Donald Trump is easily the most psychoanalyzed president of modern times. His decision-making style and behavior have been hotly debated by journalists, voters, politicians, world leaders and pundits who have bestowed upon him any number of fanciful, grave-sounding mental conditions, calling him, among other things, a narcissist, a sociopath, a psychopath and a paranoiac. Trump has said he distrusts mental health professionals, so we don’t have access to a formal assessment of his psychology. But colloquially speaking, perhaps the best explanation for the president’s behavior dates back to his earliest interactions with his mother.
Although I’m not a psychologist, I have spent years researching a major field of psychology known as attachment theory for a book. According to the science of attachment—developed in the second half of the 20thcentury by British psychotherapist John Bowlby we’re hardwired at birth to attach to a competent and reliable caregiver for protection because we are born helpless. The success or failure of this attachment affects all our relationships throughout life—in the workplace, on the athletic field, with loved ones—and yes, even in politics. Children who bond successfully with a primary caregiver—usually this is the mom but it could also be the dad, grandparent, nanny or other adult—grow up with what is termed a “secure” attachment. As adults, they tend to be confident, trusting of others, resilient in the face of setbacks, and able to enjoy long, stable relationships. Children who fail to achieve a successful attachment, on the other hand, may as adults have a lack of comfort with intimacy, difficulty trusting others, a constant need for reassurance from relationship partners, and a lack of resilience when faced with illness, injury or loss.
The biographical record is fairly strong on Trump’s failure to develop a healthy emotional attachment to either of his parents. It may have contributed to his tumultuous personal life, but it also endowed him with some traits that made him well-suited to his late-career entry in politics.
Donald Trump is the fourth of five children of Fred and Mary Trump. Because his father was busy building a real estate business, and it was the mid-20th century when dads didn’t typically do a lot of early child care, his mother cared for the children (with the help of a live-in maid) and was their primary “attachment figure.” What factors may have affected the quality of young Donald’s early care—his own temperament as an infant; the role, if any, of the family’s maid in child care; the demands on his mother’s time and energy of three older children and a subsequent pregnancy—we don’t know. The president’s own writings are largely silent about his early childhood; journalists and biographers fill in only some of the blanks.
But we do know that Mary Trump became seriously ill from complications during labor with her last child. An emergency hysterectomy and subsequent infections and surgeries followed—four in two weeks, one of her oldest daughters once said. As a result, at just two years and two months of age, Trump endured the trauma of the prolonged absence and life-threatening illness of his mother. It’s not clear how long she was incapacitated. Indeed, we don’t know that she ever really re-engaged with her son. According to a Politico Magazine story on Mary Trump, there’s evidence that Mary and her son didn’t interact much during his childhood (more on this later).