More on Trump's Penchant for 'Projection'

Fortune telling machine in New York (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In Time Capsule installment #142, and in a followup item in this thread, I mentioned Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”—blaming his opponents for flaws he very obviously has himself.

Seth Knoepler, a PhD psychologist in California, writes in to give me the Official Perspective:

Since you’re evidently receiving some “completely amateur” opinions, you might as well have a more professional one.

To clinical professionals, “projection” is one of the “mechanisms of defense” which Anna Freud and others have described. These are mental maneuvers which are intended to protect the person from uncomfortable feelings that are associated with particular impulses or ideas. Each defense mechanism results in a perception of reality which has been distorted in some way.

As can be seen, for example, in “The Choice: 2016,” the recent Frontline documentary, Trump grew up in a family that was dominated by his almost unbelievably driven, perfectionistic father, a man who with both his words and his actions created a world in which you either dominated others or were hopelessly, humiliatingly dominated. In such a world, any flaw or imperfection represents a weakness which, sooner or later, will be catastrophically exploited by people who see the world as the same Darwinian struggle that you do. Someone like Trump must “defend” himself against the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that would accompany any acknowledgement of his human fallibility by denying that he is in any meaningful way flawed—by insisting that “he alone” out of hundreds of millions of Americans is smart, strong, and ruthless enough, and without any exploitable flaws or weaknesses.

Each defense mechanism has its own idiosyncratic characteristics. Projection has the advantage of implicitly acknowledging the reality that someone is flawed in a certain way, while at the same time protecting the person from the uncomfortable feelings that would be precipitated by acknowledging that he is, in fact, that person.

And another person with a professional perspective:

Your correspondent writes, “Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs or desires in others they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.”

A different description might be:

Trump is aware that there are other views of reality than his own. The narcissistic project is to argue, charm, bully the world into accepting his view of reality, including but also going beyond his grandiose view of self. Insisting on this view leads others to mistake his aberrance for lying.

Now you know.


I agree about the excellence of PBS’s The Choice, available for streaming online. One of its messages is that each of these nominees has had a surprisingly consistent life story and affect over the decades. In the case of the GOP’s nominee, it means the man we now behold.

Although The Choice doesn’t explicitly address this point, it implicitly undercuts the idea the outbursts and excesses of Nominee Trump reflect any age-related distortions of his personality. He appears to have been this way for a long time.