22 May

Understanding Trump: The Day He Took Off His Mask

by Jon Katz

It was perhaps one of the most revealing and unguarded moments in the Trump Presidency. It happened Thursday; he was standing in a Ford Motor Plant in Michigan, surrounded by executives in masks.

He was not wearing a mask, dismissing the request as yet another plot by Democratic state officials to undermine him.

He had managed to make his decision about the mask the most important news in the world that day, all eyes upon him, even as the virus death toll soared past 100,000.

This is his genius, and the corruption of the institution we call the media, who follow him so eagerly.

Sometimes they are the unknowing enemy of the people.

When the very excited reporters crowded around him to ask why he wasn’t wearing a mask,  he said, “I didn’t want you people in the press to see me with a mask on.” It was a startling admission for a President responding to a health crisis.

Once again, Trump had managed to manipulate the world around him while his feckless opponents flapped and crowed like birds on a telephone wire. But once again, we saw the child behind the mask.

I thought of those people choking to death on their respirators and dying alone in their hospital rooms. I wondered if this was the story they cared about the most on Thursday. I wondered at a leader who thought his mask was a more important story than they were.

Something inside of him, I thought, has been dead a long time.

At that moment, Trump was almost physically transformed into the young adolescent, showing off for his peers, an essential thing in the world being how things appeared, not how they are.

It felt like a Middle School moment to me, not a political one. But perhaps they are the same thing right now.

At this moment, Trump was riveting to me; he let us see his vulnerability, something most damaged and insecure men are unwilling to do.

Like most adolescents in middle school, he was afraid of being seen and ridiculed by a group of people he claimed to despise and always vilifies.

The leader of the Free World, amid an awful Pandemic, was worried about the press seeing him as giving in to them.

He couldn’t bear to be seen as human; this was the most important thing to him; this was worse than getting sick and dying. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and look into his eyes and plead, “hey, grow up!”

Or maybe the worst thing in the world for him was not being all over the news that night, sending another message to his real lovers, his followers.

In her landmark book Twins, British Analyst Dorothy Burlingham explores the life and consciousness of very young children who are ignored, mistreated, or emotionally abused by their parents (think Father Fred Trump, by all accounts a monster Dad).

The child, she writes, spends a lifetime searching for partners who will give him or her all of the attention, approval, love, and understanding he or she desires, and provide an escape from loneliness and solitude.

Before I sat down to write this piece, I read through several of Donald Trump’s latest tweetstorms, and I couldn’t help but think of Burlingham.

One of the reasons I find Donald Trump fascinating is that I was in therapy – including Freudian analysis – for 30 years for my mental illness, my brokenness.

I recognize this in others when I see it, and I connect with them on some level and understand them on another level. I think that is true of many, many people.

Our culture seems to embrace judgment and condemnation rather than empathy and understanding. But my lifelong journey into the dark side of the mind, and the wounds of a shattered childhood,  left me wanting to understand people rather than merely hating them.

This is a gift to a journalist, but especially to a writer. If you don’t understand other people, you can never know yourself.

One thing I keep trying to explain to Trump-obsessed and angry people is that understanding him is not the same thing as condoning or even forgiving him. He has a genius for sure, at domination. He also has a gift for turning people to the dark side of emotions, which is where he lives.

Mental illness is a profound and transformative reality: we are a kind of secret society, we recognize one another and understand each other in a particular way.

I see Donald Trump in many ways the same way I see high-functioning addicts and alcoholics – they are often severely damaged and dysfunctional. Still, their brokenness often gives them great powers.

It is almost impossible to like them and forgive them, over and over again. The worst in them brings out the worst in us.

Donald Trump and I are quite different in many ways, but similar in one: we have both experienced mental illness. Perhaps the most significant difference between us is that I know it, and he doesn’t want to know it. And I sought help, and he doesn’t.

And that is a big deal. Because without help, mental illness can chew one up from the inside. I would not want to be in that man’s head.

Like many of Burlingham’s damaged children, he cannot bear to be criticized or admit error. The only people he can bear to be around are those who accept him unconditionally and show him their bellies, like submissive dogs.

In a sense, the tweets are not a choice for him, but a kind of addiction.

The voices in his head are there for all of us to see. Talk about being authentic.

To me, they are a scream in the night, a cry to his imaginary friends.

What I learned in my therapy was to admit mistakes, show my vulnerability, and broadcast my recovery out into the world. That left me with little to fear and nothing to hide. I wear a mask because I want to, and have been asked to. It’s pretty simple what grown-ups do.

