Disorganized Attachment in the Oval Office and Beyond

In March, Joel Whitebook, Director of Columbia University’s Psychoanalytic Studies Program, published Trump’s Method, Our Madness in the New York Times. Whitebook likened the disorientation many feel in trying to make sense of the new president to a clinician’s experience of working with psychosis. As the title of his piece suggests, Whitebook saw Trump as employing a deliberate strategy designed to sow confusion, anxiety, and exhaustion.

Now the president’s chaotic and self-defeating gyrations suggest less method than supposed. It may not be madness, but what we are witnessing bears the hallmarks of disorganized attachment.

Disorganized attachment can result when a child’s primary caregivers are simultaneously a source of safety and danger. Such parents are often abusive, frightened themselves, or operating in a dissociated manner from their own unresolved traumas. What attachment researcher Mary Main describes as the child’s dilemma of “fright without solution” leads to a collapse of strategy. This and other characteristics of disorganized attachment–erratic behavior, hostility, aggression, lack of empathy, problems with trust and truth, an incoherent narrative, and viewing the world as an unsafe place–describe the president.

Trump grew up amid material indulgence and emotional harshness. His father, notoriously demanding, critical, and controlling, mercilessly targeted vulnerability. The young Donald Trump, already constitutionally inclined toward aggression, so thoroughly identified with the aggressor that he was sent away to military school at age 13. Trump describes the tough and often physically abusive treatment there admiringly. Recapitulating the dynamic of turning to those who literally and figuratively whip him into shape, he’s now stocked his administration with generals.

Paradoxically, Trump the boy—for whom safety and danger were fused—became President Trump in part by promising security to those fearful of economic and cultural displacement in a changing and often frightening world. Under the authoritarian’s guise of powerful protector, he fans and quells fear simultaneously, pitting one group against another. Just as he seeks but can never find safety, he promises but never delivers it.

Examples abound: pledging healthcare to all by depriving millions of it; loving coal miners while defunding programs that support them; undermining his allies; protecting us from North Korea by bullying us to the brink of nuclear war.

Nowhere is this contradictory dynamic more apparent than Trump’s recent treatment of the Dreamers. He is neither the first nor last politician to sell out vulnerable populations. What’s unusual is how much Trump’s actions reflect his erratic internal state. Harsh rhetoric intertwines with proclamations of love and care-taking for the Dreamers. Then Trump rescinds DACA, sending his less conflicted Attorney General to announce it. The president has since issued a stream of contradictory messages. The Trump/Sessions duo splits into two the one who cares yet cowers behind the one who bullies. But it is our singular president in whom safety and danger are incoherently fused, creating uncertainty and anxiety. With Trump’s punt to Congress, maybe the Dreamers will be safe, maybe they’ll be hung out to dry. Maybe it’s method; more likely it’s a collapse of strategy. How fitting that this most poignant example involves vulnerable children dependent on authorities who have the duty and capacity to protect, but instead endanger.

My fellow therapists and I see the effects of such traumas in our practices, and know how commonly they are acted out, how difficult they are to heal. We also know that the arduous road to recovery comes from being able to feel the pain of the past and integrate it into a cohesive, complex narrative.

This holds no interest for Trump.  “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” he’s told his biographer, who notes: “This combination of love and hate is Donald Trump’s psyche turned inside out. . . .He’s making us experience what he experiences inside of himself.”

The effects of disorganized attachment are writ large in this man and across the globe.

Sad. For him, and for us.

 

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