Early on in most forms of psychotherapy, the therapist asks about the patient’s childhood, how he or she felt when things went well or poorly, how frustration was tolerated and how conflicts were resolved. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand the reason for historical review: the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
Lifelong patterns of emotional and social behavior are established remarkably early in life. Scientific studies following people for decades after infancy have shown that many aspects of temperament –such as anxiety, irritability and calmness- are evident in the first six months of life and remain characteristics of an individual throughout their lives. Enduring aspects of temperament and personality are considerably genetic, that is inherited from one’s parents, but environment and experience play an important modifying role.
What then are we to make of the seemingly inexplicable and undisciplined behavior of our president? Is there reason to be surprised by any of it, as so many appear to be, or is it consistent with what we have heard about his behavior as a child, in school, in his social activities, and in business? I doubt that any of his erratic behavior and hyperbolic and personal threats are out of character with what our president’s lifelong history would predict. It’s a simple formula and it keeps repeating, whether it’s a teacher, Putin, white supremacists or the press: If he thinks you are a “fan”, he’s your friend; if he thinks you’re not, he’s not. The details, the content of what he reacts to are totally irrelevant. The only thing that matters is whether he perceives adulation, or admiration, or at least positive reviews. If he perceives the opposite, he is congenitally incapable of a measured response.
The big surprise is how our elected officials, the guardians of our political and cultural traditions, have tolerated Trump’s conduct. Wilfred Bion, an early pioneer in group psychoanalysis from the Tavistock Clinic in London, said that in every group, the sickest, most immature member always gets their way, until the healthier, more mature members finally decide to expel the sicker person. Psychologically healthier group members are not willing or able to operate at the same level, to utilize the same approaches to interacting with other members of the group- the same degree of manipulation, impulsiveness, neediness, and self-preoccupation. They tolerate the intolerable by rationalizing, by turning a blind’s eye, by finding some perverse advantage in it, and by compromising their own sense of reality. All to avoid a direct confrontation.
Now in the face of our childish president’s escalating saber rattling and moral depravity, government officials continue rationalizing and offering up one speculative explanation after another to let it continue - pandering to an immature person who cannot think beyond his own needs. Some in congress have actually said that war with North Korea may be inevitable. Are they so cowardly that they find a way to convince themselves of a military outcome that would not result in the death of literally millions? In the face of a dangerously shameful failure of moral leadership following the events in Charlottesville, they offer only feckless tweets and sound bites. Are they so craven that they look at what happened there and think only of the news cycle? And the mendacity and divisiveness on display once again in Phoenix, does it also fall on shamelessly self-serving ears? When will the mature members of the group stand up and end this insanity?