election. Is he finally accepting reality?

Trump, I believe, is beginning to recognize that he lost the election. He was told by Fox News and everybody in his inner circle that he was going to win. His bubble was very tightly constructed. "How could I get 75 million votes and lose? That's more votes than anybody ever got in the history of elections" — except, of course, for Joe Biden. But that's how he thinks. Reality is finally breaking through. But I believe that Donald Trump is going to cling to his hatred and go down swinging.

Does Trump actually believe he will return to power in August, or soon thereafter? Or is he just using that conspiracy theory to get more money from his followers?

I do not think it is an either/or situation. There is a part of him that believes it is going to happen. There's a part of him that is grandiose and engages in magical thinking. But that idea of being back in office in August is shrinking. It is dawning on Trump that it is not going to happen.

I want to share a comment recently left by a reader, in response to one of my recent essays:

The reason Trump was and is popular with so many angry conservatives is because he represented their worst impulses in human form: loud, unintelligent, fearful types who despise "multiculturalism," inclusion and equality. Sure, they love to shout, "I don't care if you're gay or whatever," but every behavior they exhibit indicates otherwise. These are people who feel contemporary society is rendering them obsolete in their old-world thinking. It was once acceptable in polite company to be this way. Not so much anymore. That's why Trump gave them hope. He was their id, their megaphone. That's why the deplorables, the racists and the anti-government types rallied around him. Trump gave them hope. We are running out of ways to deprogram these people. Worse, they are likely going to try again and again until they succeed. Buckle up.

Is that person correct?

The person who wrote that comment is brilliant. But I would make a small change. Trump taps into the psyches of people who have had to hide their hatred, and he has given them permission to let that hatred come out. Trump is full of rage. Trump has destructive impulses. The problem with a destructive impulse is that it cannot be satisfied for long. Once a person starts breaking things, it is very hard to stop. Trump's drive to destroy is relentless. He also cannot tolerate anyone disagreeing with him. He has tapped into a whole group of people who have those feelings from childhood. It is very frightening, and a kind of cult. Trump gives his followers hope because they've always felt voiceless and ignored.

What do you think Donald Trump would do if he were somehow to regain power? What would the country be like?

Consider Trump's inaugural address. That is what America would be like. There would be carnage in every city. The country would be in ruins. But it would happen gradually. The news would slowly stop, and the American people would not know what was really happening. The United States would become a totalitarian society.

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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