POLITICS MIMICS FAMILY DYNAMICS:
We Can Understand the Method to the Madness
All the players in our national drama -the aggressors, those who actively side with aggressors, those who passively comply, those who vigorously protest against aggressors and those who perceive an aggressor as a savior who will overcome imaginary villains - have one thing in common: they all grew up in families. The ways we learn to handle emotions and our most meaningful relationships are wired into our neurology when we are impressionable children and get replayed throughout our lives, until and unless we consciously change our relationship to emotions. Here’s the big picture perspective missing from our national dialogue, and it is essential.
Charlette Mikulka, LCSW
This past year thousands of interviews, commentaries and articles sought to explain what motivates the people in our national drama to behave as they do. What caused President Trump to relentlessly brag, lie, distort and deny reality, project blame, demean others, breed hatred and fear, admire Fascist leaders, embolden domestic terrorists, side with shameless, exploitative and paranoid individuals, undermine America’s institutions and neglect the American people? What caused the members of Trump’s base to overlook his numerous flaws and failures, trust that he has their back, feel intense love and devotion for someone who is reckless, defiant and contemptuous and accept his belief that their fellow Americans want to harm them? When politicians had sworn to protect the US Constitution, what caused them instead to remain silent, be complicit, dismiss amoral character, protect an egotistical, self-absorbed bully, rile up restless, angry, paranoid and misguided people, downplay the erosion of our democracy, allow the rule of law and the Constitution to be trampled and then pretend that their behavior is normal, justified and upright?
There are some obvious explanations that got repeated in the media: Trump stokes fear, anger and division to energize his base, control their loyalty and stay in power. He capitalizes on the fear of public humiliation and abandonment to keep his party in line. He commands obedience by threatening the loss of reputation and status. Republicans believe they can’t win future elections without Trump’s base. Trump knows that once he is out of office, he is vulnerable to being prosecuted for various crimes. Trump cannot tolerate losing or not being the center of attention.
Interpretations that were offered for MAGA followers’ beliefs and behavior included being viewed as uneducated, lacking critical thinking skills, racist and afraid of being overshadowed, disempowered and replaced by people of color. Some devotees are willing to overlook Trump’s transgressions in order to accomplish their specific ends. Trump, his allies, right-wing media and social networks have relentlessly fed his base toxic misinformation. The president has groomed his pawns by portraying them as his chosen people, thus they are baited into trusting him and his version of reality. They are members of a passionate community; many would say a cult. They belong to and are needed by the most powerful man in the world. The honor they feel being in this special relationship blinds them to logic and to the costs of their intense allegiance.
Until the Trump administration I did not pay close attention to politics and never anticipated that someday I would be transfixed with the question: What are the underlying forces in human beings and their relationships that could make almost half of the American population inclined toward welcoming authoritarianism and forsaking their democracy? As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who serves individuals, couples and families, I have known for a long time that it is the norm for people’s insecurities and family of origin lessons to play out in their marital and parenting relationships. I’ve known that troubling emotions, perceptions and behaviors could also be triggered in workplaces and communities. But the toxic social and psychological dynamics that were activated by Trump and his accomplices were dysfunction on an epic scale that I, and perhaps most of us, had never in our adult lives witnessed or imagined, certainly not in the United States. I believe that our national emotional predicament has been the equivalent of children witnessing in dismay the day in, day out abuse and neglect of family members. America is our home, our family. No wonder the turmoil captivates our attention. It’s a threat to our world as we know it, the order we depend upon.
Donald Trump’s blatant, ubiquitous, pernicious and inhumane impulses and actions have left no doubt in my mind that he has the most pathological personality I have ever seen. My most challenging therapy clients are the Dalai Lama compared to him. Trump’s elite collaborators are not too far behind him in the degree to which their hearts have been disabled, thus warping their capacity for human kindness, cooperation, sound judgment and integrity. Compared to the average person who struggles with facing hard realities and empathizing with themselves or others, Trump’s character deficiencies make him a predator and his urges reveal an endless capacity for recklessness and ruthlessness. Given the amount of power he has had in the position of president, the scope of his damage has been monumental.
Early in Donald Trump’s presidency, 70,000 mental health professionals signed a petition, while others spoke up or wrote, out of a duty to warn, indicating that Donald Trump’s level of mental illness made him unfit for office and a danger to our nation. Unfortunately, those warnings were not heeded and swiftly became lost in the massive amounts of public commentary and the daily crises wrought, in large part, by the president. Since the presence of a dangerous wolf in our nation’s midst captured my attention, I have been recognizing the dynamics manifesting in our country as the very same ones commonly found within dysfunctional family relationships. I found too that the deep and rich understanding of human motivation, behavior and relationships, acquired by those with experience as mental health clinicians and marriage and family therapists, was rarely being voiced within the public realm. As a result, I have been inspired to write this article.
So then, what might be the most significant forces and motivations causing the disturbing behaviors we have witnessed from aggressors, accomplices, followers and those who are deeply confused? Unless we understand what shapes human beings’ personalities, we can’t have an informed sense of what we are up against and how we can realistically intervene to protect our democracy. The following are my interpretations, propositions and recommendations for your consideration based on thirty years of clinical practice, eighteen years of specializing in healing trauma and fourteen years of working with couples and families.
