"An inner drive for self-destruction": Psychoanalyst on Trump's cycle of crimes and confessions

"Donald Trump is becoming more and more afraid"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 21, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Natalya Bosyak/Stephen Maturen)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Natalya Bosyak/Stephen Maturen)

Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated, through the many direct and implied threats of violence that he has made during his decades of public life, that he is a very violent man. 

The many recent examples of Trump's violent ways include wishing death upon Hunter Biden and inciting his followers to assassinate former president Barack Obama by sharing what is presumed to be the latter's home address online. One of Trump's followers acted on those de facto commands last month and was apprehended by the Secret Service near Obama's Washington, D.C. home. The would-be assassin was armed with two guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Just this week, in a post on his Truth Social disinformation platform, Trump shared audio of his 2020 interview with the late right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, in which Trump says, "If you f**k around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before."

And of course, Donald Trump attempted a coup attempt on Jan. 6 which included a terrorist attack on the Capitol by his followers. This is in addition to Trump's repeatedly encouraging and outright commanding his followers to attack their "enemies" such as Black Lives Matter protesters, "Antifa," and the news media. His labeling of the press as "the enemy of the people" is Trump's version of the language used by the Nazis in Germany (the "lügenpresse" or "lying press").

Trump and his regime also engaged in acts of democide through their active and passive neglect and sabotage in response to the COVID pandemic, a disease that has now killed at least one million people in the United States.

Recently, Trump was found liable in civil court for sexually assaulting E. Jean Carroll.

Suppose he is able to take back the White House in the 2024 Election. In that case, Trump has promised a "final battle" and to unleash hell in a campaign of revenge and punishment against the Democrats and other Americans who dared to defend democracy, the rule of law, and human decency by opposing him and his MAGA movement. Law enforcement and other experts have shown that there is a direct connection between Trump's violent rhetoric and other pathological behavior and the increase in political and other violence (including hate crimes against non-whites, Jews, the LGBTQ community, Muslims and other marginalized communities) that took place during his presidency and continues through to the present.

In all, Trumpism, the MAGA movement, the Republican fascists, the white right, and the country's larger democracy crisis are more than "just" political problems. In reality, the rise of American neofascism is a type of public mental health crisis – that the country's multiracial pluralistic democracy will not survive unless a holistic approach is taken to confront and cure the underlying causes.

"Just as an angry athlete might smash a golf club, tennis racket, or baseball bat, but not usually injuring themselves, Trump sees his base as something that can express his narcissistic rage for him without him doing it directly."

In a continued effort to sound the alarm about Donald Trump's threats of violence, murder and mayhem, and the danger(s) such behavior represents to the American people and society, I asked several of the country's leading mental health experts for their insights and suggestions.

These mental health experts also shared their thoughts about Trump's pathological behavior and what will likely happen as he (finally) faces serious accountability for his many obvious public crimes including the Jan. 6 coup attempt and larger plot to steal the 2020 Election, and his allegedly stealing top secret and other highly sensitive national security documents in violation of the Espionage Act.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Steven Hassan is one of the world's leading experts on cults and other dangerous organizations, as well as how to deprogram people who have succumbed to "mind control." Hassan was once a senior member of the Unification Church, better known as the "Moonies." He is now the founder and director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center.

Donald Trump's threats of violence are predictable.

It's an element of malignant narcissism, to threaten one's enemies and to get revenge. Donald Trump and other people like him, dictators and malignant narcissists, want to control people through fear. Many people when they are afraid will stop engaging in critical thinking. They will surrender to the bullies. When Trump was a child, he was taught a rule, a binary, that one eats or is eaten. This means as an adult Trump will choose to threaten to eat everybody that gets in his way because he's so afraid of being eaten.

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Donald Trump is becoming more and more afraid. But I also believe that his behavior is being influenced by Vladimir Putin and other bad actors who want him to sow chaos and undermine the rule of law and trust in democratic institutions. I am hopeful in one way that the more Trump threatens people and acts badly more generally, the more evidence that is made known about his crimes, that there will be some of his supporters who leave the MAGA movement. I tend to think of these possible outcomes in terms of the rule of thirds: one third may leave; one third are going to double down on their beliefs and loyalty to the cult of Trump and become much more violent and extremist; the middle third could go either way depending on the forces around them.

