As the recent Twitter flap between President Trump and his critic and advisor-in-law George Conway illustrates, our national conversation has taken a Freudian turn. It’s had to, because our current president can’t really be explained by any other branch of psychology. In order to see Trump clearly and deal with him effectively, we all need to start thinking like a Freudian about the lies that human beings tell themselves. Trump may be a con-man, but he’s an even bigger self-deceiver, and self-deception leads to the biggest mistakes of all.
Conway this week tweeted, “Don’t assume that the things he says and does are part of a rational plan or strategy, because they seldom are. Consider them as a product of his pathologies, and they make perfect sense.” I don’t know whether Conway is versed in Freudian psychology, but when he asserts that Trump’s feelings interfere with his rational thoughts without Trump’s awareness, Conway certainly invokes a core Freudian concept: that unconscious feelings distort rational thoughts in all people, all the time. This is the key to understanding Trump, this is the threat he represents, and this is why it’s so important that we expel him from office. Pathologizing labels like “narcissistic personality disorder,” to which Conway has also appealed in his frustration with the president, don’t explain the problem with Trump — he’s a highly emotional guy and he doesn’t know himself.
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That must be why Trump critics from all over the political spectrum keep using Freudian terms in their critiques of what’s wrong with Trump and his apologists. Last year Never-Trump leader Bill Kristol said, “I think I underestimated the power of rationalization as a human psychological fact.” He was referring to the irrational, emotionally-motivated excuses Trumpists have made for their leader. “Rationalization” is a term straight out of Freudian psychology. It was coined in 1908 by Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones.
Nancy Pelosi called Trump a “projector” last month, invoking another Freudian term. “I always think whatever the President says about us, he’s projecting his own unruliness,” she said. “Projection” is one of about a dozen defense mechanisms Freud and his daughter Anna described, one in which a person attributes to somebody else a painful feeling or thought of their own. Like chanting “Lock her up” at Hillary Clinton, say, when on some deep level you know that you yourself broke the law.
Trump’s projection, denial are defenses
“Denial” is another defense mechanism that critics apply to Trump and his followers. Anyone who’s sat down to a family dinner is familiar with this most basic defense mechanism wherein people refuse to admit the truth staring them in the face. Radio journalist Brooke Gladstone observed this defense mechanism in Trump when in December 2017 she cited Trump for his “intolerance of reality.” “Denial itself is a poison,” she went on to say, “and it’s polluted America’s ether.”
When a man like Donald Trump and the movement that follows him are deep in denial, they cannot be reasoned with, and they can’t be trusted to make rational decisions. As Trump critics have noted so often, it’s in all of our interests to have a rational decision-maker in the White House. Trump fails to meet that criterion. Maybe it’s because he feels guilty and has engaged in all manner of irrational behavior to deny and avoid the fact of his guilt. That doesn’t make him insane or even different from the average person in whose life unconscious emotions play a heavy role. But it does make him unfit to be President of the United States.
Dr. Austin Ratner is a novelist and author of the recently published “The Psychoanalyst’s Aversion to Proof.” Follow him on Twitter: @austinratner