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Psychology : Applied

The Psychology of Trump’s Tweets

Another tweet, another firestorm. Clearly it’s not normal, and even more clearly, this behaviour is not suited to the office of the president. But can Trump’s tweets be a window into his soul – or more accurately, his psyche?

You might not think that Freud could shed some light on this, but give him a chance. In his book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life he aimed to show the world how we reveal ourselves through our everyday behaviours: our jokes, the forgetting of names, our “Freudian slips”. Like dreams, he felt that these were clues to what is happening deep in our unconscious minds.

In psychoanalysis, patients are encouraged to ”free associate” – to lie back and let their unconscious do the work. The analyst sits behind the patient so they don’t get hung up on being watched, which is meant to free them up to share uncritically. Can we imagine that when one tweets, it’s a bit like free association? It seems like no one is watching, though of course there are millions. Are Trump’s tweets symptoms of his stormy unconscious?

The tweets that cause the most consternation do so because they undermine social mores. Civilised people, especially presidents, just aren’t supposed to do that. But Twitter, by way of what John Suler calls the “online disinhibition effect” can bypass our critical capacities and let our rather less socially acceptable drives through. Let’s take Trump’s most recent controversial tweets:

In psychoanalysis we can see this as a clear illustration of a defence mechanism created to defend the ego – to maintain a powerful sense of self. First he attacks @Morning_Joe (Joe Scarborough) by referring to him as “poorly rated” – an obvious concern for Trump which has emerged again and again from ratings on The Celebrity Apprentice to having his press secretary defend numbers at attendance at his inauguration. He notes that Joe talks badly of him, assures us that he doesn’t watch anymore (a bunch of sour grapes anyway), and then calls him Psycho Joe – indicating that he’s even too crazy to take seriously.

There are a series of readable symptoms here. Trump attempts to elevate his own ego in relation to Joe’s, denigrates Joe by saying he’s not important, and then calls him names. In the following tweet he reveals more. He brings in Joe’s associate, Mika Brzezinsky, similarly calls her “Crazy Mika” and details how he wouldn’t allow them to join him at Mar-a-Lago for New Year’s Eve. He signs off my making an ad hominem attack on Brzezinsky by stating that she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

This attack is not much different from an 8 year old screaming, “I never wanted you at my party anyway because you’re stupid and ugly! And by the way I don’t even care.” A child brazenly demonstrates his defence by showing how much it matters to him, while claiming it doesn’t matter at all.

Photo Credit: Mindaugas Danys

When the core of one’s self esteem is damaged we call this a narcissistic wound. While narcissism is generally understood as excessive self-love, it is actually its opposite. Narcissism reveals a massive deficit of self-regard at one’s core that is compensated by an inflated self-aggrandisement. However, this happens only on the surface. In reality,  the ego of a narcissistically wounded individual often festers in its own self-loathing, and when provoked, it can launch a bloody attack to defend the shinier image of itself.

Trumps tweets are so revealing because they plainly show his concerns. Concerns about ratings, concerned about being praised, accepted, and included. His plastic surgery jibe at Brzezinsky is particularly enlightening. By attacking her perceived face lift, Trump reveals a concern about his own fragile vanity that is bleeding at the very edges. In a classic example of projection, he perceives in another what is a major concern of himself that he cannot accept  – that someone will see through his mask to the bloody and abject interior.

This post is now available on The Huffington Post.


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