In his 1960 essay “Beyond the Bounds of the Basic Rule”, the American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut considered the discipline of psychoanalytic biography. This was a practice indulged by Freud himself, in essays on Leonardo da Vinci (1910) and Dostoevsky (1928), and was prevalent ever afterwards.
There were long-held doubts among practising analysts about this approach, Kohut explained in his essay, regarding its methods and the validity of its findings. But the subject acquired an unlikely topical prominence four years later, in 1964, when the US magazine Fact asked a panel of psychiatrists whether the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater was fit to be president.
The psychiatrists said no; Goldwater sued; and what Kohut considered the basic rule of psychoanalysis – do not speculate about people you haven’t treated – became the Goldwater Rule of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), prohibiting members from passing comment on public figures.
Among notable events in psychoanalysis between the publication of the Fact article and the APA’s decision was the posthumous appearance of Freud’s co-written biography of Woodrow Wilson in 1967. Questions have been raised over the mental health of at least four US presidents – Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W Bush – since then.
But only Donald Trump has provoked sustained debate about whether the reluctance to overturn the Goldwater Rule might be actively harming the republic. It’s more or less agreed, among those professionals who have stuck their head above the parapet, that Trump suffers from a personality disorder. Now his niece, Mary L Trump, has made an important contribution to the discussion with Too Much and Never Enough, a persuasive if unsurprising account of the desolate childhood that, as she puts it, “created the world’s most dangerous man”.
The first-time and now best-selling author is the daughter of Trump’s older brother, Freddy, who died from alcohol-related heart problems in 1981, aged 42. She was the source for the New York Times’s Pulitzer-winning coverage in 2019 of the Trump family’s suspect tax activities, and a Hillary Clinton supporter aggrieved about the way that her father was treated by her uncles, aunts and grand-parents. She bills herself as “the only Trump” willing to tell this story.
She is also a trained clinical psychologist, and she knows the Rule. She recognises that a comprehensive account of “Donald’s pathologies” would require “a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for”. But that doesn’t deter her. After branding him a narcissist, Mary raises the spectre of “co-morbidity”– other disorders – and also speculates that Trump has a learning disability that affects the processing of information. (He enjoys TV, she says, because of its “episodic nature”.)
The book is full of details of the amusing-but-scary kind. There’s a standout sequence when Mary, then in her early twenties, is helping Trump with his latest memoir, but no one seems to know what he actually does with his time and she repeatedly fails to get him to sit down for an interview. Then one night he calls her to say he has some “really good” material to share with her. The following day, she receives a manila envelope containing ten typewritten pages. It had, she writes, a “stream-of-consciousness quality”, though in contrast to the work of James Joyce, it simply consisted of a list of women whom Trump had wanted to date but who, having refused him, instantly became “the worst, ugliest and fattest slobs he’d ever met”.
What was the cause of this behaviour? The same one that befell many an American dynasty, such as the Kennedys, the Gettys and the Bushes – a combination of “privilege and neglect”. Trump’s mother was either bed-bound or self-absorbed, while his father – “a high-functioning sociopath” fostered an environment based on achievement and competition. Freddy was the black sheep and Donald the straightjacketed golden boy, though the book asserts, with strong anecdotal evidence, that he possesses no gifts and even paid a friend to sit his SATs.
In one of many passing swipes, Mary says that during its 1980s heyday, the Trump Organization “seemed to be in the business of losing money”. But as the book reaches the present and Trump’s response to Covid-19– a form of “mass murder”, she contends – the indignation is aimed less at the president than at the theoretically saner and wiser hangers-on, the “increasing number of people willing to enable him”.
Those associated with the Trump Organization, The Apprentice TV show and now the Oval Office, should know better, but instead do nothing but advance their own position while this arrested three-year-old threatens to destroy the world with his titanic hunger for the love he never got.
This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine