When Donald Trump speaks extemporaneously, his thoughts come out in a mad tangle of words and sentence fragments, with simple phrases constantly repeated and more complicated ones abandoned mid-way. He almost always returns to the topic of himself, his greatness, his victimhood, and his election victory over Hillary Clinton.
It’s not normal.
It also tells you a lot about Trump’s internal dramas.
“When language is disconnected from meaning, it serves other psychological functions,” writes Justin Frank, an eminent Washington psychoanalyst and author who has made a side business of putting presidents on the metaphorical couch (first Bush, then Obama, and now Trump).
“Behind the tortured syntax,” Frank writes, “are symptoms of several worrisome disorders.”
In his new book, Trump on the Couch, Frank explains:
It’s as though Trump actually interrupts his own thinking with a new thought or association that only he can interpret. He circles around his original idea… a pattern of speech characterized by oblique, digressive, or irrelevant replies to a question. This is sometimes considered a thought disorder, while other mental health professionals see it as indicative of the manic phase of bipolar illness, or even the result of a dependency on amphetamines.
Frank, not surprisingly, begins his book with a deep dive into everything ever written about Trump’s childhood — and finds that his mother was barely there, both in his early life and in the public record. His analysis:
Donald Trump at some point learned that his mother was emotionally unavailable and that his father was absent and critical; combined with his own limited impulse control at school, which interfered with his traditional learning, these factors would contribute to a sense of despair over not getting enough warmth and meaningful nourishment from his earliest caretakers. This despair, in turn, would lead to narcissism, as a defense against shame and criticism, as well as against the need for any introspection that would cause him to face his selfish or hurtful behavior.
In some ways, Frank writes, Trump is still stuck there.
The man we now see before us is an adult with an infantilized worldview: a frightened child who is hungry – for power, for fast food, for admiration, for money, for loyalty. He surveys the world around him with uncanny radar for any aspersion, seeing everything but understanding nothing. I think Trump never got over his hurt and rage at not having had a deep preverbal bond with his mother, and the confidence-building joys that warmth, tenderness, touch, scent or smiles might bring. He has been angry and determined to get his due ever since, spending his life trying to reach his idealized mother.
The symptoms of Trump’s narcissism include “self-centered focus … indifference to others, difficulty imagining the consequences of one’s actions, and shameless bragging.” Trump also rejects the rules and regulations that apply to other people, because he sees himself as immune.
And perhaps most recognizably, his narcissism makes him incapable of empathy:
When a person is as invested in the illusion of his omnipotence as Trump, the capacity to identify with weakness or vulnerability – a requisite for empathy – is too threatening to the delicate balance by which the illusion of omnipotence is maintained.
Why is he so divisive? Because he’s projecting his internal self-destructive feelings. He “must externalize this deep endless conflict, causing unease and ultimately division among others.” (See my November 8 post, It’s time to start ignoring what Trump says – as much as possible.)
What drives his virulent racism and his obvious misogyny?
When… fears and doubts make the individual feel insecure, and he can project his self-doubts and self-hatred onto a group of others, his insecurity is assuaged, he feels more secure by remaining loyal to his own particular group, and hating and fearing others.
That’s doubly the case with women, where Trump exhibits “a defensive means of coping with anxiety stemming from a deep fear of the opposite sex.”
Frank concludes by diagnosing Trump as having an untreated language-processing disorder:
It is my opinion that Donald Trump likely suffers from a subtype of dyslexia – a neuropsychological condition that was likely present and undetected since early childhood. It is a subtle language-processing disorder that affects emotional, cognitive, and social development.
Specifically, it leads to difficulties in understanding what someone else is saying, and in processing experiences.
Children with language processing disorders require attentive parenting to help them manage. Several of Donald Trump’s familiar adult personality traits—including his trademark volatility, lack of impulse control, and insistence that he knows better than anyone else – evoke the recognizable hallmarks of an undetected childhood learning disability.
Now, you may not buy everything Frank is selling, but I think it helps explain a lot about our very abnormal president.
Don’t believe me? Go read, as simply one example, Trump’s November 9 remarks before getting on Marine One – a not terribly atypical 23 minutes of hostility, defensiveness, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, and incoherence. Then tell me Frank’s not onto something.