Stanley Renshon is a sweater-wearing Freudian psychoanalyst who has made a sideline through the years of painstaking psychobiographies of American presidents.
The books are a clockwork feature of American public life: fascinating and the product of serious intellectual labor, but — like much psychoanalysis — a bit hard for the layman to know what to do with. Bill Clinton compensated for his mother’s neglect. George W. Bush grappled with his father’s shadow. Obama is driven to fulfill his mother’s legacy. OK.
But Renshon seemed the right man to turn to with a question I've been asking myself lately: What is Donald Trump's deal? Where does a person, and a personality, like that come from? There's an enormous amount of speculation on Twitter about the combination of charm and bombast, blunt truths and flat lies, thin skin and combativeness. I needed a bit of expertise.
Fortunately, Renshon, a practicing psychoanalyst who also has a Ph.D. in political science and teaches at the City University of New York Graduate Center, has thought a lot about Trump. His desktop “Trump” folder has accumulated more than a thousand files. He has read all the interviews. And he thinks he's isolated Trump's key characteristics in a couple of telling turns of phrase.
One is Trump's tic of telling you how much others like him.
"I think he actually, believe it or not, he has a need to be liked," says Renshon.
"He'll use the phrase 'he likes me' or 'they like me.' When somebody uses that phrase often, you have to give credit to the idea that that's something important to them, their need to be liked."
The word "nice" and the phrase "treats me nicely" appear often in the Trump corpus, Renshon notes.
"He wants to be treated nicely, softly, with kid gloves — he wants to be recognized for all the positives he brings to the table, but he's not so interested in the negatives," says Renshon.
"He wants to be liked, and it comes with a threat."
(If you doubt that Trump really, really wants you to like him, watch this.)
This poses an obvious question, Renshon acknowledges: "If he needs to be liked, why does he go after people in such an angry, hostile way?"
His answer: The other "pillar" of Trump's makeup is a need for validation.
"He wants to be known as the person he is, not the person you think he is. He's not a dumb person; he's not a clown. My guess is he truly resents those kinds of characterizations; and he wants to be known for his accomplishments in the business world, but also for his political success," says Renshon.
"My take on him is that he has been pretty surprised, personally, by his political success… I think he's surprised where he is and he's found a newfound source of self-respect for being where he is."
That is to say: The last few months have changed Trump, and he now needs validation not just as a brash brand, but as a political figure. That is to say: Watch out.
The Twitter diagnosis of Trump — and really, any politician or celebrity you don’t like — is narcissism. Renshon, who has been known to write letters to the New York Times asking them to stop diagnosing the people they cover, thinks that’s a “hollow and reductionist” label.
“He appears to be a real American nationalist with an observable, if bombastic, love of his country,” Renshon says. “Obviously a love of country is inconsistent with real narcissism, where there is no room for love of anybody or anything but yourself."
Renshon had one other glimpse of psychoanalytic insight into Trump, a side note in a much-mocked story about the hardship of having had to repay a million-dollar loan from his father.
"You don't want to go to Manhattan. That's not our territory," Trump recalled his father, a developer in less glamorous parts of New York, telling him.
“He was warning his son against going into the big city to try to make a name for himself in the Big Apple — and Donald didn't do that,” says Renshon. “He's got a lot of adventure in him and a lot of ambition in him, and he would like to be recognized for what he has accomplished.”
He doesn’t, Renshon added, have the burning personal ambition he saw driving Bill Clinton, or the sense of mission that motivates Obama.
“He doesn't have a clue of what he would do were he to get in,” speculates Renshon, who characterizes himself as middle-of-the-road politically, though he shares with Trump a skepticism about immigration.
Finally, he says he thinks Trump is for real: “I think he genuinely feels like the country is going to hell, and I think he genuinely feels he can do something about it.”
And there ends Trump’s session on the couch. There is more, no doubt, to excavate from the strange and combative life of a rich real estate developer’s son with a chip on his shoulder, but Renshon won’t be doing the digging.
“I haven't gone into his childhood very much,” he says. “I won't spend much time with it because I don't think he's going to become president.”