Reading Twins and then Donald Trump’s tweets made Burlingham come alive:

The child takes on imaginary animals (or people) as his intimate and beloved companion; subsequently, he is never separated from his friend, and in this way he overcomes loneliness.” This imaginary friend or friends offers the child what he is searching for: faithful love and unswerving devotion. There is nothing that this friend cannot understand; speech is entirely unnecessary, for understanding comes without words.” These “friends,” writes Burlingham, are a sometimes desperate attempt to substitute for the discarded and unloving family an uncritical but understanding, dumb, and always loving creature.”

Suddenly the tweets make sense to me.

Donald Trump has found his imaginary friends, millions, and millions of them. He doesn’t know them; they don’t know him.

But they are what he is searching for: faithful love and unswerving devotion. There is nothing his friends cannot understand about him, nothing they can’t forgive. Speech is entirely unnecessary; understanding comes without words.

He gives them unswerving devotion; they do the same for him. That is their bond.

John Bowlby, the famous psychiatrist who created attachment theory – a study of how early relationships between children and their parents create a template for their lives.

He found that people who behave like Trump were living out the theory of “ambivalent security.”

To feel attached is to feel safe and secure. By contrast, an insecurely attached child may have a mixture of feelings towards their attachment figure: intense love and dependency, fear of rejection, irritability, and vigilance. One may theorize that their lack of security has aroused a simultaneous wish to be close and the angry determination to punish their attachment figure for the minutest sign of abandonment. It is though the insecurely attached person is saying to themselves: ‘cling as hard as you can to people – they are likely to abandon you; hang on to them and hurt them if they show signs of going away, then they may be less likely to do so.'”

Attachment needs wrote Bowlby, continue throughout life, and are rarely outgrown. The lack of attachment in early childhood leads to narcissistic disturbances of personality characterized by a desperate search for self-affirming friends, family members,  and partners.

When these prove inadequate, says Bowlby, “as they inevitably will,” the person responds with “narcissistic rage and disappointment, which can not be dealt with in a productive or healing way.”

Attachment theory is relevant and straightforward: Where there is a secure attachment – Bowlby called it a “secure core state” – a person feels good about themselves and their capacity to be successful and productive. When the core state is insecure, “defensive strategies come into play.”

Donald Trump did not create our divided world; our divided world created him, and in many ways, made him inevitable. Demagogues arise when governments break their promises to people.  But they don’t know how to govern or lead, only inflame and divide.

In this way, they inevitably fall.

In a sense, we needed Donald Trump to show us who we are and where we are as a nation.  We were already broken and divided; we didn’t have to face up to it. Now we do. Now, at least, we know we have some choices to make.

Trump makes no sense to me on a political or realistic level. Since he is not rational, there is no sensible way for me to understand him completely. A good therapist will do that to you.

The ragings of the left and the right are the antithesis of understanding.

Almost no one in the world saw my illness or understood it.

At least, not until Maria appeared out of the mist to help guide me to a better place. I wouldn’t claim to be any better than Trump before I got help; I am not proud of my life.

As a result, Trump only makes sense to me on an emotional level. Anger and obsession did nothing for me, or the rest of the world.

I can’t relate to him as a President or Great Disrupter, only as a fellow human being, damaged like me, but so much more powerful. And so much more capable of inflicting pain and damage to the idea of democracy, in many ways the most vulnerable of systems.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about Donald Trump as President is that nothing is real, every problem he faces is about him and his own broken life, his own insatiable needs, his ratings.

Bowlby called this “narcissistic rage.”

No one can love him enough; no one can praise him enough or be loyal enough; no one can heal him enough.

This is not an apology or defense of the man—quite the opposite in many ways. The point is that to understand Donald  Trump is to defeat him. To hate Donald Trump is to join him and become just another follower in a different way.

Attention is his nourishment, his fuel. One shrink calls attention the narcissists desert.

I can’t relate to him in any other way than emotionally. He is a human being, deserving of the considerations he can’t or won’t give to other human beings.

As Andrew Cuomo demonstrated recently, Donald Trump can’t be changed or defeated on his own field. He is too powerful and too desperate. And none of his challengers know how to be as ruthless as he is, or wish to be.

All we can do is be better, keep to our faith, and beliefs. Hating him, paying so much attention to him, is a choice, not a moral obligation. And sometimes, a sickness.

There is a beautiful story in the Old Testament of the devil’s determination to get Job to betray God. God gives the devil permission to test Job.

In this parable, the devil is cynical and hateful and claims that God is elitist and fake; he is only righteous because he is wealthy and comfortable.