In my personal and professional experience, I have observed that no one arrives at adulthood unscathed. Every one of us, no matter our demographics, has had relationship experiences in our formative years that were traumatic and caused a sense of psychological insecurity. The traumas could be caused by parents, siblings, relatives, family friends, neighbors, peers, teachers, the clergy or strangers. Many people have additional traumas in adulthood. Due to unhealed trauma, we all have sensitivities, maladaptive beliefs and defenses that get triggered by certain people in the present. Often, our strongest fears about others are not grounded in current reality, they are projections of past traumatic emotions and beliefs. Many of us did not have an adult at home readily available, calm, attuned, inquisitive, patient, validating and empathic enough to help us when we were feeling lonely, sad, afraid, ashamed, guilty, hurt or helpless. Indeed, it often was one or both parents who caused us the emotional upset and sense of threat. How can we seek help from the very person who hurt or scared us? This is very challenging, even for adults.
When we don’t have the sensitive adult support needed to process painful emotions, we have to navigate them alone. It is human nature to seek ways to protect ourselves from further suffering. So, starting in early childhood we begin to develop a range of psychological defenses. Their broad categories are fight, flight or freeze and our nervous systems decide for us which will help us to survive the dangerous predicament. Within those three automatic responses there are dozens of protective strategies we can discover and repetitively use to get through danger and pain. These coping strategies get wired into our emotional brain and become the template throughout our life for handling emotionally-charged situations and relationships. They are implicit, unconscious procedural memories that kick in whenever needed, just as we automatically know what to do with shoelaces, bicycles and keyboards without thinking.
While these strategies may help us cope while we are still living with ongoing threats, they become woven into our personality. In adulthood, even when the danger is over, they can wreak havoc on our relationships and the unprocessed traumas will, sooner or later, cause a multitude of symptoms. These entrenched patterns can get transformed, but only though developing emotional intelligence, mindfulness and a secure attachment relationship and through healing the traumas. M. Scott Peck called the therapeutic journey The Road Less Traveled, which is why the majority of citizens are at risk for mismanaging their emotions, thus distorting their perceptions, judgments and responses. These painful dramas commonly happen within family life, but I am proposing that they also can be played out on a national stage.
Therefore, when I see the majority of Republican politicians siding with the aggressor, Trump, be unable to speak or disagree, pretend, cave in and grovel, I recognize those as freeze, submit and fawn responses fueled possibly by childhood somatic memories of fear, shame and helplessness. This is the nervous system’s response to psychological or physical danger when we feel we can’t safely ask for help or fight or flee. When our reality triggers enormous fear, more than we can bear, we freeze up, feel paralyzed, go numb, dissociate from our body’s feelings so that we don’t feel the full impact of what we are facing. We give in, make nice and appease the lion so he doesn’t attack. Facts, reason and the Constitution mean nothing in the face of trauma-spawned intense bodily fear. The possibility that there could be safety in numbers if the Republicans joined as a group to confront the bully is not built into the unconscious childhood procedural memory. A strategy that didn’t exist then feels impossible now.
Likewise, as I’ve seen hundreds of times in couples therapy, those who avoid emotions and conflict as a survival tool, typically but not always men, rely heavily on self-delusion, evading, resisting, minimizing, ignoring, dismissing, forgetting, dissociating, stonewalling, rationalizing, withholding and waiting for the storm to pass without having to speak or act. It is their physical hyper-sensitivity, and aversion to emotion and having the spotlight on them, that compels these avoiders to censure emotional conversation with, “Move on!” Certainly, the eyes of Trump, his base, the Democrats and the world have been steadily on the Republicans. “What are the Republicans going to do? What are they going to do?” Avoiders hate this kind of attention. The pressure keeps them on the burner of fear which reinforces their freeze response.
When people develop a habitual response of avoiding feeling reality, they totally miss the meaning of events. Lafayette Square and members of Congress almost losing their lives on January 6 are just pieces of wood to toss in the fire and forget. Trump bragging, that he wouldn’t lose a vote even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, evidenced pride in being so special that he could get away with murder. That was just a quip to those who don’t do emotions. Yet, those in touch with their body-felt emotions would feel fear and disgust at his indifference in taking someone’s life and pride in having the kind of devotees who would dismiss someone’s death. Likewise, when Trump read the sinister poem, The Snake, at his rallies, he claimed it was about distrusting immigrants, but the culminating line, “you knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in,” was typical of his already well-known stance of blaming the victim. That would have made a feeling person alarmed and repulsed at his relishing being a snake.
In most families, there is at least one family member, adult or child, who handles their emotional insecurity in the opposite way- by pursuing attention and protesting on and on, loudly and frequently, about how wrong and unfair things are. They are in fight mode. They may dominate the family’s energy and attention with their accusations, complaints and demands and yet never feel sated or secure. Expressions of anger, irritation, frustration and disgust are often used to discharge their disappointments and hurts. Many parents and spouses rely on criticism, threats of punishment, shaming and long-winded lectures to get family members to respond to their needs. In most cases, they don’t show any vulnerability, sensitivity or gentle curiosity about what is going on inside the other person. So, the message delivered is, “I expect you to obey and conform. I matter, you don’t.”
