In 2003, I told a good friend that I had a contract with the publisher HarperCollins to write a book titled Bush on the Couch. He replied, “Thank you for being cannon-fodder for the rest of us.” He was speaking not only as a friend, but also as a senior partner in one of the most storied law firms in our hometown of Washington, DC. He had great sympathy for my scientific efforts to analyze Bush 43, but feared the federal government would somehow retaliate against me. I did not have those fears because I was not writing a factual expose of Bush family secrets. I was analyzing Bush’s psyche — using the tools of applied psychoanalysis — to understand how he got to who he’d become, as well as how to think about the ways his deep psychological conflicts played out on the large stage of American political life.
After I finished the book, I sent the galleys to trusted friends, mostly to colleagues to make sure my findings were psychologically well-reasoned. I was also hoping for endorsements to put on the dust jacket. What happened next surprised me. I got a message on my office answering machine (this was early 2004, when that’s how I got messages) from a person who didn’t give her name but who assumed I’d recognize her voice. She said, “Unbelievable, unbelievable, incredible, how did you do this?” After she hung up, I realized she was a person to whom I gave the galley and who was writing a detailed biography of the entire Bush family. She had already interviewed many family members. Apparently I had described secrets and family dynamics that no one outside the Bush family could have known.
That phone call validated two years of my intensive psychoanalytic research. I knew that applied psychoanalysis was a legitimate discipline, pioneered by Freud and eventually used by President Roosevelt to help him understand Hitler and allied leaders during World War II. Since that time, applied psychoanalysis has been a vital tool for intelligence services around the world, including our own CIA. By examining their family histories, writings, audio and video recordings and analyzing behavioral patterns, relationships to others, and their policies, intelligence officers can produce extremely accurate and useful portraits of important figures on the world stage. I knew I had Bush 43’s number. But to receive confirmation from someone who knew the Bush family intimately was something else.
Bush on the Couch became a NYT bestseller and ideas from it were used by journalists and others as a new lens by which to view President Bush. I examined his sadism, his alcoholism and recovery, his contempt for truth, his hero worship, his patricidal fantasies, his fear of dependency, among other personality traits. And surprisingly the book, published in mid-July 2004, provided a blueprint for virtually every action Bush took in his second term, including how he dealt with hurricane Katrina.
Next came Obama — relatively unknown politically and professionally, but who wrote a detailed memoir about his childhood and his various feelings throughout his then-young life. My publishers were enthusiastic, but the book didn’t sell well because most liberal readers feared my psychoanalytic approach would be used a weapon against Obama. I soon realized that friends who had generously given me book parties for Bush on The Couch wouldn’t do the same for Obama on The Couch. And some of these friends were psychoanalytic colleagues, who must have seen my findings about GW Bush as weapons with which to attack him. I ventured to offer a somewhat humorous diagnosis of president Obama, based on my findings. I wrote that he suffered from “obsessional bi-partisan disorder.”
My findings were consistent with others who wrote about Obama’s personal and family life (though none of the authors was as intimate with that family as Mary Trump is with hers). But my Obama book was largely ignored by the major news media and most of the press in general. After Obama on the Couch was published, I attended a talk by David Remnick, whose writing and intelligence I much admire. A person in the audience asked about how Obama’s father influenced POTUS 44’s consistent reliance on reason over passion. Remnick immediately said, “I don’t do psychobabble” as he shut the questioner down. So much for getting The New Yorker to review my book. Undaunted, I knew my findings were accurate and my confidence in my methods was undiminished.
While I had few doubts about the accuracy of my research into the psyches of our leaders, I kept feeling I was swimming upstream with my findings strapped to my back. Neither book was reviewed by a major outlet — print or television. This was despite both books being published by major companies like HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to persist. I reluctantly decided to analyze Trump even before he was elected, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t become our president. But I thought he might win, not based on Russian interference, but on the deep-seated racism that exists in people afraid publicly to voice their prejudices. Trump also appealed to many deeply narcissistically injured Americans who felt neglected by Obama and previous leaders. His rallies both tapped into rage that simmered close to the surface, and also legitimized its expression.
What prompted this review of my applied psychoanalytic research was the publication of Mary Trump’s book, Too Much and Never Enough, sharing her direct experience of her Uncle Donald and his nuclear family. I read her book before its release date and was not surprised to see that my entire analysis of Trump’s psychology, plus my inferences about his parents and older brother (Mary’s late father Fred, Jr.) were on target — especially the neglect, the coldness in the family, Fred, Sr.’s tyranny. She confirmed one conclusion that Trump had a serious but undiagnosed learning disability since early childhood. I had devoted an entire chapter that, linked his trouble reading to his difficulty concentrating, and to his impulsively jumping to conclusions. His learning disability led directly to an ease at lying, especially when he couldn’t understand the facts.
