book reviews, mental health, narcissists, politicians, politics, Trump

A review of Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, by Justin A. Frank, MD…

When Donald Trump was still POTUS, I bought a bunch of books about him. I haven’t managed to finish them all, even though he was voted out of office in 2020. I’m an avid reader, but I can’t read books as fast as I once did, when my eyes weren’t so old and I didn’t need to nap so much. Besides that, I find reading about Trump alternately infuriating and terrifying, even though he’s also a fascinating character. It shocks me that he’s able to get away with what he does, although it now appears that special super power could soon be about to end.

From the beginning of Trump’s “reign”, I have believed very strongly that he is a narcissistic sociopath or a malignant narcissist, or something of that order… I remember hearing back in the 80s what a scumbag he was, but at that time, I didn’t really care too much. I was a kid. Now that I’m middle aged, and see the damage that can be wrought by corrupt leaders who are so power hungry that they completely lose sight of responsibility and decency, I care a lot more about Trump and the many people who emulate and admire him.

In late March 2020, I downloaded Justin A. Frank’s book, Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. Frank is a psychiatrist with several decades of experience in practicing and teaching psychiatry. According to his page on Amazon.com:

Justin Frank M.D. is a highly regarded psychoanalyst and teacher. A clinician with more than thirty year’s experience, Dr. Frank used the principles of applied psychoanalysis to assemble a comprehensive psychological profile of President George W. Bush in his 2004 New York Times bestselling book Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President (HarperCollins). His newest book, Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President is being published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster on October 18, 2011. 

Dr. Frank currently writes a biweekly column for Time.com. He also contributes to HuffingtonPost.com, DailyBeast.com and Salon.com, and is a frequent writer and speaker on topics as diverse as politics, film, and theater. He is Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center, and the co-director of the Metropolitan Center for Object Relations in New York.

Dr. Frank did his psychiatric residency at Harvard Medical School and was chief resident at the Cambridge Hospital. He was also awarded the DuPont-Warren Fellowship by Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Frank lives in Washington DC.

As you can see, Dr. Frank has written several “on the couch” books about presidents. I haven’t read the other books, as before Trump came along, I didn’t care very much about politics. It’s been said that no person is 100 percent “bad”. I suppose that if I could say one thing good about Donald Trump, it’s that he has motivated people like me to care about who is leading the country, and whether or not they are fit to be in such a position. I have never thought Trump was “fit” to be president, although I do remember thinking he’d do better than Ted Cruz. At this point, though, I think I was mistaken about that.

After I finished Mary Trump’s book about what led the people of the United States to elect her corrupt uncle, I decided to read Dr. Frank’s book. I thought it would be a good follow up. I was right, even though Trump on the Couch was published in 2018, when Trump was still parking his fat ass in the White House. Even though Trump lost the election in 2020, he’s still very much in the news, still affecting our lives with his blustery rhetoric and uncanny ability to stimulate people with the worst of values to act in destroying our democracy. Trump will never change and, in fact, I think he’s gotten even worse. Dr. Frank explains why that is, as he introduces readers to Trump’s psyche, and what caused him to turn into the unhinged orange nightmare that he is today.

Trump on the Couch starts with Trump’s story, from the very beginning. Frank writes about Trump’s family history and the dynamics that shaped Donald Trump. I noticed that Frank seems to place a lot of emphasis on Trump’s Scottish mother, Mary, who left her homeland at age 18, fleeing the poverty she was raised in during the early 20th century. Mary Trump (Trump’s mom, not his niece) came to New York and found work as a housekeeper and nanny, until she met up and coming real estate magnate Fred Trump, Sr. They married, and had five children: Maryanne, Fred Jr., Elizabeth, Donald, and Robert.

Frank explains that Mary Trump was quite reserved under normal circumstances, and she had servants to do most of the housework. Consequently, she wasn’t a very “hands on mother”, even when she was healthy. But, when Mary gave birth to Donald’s younger brother, Robert, she almost died due to severe hemorrhaging. She had to spend many months resting, and afterwards, was left in fragile health. According to Dr. Frank, this less than devoted mothering had a profound effect on Donald, who was a child who needed a lot of attention. I found myself copying and sharing some of the passages from Frank’s book explaining this:

He was also kind of mean to his little brother, as Frank notes:

He was a creep, even when he was a child.

Because Trump was such a bratty little bastard, his father, who was quite strict, but mostly absent, decided to send Trump to a military boarding school. Trump went to New York Military Academy, where he ended up doing somewhat well, because it was a place where being ruthless and competitive was celebrated. But being at boarding school further separated Trump from his mother, and exacerbated his anxiety about maintaining control in every situation. Frank also writes that he thinks Trump may have a form of dyslexia, which makes it hard for him to comprehend language the way that most people do and causes more anxiety, which makes him less empathic to other people.