In response, some family members will fight back, some will cave in to keep the peace, while others will flee- withdraw physically, mentally or with a range of distractions, activities or compulsions to avoid exposure to the emotional intensity. Often the conscious or unconscious lesson some children learn from the chronic complaining is to put up an impenetrable guard around their hearts and minds and possibly seek positions of authority, admiration and power. Their deepest aim is to never again be the one who is overwhelmed, violated, manipulated, dominated and degraded. This dynamic may be a factor in the behavior of governmental figures who dismiss others’ concerns and are single-minded in their ambitions, to the detriment of unity, progress, truth, justice and democracy.
Trump, the elite Republican politicians and members of the far-right media who exploit, side with and incite people who are susceptible to propaganda and conspiracies or are volatile and rebellious, may do so because they have their own anger, hatred, fear, distrust and defiance which they learned to suppress and hide. Those who side with blatant, active aggressors benefit by having a symbiotic relationship with a less sophisticated and disciplined group of people who could be manipulated into feeling and acting out their hostilities and tearing down the establishment. Perhaps, those national figures whose dispositions and behavior appear arrogant, obstinate, cynical and subversive had the urge to defy their parents and express their outrage at having to comply with overwhelming demands and circumstances, but didn’t have the courage because there would have been too big a price to pay. When people don’t feel it’s safe to openly admit how badly they were hurt and how much anger they feel, they can become passive-aggressive. Manipulating others to question and defy authority’s version of truth and sabotage those in charge is a vicarious, vindictive, sadistic pleasure, a maladjusted way of managing one’s own emotional baggage.
When people aren’t willing or able to get their emotional needs met through a love relationship at home, they may seek to meet their emotional needs through other pursuits and passionate causes. A person could be uncommitted, withdrawn and unmotivated at home, but emotionally driven outside the home. The objective could be: being the person or political party in charge, maintaining their right to protect themselves with guns, banning abortions, standing up for the disdained and neglected, pointing out hypocrisy or defeating perceived villains. Any obstacles in the path of those causes will be met with a righteous, relentless force, often because this is a desperate effort to right an unconscious wrong. These ambitions have deeper, underlying personal meanings that are highly unlikely to be discovered, except in a trusting therapeutic relationship. Having treated hundreds of trauma victims, everyday people who have been subjected to insensitivity, overwhelm, cruelty or neglect, it makes sense that some of them would feel the need to be on the offensive when they’ve never had anyone to protect or comfort them in a dangerous world. Of course, it would be far better for everyone if traumatized people received caring and competent professional help, as their missions rarely bring them peace and security and often cause harm to others.
The people insisting that there are alternate facts may be rebelling against others cornering the market on what is real and important. Their version of “truth,” what others call a “lie,” might be primarily a vehicle for conveying their distrust, anger, non-conformity and refusal to believe and respect authority. Perhaps in their childhood or teen years their parents refused to listen or understand them. Perhaps a parent continually demeaned the child’s other parent after a divorce and the child, out of love and loyalty, felt a powerful urge to oppose that view and prove the hostile parent wrong. Also, it is not uncommon for victims of sexual abuse or incest to be not taken seriously by their parents. A parent might have accused the child of lying, “That’s ridiculous. It never happened. You’re making that up!” As a result, these unprotected children may later in life become preoccupied with safety, lies, betrayal, perpetrators and not backing down when they perceive evil and have innocent people to protect. These are just some possibilities of the deeper meanings underneath people’s perceiving dangers that others see as ungrounded. When trauma is dissociated, people can become very disorganized in their thinking, perceiving, feeling and behaving. What is so unfortunate is that such people continue to be invalidated and may be seen as delusional and paranoid, which they may indeed be, because their conspiracies, accusations, hysteria or combativeness are non-sensical or terribly offensive in the context of the current reality.
In the view of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, complaints and stories needs to be heard with the heart, not with the rational brain that loves details and takes everything literally. When it comes to humans in distress, behaving in ways that cause discord and turmoil, we want to listen for the emotions, meanings, beliefs about self and other, pivotal childhood relationship experiences and unmet attachment needs driving their disturbing behavior. Examples of human attachment needs include: connection, closeness, understanding, empathy, responsiveness, reassurance, comfort, security, protection, affection, attention, appreciation and self-worth. With this sincere, non-judgmental desire to understand the client’s emotional reality, we are able to discover the relationship context, current or past, or traumatic experiences in which the person’s current disturbing feelings, beliefs and behaviors make complete sense. When the emotional distress is reconnected to the original source, and clients express the experiences’ painful impact on them in a soft, vulnerable way, they receive validation, empathy and reassurance from their partners, symptoms resolve and peace is found. When working with individuals, I can provide EMDR, a highly effective trauma treatment which beautifully and efficiently processes and heals the memory.
Because of insecure relationships with loved ones, or trauma being hidden or dissociated, it is common for people to have unmet needs for being understood, validated, empathized with and reassured that their feelings are normal, the abuse wasn’t their fault and they are worthy of care. Some readers may perceive this preoccupation with feelings and needs as immature and excessive, but you would be belittling these vital elements of human health at your own, your family’s and the nation’s peril. Had Donald Trump had his psychological and social needs met by his parents, his spouse or a therapist, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to exploit millions of others in a malevolent way, to try to fill the void.