Applied psychoanalysis is a legitimate field of study that can help us understand the psychological forces that drive our leaders. Had Mary Trump’s book come out two years ago, when mine did, I could have used her detailed family descriptions to help me write it. My findings, without having the advantage of her vivid account, are the same as hers — I wrote about Trump’s neglectful parents, the tragic life of his older brother, his unconscious cruelty and destructiveness.
Unfortunately for all of us, the media remain uncomfortable with psychoanalytic research and prefer to discount it. When they do accept a psychoanalyst on their show, he or she better speak simply and in terms that everyone has access to. I once appeared on MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber, shortly before I had finished my book on Trump. I had already understood Trump’s fear of Mueller, because unconsciously Mueller represented Fred Trump Sr., who, upon discovering teenage Donald’s delinquency and lying, banished him from the family home and sent him the New York Military Academy. I said that Trump relived his fear — this time that Mueller would send him away from his new home in the White House. Ari looked shocked, raised his eyebrows, and never invited me back. He preferred to have Tony Schwartz who, because he ghost-wrote Trump’s first book, became the untrained expert on Trump’s psyche. He kept Melber comfortable, even though Ari’s scheduler said they would invite me back after Penguin RandomHouse published my book. That was almost two years ago.
As bitter as I felt about not being taken seriously, I know it’s far more important to listen to mental health professionals with expertise about Trump that they can share publicly. Their observations can help us understand the meaning of Trump’s behavior as president, even without analyzing its origins. For instance, his pathological lying has been well established, and mental health experts can discuss meanings behind an obsessive need to lie. My psychoanalytic findings, however, reveal that Trump’s lying stems from his early childhood and has to do with having felt lied to by his parents who said they loved him, but didn’t.
We need to understand our elected leaders so we can choose them more wisely. The more we think, the better off we are. We all are tempted to polarize between good and bad, right and wrong, Democrat and Republican. It’s easier than doing the work of thinking. Splitting one’s internal perceptions into either/or is an adaptive coping mechanism used by all of us as children. It’s a normal part of emotional development that helps us organize our inner worlds as they are bombarded by fantasies and fears about all the things we are seeing and experiencing for the first time. Splitting became the first way to manage anxiety, by seeing the world as good or bad, to keep the bad from contaminating the good. When I was watching political television programs with my young kids, they would ask me, “Daddy, do we like this person or don’t we?” That’s how they need to sort out their experiences. But adults must develop a capacity to see good and bad within the same person, to deal with complexity and not rush to categorize people. Categorizing is easier because it helps manage anxiety and bury conflicting feelings of ambivalence.
While the need to dissociate is natural, it’s dangerous when carried to extremes. Even the opposition to Trump has become monolithic, as critics now oppose whatever he says just because he said it. The same was true for the critics of Obama. Even when Obama agreed with a Republican idea, he was attacked. Soon, any Republican who agreed with something Obama said did so at their own risk. The same is true now for any Democrat who agrees with something Trump says.
My work aims to delve deeper, while still understanding the process of splitting and dissociation and the relief they offer. But, in the long run, the greatest relief we can all get is to start to think — hard as that is — about who we choose to represent us and why. Applied psychoanalysis provides a useful tool to help us think about political life in general and politicians in particular. Only rarely will a Mary Trump — who also has a doctorate in psychology — publish a tell-all book about her own family. Her telling clearly echoed my applied psychoanalytic findings. I must also add, as both a literary and professional colleague, she is a shrewd observer and wonderful writer, with a keen sense of humor.
Her book makes applied psychoanalysis more important than ever to be taken seriously. She confirmed my disturbing findings that Trump needs to destroy more than he needs to build. We now see the truth about him more clearly than ever with his mishandling of COVID-19 and his spewing divisive hatred against BLM. The specifics she offers are at times startling, while still confirming her uncle’s character. I had no way of knowing, for instance, that Trump paid someone to take his SATs. But the fact that he did enriches my findings about both his character and his learning disability.
There is more to say, most importantly about the long-term effects leaders like Trump have on the rest of us — not just on our actual lives but also on our capacity to think. He makes it harder to perceive the world around us in a clear and more balanced way. A simple example is that wearing masks is not a sign of being liberal or conservative — it’s something to notice and think about. Because Trump wore a mask when visiting Walter Reed doesn’t suddenly make him a socialist liberal. And people who don’t wear masks may have reasons other than being right-wing reactionaries. Jumping to conclusions is easier than getting away from them once they’ve been embraced. And willful splitting is dangerous for the survival of our system of government as well as for us as individual citizens.
It is long past time for the American Psychiatric Association (of which I am no longer a member) to retire its cynical and self-serving “Goldwater Rule,” which effectively muzzles its members from offering their professional opinions on public figures. Applied psychoanalysis is a science that benefits the public good and deserves to be part of every discussion about our elected officials, and those who aspire to those positions. Ari, give your old friend Dr. Frank a call. Perhaps we could have a chat together with Mary Trump.