“He is visualizing burning things and blowing them up”: How Trump may be coping with being caught

As a person ages, they become more their true self; Donald Trump has been engaging in criminal and other antisocial behavior for decades. In many ways, Trump is one of the most successful criminals in American history. Crime helped Trump to become a billionaire. Crime helped Trump to takeover the White House in 2016. Crime helped Trump to almost succeed in his Jan. 6 coup attempt and the ongoing and escalating attempts by this Republican-fascist party and MAGA and “conservative” movement to end America’s multiracial democracy.

With his indictment in New York this week, and the other more serious cases looming over him in connection to election fraud and interference, as well as stealing top secret and highly classified federal documents, this is the first time in Trump’s life that he is facing real and substantial – and potentially life-altering – consequences for his pathological and corrupt behavior.

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and the author of “Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.” In this wide-ranging conversation, he explains how Trump is likely responding on an emotional and psychological level to being arrested on Monday and facing the prospect of true accountability for his decades-long crime spree. Dr. Frank also explores how someone with Trump’s antisocial personality (and resulting attraction to violence and death) behaves when they are confronted by the law and other powerful forces who are (finally) trying to stop them.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

When I looked at Donald Trump being arraigned in New York, in particular, that one moment when he glared at the news reporters and cameras, I saw his true self. That was the real Trump: he looked violent, enraged, and like a killer from a horror movie. As you know I use the correct moral language when discussing fascism and the likes of Trump and his movement. Trump was revealing, even more, his true evil self. As a therapist and a human being what did you see?

I agree with you. That moment did in fact reveal the true Donald Trump.

But here is the complexity: There is really more than one real, or true, Donald Trump; people are multilayered. At his core, what we see in that moment with Trump in Manhattan was that he knows he is a criminal who has finally been caught and may be held responsible for his wrongdoing. To be even blunter, Trump looked like a predatory animal that had been caged. “Evil” is not a psychoanalytic term, but that was his affect in the moment. What I also saw that was very striking in that moment was that Trump looked like he was full of self-pity, he was defeated and alone; he seemed to realize that nobody feels sorry for him. As we’ve seen time and again — with Michael Cohen, for example — Trump does not merit or inspire sympathy in those he treats badly. 

“I don’t know exactly what will happen with the likes of Trump because such human predators are usually denied bail or committed to a hospital for supervision — and medication.”

Trump in his defeat is also an example and reminder of Sigmund Freud’s theories about the life instinct and the death instinct. The death instinct is about how people take pleasure in destruction, to destroy and hurt others. Trump is possessed by his death instinct.

What does someone like Donald Trump do when they’re finally reined in? In Trump’s case, he is being held criminally responsible and perhaps even faces removal from society. Trump is a predator. How do such people react when they are caged, either literally or metaphorically?

Predators can massively regress in such circumstances and lose even a modicum of self-control. They lash out and need to be restrained for their safety and that of their caregivers. That’s why we have secure padded cells (euphemized as “quiet rooms”) inside locked wards in mental hospitals. When a predator is cornered, he generally exhibits paranoia, because one of the things that a predator tries to resist is his paranoid anxiety. When a predator is hunting or otherwise looking for a target he becomes hypervigilant for danger. When Trump is cornered, as he is now with this felony case, he will become increasingly paranoid or defeated. I don’t know exactly what will happen with the likes of Trump because such human predators are usually denied bail or committed to a hospital for supervision — and medication.

How would you assess Donald Trump’s emotional maturity level? 

First, Trump never grew up. He is a child, emotionally. Trump’s emotional maturity level is perhaps that of a teenager, a 13-year-old who has just hit puberty and wants to fight people and destroy things. In fact, Trump’s emotional maturity may actually be closer to a ten-year-old. The deep problem with Trump is that he is a bully. Trump is also a coward. The combination of those traits is very dangerous. Trump is also a “pervert,” meaning in the original sense of the word, that he has turned away from truth. Moreover, Trump is actually the ultimate pervert in that sense: he hates the truth, i.e. the media is lying about him, “fake news,” the Big Lie about the election, etc.

One of the truths that Trump turns away from is that other people are human beings who should be respected because they have feelings and inherent dignity and worth. But for Trump, people are either useful to him or seen as threats or prey.  

How does Donald Trump manage his anxiety and stress? What sort of self-soothing or coping behaviors does he engage in to compensate?

Again, Trump is dominated by the death instinct which includes pleasure in being destructive. A person who has that temperament is going to manage his anxieties and fears and other stress by escalating fantasies of destructiveness. In Trump’s mind, he is visualizing burning things and blowing them up. He is fantasizing about hurting other people. Those fantasies of harm and destruction bring him great pleasure. A person like Trump may be fantasizing about committing acts of mass murder.

If Trump were a mafia boss, he would get his consiglieres to act on his behalf. For Trump to truly be calm and at peace he would need to rule the world, to dominate everyone and everything around him. Trump lives to make other people scared. He will also not let himself feel dependent on, or need, other human beings.

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When I saw Trump on Monday at the courthouse, he looked like a very lonely and pitiable man. Is he even capable of understanding how loathed, unloved, and despised he is by the American people? He wasn’t even able to summon up a decent size crowd of MAGAites to rally for him outside the courthouse.

He is more dangerous now that he is under threat.