I noticed that Frank focused a lot on the psychodynamic aspects of mental health evaluation. His theories came across as very Freudian to me, with a lot of emphasis on Trump’s childhood and parents– particularly his mother. I found his observations to be interesting and mostly accurate, although I’m not sure the Freudian approach is always the best one when analyzing people today. But then, I know I don’t have Frank’s expertise or experience. Frank also frequently mentions the Austrian-British psychoanalyst and author, Melanie Klein, who was also very much influenced by Sigmund Freud. I wondered what approach Carl Jung would have taken toward Trump.

Frank follows Trump’s life to his time as POTUS, where he notes a lot of the antisocial and, frankly, unacceptable attitudes Trump brazenly displays toward women, people of color, or anyone else whom he doesn’t consider a “winner” of some sort. I enjoyed the analysis of Trump’s childhood the most interesting part of the book, as Frank explains how Trump’s upbringing helped make him in to who he is today. Once again, I found myself sharing astute quotes from the book:

There were a few times when I found Frank’s observations rather alarming, even though Trump left office. A lot of people would like to see Trump re-elected in 2024. I fear that outcome, because Trump can’t be controlled, and if he has nothing to lose, he will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He can’t legally run for a third time as president, but he made it very plain during his first term, that he’d like to change the laws so that he can stay in power for the rest of his life. And Frank makes it plain that Trump is the type of person who absolutely hates to lose, and can’t tolerate playing fairly. He has no sense of honor or decorum.

Dr. Frank’s book, Trump on the Couch, is very comprehensive, with detailed chapters on what he thinks makes Trump tick. He includes an extensive bibliography, as well as a glossary, that includes some Trump specific terms that explain certain traits and behaviors specific to Trump. One reviewer on Amazon.com recommended reading the glossary before reading the book. I don’t think that’s a bad idea. The reviewer also included this comment from Frank about Trump’s behavior and other people’s reactions to it:

“Idealization is the product of extreme splitting, beyond the simple internal world of good and bad, and into one that is ideal and awful. It transforms the perception of reality into something better; it may lay dormant in the unconscious and emerge when one falls in love or has a baby. Just as lovers see themselves – their best selves – in another, the electorate usually idealizes their candidate for higher office. Thus, Ann Coulter sounded like a betrayed lover when Trump signed a budget that didn’t include funding for the wall he promised her. When people feel understood by a leader – or by a therapist – they idealize that person. Trump’s base felt that he understood their frustration and pent-up rage, so they idealized him more than any American president in decades. He promised to ‘drain the swamp’ and destroy the self-centered elites. They [Trump’s supporters, not the self-centered elites] idealized him so much that he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote, and no one corrected or contradicted him. They loved him: never have there been such long lines at campaign rallies as there were at Trump’s. He tapped into unconscious recall of the infant’s love for the parent, who can magically understand the child even before he has words” (pages 245-246).

However, because this book is hostile toward Trump’s image, I feel quite certain that Dr. Frank’s analysis comes only from books, interviews with people who know or have been exposed to Trump, and watching the way Trump behaves in public. He clearly didn’t interview Trump himself, which I think would make it difficult for his “diagnosis” to be taken as seriously as it might. And some people will read this book and think it’s “unfair”, because it’s biased against Trump. It’s quite obvious that Justin A. Frank is not a Trump admirer. But he does have to sell books to make the endeavor worthwhile, so my guess is that he sort of pandered to the “base” who would be interested in reading this book.

Overall, I found Dr. Frank’s analysis of Donald Trump to be accurate and interesting. Trump on the Couch is a quick and easy read, and will probably offer “confirmation bias” to those who are concerned about Trump’s influence on people. I do think it’s worth reading in 2022, even though it was written when Trump was still in office. Trump has made it clear that he’s not giving up on another run at the White House, even though he’s currently plagued with serious legal and financial issues. Dr. Frank makes it plain that people like Trump don’t change, and tend to get worse instead of better. Trump himself has said that he’s basically the same person he was when he was about eight years old. Let that sink in… and vote accordingly.

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4 thoughts on “A review of Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, by Justin A. Frank, MD…

  1. I believe you are correct that Trump is likely a narcissistic sociopath or a malignant narcissist as well as an idiot. The Trump following we see is beyond comprehension. Why are people so blind? It seems like an interesting book but I feel I know enough. Now I am waiting for this sad saga to end.

    • I think a lot of people simply don’t want to admit that they were duped by Trump. And others are excited by Trump’s toxic message and share in the dysfunction.

      I wish the sad saga would end, too… I would like to be rid of Trump and his emulators and Putin, who continues to make things scary and dangerous. I feel like everything we feared in the mid 80s is coming true.

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