In fact, opposing ways of viewing and handling emotions and needs is commonly seen in marriage and with siblings. For example, one spouse is emotionally sensitive and expressive and can be easily triggered by the dismissive, insensitive, emotionally detached partner. After the emotional half of the team protests and escalates to the point of explosion, the composed half may look down with contempt at the person having the outburst, feeling pride in their ability to control their own emotions. This may at the same time reinforce their fear of emotional intensity and urge to disown and dissociate their emotions. In the same way, the callous nonchalance of many Republicans towards emotionally significant reality, like the erosion of norms and democracy and the need to hold accountable those who incited the attack on the Capitol, provokes more and more outcry and objection from the Democrats, media and public.
As in troubled marriages, a vicious negative “Criticize-Defend” cycle ensues in which the more one party “fights”- complains and objects to the insensitivity and unresponsiveness, the more the other party “freezes” - clings to denial, is defensive and is incapable of being flexible and responsive, which provokes even more insecurity, confrontation and protest. Each side sees the other as irrational, either for being indifferent to serious problems or relentlessly critical and complaining. This is the painful predicament for marital partners and members of opposing political parties whenever those who can tolerate strong emotions and feel reality are in a meaningful interdependent relationship with those who are dismissive and disdainful of their own and others’ emotions. It is called an insecure attachment relationship. Escalating pressure and arguments to convince the indifferent partners that problems are serious don’t work, in fact, it makes the negative cycle more entrenched. The lectured to just dig in their heels, roll their eyes, glaze over, stay emotionally shut down and continue on the same path. This bewildering experience of being in separate universes or realities is destined to continue as long as some people see no harm in shutting down awareness of their bodies’ feelings, while other people’s bodies are fully registering their escalating feelings. “…And never the twain shall meet.”
The most effective approach that I know of, Emotionally Focused Therapy, involves skillfully and gently guiding therapeutic conversations in which both the detached and the overwrought parties are helped to recognize and eliminate their disturbing defenses and safely reengage with and share their vulnerable emotions. This is a sensitive and slow process, like being a horse whisperer to skittish, mistrustful abused horses. Obviously, therapy is not going to be a realistic answer for members of Congress or large segments of the American population who rely heavily on dysfunctional defenses to maneuver their way out of emotional distress. This is not because it wouldn’t help, quite to the contrary, but because only those who feel prolonged pain, and have the courage to ask for help, reach out to therapists. Pain is nature’s way of signaling that we need help and urging us to reach out to others. That’s a leap of faith, however, when so many have been burned by people they trusted.
Perhaps a manageable and less threatening brief intervention would be starting to develop trust between Democrats and Republicans by having small mixed groups participate in an Outward-Bound type adventure-based team-building weekend in which they would face challenges together and need to depend upon each other. Obviously, modifications would have to be made for older members. Each evening around a campfire the participants would be helped by a group therapist to process their experiences, including their shifting feelings and views about themselves and their perceived enemies. Any increase in the number of members who can see themselves and members of the opposite party as fellow human beings, would be a step forward toward much desired unity. I expect that there will be some members of Congress who could benefit from such experiences, especially if such weekends were repeated at least annually.
Additionally, members of Congress could be guided in daily twenty minute meditations that help them disengage from their thoughts, bring full awareness to their bodies and soothe their nervous systems. Most people give far too much credence to their thoughts as trustworthy guides to reality and handling emotionally charged problems involving people. In actuality, they often reinforce our prejudices, blind us to what is essential, disconnect us from our bodies or fan the flames of alarm. Instead, the meditations could help participants recognize and manage various sensations expressed in their bodies, especially in the context of their political roles and relationships. Many of us can find calm and reason in isolated environments. What matters much more is how we feel in our bodies in the presence of intense relationships, especially when we are not taking action to defend ourselves. The intense relationship or predicament can be vividly imagined while observing with alert, non-judgmental curiosity the wide range of feelings that get triggered in the body. These challenging scenarios can be alternated with calming scenarios, again scanning the body and noticing all the range of sensations that occur. People who are shut down are helped to feel more, while those whose nervous systems might be too activated are able to find greater calm. Relationships, judgment and decision making improve when our physiology is in an “optimal arousal zone.”
While many will object to participating because these suggestions may seem farfetched, unrealistic or outside people’s comfort zones, our Congress is spiraling out of control and desperate times call for desperate measures. Admonitions, condemnation, lectures and providing more cognitive information are no match for emotion management skills. Overcoming emotional dysregulation, stemming from a lifetime of stressful relationship experiences, requires approaches that elicit mindfulness and somatic awareness and develop language for inner experiences. Like all of us, members of Congress need to cultivate their ability to mindfully observe their emotions and body sensations, allowing them to naturally shift, rather than relying on defenses. There will be many benefits to this daily practice: improved management of the pressures of their challenging jobs, increased self-awareness, equanimity, creativity and calm, more harmonious relations with others and sounder judgment and decision-making. People who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, however, need professional help to address this complex, but very healable condition.
There is a segment of the population that is way outside the norm in terms of mental health and capacity for change. People whose automatic defenses are the most extensive, entrenched, compulsive and harmful to others are recognized by mental health clinicians as having personality disorders such as narcissistic, paranoid, sadistic and antisocial. Some are additionally seen as psychopaths. Those who are most wedded to cynicism, ruthlessness and amoral impulses are dangerous to others and must not be allowed into positions of authority, though their every fiber hungers for it. Their extreme self-interest and drive for power are substitutes for secure attachment with a human being. Such people engage with others merely as objects unworthy of trust, significance, sympathy or help. They rarely, if ever, seek psychotherapy and in fact cause others to need it. To hope that, if we befriend and align with them long enough, they will eventually respond to our concerns, is naïve. Their appetites and selfishness are bottomless. Their extreme absence of vulnerability and conscience makes them more reptilian predators than human. People like Trump and his staunchest allies receive too much reward from their defenses and actions and will not adapt to society without boundaries and consequences that hold them accountable and disable their powers. We must not be held hostage by the sickest members of our society. The longer we freeze and enable them, the more their delusions strengthen and their belligerence, crimes and shameless exploitation of others escalate.
According to Trump’s niece, psychologist Mary Trump, young Donald’s parents were both unavailable to him for long stretches. His mother was ill and his father worked long hours. When his father, Fred Trump, did engage with young Donald, his sole purpose was to relentlessly shape Donald into a “killer” who entered battle, came away with the spoils and always was the “winner.” His father’s views towards others were paranoid, hostile and exploitative. Donald was an extension of his father’s ego, a means for his father to manage his own emotions. Following in his father’s footsteps, all people in Donald Trump’s world are objects on which he can project and avoid his painful emotions. It is second nature for Trump to disown his emotions by behaving in ways that elicit them in others: fear, powerlessness, guilt, envy, shame and even hunger for love, hope and belonging. With his base at a rally, he was offering kisses alternating with guilt trips in order to get their votes. After his followers attacked the Capitol, he gifted them and hooked them deeper with “We love you” and “You’re very special,” the words all children long to hear from their parents. Love, in this context, is conditional on compliance. Non-compliance with a toxic parent like this means betrayal and just cause for rejection and abandonment. In his lifelong, single-minded, predatory drive, Trump discovered and mastered the art of connecting with the vulnerable, insecure child parts in the personalities of adults who lack self-worth and the knowledge that more nourishing forms of relationship exist. He preys on human vulnerability.
Mary Trump says that her grandfather held the greatest disdain for losers. Ultimately it was clear that Mary’s father, Fred Jr., was deemed a loser for not being able to develop the fighter instinct. Donald, seeing his two choices, took on the mantle of hero by signing up for an endless Olympics boxing match. Fred Jr. was demeaned and neglected by his father, as Eric one day would be by his father. Donald was indulged, empowered and expected to shine and be admired, just as his daughter Ivanka eventually would be. Most likely, Donald’s mother couldn’t possibly fight her husband’s obsession and so caved in to the inevitable, just like the Republican Party would do.
During Trump’s presidency the world got a ringside seat to his dysfunctional childhood family as he unconsciously reenacted it with new players.
Trump’s pathological personality triggered:
and in so doing, created:
Splitting people into all good and all bad is a common psychological defense. Seeing the complexity of people takes mental energy, time, curiosity, patience, empathy and delaying of judgment. Fred Senior lacked those faculties. The primary forces that shaped Donald Trump’s personality were his understandable need to make his father proud of him, and to avoid being abandoned and shamed, and his being subjected to a warped and pernicious form of parental attention and connection. Trump’s life’s mission and the primary motivation behind his every behavior has been eradicating reminders of his unlovability, shame, isolation and powerlessness and pretending to himself and others that he is something he is not. Shame is the most painful and difficult emotion for all of us to manage, which is why social worker Brene Brown’s TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability has been watched 41 million times and her book, Daring Greatly, became a best seller.
For someone raised like Trump, not being in control of who is the shameful one, who is the all good, shameless and deserving one, is equivalent to being at the mercy of the horrifying felt sense of being the greatest hoax and loser of all. I would surmise that this is why Trump has been obsessed with the designations “fake” and “loser” and gives them out liberally. The best defense is a good offense. Based on Mary Trump’s family memories, Donald’s true self- his feelings, human needs, hopes and dreams- were irrelevant to his father and never nurtured. Donald, like many children, had to ignore, suppress and hate his human instinctual needs, his sensitivity, his humanity. Trump was bullied out of knowing, being and expressing his authentic self. The only way to be viewed as valuable in his father’s eyes was to please him by deceiving, exploiting and destroying others, as necessary, to ensure always coming up on top- making others admire Donald and, through association, his father. The only voices and desires that mattered were Dad’s and Donald’s to compensate for each never having had a voice with, or influence on, their parents.
Trump, living out his father’s view of him, as someone with killer instincts for control and destruction, created the dichotomy on a national scale and went on the offensive proclaiming with relentless insistence that he is the righteous and deserving one and anyone who opposes him, is the liar, the villain. Like the child in the school auditorium who passes gas and immediately says loudly and with conviction to the child next to him, “You’re disgusting,” Trump has the quickest draw for projecting blame and playing the sanctimonious victim, thus putting others on the defensive. Many of Trump’s accomplices are equally adept at this skill.
Another dynamic fueling this splitting defense mechanism might be the following. It is common to have been raised in a home in which the parents did not trust each other and had great difficulty validating or empathizing with each other. Instead, each parent creates harsh judgments, assumptions and accusations to explain their partner’s hurtful, offensive behaviors. Children living for years in such a toxic emotional climate are placed in the painful position of figuring out who is good, who is bad, who is right, who is wrong. Who should I believe and give my loyalty to? Who should I defend to the death and who should I throw under the bus? These emotional experiences, beliefs and responses get wired into the brain for future unconscious handling of the many emotionally-charged gray areas of life.
Thus, Trump and his accomplices have split our population into the deserving innocent and the undeserving enemy. A rigid double standard exists where no amount of logic or evidence can change how the “enemy” is perceived or validate their concerns. Whereas those who are on the right side, Trump’s, are supported, justified and entitled even without factual evidence, even with blatant criminal behavior. They don’t need to be held accountable for anything. They can, like him, smugly get away with “shooting someone on Fifth Avenue” and still be revered and trusted. But the moment a loyal comrade fails to comply completely with Trump’s expectations, they meet the dark, punitive side of Trump. The rules Donald Trump learned as a child are still ruling him and the rest of the world has been either his compliant tools, bewildered observers, outraged or hurting victims, entitled aggressors or fellow psychopaths. continued below
As for the millions of Americans who adore Donald Trump and jump like lemmings into the sea for him, they are just like Trump, investing their energies and future into glorifying and surrendering to someone God-like- Fred Sr, Putin, Trump- who they perceive as all powerful, who gets away with saying whatever he wants and gets whatever he wants. They will disregard, as Donald Trump has, all the horrible flaws of their “Daddy” authority figure, in the hope of being valued and recognized. They will seek and cling to any evidence that he is nice and cares. How tragic. They are Un-Proud Boys and Girls desperate to feel good about themselves and to belong, not be scorned and rejected by all powerful “Daddy.” They are eager to give their loyalty in order to feel their life has purpose and direction. They will prove they are trustworthy. They will proudly serve, even if their “father,” the leader of their family-country, is a cold- hearted tyrant. After all, it is a deep instinctual human need to trust and please our parents, to emulate the powerful person we love and depend on to tell us right from wrong and how they want us to behave. If we never felt confident that our parents recognized our worth or if we felt lost and neglected, we may project those unmet relationship needs onto another larger-than-life adult. Once again, we get crumbs and get used. Unconsciously reenacting our past relationship trauma is prevalent in society.
This political drama provides a large segment of society with scapegoats, groups on whom we can project our distrust, anger and hatred. When our human needs haven’t been met in our attachment relationships (parents, spouse) and we don’t have the emotional skills or relationship support to face and process our hurts and disappointments, we can protect ourselves by suppressing and hiding our vulnerable emotions and overlaying them with disgust, hostility, resentment and frustration. These “tough guy” emotions are much easier to admit and express, especially for men. Anger and hatred, though, are emotions that urge us to take destructive action. They replace feelings of sadness, inadequacy, loneliness, shame, fear, helplessness and depression with energy and excitement leading to combativeness, confrontation, verbal attack and sometimes violence. These behaviors can give us a warped sense of power and deservedness- I matter. I won’t be ignored. You can’t get away with treating me this way. You’re not the boss of me - the words perhaps we wanted to say to our hurtful parent or some bully in our younger life. These oppositional defiant dynamics, when at their most extreme, may be what fuels agitators, extremists, members of white supremacist groups, right-wing militias, terrorists and psychopaths.
Recently, schools, and ironically Melania Trump, have tried to address the growing epidemic of bullying. Yet in the past four years our very President has been the most visible, brazen and relentless perpetrator of bullying in American history. How can children be expected to find the courage to handle aggressors they face when adult “leaders” of our country are themselves unable to extricate themselves from the toxic predicament? Cognitively intelligent and privileged members of Congress and governmental officials, who on one level hold dignifying, powerful offices, are constantly bullied by Trump, and even the thought of Trump, into sacrificing their personal convictions, voice and power. If that isn’t enough, some Republicans invest Trump’s followers with the power to make or break their presidential aspirations and egos. So, they are trapped in a torturous placating-out-of-fear sandwich: giving up pride and power to get pride and power.
People who have been traumatized in childhood by witnessing domestic violence, or themselves being victimized, often become either continued victims, deluded rescuers, perpetrators or selfless, highly devoted caretakers and rescuers. It is interesting to note that both our outgoing and incoming presidents were victims of bullying. Biden had a history of childhood bullying because of his stuttering problem. Trump was bullied by his father, sided with the authoritarian aggressor and became an abuser himself, starting with bullying his childhood peers. Our nation’s president is not just a leader, but an authority figure. Unfortunately, as in our childhood family, those in authority can be anywhere on the spectrum from deeply caring, responsible and responsive to deeply sadistic, irresponsible and self-serving. Our emotional responses to the kind of parent we experienced in our formative years inspire the kind of parent and authority figure we want to be. We may yearn to be the kind of trustworthy, empathic family leader we never had or the kind who finally and completely gets his way or we may be a controlling or negligent parent with some and a permissive, indulgent parent with select others. Or, feeling unmoored and lacking a healthy sense of self, we may welcome turning over all personal responsibility and control to those who have very strong intentions and are eager to take charge.