Satan claims to be a great disrupter; he undermines sincerity and honor and loyalty at every opportunity.

The devil is skilled in twisting the truth and making lies believable.

Satan tries to persuade Job that he would not worship God if God were not loyal to him in every way and always protected him. God, he says, is an elitist, wealthy and out of touch.

Job triumphs, in the end, the good guys win. He beat the devil by merely remaining faithful to himself and his beliefs.

The story, considered one of the best in the Old Testament, touches me because it is about the importance of choice. The chaos in our world is like a whirlwind; it sucks in the weak and the sensitive.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is the choice.

I choose not to respond to Donald Trump by being him, or by being like him. I decided to turn that energy into good. I have no do not doubt that good and truth will prevail.

And that makes me feel good and sane, and grounded.

I don’t tell other people what to do, we all have to make our own choices.

Mine is the right one for me.



  1. Hate is a powerful emotion. When we hate someone we give away our power. Not a good thing for us to do to be a calm rational human. Thank you for your essay above. Since I agree with you most of the time it is easy to read. When we know better, we do better. Thank you (for you) for doing beter.

  2. Your continuing analysis of Trump is both insightful and fascinating, and it does explain the person he is and how he appeals to so many. Thank you

  3. No one is so blind as he/she who will not see. I’m finished trying to reason with people who are clearly DRUNK on the Trump Kool-Aid. I’ve decided shut up when someone wants to go back to work or go in a store without a mask or hang their head out the window of the car like a dog. Just have at it. I’ll simply continue to shelter in place at home. They (and Trump) can act as Test Dummies for those of us who follow the rules. Let the dummies go first. If they come back alive, then the rest of us can venture out.

  4. Funny you see him as immature, as I saw that years ago in the board meeting of his television show. While Trump is not my choice for this country, I do wish we would all work together for a better future, learning to compromise and not to just hate. As far as the mask issue, America was born on freedom. Let freedom reign.

  5. Oh yes, I agree. He appeals to people who have been cowed by abusive fathers and have to repeatedly make excuses for him and becenablers. So, while I am so repulseed by him I don’t let him control me. I shun him as well as his followers because I can not argue with alternative facts. I see teenage rebellion as necessary to become yourself.

  6. Jon,
    You are right on the money. If one has lived a difficult life, you better understand and have authentic compassion for those who also have had tribulation. Nice comment on Job as well.
    Thank you.
    Bob W. – Kingston Canada

  7. Jon..
    This post is insightful and seems to carry truth. In a way, YOU took off his mask.

    I’m not trained in psychology or mental health. But my first reaction to Trump (after he announced he was running but before his nomination) was to an in-law who asked curiously, “What do you think of Trump?”

    The question blindsided me, but after a few seconds I responded candidly, “I think he needs help.”
    Don in Arizona

  8. Thank you for putting such clarity to this situation called Trump. I’ve been staying out of the hate game knowing that it would only turn my face ugly. You have really given us a gift here. Thank you.

  9. I recently found your blog. Your insight and writing about the president truly inspire me to stay calm and do better. Thank you. Is there any way you can link your individual posts to FB? I would love to share this but do not see any way to make that happen. I do not tweet.

  10. This post made me see Donald Trump as a human being and it made me feel sad for him having a father like that.

    Your writing has never been more insightful.

    Thank you

  11. Once again, thank you for an essay I did not have time to read and was unable to resist reading. I am so constantly reminded of my sister, who does not have a mental illness, has tremendous mental abilities in many ways but has congenital brain damage. Despite being liberal politically, she constantly says of Trump, “I hope he doesn’t get sick,” and shows compassion for him as a person even while hoping for his political defeat. She was late in joining me in Unitarian Universalism, but is one of the best people I know who has throughout her life fully embraced our First Principle, which affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

  12. Excellent! I have been trying not to be triggered as often. Just want him gone! Have dealt with a couple of narcissists one on one, and don’t want to deal with this one!

  13. I said from the early days of his campaign that the media was giving him too much press. Every night on the news they lead with him. Why? And then all the political pundits were incredulous that his campaign continued to get stronger. As the maxim goes, what you feed gets stronger.

    Thanks so much for reminding me of the power of compassion. Because to understand people means to have compassion. Which does not mean condonation but trying to make sense of why they are who they are. I am a nurse who works in a local hospital, and many of my patients come in with addictive disorders. They are hard to love. They are hard to care for. But in the end I must care for them, and to do so effectively I need to understand where they’re coming from, not just see them as a drunk.

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