Gabriel Marquez, the Noble Prize winning novelist, once observed that we all have a public self, a private self and a secret self.
Let’s ponder a moment how this may apply to President Donald Trump. Our grasp of this may influence what humane options can be crafted now that he’s been impeached or if he’s sidelined with a mental and/or neurological breakdown. Signs of this possibility accrue daily.
The Public Self bursts forth at his rallies with roaring exuberance. In this setting, amid adoring supporters, the self expands with aggressive rhetoric. As he aggrandizes himself, his fans also swell with a sense of well-being. For folks who feel they’ve been screwed over and left behind, a Trump rally is like an empowering drug. He aims for frenzied anger.
While I may differ about who is to blame for their misfortune, I own that most have good reason to feel this way. Hard economic conditions can injure pride. It is shaming to feel helpless and, of all emotions we can experience, shame is the most disheartening. Trump endorses their victim identity and, in his public role as a glorious, victorious prince, he offers relief from their shame and revenge for their loss of face. Thus, he casts himself as a savior. The truth: He’s living out what his shy father wanted to be — shining, preening prince.
His Private Self emerges in response to criticism or defeat. When his fantasies of greatness and power are thwarted, usually by law or custom, Trump first employs blindness to protect himself. Denial is when you don’t know you’re lying to yourself, so he never sees how he sets himself up for misfortune. Then he’s awash in sympathy for his defeated self. After the House impeachment vote, in his letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the anguish of a bereft child lay on each page. This state of mind gives us a glimpse into his private self: that of a heroic victim, betrayed by an unfair world. The truth: He was an angry kid who could never share his hurt with the father he feared and so needed to please.
And so, if Mr. Trump’s public self is a triumphant prince and his private self is a wounded victim, what of his secret self? The answer lies in the question, “What is it he most needs to keep hidden?” The narcissist suffers terrible anxiety when truth draws near; he has little resilience of character to fall back on if exposed. It’s why so much of Trump’s personal history, business life, taxes and lawsuits (in the hundreds) are still obscure. If the public and private selves are two sides of a coin, the secret self hides to serve both. The truth: In his heart of hearts, he knows he’s a fraud. Neither the glorious prince nor the innocent victim are authentic.
It is hard being Trump, trying to manage these intense forces in his character. When I set aside my exasperation and fear, and am able to feel empathy for him, it’s because I’ve studied and reflected on his appalling childhood. Moreover, I’ve had dozens of boys just like him in counseling with me — so confused, but trying mightily to hide it. The emotional legacy of being Fred Trump’s son was pressure for perfection, volatile struggle, and mercurial, pyrrhic success. Donald Trump is not wholly at fault for who he is. Much of what he does, he really can’t help. And lately he’s stumbling a lot, carrying weight few of us could bear.