Biden has dedicated his life to empathizing with the vulnerable, reaching out with friendship and offering generous support and unconditional love. At times, this paternal authority figure urge to nurture, as if everyone is a dear family member, has gotten him into trouble. In sharp contrast, President Trump has been a shamelessly abusive, heartless and negligent authority figure, emulating his father. Simultaneously, Trump has admired and respected psychopathic personalities like his father: dictators, those with ruthless ambition, those who help attack Trump’s opponents and those who exploit the vulnerable. As he learned to hate and destroy the best in himself, his humanity, Trump’s every impulse has been to neglect or actively undermine the best America possesses: democratic norms and institutions, decision making based on consulting with experts in the administration and governmental departments and agencies, collaboration with scientists and other nations, a mission to expand respect, justice and equality to all and make America a more perfect Union, a free press and seeking the truth, a proud practice of welcoming the world’s “tired and poor,” diversity of cultures, races, faiths and sexual identities, the majestic natural beauty of undeveloped Federal lands and efforts to protect our climate and environment.
No matter his wealth or power, no matter the endless victimization he has spearheaded, Trump has perennially felt like a victim. Those haunting feelings of victimization, deprivation and injustice can distort the present reality and make people perceive threat where none may exist. Many who have been traumatized through abuse, neglect or exploitation are susceptible to trusting those who don’t warrant trust and feeling highly cynical and distrusting of anyone who, in fact, is conscientious and sincere. Their natural intuition, emotions, self- confidence and instincts were so damaged by the abuser that they become very confused and unable to protect themselves nor benefit from those who do have their best interests at heart. Their life experience proved to them, rightfully so, that some people are dangerous and they may hope that an all-powerful, all good and devoted caretaker exists, but they are very poor judges of character. This dynamic is what draws many people to cult leaders, conspiracy theories and authoritarian demagogues. It can also lead to self-righteously defending perpetrators and blaming victims, which has been a major theme of the past four years.
Perhaps too, some of Trump’s supporters and allies relate to him because he pouts and has tantrums when he feels like he isn’t being treated fairly or getting what he believes he deserves. They get hooked because the child in them feels the same way. They see him as on their side, “he gets me, he knows what it is like.” I recognized that childlike pout on the poor little rich man the first time I saw him campaigning on TV. Many adults have a chronic feeling of being cheated, emotionally deprived and abused because, in addition to living in a far from perfect Union, they actually had those painful experiences in their highly vulnerable formative years. The problem is, those reverberating emotions from childhood are itches that can’t be scratched, no matter how many battles are fought against perceived enemies. The true source can’t be healed because the trauma has been dissociated, not allowed into consciousness. This is how intergenerational trauma gets passed on in many families.
It takes courage, integrity and high-quality professional support to re-experience the vulnerable emotions of childhood trauma and to see our parents, or other trusted authority figures, as imperfect and responsible for much, if not most, of our suffering. Facing and owning the painful truth, not prolonging the lie, is what is necessary to heal and become whole. It is more difficult, but far better for the world we live in, than creating fantasies and conspiracies or demonizing China, the opposite political party, the press, immigrants, people of different faiths and people of color. The truth is that privileged Donald Trump was cheated, but by his parents, not by the election process and an endless list of villains. If he had ever been helped to grieve that sad truth by a supportive adult or therapist who validated and empathized with that greatest loss of all, he may have found peace, developed authentic self-worth and appropriate self-love and would have likely been able to empathize with and trust others. The American people would have been spared the chaos, terror, corruption, incompetence, division and damage Donald Trump unleashed and propagated. They wouldn’t have had to spend four years immersed in the nation-wide toxic replay of his family trauma.
My hope is that we will learn many important lessons from the Trump years. We must close any and all loopholes that permit unscrupulous, authoritarian and malevolent individuals to take on positions of power in government, as well as loopholes in our institutions that could be exploited to undermine our democracy. We cannot depend on norms and assumptions of decency when our society has too many mentally unwell people who lack emotional security and intelligence, conscience and integrity and whose primary aim is to exploit power. Democracy is fragile and America is not immune from the human dynamics that lead to authoritarianism. Highly trained specialists exist who can recognize and assess for authoritarian or psychopathic personality traits which are far outside the norm of human behavior. These areas of research and expertise should be valued, further developed and put to use. It is tragic that strong warnings by numerous respected mental health professionals with highly relevant expertise, who went out on a limb for the safety of their country, were disregarded by Congress. America cannot afford to gamble again. The next time we may not inch by disaster.
Protecting democracy warrants erring on the side of caution. Our population is large enough to afford raising the bar for who is considered trustworthy enough to take on the top positions of authority in our government. This would include President, Vice President, both houses of Congress and possibly the Supreme Court. We can’t leave it to political parties to police their own. Perhaps, as in police departments, admitting that members of your “work family,” to whom you are deeply attached, are unstable or corrupt, triggers the shame of having had childhood family members who were likewise compromised. Shame makes people want to hide and not speak up. There needs to be a non-partisan board of trained experts who can assess high office seekers for personality traits that are dangerous to democracy. I anticipate that anyone whose morals, aims or judgment are questionable would be threatened by such a hurdle and would fight it vehemently, as any predator or enabler of predators would, but these protective strategies, in my opinion, are crucial in order to protect the security and stability of our nation and its people.
