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MyNDTALK interview with Dr. Pamela Brewer – A Duty to Warn – Ethical? Urgent? – Dr. Justin A. Frank
There are many times in life when we may look at the path we’ve chosen – and wish to change course. We look for ways to transition from one decision to another. When the choice has to do with the President of the United States – what are the choices? Is there anything important for us to think about? Is there clinical information we should consider?
See MyNDTALK.org for more information about the program which aired on Tuesday October 17, 2017
At D.C. Duty To Warn town hall Dr Justin Frank, author of upcoming Trump on the Couch, speak about the dangers associated with Trump’s psychology
Since December 2016, I have been writing a book called Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. I published two previous books using the principles of applied psychoanalysis to examine the psyches of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama – as well as the nature both of their supporters and their opposition. In a normal world, I would continue to pursue my analysis without having to worry about current events on a daily basis. But such is not the case when trying to analyze Mr. Trump.
His erratic behavior compromises my efforts, especially since it is escalating. In fact, if he were my patient I would insist that he be hospitalized before attempting psychoanalytic treatment. A working therapeutic relationship requires that the patient have control over his impulses.
I have treated people whose behavior was similar to Mr. Trump’s, but it was in a hospital where the first order of business was setting limits. Why a hospital setting? Because the people I’ve treated who behave like President Trump require hospitalization – even if against their will.
The hospital offers structure and supervision of impulsive people, and helps restrict dangerous behavior until patients can contain their urges and think clearly. I suddenly find myself in a rush of sympathy with Mr. Trump’s parents, who chose to place their impulsive adolescent son in another institution of structure and supervision, The New York Military Academy.
Donald Trump is unstable, and there is no need to list the evidence here. As President of the United States, his behavior presents a clear and present danger to an entire nation, if not the world. We cannot employ, as president, someone too impulsive to think, unable to reason, and unable to engage in complex discussions with the various government agencies from State to Defense to National Security to Justice.
Now is the time for all good members of the GOP – with their powerful grip on all three branches of government – to put party aside, and come to the aid of their country.
The ostensible purpose of President Trump’s Muslim travel ban is to give the government time – 90 days – to figure out how better to vet incoming Muslims and make America safer from possible terrorist attacks on our soil. I say ostensible purpose because there are psychological matters to consider – and consider them we must. First is the mechanism of displacement, which is a form of projection, whereby a central concern is displaced onto something else or someone more peripheral. A simple example is when a father who fears being lambasted by his wife for buying new golf clubs yells at his son for recklessly spending his allowance on a video game. He is displacing his guilt and fear of discovery onto his son and then attacks him for being impulsive.
So back to vetting. Donald Trump is sneaking Steve Bannon – and maybe others – into his Administration unvetted, under Congressional radar. He knows that Bannon is the kind of extremist ideologue that probably would not be approved to serve in the White House, much less be allowed to sit on the National Security Council. Thus at one level, Trump’s surreptitious promotion of Bannon appears to be a sleight of hand maneuver using misdirection techniques similar to magicians doing card tricks. But at a deeper level, we see the process of displacement and projection. The President projects his personal wish to sneak Bannon into the NSC onto Mexican and Muslims who he says cannot be trusted. There are enough facts behind which to hide his projections of this illicit behavior, even from himself. Many immigrants are illegal, for starters – and that itself is a projection because Trump himself is appointing an “illegal” to one of the most delicate security positions in the nation.
Once displacement is recognized and understood we can push Congress to take action. But first we must recognize the essential reality behind the mask of Trump’s “ostensible purpose.” Then we might carefully vet all Trump’s cabinet appointments, not to mention those personal advisors such as Bannon, who never had to appear before Congress and now has a permanent seat on the National Security Council. Is it normal, or even acceptable, to welcome un-examined white Christian men into our most private government enclaves while using walls to keep Mexicans out and border guards to block Muslims from entry?
Nothing is simple. Everything is simple. Both are true. So, now what do we do? What does anyone do?
