Donald Trump, the Very Stable Genius Psychiatrist

After President Trump posted the tweets shown below, the vast Trump vilification cosmos predictably sprang into outraged armchair psychiatry, citing the tweets as evidence that the 25th Amendment must be immediately invoked to remove Trump – a madman using insults to forge a path to nuclear Armageddon.

But a funny thing happened just weeks later – and it was not nuclear Armageddon.  Dear Leader Un arranged for the two Korean Olympic teams to march together in the imminent opening Olympic ceremony.  Even the New York Times called that decision "[t]he most dramatic gesture of reconciliation between them [North and South Korea] in a decade."  And shortly after that, Kim Jong-un shocked the world by inviting President Trump to talk with him face to face.  Presumably, in that encounter, he will remove his Rocket Man suit and wear normal clothes.

President Trump says he will talk to anyone, that he will build a relationship with anyone from the humblest humanitarian to the cruelest dictator.  While he did not study in a psychoanalytic institute, and the terms about to be discussed may well be unfamiliar to him, Trump's tweets masterfully employ communication techniques that are foundational to modern psychoanalysis.

Modern psychoanalysis has become an established method of "the talking cure," having spread, like wildfire, from midtown Manhattan through the Upper West Side to New Jersey in a mere thirty years.  Introduced in the late 20th century by its founder, Hyman Spotnitz, modern psychoanalysis was radical in two fundamental ways.  First, Spotnitz believed that intransigent mental illnesses – even schizophrenia, which was generally believed by all therapists to be immune to any kind of psychoanalysis – could be successfully treated by getting patients "to just talk about everything."  Second, unlike traditional Freudian analysis, modern psychoanalysis does not involve the analyst's interpretation of the patient's unconscious neuroses as a primary therapeutic technique.  In fact, in modern psychoanalysis, such analytic dronings are verboten.

In modern psychoanalysis, a patient makes progress through reciprocal streams of emotional communication with the analyst, some conscious, most unconscious.  Transference is the patient's largely unconscious projection of narcissism onto the analyst, which Spotnitz understood not as the popular conception of self-love, but as repressed self-hatred that fuels mental illness.  Counter-transference refers to the analyst's emotional responses to the patient.  A skilled modern analyst strives to be conscious of his counter-transference and uses it for the benefit of the patient through the communication techniques of joining the resistance and contact functioning.  This article examines how those two therapeutic techniques are used in the president's tweets to Kim Jong-un.

Joining is a conscious, therapeutic form of empathy used by the analyst.  As explained metaphorically by one modern analyst, "[i]n fine woodworking, joinery is used to connect two pieces of wood (e.g., a leg to a table top, a drawer face to its sides) in a way that increases the amount of contact between the two, thereby strengthening the connection.  This is precisely what joining in therapeutic pursuits is designed to accomplish: to increase the contact and the connection between two individuals.  Joining can be the glue that helps two parties stay together long enough and tightly enough to accomplish something therapeutic."

In the first tweet shown above, President Trump joins Kim Jong-un's resistance by mirroring aggressive and bellicose language.  OK, if I'm old, then you're fat and short.  His response is not immature baiting, as it is misunderstood to be by the legions of Trump-hating armchair analysts.  Rather, his tweet engages the little dictator in literal – and more importantly, emotional – terms that he can understand.  By neither analyzing nor judging the childishness of Kim Jong-un's words, President Trump is allowing him to set the emotional tone.  His tweet implicitly gives Kim Jong-un permission "to just talk about everything."  President Trump's "tweet for tat" engages Kim Jong-un on his own emotional level and leavens the exchange with humor that communicates a lack of judgment and censure.

This is an excellent example of contact functioning.  The purpose of contact functioning is to reduce anxiety in a patient (or, in this case, a dictator).  This is accomplished by allowing the expression of any emotion or threat or even irrational idea while prohibiting the acting out of such destructive impulses.

In the second tweet, President Trump again joins Kim Jong-un's resistance.  This time, though, as the "therapist," he sets limits on the "patient."  He is saying, "You are allowed to say anything, but understand that you may not do anything."  The president is setting limits beyond which terrible and unavoidable consequences loom: "I too have a Nuclear Button but it is much bigger and more powerful... and my Button works!"

An analyst once told me how, after his very first session in psychoanalysis and many years before he became an analyst himself, he offered his hand to the analyst.  The analyst took it and said, "I'm shaking your hand to let you know that I trust you.  But this is the last time you will ever touch me."

The above tweet is President Trump's response to Kim Jong-un's recent invitation to meet.  It is in the spirit of getting the patient to "just talk about everything" while making it clear who is the patient and who is the therapist.

On January 11, 2018, President Trump told the Wall Street Journal, "I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.  I have relationships with people.  I think you people are surprised."  For those who intuitively trust the president's communication strategies, that assertion is self-evident.  The president does seem to have a knack for relationships, whatever the amalgam of calculation and instinct may be behind them.  And just as an analyst must traverse convoluted resistances from a patient, the president must harness his calculations and instinct.  When it comes to North Korea, we can all pray they will work.

Image: włodi via Wikimedia Commons.

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