Dr. Lance Dodes is a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

Trump openly threatening to imprison or kill anyone who opposes or even disagrees with him reflects, again, the enormity of his psychological impairment. His absence of a capacity for genuine empathy, contempt for the concept of truth, and a primitive need to destroy those who differ from him are familiar hallmarks of psychopaths. The fact that his threats are slightly less concealed now indicates that his veneer of normality continues to wear down as his actual criminality is made public. His calls for a civil war with an end to democracy likewise is not about actual political or social issues, but only his need to rule everyone and everything. This is covered by populist lies to try to con his supporters into thinking he cares about them or their concerns.

"When Trump was a child, he was taught a rule, a binary, that one eats or is eaten. As an adult, Trump will threaten to eat everybody that gets in his way because he's so afraid of being eaten."

I expect that his veneer of normality will continue to disappear. The future of democracy will depend on how many citizens can finally see that the emperor not only has no clothes but is a predator and they are his prey.

Dr. Mark Goulston is a leading psychiatrist, former FBI hostage negotiation trainer, and the author of the bestsellers "Just Listen" and "Talking to 'Crazy'." He is also co-founder of the Deeper Coaching Institute.

Donald Trump is displaying "impotent rage," which is a condition that says the more power-seeking a high controlling individual is part of their identity, the more enraged they become when actual power or the threat of power being taken away from them. Given all the threats to Trump are coming at him the greater his rage and greater the impulse to act on it.

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A central tendency of people with a narcissistic personality is that they treat other people as an extension of themselves and their bodies. Just as an angry athlete might smash a golf club, tennis racket, or baseball bat as if they were an extension of them with a result he - and less likely she - is not happy with, but not usually injuring themselves, Trump sees his base as something that can express his narcissistic rage for him and become violent for him without him doing it directly.

In the near future the more the vice grip of justice is closing in on him, the more desperate he may feel, the more impotent rage we can expect in him and the more incendiary his language may become. That may include his slipping into being more direct about telling his base to harm someone which is different than saying Hunter Biden deserves to die or giving out Barack Obama's personal address.

Many in his base, especially the unhinged ones, are happy to feel like an extension of Trump and happy to do his bidding that he, up until now, has stepped short of doing himself.

One of my concerns is that those in his base who feel powerless, frustrated, and with nothing left to lose have formed a psychological adhesion to Trump. This is much like the disaffected American youth who joined and formed psychological adhesions to the terrorist organization ISIS.

A psychological adhesion — similar to a post-surgical adhesion — is much more powerful than an attachment. It will not respond to logic or reason. It needs to be surgically severed. To do that with Trump's base, we have to drill down and distill all the needs that being connected to him fulfills and then find a way to fulfill those needs powerfully enough that his base lets go of their connection to him.

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and the author of "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President."

The title of Republican strategist Rick Wilson's book "Everything Trump Touches Dies" is true.  And it turns out that everything Trump says, kills. He commands his unstable followers to violently attack his "enemies;" he instructed his White House minions to downplay the pandemic resulting in the completely preventable deaths of thousands of Americans, because the truth might make him look bad. Trump's appetite for cruelty and destruction in the service of his personal agenda knows no bounds. It never has.  

In chapter seven of my book "Trump on the Couch," I wrote that Trump has had a profound internal conflict between building and destroying since childhood. As his power grew, the destroyer instinct has overwhelmed any constructive instincts he had.  Even his single-minded drive for self-preservation is met with an inner drive for self-destruction, as we've all seen in his damning confessional rants.

Trump's violent directives excite the fantasies of his mindless supporters, converting his words into weapons designed to destroy anyone he hates. Ninety years ago, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich wrote about mass psychology and the origins of fascism. He described Hitler's ability to stir up deep feelings of hatred. Trump is not (yet) Hitler, but he knows how to provoke those same feelings in others.

As the possibility of Trump trials approaches, his mental state of fear-driven outrage will intensify – as will his accusations of victimhood and betrayal. His followers are well-trained to respond, having already been deeply touched by years of relentless rants. He activates long-buried resentment and frustration in his supporters, deeply connecting them only to him and to one another, at the same time severing their ties with family, community, and reality itself.  

The danger to the rest of us will only increase, as words become literal "sticks and stones." Trump's words kill, when he uses them to incite vulnerable people to act on his craven directives – and it seems there are many millions of them ready and willing to do so.

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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