It was simple to go to the massive march, to let the world and one another know that many people are concerned about what Trump’s presidency means for our country and how it can damage our daily lives. Women who wore pink hats were energized because of a tape recording that confirmed Trump’s misogyny for all to hear.
That said, nothing is simple. People had their own personal and political agendas. Many wanted to express solidarity, but that solidarity is full of differences within groups and among individuals. Massive differences.
I think the purpose of the march was not precisely to create change, but to make it clear that there is strength in numbers. It was a passionate commitment to democracy for all to see and hear.
Three days later comes David Brooks of the NYT, who has a particular attitude against passionate opposition – saying, “people march and feel good and think they have accomplished something.” He went on to write that the marchers “fool themselves into thinking they are members of a coherent and demanding community.”
I didn’t think people carrying different signs and promoting all kinds policy concerns from climate change to women’s rights to education to equal justice were people fooling themselves. They were sharing different concerns within a common message – a message of power, hope, and objection to the Trump agenda.
Brooks has written similar columns for years, and they all boil down to particular themes, the essence being that capitalism mixed with biblical teachings should be our aspiration. He knows what’s best for everyone. He reminds me of our new president who also knows what’s best for everyone.
But just as these generalizations are patronizing, they contain kernels of truth. We need activist programs with specific goals and objectives, organized to push for local, statewide, and national change. It just wasn’t what this march was about
As a psychoanalyst I help people analyze how they got to be the way they are and what they can do to free themselves from their own histories that have shackled them over their lives. People repeat patterns in neurotic unproductive ways, but they also repeat themselves hoping to get things right finally. It’s the same process, but with opposite intent.
So there was something accurate in what David Brooks wrote – that there is need for comprehensive plans of action. But he was also dismissive both in tone and content.
The march was not about planned change, but about energizing people to make plans for change – and then follow through. How can something be both practical and emotional? To repeat, nothing is simple and everything is simple.
Brooks avoids emotion because somehow he’s uncomfortable with it. And, while it doesn’t matter why he personally feels that way, it does matter that he tried in his column to make the marchers uncomfortable with their emotions. The feelings engendered by the march were real and powerful – though any activist knows that such feelings need to be channeled and transformed into getting results.
American history is infused with naysayers, with people who cloak their fears of emotion and passion inside critical logic. What this march did was remind people of each other, that they were in fact a choir but didn’t know it. The march got people who lived in individual worlds surrounded by computers, websites, and skewed news programs – and helped them find something common to them all – the pink hats of childhood. Overtly about women’s genitalia, the hats also represented defiant childhood wishes to belong, to be connected to siblings and family, to find a safe place of protection from destructive leaders.
Brooks insists that identity politics never leads to change, and that the marchers need a coherent message rather than communal good feeling. I think they need both, and the march revealed that unique passions were also part of a common passion.
As he writes that this kind of event won’t get results, he seems almost as uncomfortable as Trump. He just wears a better costume. As the program hawker says at the game, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard”. But you can tell the marchers without David Brooks telling us who they are and aren’t.
By the end of last weekend I began to think that both beauty and ugly are in the eyes of the beholder – beauty seen by Group A as inside while ugly resides in Group B. And Group B feels the same way – that it is full of empathy and love inside but sees ugliness in the other.
The process of sorting out what is real from what is imagined can be daunting, since all of us – pro and con – have strong feelings about the Trump Presidency. I’m put in mind of a Cherokee legend, re-told after 9/11 that bears on this past weekend:
An old chief was teaching his grandson about life. He said, “A fight is going on inside me, a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you, and inside everybody else in the world.” At last, when the grandson asked which wolf would win, the old Chief answered, “The one you feed.”
I went to the Inauguration on Friday, and what I experienced was not a “basket of deplorables” marching about, but people who were not only outraged at Washington but also kind to one another – and to me (despite my wearing a “This is not normal” button). Calling Trump’s followers ignorant or mean-spirited allows them to be dismissed, to be sunk without trace. My preconception about Trump supporters was challenged, however. I saw parents kind to their children, grown up men and women helping older Trump supporters cross streets or find places to sit.
