The media is a-buzz with speculation about why Donald Trump won’t admit he was wrong about Birtherism. There are many angles from which to speculate about his motives. I would like to offer a psychoanalytic interpretation of this phenomena because only psychoanalysis can offer a view that can account for what so many are experiencing as an impenetrable barrier to comprehension – for so many it is incomprehensible that in the face of so much contrary evidence that ANYONE could maintain this position. What does one say to someone for whom 2+2=5 no matter how much anyone demonstrates otherwise? And, in light of today, now says, “OK I see 2+2=4, but SHE said that 2+2=5 and it took me to correct it!”
I believe the answer to the psychological component (rather than the sociological or political) of this lies in the nature of what psychoanalysts encounter clinically as the manifestation of a DELUSIONAL CAPSULE or area in an otherwise neurotic personality. As any analyst or therapist knows who has encountered such areas working with patients, ONE CANNOT ARGUE OR REASON WITH DELUSION. Why? Because the delusion or delusional formation attests to an underlying area of trauma – a place where extreme mental pain, a psychological catastrophe – has been quarantined to protect and ensure survival of the rest of the personality. Delusional constructions have to be believed because otherwise the psyche is threatened with catastrophe. Clinically, through treatment, as the underlying catastrophic emotional wound is ameliorated, the delusional constructions abate and proper ego structure can be grown in it’s place.
Before deconstructing the Birther phenomena, there are some concepts that I ought to introduce since they provide an interpretive key or lens through which I will be hoping to shed light on the link between the fragile nature of self esteem which in this case underlies the need to construct a delusion.
DISCLAIMER: I HAVE NEVER PERSONALLY MET DONALD TRUMP NOR HAVE I CLINICALLY EVALUATED HIM IN PERSON. ALL THAT FOLLOWS IS SPECULATION BASED ON MR TRUMP’S OWN PUBLIC COMMUNICATIONS. Nevertheless, if it walks and sounds like a duck…..
So, by way of brief detour, let us first examine a related example of how Trump constructs a delusion. The first example is from yesterday’s New York Times article, reporting on Trump’s criticism of an African-American pastor who interrupted him during a campaign speech at her church in Flint, Michigan. The day after this incident, on Fox News, Trump accused her of being “nervous” before he spoke, which later seemed to him to be proof that she had set him up. He stated he believed Pastor Timmons had a political agenda, remarking, “Everyone plays their games, it doesn’t bother me.”
I think in this incident we can (analytically) infer the same processes at work in the delusional birther construction. First, Trump experiences a wound to his self-esteem (a ‘NARCISSISTIC INJURY’, in the lingo) – the pastor corrected him on stage and this was experienced as humiliating, being made to feel small and inferior. And without the internal resources to work through this wound, it festered and had to be ejected from his sense of himself to restore his overall psychic equilibrium, needing to feel big and superior.
Second, the next day Trump seems to spontaneously bring up this issues and accuses the pastor Timmons of attacking him with malicious intent – in his mind he has made her a persecutor, confusing or conflating his feeling of being hurt (the end result) with her intent (she did it on purpose), and then rationalizes this distortion by making it sound reasonable: “everyone plays their games.” This latter construction, sighting and citing the pastor as malicious-game-playing-dishonest bad object is an example of what we call ‘PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION’. What this means is that he perceives the pastor as harboring and manifesting in her behavior emotions, motives, and attitudes that are really true about him, but that he is unable to own or accept emotionally and maintain his sense of himself as all good (I only tell the truth), strong, powerful, and right.
Thus, third, PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION is also a means of ‘REVERSING PERSPECTIVE’ (what is true is false and what is false is true): in effect rather than own that when he was interrupted by Pastor Timmons HE felt caught AT HIS GAME (manipulation) of using this church’s invitation in Flint Michigan to malign, persecute and lie about Hilary Clinton, he has to say in effect, “that’s not me it’s her” to eliminate any unbearable feelings of guilt and shame. Moreover, this construction has to be maintained (a ‘PROJECTIVE TRANSFORMATION’ of reality) in spite of reality because otherwise the unacceptable (SPLIT-OFF and PROJECTED) ego states would be returned to the self and may result in a crash of the ‘DEFENSIVE or PATHOLOGICAL ORGANIZATION’, thereby threatening the fragile ego with fragmentation.