In addition to these higher standards, there clearly is much that can and should be done to address inequities in our country so that everyone can experience safety, justice, respect and opportunity and feel the security that comes from knowing their basic needs for food, shelter, healthcare, education and contributing to society are met. To borrow from the educational principle and act, No Child Left Behind, we must add, No Human Being Left Behind. No one wants to bear the shame, helplessness and fear of being a “Have Not.” There is less need to protest or riot when we are treated as deserving human beings.
The unsound and disturbing personalities of Donald Trump, his followers and the endless parade of characters in our national drama, point directly at what should be our greatest concern. The big picture, that we’ve been overlooking, is this: Human personalities, and the relationships that shape them, are the foundation of society and they need to be emotionally healthy in order for the society to succeed and thrive. Confucius knew this 2,500 years ago. We need to recognize the pivotal role and value of emotions in family relationships. How we handle our emotions, and attachment relationship needs, is learned in the family and impacts our functioning on every level- psychologically, behaviorally, physically, socially, in our interactions with authorities and how we behave in positions of authority.
If almost half of our population is prone to authoritarianism, either as leaders or as followers, obviously we are not doing a good enough job of raising emotionally healthy children and adults. We seem to be breeding predators, those in fight-dominate mode, and a far larger population of prey, people who are in freeze-submit and fawn modes. Fortunately, there have been enough citizens who are alarmed and in fight- rescue mode for decency, democracy, wisdom and justice, but the tipping point is too close for comfort. Authoritarian leaders illuminate a picture of a dangerous world and, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, offer protection by ridding the world of all the bad guys “out there.” Such a predator immediately portrays any other supposed helpers as untrustworthy villains, so the authentic helpers are defamed and disempowered. “I’m the good parent, others are fake, bad parents.” When children are raised by parents who don’t understand, trust and respect each other, they may become more susceptible to falling for this splitting strategy.
Additionally, when too many members of our population have a part of their personality that is a deprived, afraid, confused and naïve child, they are at high risk for being easily fooled, misled and exploited by an autocratic demagogue. Young children can’t distinguish a cunning, self-serving authority figure from a conscientious, caring adult. This tells me that we need to give children the experience of how it feels when connected with a healthy, responsible caretaker. Good parents value their own and others' emotions and model respect in relationship with others, including the child’s other parent. A truly good parent doesn’t manufacture and heighten fear and hatred, doesn’t talk at you and continually tell you what to think and do. A good parent helps the child express insecurities and needs, is receptive and attuned to the authentic emotional experience of the child and mirrors that, empathizes with that and responds with deep comfort, reassurance and protection. It is a patient, one-on–one, intimate and ongoing personal experience, not a quick-fix crowd experience. The more a human being feels the comfort, security and deep self-worth that comes from a truly loving relationship with an adult, the easier it will be to recognize and reject the fake in a personal relationship or potential authority figure.
Secure, emotionally intelligent and compassionate attachment relationships- with our parents, our self, our adult partner and our children- can be created, but they require perseverance and competent guidance from those who are steeped in the flourishing fields of trauma, emotion, love and attachment. The more government leaders can derive their sense of self-worth, competency and security from their love relationships at home, the less they will make their political party their primary attachment relationship. The less they will use their position and power to compensate for childhood powerlessness and shame. The less they will be intimidated and feel at the mercy of bullies and the masses who hold them hostage by threatening to eject them from positions of power and status. Losing a powerful and prestigious position is only a catastrophe when your sense of security and deepest source of vitality and life meaning aren’t grounded in your relationship with yourself and your loved ones and the miracle of being alive.
We also need to take seriously the reality that psychological and relationship trauma are widespread in society. Trauma in our formative years begets trauma for ourselves and others in adulthood. Thankfully, highly effective methods of healing are now available from specially trained mental health clinicians and marriage and family therapists. It is imperative though, that our government collaborates with leaders in the fields of emotion-focused and trauma-informed mental health treatments, mindfulness and Self Leadership, affective neuroscience and attachment relationships to greatly expand opportunities for our citizens to proactively develop the skills of emotional intelligence, compassion for self and other, mindfulness and those found in secure attachment relationships. Cognitive intelligence and ego aggrandizement are no substitutes.
These crucial skills help us to process feelings of fear, shame, powerlessness, anger, sadness and grief, as they arise in all human lives, so that they don’t lead to a frightening array of symptoms, unhealthy coping strategies and dysfunctional behaviors. The skills fostered in Self-leadership also help us to manage vulnerable inner child parts, as well as harmful – to self and other - “protective parts,” of our personality. With increased skillfulness, we can be more sound and sensitive beings who experience deeper connection to and nurturing of our own and our family members’ authentic selves. When members of society possess the inner security that comes from being deeply known, loved and cared for, so much is possible that is wholesome for ourselves, our country and our world.
Donald Trump may have had an abundance of material wealth, privilege, opportunity, power, attention and admiration, but he was utterly deprived of the feelings of security and peace that come from a parent’s unconditional love, protection, deep emotional connection and empathic nurturing. The harm he caused by recklessly trying to fill that emotional void, and fake his way through being a human being and our president, is his horrific legacy and our national nightmare. Let us wake up, learn what matters most to human beings and skillfully cultivate emotionally rich relationships with our selves and others.
Charlette Mikulka, LCSW has a part time private practice and is the author of
Peace in the Heart and Home.
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