Looking back on those moments the next day, at the throngs of people in the Women’s March on Washington who found strength and resolve from one another, I could see similarities between the two crowds. And ironically the same fact applied to both groups: they were marching among kindred spirits. Each group was happy to be there – albeit on two different days and with two different agendas. They felt affirmed and even delighted by other members of their own group. They felt part of a community, even though viewed from the outside they were like oil and water.
It feels good to feel part of a community. It is affirming. And it seems necessary for one unified community to define the other as antithetical to their own. To the red-hatted Trump people, most protesters represented “elites” who emanated arrogance and a false sense of superiority. But they couldn’t see any of those qualities in themselves. The pink knitted-cap people, some full of love and others full of vitriol, delighted in their huge numbers. But most seemed unable to see any love and empathy existing in the Trump group.
The founder of the Washington Psychoanalytic Society, Harry Stack Sullivan MD, said, “We are more human than otherwise.” He also said, “If you have to maintain self-esteem by pulling down the standing of others, you are extraordinarily unfortunate.” The history of schisms in America sadly proves Sullivan right.
Presidents Obama and Bush, for all their profound differences, behaved as part of the same nation. Unfortunately for America, our new President is equally comfortable whipping up love and hate in others – something disturbingly hollow, manipulative, and dangerous.
Any recognition of similarities got dwarfed by Trump’s rhetoric, and endangered the hope that one group might find common ground with the other. Those are the facts as I see them – at least for today. But whatever the facts, I know it’s easier to hate than to love – especially between groups.
Never in my lifetime has there been such a thoughtful, elegant, and eloquent President of the United States as Barack Obama. He started first in Chicago as a community organizer. But it was his Boston Keynote Address that grabbed our imagination: he didn’t see Red and Blue states, but the United States. So as President he tried to manage the rigid partisanship he faced by compromise and reason. But the GOP obstructed his efforts at every turn. Still, he never stopped trying – so much so that he began to suffer from “obsessional bipartisan disorder.”
As a psychoanalyst I recognize the roots of Obama’s passionate idealism lie in two spheres – his parents were from different cultures and separated when he was an infant; he was biracial – half black and half white. Thus he strove to create a united internal parental couple to guide him, and he tried to find internal common ground between his black and white selves.
That past, powerfully nurtured by a loving mother and her attentive parents, helped drive him to value having a loving family of his own – and he found that in Michelle Robinson’s Chicago family. Between them they created their own new family – strong and loving – whose growth and development all Americans have at times been privileged to witness.
In my consulting room I examine how the past unconsciously influences the present. People keep their past alive both intentionally and unwittingly, and I’ve seen how a president’s public life often reflects past influences, dreams, and conflicts. For the most part, in Obama’s case, those influences pushed him to try to bring Americans together, to find out what we had in common. He did so against overwhelming odds, because many of us pushed back against a black president and his black family – unwilling to accept his ideas and ideals.
His farewell speech gave clear evidence of his resilience in the face of those odds. He said that discussions with those who violently disagree helped strengthen him. He expressed gratitude to all Americans for giving him the honor to be our president.
However, psychoanalytic exploration, like democracy, can be contentious. It is important to see how an inspiring past can also be an imprisoning one. Obama’s need to see “one America” kept him from following a central tenet of his farewell speech about the importance of law in democratic life. He said that “we built an order based on principles, not just power: rule of law, human rights, etc.” Later on he said that peril posed to our democracy by violent fanatics and autocrats could lead to “a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable.” He also warned that “if the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world the likelihood of war within and between nations increases.”
He is right, but as Adlai Stevenson once said, “It’s easier to have principles than to live up to them.” Twice early in his presidency, Obama was dominated by his past need to find unity and family at the expense of following the “law that holds leaders accountable.” He did not prosecute any members of the Bush Administration for their abuse of the law, which enabled them to get us into that intractable and tragic Middle East war. He did not prosecute the bankers for their financial crimes against the citizens of our nation.
