Trump, the Tragic Flaw of Prevailing Morality, and an Alternative


Presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up a magazine cover featuring himself while at a campaign stop at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Dec 2015

Then presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up a magazine cover featuring himself while at a campaign stop at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Dec 2015. Image courtesy of Matt Johnson.

After the Access Hollywood tape exposed Trump as a sexually assaultive man, Bernie Sanders championed the cause of prevailing morality. He said, “We have a president who acknowledged on tape that he assaulted women. I would hope that he pays attention to what’s going on and think about resigning.” And for the most part the world yawned.
Many Americans already knew that prominent psychology professionals had diagnosed Trump as sociopathic. These professionals had much evidence that he fit the diagnosis “malignant narcissist” to a “T.” Reflecting this professional opinion, most Americans felt that Trump was far too immoral to be President. Talk show hosts like Bill Maher persistently attack Trump. Recently, Maher played forward the diagnostic label, “malignant narcissist.” Moral outrage against Trump fills the air. And now more than ever, the world yawns, as if to say, “So what—nobody can do anything about it.” Maybe, just maybe, Mueller will have an effect. And there’s the 2020 election. But discouragement abounds, and the gloom spreading throughout the land is palpable.
This state of affairs points to a difficult realization. Prevailing morality, the system of understandings and practices that underlie our justice system and all personal and social attempts to control bad behavior is tragically flawed. It’s not that well-meaning, intelligent and powerful people are inadequate. Their moralistic understanding of Trump and what to do about him is inadequate.
Prevailing morality teaches that people are more and less bad. Psychiatrists, dating back to what’s sometimes called “early Freud,” capture this view. Freud’s mind was, like practically everyone else, dominated by the moralistic view. Accordingly, he wrote that people are born with destructive impulses that must be tamed by a rational, moral conscience. That’s straight from prevailing morality. This explanation of destructive behavior and what to do about it is standard morality’s tragic flaw. How so?
This explanation is overwhelmingly demeaning. It is a cancer of the soul inasmuch as it at least seems to justify the use of punishment, or harming people to prevent them from causing harm. The simple justification is, “If there’s an uncaused by nurture, genetically determined will to harm others and oneself, it at least makes some sense to oppose this inner force.” And the more virulent the urge to do harm, the more intense must the opposition be. One imagines, as ancients did and some moderns still do, an evil inner force, like a demon or the Devil driving people to behave bad.
“He’s evil” has been dusted off and brought back to prominence in the Trump era even by many progressives. The idea is that, if we can just trash him enough, we’ll make him feel ashamed and guilty enough that he will change.
Oops! As my old Uncle Elmore used to say, “That ain’t workin.” In fact, it can seem that moral outrage has an effect opposite to the intended one, as Freud eventually realized.
Late in life, Freud realized the error in his view, the moralistic view he’d absorbed from civilization. In what some analysts call, “late Freud,” Freud turned the early theory on its head. Instead of saying that innate destructive urges were teeming within and striving to be expressed, he and Otto Fenichel, one of Freud’s leading associates, argued that a harsh conscience drives people to behave bad.
Relevant to what a contemporary psychology professional has called, our “Sociopath In Chief,” Freud wrote, “It was a surprise to find that exacerbation of this Ucs [unconscious] sense of guilt could turn people into criminals. But it is undoubtedly a fact. In many criminals, especially youthful ones, it is possible to detect a very powerful sense of guilt which existed before the crime and is not therefore the result of it but its motive.”
The practical, change-making version of this idea was, “You’re not bad; you’re unwittingly driven by humanity’s ignorant demeaning attempt to control behavior.” Civilized people were ignorant of what Freud only recently explicated. And even he did not understand the full implications of his insight.
His idea is most fully realized in the work of Bernard Apfelbaum, now deceased. Apfelbaum and psychoanalyst Merton Gill explained that nothing in the mind is intrinsically good or bad. There are no basically harmful or evil inner experiences. Whether or not an experience in the mind works to do harm depends solely on how it is related to another mental content. This turgid, academically expressed understanding is a charter for a respectful view of humanity. Put differently, this cutting-edge view charters on a micro level of what goes on in the mind perhaps the first thoroughly nonjudgmental, non-moralistic understanding.
The practical effect of this view is to make good on Freud’s original insight. In psychotherapy and ordinary life, it becomes obvious that the solution to problems is to relieve what Cognitive Behavioral Therapists call, “self-negating thoughts,” which are better understood as guilt and shame thoughts. A practical example will help.
A violent and slick young criminal—someone a bit like Trump—got caught and given the choice to enter drug rehabilitation treatment or be sentenced to 12 years in prison. I call this young man, Lamont, and he perfectly fit the modern sociopath diagnosis, “anti-social personality” disorder. He made the obvious choice but had no intention to go straight. He played along to get to the end of treatment and resume his former violent, criminal behavior.
About four months into treatment, he was a stellar client. Slick as a whistle, he knew just how to pick up on what the staff wanted him to say and do. That’s what Trump is like. I’ve elsewhere sardonically observed that his book, The Art of The Deal, would have been more aptly named, The Art of the Con. He’s so good at imitating normal and even super-normal behavior that many people still believe that he’s a decent enough person and that his admission of groping was just braggadocio.
One night, Lamont snuck out of the treatment center and committed three burglaries, bought some crack cocaine, and got high. Like many addicts, he didn’t believe people would notice his “tweaking,” his tremors and distorted speech that are easily recognizable by other addicts and staff.
His counselor, Martin, a soulful ex-con, knew that Lamont was not a basically evil person. Martin understood Lamont as a deeply troubled young man who was only acting out on others and himself the extreme moral outrage, the self-hatred that had been inculcated in him as a child and young teenager. He was brainwashed to believe that he was so worthless and bad that he deserved only extreme psychological and physical beatings.
Martin found Lamont in Lamont’s room. Martin stopped in his tracks when he saw Lamont pathetic, brain distorted tweaking. Martin was overcome with emotion. He slid down the side of a wall to the floor. Tears began rolling down his cheeks as he genuinely implored as if to God, “Where did I go wrong.” In so saying, Martin had done the unthinkable from prevailing morality’s point of view. He at least shared responsibility for Lamont’s self-destructive transgression. He did not pile on guilt and shame, as other staff in the treatment center were inclined to do. He did the opposite. He lifted guilt and shame off of Lamont.
Years later, Lamont became a successful manager of a store. And when in a videotaped interview about what Martin said to him, Lamont threw his upper body and head backward in a strange kind of agony. He put his hands over his eyes and exclaimed, “Nobody even loved me. He was the only one.” The contortions of Lamont’s body reflected an ongoing struggle with two views wildly competing views of himself, that he is either an evil person deserving only of degradation or a vulnerable, troubled person deserving of compassion.
Lamont was forced by the Center rules to leave for three months, but as he walked through a large hall on his way out, he heard other clients’ sympathetic words. That also impressed him.
More than by anything else, Lamont’s lifelong self-hatred was revealed by a single dramatic experience. It began when he realized that his cell phone had been stolen just before he got on a crowded bus. He felt he had been careless in leaving it in a vulnerable pocket. He told me with feeling that he wanted to “rip out” his eyes. Imagine wanting to severely harm yourself for not being careful in protecting your cell phone from theft. This violent urge expressed soul-murdering, inculcated self-hatred. The urge to “rip out” his eyes helps make the case that he suffered from self-hatred unconsciously throughout his life and that it was powerful enough to drive him to desperate acts. The torment associated with that experience did immediately drive him to brief but intense drug use. This experience and many others like it in the lives of many other diagnosed sociopaths put the lie to the moralistic explanation of bad behavior and what is needed to correct it.
The same influences and the possibilities are involved in Trump’s life. He also was brainwashed to believe that he was a worthless, inadequate person deserving only of psychological and physical beatings. And he too can be changed if properly confronted and empathetically understood, as I suggest in my book, How to Transform Trump.
The tragic irony is that his political opponents are doing the same thing to him that his moralistic father and mother did. Thus, his opponents are driving him further into the dark world of the sociopath. They are unintentionally contributing a bit to the havoc he is wreaking on America and the world.
The way out of this tragic circumstance is to study and practice the more profound expressions of empathetic understanding throughout history and at the cutting-edge. Perhaps the best encouragement to at least seriously consider empathetic methods for reaching violent, bad acting people is in the words of an ex-Neo-Nazi and former supporter of Trump. As reported in a recent Mother Jones article, Christian Picciolini spoke about his transformation from leader of a hate group to a reasonably caring man. He said that being accurately empathized with “‘at a time when I least deserved it, from those I least deserved it from,’ was a transformative event that helped pull him out of the hate movement.”
John McFadden is an ordained Presbyterian Minister and CA State licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. His book, How to Transform Trump: Based on Other Sociopaths’ Profound Life Changes was published on Amazon on July 10, 2018.

