I have never been a psychotherapist or a counselor or a psychological counselor. I have neither training nor credentials nor professional competence in those disciplines. But I have, over the past 30-plus years, utilized the services of same as a client. And on the basis of my client’s-eye view of psychotherapy and counseling, I have concluded that if the Nation ever needs psychotherapeutic counseling – which I believe it does, and rather desperately, at that – that Donald Trump would be the worst therapist / counselor the Nation could possibly consult. (With the possible exception of Ted Cruz. Since Trump is the current front-runner I will concentrate on him, but I won't quibble.) Please do not misunderstand: I have never had a traumatic experience with a therapist, because all the therapists I have consulted over the years have been women and men of exceptional professional competence, both in terms of their profession skill and in terms of their ethics. The problem is that Donald Trump fails in both respects. My experience as a client with people who are competent gives me a pretty good reading on what constitutes incompetence. And Donald J. Trump is the latter.
Actually, though, I suppose I should back up a step or two and say that in one respect – and in one respect only – Donald Trump is, on the contrary, a brilliant therapist: he encourages his clients – his supporters, his rally attendees, his media devotees on Fox News, etc. – to talk. In fact, he encourages them to talk endlessly. I say this is a brilliant stratagem because, with all actual, professionally competent therapists I have consulted, the initial stages of our relationship were marked by my being encouraged to talk. In fact, one of the characteristics shared by all exceptionally competent therapists is an ability to encourage a client to articulate the issues and problems and pathologies that motivate him (the client) to seek counseling. (Sigmund Freud's early term for psychotherapy, in fact, was "the talking cure".) This sounds almost laughably easy, but in reality can be one of the most difficult skills to master.
Anyone who knows me even superficially knows that I am seldom, if ever, at a loss for words. I have never – as in “not once,” “not on a single occasion” – been afflicted with writer's block. (I once turned in an 80-page mid-term essay exam on Romantic poetry at Harvard , emboldened to do so when the professor in the course, upon being asked by me about length limits, fatefully replied “Just tell me everything you know”.) But sometimes issues that need articulation are so entangled, so interdependent that finding a "loose thread" issue to use as a starting point paralyzes one's ability to verbalize. One does not know just where specifically to start, so one wants to start everywhere at once. Untangling this chaotic ball of issues usually requires a skill known as “reflecting” where the therapist repeats – in paraphrase – almost everything the client says, usually with a pointed question or 2 inserted at strategic places. E.g., Client: My wife and I fight all the time. Therapist: Well, marital conflict can begin over seemingly trivial issues. Client: Yeah … just because I spent an extra $300 on golf clubs without telling her. Therapist: And that’s what caused the latest battle? Client: Yeah … usually over money. I mean, why is it such a crime for me to spend money on something I enjoy? Etc., etc., etc.
It is precisely in the art – for it is an art, not a science -- of reflecting that Donald Trump shines. Think of Trump’s rallies, and his candidacy in general, not as an extended dialogue / debate on matters of policy and priorities, but rather as a Nation-scale session of group therapy / counseling. (I have participated in those, too!) I have never attended a Trump rally, but judging by newspaper and video accounts of same, it seems that Trump has an unerring and uncanny sense of the grievances, both real and imagined, both economic and political, that energize his supporters, and that he is prodigiously gifted in his ability to articulate these grievances and then reflect them back to his audience in terms that audience can understand, and in terms that his audience would use if the communication were going from audience to Trump instead of vice versa.
Furthermore -- and this is the secret of Trump's success with reflection -- this repeating-back is done in such a way as to, not challenge or critique, but on the contrary to validate his audience's feelings of anger, frustration, and fear. (As an example, I point to his early speech asserting that Mexico was sending the US the dregs of Mexican society.) But more than this, what is reflected back to the audience is not, to any significant degree, what might even approximately be called cognitive content. Trump seldom, if ever, phrases his grievances with, e.g., China as The grossly uneven balance-of-payments problem the US has with China is due to China's persistent refusal to devalue its currency relative to the dollar, so US goods cost more on Chinese markets than vice versa. If Trump were to speak in terms of facts and trends, his followers' eyes would glaze over like those of a deer caught in a semi's headlights. Facts would be fatal. Details would be deadly. Instead, what Trump reflects back is this grievance and others translated into the language of sheer feeling, sheer emotion, sheer affect ... and this usually takes the form of a rhetorical primal scream of rage about how the US is allegedly being victimized, cheated, and chronically swindled, and how current American leadership is complicit therewith. In reflecting back his audiences' anger, frustration, and fear, Trump is speaking to the amygdala, not to the cerebral cortex. This is why all critiques of Trump's transparently threadbare policy positions simply bounce off of him and his poll numbers like bullets off of Superman's chest: critiques directed at the brain do not faze the endocrine glands. (E.g., the fact that Trump did not know what the "triad" was in matters of national strategic defense made not a particle of difference as to his credibility.) A Brookings Institution white paper cannot stop a JDAM.
One corollary of this emphasis on sheer affect is that Trump's reflections of his followers' anger does not focus on solutions or coping strategies but on himself. The Trump campaign is the elaborate engineering of a personality cult. This is the most crucial reason why you should not consult Donald Trump as your counselor / therapist: Trump's ultimate goal is to transform you into himself. This is the cathexis from hell. I understand from friends who are psychological counselors that, in extreme cases, a therapist may have to briefly permit this kind of attachment -- like a lifeguard towing an exhausted swimmer to shore -- but the ultimate goal for the therapist is for such circumstances to always be temporary, and to yield to the client's autonomy as a unique individual. Trump's goal is just the opposite: to disable his supporters' critical faculties and thereby to reenforce his adherents' anger and frustration so as to transform them into copies of himself -- like the "pod people" in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the real danger posed by any quasi- / demi-god who founds a personality cult -- Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Manson, bin Laden, al-Baghdadi ... and Donald Trump: not so much what Trump himself may personally do or what Trump himself is personally capable of, but what his followers are capable of and what his followers may do, once their critical intellect has been anaesthetized and the dark, chthonic gods of the id given free license to roam the social and moral landscape of the human community. As Hannah Arendt has noted -- by now, it is almost a cliche -- even ordinary people can do extraordinarily evil things once their most tenebrous urges have been rubber-stamp validated and set free from restraint. The result may be seen in Kristallnacht and in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Trump's mere presence in the White House would invite a repetition of such obscenities -- this time against Muslims, sexual-orientation minorities, and immigrants instead of Jews.
Sigmund Freud said "Civilization is bought at the price of inhibitions". But Schadenfreude always has its own indigenous seductions, as witness mythologies as diverse as the Fall of Man and the Goetterdaemmerung and the narrative of the Sirens' call in Homer's Odyssey. But all such, in the end, teach a common lesson: abdicating one's critical intellect and listening to the whispered enticements of rage and fear is always fatal. Always.
James R. Cowles
Psychotherapist image: Balanced Life Institute, Santa Monica, CA
Phrenology image: public domain
Sigmund Freud: public domain
Destroyed FasanenstraBe synagogue: public domain
Vandalized Jewish businesses in Magdeburg, German Federal Archives 146-1970-083-42 / CC-BY-SA 3.0