So, delusional constructions are constituted by the processes of SPLITTING, PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION, REVERSIBLE PERSPECTIVE, and are organized by the DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION (or defensive ego) with the aim of avoiding traumatic NARCISSISTIC INJURY (i.e., wounds to one’s sense of Self which are experienced as overwhelming, unbearable and annihilating) by creating an enforced PROJECTIVE TRANSFORMATION of perceived social reality (otherwise called a delusion).
Let us see how this abbreviated psychoanalytic model sheds light on Trump’s behavior at his news conference this morning where he offered a placebo admission of being wrong about Birtherism:
Trump gave his brief address standing with a group of military veterans in his new hotel in Washington DC
In PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION not only does one expel unacceptable qualities outside the self, one at the same time magically appropriates good or admired qualities. We might wonder if he was appropriating the qualities of honesty, courage and strength from these others on stage through such narcissistic identification, which means somewhere else his probably projecting the opposite qualities of dishonesty, weakness, and cowardliness. Also, notice how much Trump seems to use his real estate properties, where he is ‘the king’, to bolster his sense of self as special, powerful, big, safe, etc.
“President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Mr. Trump said. “Now, we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Mr. Trump said. “I finished it.
So, his first statement is an acknowledgment of reality (giving up a delusional construction) and we can imagine is humiliating for him, and any questions from reporters would only make it worse, as though they were sticking their fingers in the wound. It is in the second statement that we can see the DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION at work using PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION to create another delusional construction to replace the first. His second statement has been repeatedly fact-checked to be false. From this psychoanalytic point of view, however, it is obvious why it is necessary: he has to REVERSE PERSPECTIVE (Hillary is a cowardly liar who puts out such lies due to her weakness) to put into Hillary these unacceptable ego states and qualities to avoid what feels like an annihilating humiliation to admit he was wrong and had been cruel to Obama for the smear of Birtherism. His self esteem is so fragile he cannot help himself but to construct these delusions.
Moreover, why Birtherism in the first place? One answer can be found in terms of a central preoccupation with “legitimacy” and “illegitimacy”. It has been reported that Mr. Trump was driven around by a chauffeur to do his paper route as a boy. If we extrapolate this as a model, we can infer that in significant ways his family system supported a kind of false or ‘illegitimate’ basis for some of his qualities as a person – feeling successful as a paper boy based on the experience of other people doing the hard work would create a very thin sense of confidence or ‘success’ – not based on his own real work and lived experience of struggle and sacrifice and having to overcome hard challenges on his own efforts. Think of the experience of cheating at something. One may temporarily feel the manic triad of triumph, control and contempt, yet it is a pyrrhic victory since one knows it does not attest to actually having earned the win – it creates or builds underneath the manic triumph an unconscious sense of illegitimacy.
Following this logic, Trump has a unconscious need to PROJECT INTO OBAMA his unconscious sense of inferiority and illegitimacy. This is especially true since as soon as Trump started believing he should be President then Obama became his competitor and therefore the target for evacuating all of his own unbearable feelings about himself. So it seems to me that once Obama had to be the manifestation of illegitimacy that then Trump, who is not otherwise psychotic, had to rationalize the feeling – i.e., come up with an explanation that is logical. In other words, if Obama is an illegitimate president, then what would make him illegitimate? Oh, yeah, not being born in the United States. Hence, this construction becomes the bulwark of a delusion needed for Trump to maintain his psychological equilibrium organized around grandiosity and manic defenses to defend against an underlying fragile sense of existence.
Bion, W.R. (1963) Elements of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.
Bion, W.R. (1965) Transformations. London: Karnac.
Klein, M. (1946) Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms.
Steiner, J. (1993) Psychic Retreats. London: Routledge.
New York Times (09/16/2016)