Even Trump’s wife, let alone the rest of his family, didn’t accompany him to his arraignment. Trump imagines that he is loved and supported by the American people. He’s a person who is dominated by a need to spoil or attack what’s good in other people — and he does it all without an ounce of guilt. Trump views relationships and the world in a transactional way. Everything is about winning and losing. That is the way of the world for someone like Trump. Trump really does not have any real, honest friendships. You either sycophantically support and agree with him or you’re written off.

Most people have violent fantasies. How does someone like Trump manage his violent fantasies versus actually following through on such thoughts and impulses? 

People underestimate Trump’s predatory nature. He is more dangerous now that he is under threat. Trump needs to be locked up because he has real problems with controlling his violent fantasies and impulses. Trump lacks internal self-regulation.

How does Trump process being in a situation where his lying and other pathological behavior will likely be of little use in saving him? Such behavior will almost certainly backfire in court.

He knows that in court, he must keep his mouth shut. And he’s surrounded by lawyers who tell him to shut up. Trump can’t control himself; he has to be controlled externally. He needs to be in a secure facility.

A person like Trump may be fantasizing about committing acts of mass murder.

I think Trump actually has to numb himself in court. I do not believe it is possible for Trump to actually process everything that is happening to him right now. Trump would not be able to function in court if he did not somehow turn off his hate and rage. Trump is a predator but he is also a type of paper tiger. He is grandiose, all puffed up. That is not separate from his viciousness, it actually colors it. When you’re grandiose and a predator, you feel you can do anything. But part of that belief is based on an unrealistic idea of yourself. Trump’s magical thinking reflects those beliefs and impulses. “I alone can fix it.” Those are statements made by a pathologically grandiose person. When you’re a killer, your life fantasies are not built on facts and reality. Donald Trump’s main weapons are his wealth, his bullying and his menacing quality. His intelligence also remains a weapon.

The hush money case is basically about women and sex. Is this triggering some type of hostile sexism and misogyny given Trump’s long pattern of hating women and dozens of alleged rape and sexual assault cases.

In my opinion, at his deepest level, Trump is afraid of women. He sees all women as inherently dangerous and, perversely, as predators. Trump triumphs over those fears by attempting to conquer and dominate women. When Trump pays women with hush money, for example as with Stormy Daniels, he is demeaning them and trying to turn them into prostitutes.

Donald Trump wanted a perp walk when he was arrested in New York. He also wanted a real mugshot taken. Neither of those things happened. But now Trump is selling t-shirts emblazoned with a fake mugshot of his face. Does he really understand the seriousness of what is happening with these alleged crimes and how he could actually end up in very serious trouble given the other charges he is potentially facing?

On a certain level, Trump may know that he is alone and feeling lonely. Because of that deep self-pity, Trump is very happy to use a fake mugshot image as a way of taking advantage of other people and getting money from them — but on his own terms. By selling his own mugshot, Trump is actually reversing, in his mind, the feelings of humiliation he would experience from having his mugshot taken by the police. He’s made a choice. It’s about having power. As compared to how he looked in court, Trump has control over the fake mugshot. Donald Trump can turn any loss — in his mind at least — into a gain. In his mind, Trump can do anything he wants. 

Trump ended his historic day on Monday at Mar-a-Lago with what was billed as some type of great and powerful speech to rally his followers. What were your thoughts about Trump’s speech?

Trump feeds on the unconditional love and adulation of his audience. It inflates him. He becomes more alive at Mar-a-Lago. Other people’s fantasies of Trump make him feel powerful. But even there, Trump did not look as lively as usual. He was defeated on Tuesday. His need for narcissistic fuel was critical after being arraigned and he couldn’t be completely satisfied in the usual ways. Trump is desperate.

Trump is a fabulist. He can also be reasonably described as delusional and mentally pathological. What happens to such a personality when reality comes crashing down on them? How does such a mind resolve the cognitive dissonance?

There are people in similar situations who do kill themselves. Trump will not do such a thing. He is too mean to die because his death instinct still gives him pleasure from hurting other people. He will do anything he can to satisfy his urges. But I see Trump as dead inside. He is more allied with his death instincts than his life instincts.

Trump will shrivel in the end. He has a fantasy that he is like Houdini and that he can always escape. He can’t imagine being held accountable for his alleged crimes and other wrongdoing. With this arraignment and the more serious cases that Trump is also facing, this is the first time in his life that it is dawning on him that he cannot escape like in a fantasy.

When he is alone or otherwise has a moment to process all that is happening with being the first U.S. president to face a criminal trial after leaving office and the other far more serious potential indictments that are waiting for him, what is he thinking about? Is he capable of critical self-reflection?

Trump is not capable of critical self-reflection. He is embracing his fantasies in whatever form they may take. He is incapable of feeling guilt. Being in front of an appreciative audience or sending out more screeds online, attacking people or hiring more lawyers are Trump’s ways of trying to feel alive and to distract himself from the reality of the situation. Donald Trump is acting like a cornered animal. He is however, a very intelligent animal. As an acolyte of the late Roy Cohn, Trump is skilled in devising legal strategies. His attacks on Judge Merchan make him feel better, but they also serve a purpose. He hopes that Merchan will buckle under pressure and recuse himself from the case, thereby creating, at the very least, a delay in the proceedings and the prospect of a more sympathetic court.

Is he afraid?

Yes, this is the first time Trump has really felt fear of what may happen to him if he loses in court. He is actually facing serious consequences for his behavior. Trump is also very afraid of being humiliated and mocked if he is convicted and sentenced. I agree with you that he is unlikely to be imprisoned, but the experience of being seen, and shamed, for who he really is, could be impossible for him to bear.

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