4 thoughts on “Trump, the Tragic Flaw of Prevailing Morality, and an Alternative

  1. John McFadden. The title of your piece refers to your book title “How To Transform Trump.” I understand the example of giving the character Lamont compassion instead of blame by his mentor taking on the blame himself. I do not see how this would, or could, relate to Donald Trump. We could definitely, as a nation, take on responsibility for him being who he is and especially for him rising to the position that he has — but to demonstrate that to him would be tantamount to Martin saying “Here, Lamont, have I brought you some more cocaine. You are a victim in this case and this will make you feel better.”

    • Obviously Lamont was not beyond hope. Is Trump? I think the difference may be that Lamont had the desire to change, even if it was buried deep in his psyche. It was easy for Lamont to see that his behavior was not working. With Trump, not so much.

  2. The damage usually is not there at birth, but as implied comes with psychosocial development (PSD). Critical to healthy PSD is the development of secure attuned attachment between parent and child. This trusting relationship coupled with modeling of caring behavior directed towards persons inside and outside the family is vital to the development of altruistic attitudes and behaviors. Parenting is the key. Authoritative parenting involves the development of trusting relationships. Reasoning is the main form of communication here. Discipline is managed by non-violent means such as time-outs and removal of privileges. This form of parenting is contrasted to the authoritarian approach, involving “my way or the highway.” With authoritarian parenting corporal punishment, shaming and manipulation are often utilized to control behavior. This results in anger and fear being experienced by the child. Expression of this anger would result in severe retribution by the parent. For this reason, the fear and anger are repressed, only to serve as a source of considerable negative energy in later life. Additionally, as Andrea Hollingsworth has stated””Interpersonal relationships marked by conflict, insecurity and distrust can cause us to feel threatened, emotionally deregulated and closed off to empathetic connection with others.” So, these troubled interpersonal relationships between parent and child lead to the stifling of emotional empathy and set the stage for selfish behaviors, ignoring the welfare and feelings of others. This sequence of adverse psychodynamics makes it crystal clear how important the propagation of authoritative parenting is for the development of benevolent mindfulness and a peaceful world (See Robin Grille’s “Parenting for a Peaceful World” Voc Cordis Press, 2nd Edition, 2013).

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