If commentators today reach for psychological categories in trying to understand both the Trump presidency and his Christian supporters, they usually reach for pathological categories, often centered on “narcissism.” But that does not really explain Trump or his evangelical and Catholic supporters.
What if the clue lies not in pathology but supposed health and wealth? Listening to coverage of the impeachment debate, my mind immediately returned to a little-known essay by Freud from 1916 called Those Wrecked by Success. This essay sprang to mind the moment I heard Trump, already facing an impeachment inquiry over Ukraine and Biden, make an open appeal to China on live TV to conduct their own investigation of Biden business practices. What kind of man, under heavy suspicion for one potential “high crime and misdemeanor,” repeats the very practice that led to an investigation in the first place?
Freud has some very interesting answers to that question, claiming that some people “fall ill precisely because a deeply-rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfilment.”
Trump’s wish to be president was clearly present in the late 1990s when he began entertaining the desire on Larry King Live. But for 20 years, he always stood down. Was he fearing his own success?
Having won the 2016 election, a new, and by no means unique, fit of self-destruction could now begin — the latest in a long line marking much of his life. For decades his impetuous, reckless, self-aggrandizing behavior regularly courted, and often found, ruin — financial, legal, and marital.
Freud, not surprisingly, links such self-wrecking behavior in significant measure to one’s immediate family environment: the “illness on attainment of success” is almost invariably traced back to and “closely connected with…the relation to father and mother, as perhaps, is all our sense of guilt in general.”
That guilt — whether over the privilege into which he was born, or from a sense of inferiority over never meeting parental expectations, or survivor’s guilt for outliving his brother Fred whose alcoholism led to an early death at 42-years-old — is what I believe has motivated Donald Trump for much of his life.
Freud says all the patients wrecked by success were “well-born and well- brought-up” in the “most respectable” homes.
A great deal of what Freud writes in this part of the essay seems to track closely with what we know about the dynastic family into which young Donald was born into.
If this theory helps us understand the dramatic destructiveness of Trump, it also admits of wider and perhaps even more important application to Trump’s most ardent fans: Christians.
Since the 2016 campaign, we’ve heard endlessly about Trump’s white evangelical support. If Ralph Reed’s recent pontifications, based on his new book, are any indication, that support is only going to increase over the next thirteen months.
But the numbers of Catholics who have supported Trump is not negligible, ranging from people in the pews to prominent priests on social media, to the attorney general himself.
The most staggering conversation I have had about Catholic social teaching came in my dining room last summer when two Catholic clergy said to me, “You teach Catholic social teaching. Tell us, is there anything in there that prohibits us from supporting Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the border?”
I sat slack-jawed at the idea that any Catholic person needed a papal document telling them that separating children from families is wrong. Isn’t it enough to simply be a human being to know the answer?
But these clergy, and plenty of other Catholics and Christians, support Trump solely because he may have given them some short-term “successes,” of appointing judges of their preferred ideology.
But time and time again, politicians have played Christians for fools. What is it about American Christians that they imagine the psalmist’s advice — put not your trust in princes — applies to every country’s leaders but theirs?
But Christians cannot see this. Here, the utterly abysmal ignorance of history on the part of American Christians prevents them from realizing that every single time Christians slither up to powerful henchmen, the backlash afterward makes things much worse. This is demonstrably true going back more than a thousand years, whether in England, France, Germany, Russia, Quebec, or elsewhere.
These Christians fail to recognize that the reckoning after Trump is gone will be far more destructive and costly than the putative gains made under his meretricious administration. Once Trump is gone, American Christians can look forward to a swifter sinking into irrelevance and a faster emptying out of churches and other Christian institutions that are already (according to the latest Pew data ) in freefall. By trusting Trump, believers will find themselves guilty of more quickly and fatally wrecking whatever is left of Christian credibility. Some success, that.