After taking office, Obama said we must “turn the page” and move forward, and pushed for economic recovery and establishing health care reform – both essential political efforts. But turning the page is not the same as tearing it out of a book. That book contains a past that affects present and future – his and ours. And, as Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.”
So I felt a different sense of loss – of the promise he once offered us. As successful as his eight years in office were, progress is about more than improving our economy, health care, or even modifying the evils of racism and sexism. Progress is about holding leaders – political and economic – accountable. If Obama did that, he would have helped us all feel stronger, and reminded everyone that America still stands for doing what is right.
The sum total of Obama’s Administration can become a prelude to the future, or just as easily a simple blip or diversion sandwiched between the more powerful forces of American racism and anti-‘elite’ fears – forces of darkness once represented by George W Bush and now about to be continued by Donald Trump.
For the first seven plus years of his presidency, Barack Obama suffered from what I called “Obsessional bi-partisan Disorder.” (see Obama on the Couch, Simon & Schuster 2011). It was only during the heated 2016 campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton that Obama finally became stridently critical of the GOP.
The wisdom Obama received from his father was that knowledge and logic would pave the way for new ideas and social change. He felt that if we could listen to one another we could productively resolve our differences. Sadly that has not happened, and now Americans are as divided from one another as they were in those pitched battles over civil rights and Vietnam in the 1960s. Red and blue never turned into purple.
Now we approach January 3, 2017 – the only day that this president has left to legally make recess appointments to high government positions. And some say he only has a five-minute window at that – between adjourning the old Senate and swearing in the new.
Many presidents, starting first with our first President, made what are called “recess appointments” – and often these appointments were Supreme Court Justices. Washington was the first to do that, and Dwight D Eisenhower was the most active, as he made three recess appointments to the Court: Associate Justice William J Brennan (Ike wanted to appoint a north-eastern Catholic to help his chances for re-election in1956), Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Associate Justice Potter Stewart.
President Obama, in his first seven years, made less than one-fifth the recess appointments made by George W Bush, and less than one-fourth of those made either by Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush.
His efforts to fill the Supreme court seat vacated by Associate Justice Scalia’s death have been completely blocked by the McConnell-led Senate, so much so that Merrick Garland – Obama’s choice who had once been praised by Senators from both sides of the aisle – didn’t even get a Senate Committee hearing. That has never happened in our nation’s history.
Tomorrow, Obama has a chance to work on his long-standing neurosis – displaced from a profound desire to repair his parents’ broken marriage by wearing purple colored glasses. He could never realize that dream, as Senator McConnell peremptorily blocked any effort he made to work together.
Will President Obama finally realize that reason fails when met by someone who won’t listen or even think? For him to shuck his neurotic preconception that shared values will triumph over unilateral obstruction will require a major shift in his psyche. He always had difficult recognizing hate, and rarely even used the word.
To take such bold action he needs to mourn that long-held dream of uniting his incompatible parents. Only then can he step outside his comfort zone. Otherwise he will leave behind a Supreme Court dedicated to strengthening Citizens United while overthrowing numerous individual freedoms, among which is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
He needs to see that appointing Garland – despite it’s activating loud cries of “foul” – might paradoxically do more to unite our country than another repetition of his bi-partisan mantra. I am even willing to speculate that if Garland joins the Court, his appointment will eventually be ratified. After all, Republicans – enough of them anyway – should be able to see that an intelligent and thoughtful Associate Justice is preferable to a knee-jerk reactionary alternative. The Supreme Court is supposed to specialize in dealing with complex issues, Garland would further that tradition no matter who makes the appointment.
It is abundantly clear that Barack Obama must accept the impossibility of uniting those parents who continue to live separately in his heart and mind. By changing his inner world, appointing Merrick Garland to Associate Justice could help America become more of a community than it has been for years.