On 23 November 2020, 20 days after losing the US presidential election, Donald Trump finally authorised the General Services Administration to begin the transition to president-elect Joe Biden. Yet Trump still failed to concede. His refusal provoked surprise and outrage. Yet Trump’s behaviour is entirely consistent with arrested development.

What’s surprising about Trump’s behaviour is that its origins in arrested development aren’t widely recognised.

By understanding arrested development, we understand Trump.

What is arrested development?

Arrested development is a colloquial term for what is technically known as ‘developmental disorder’, where crucial developmental tasks in a child’s life don’t unfold correctly.

These tasks cover every aspect of our psychological development. They affect our ability to relate to and connect with others; have clear emotional boundaries; take responsibility for ourselves, our families and the environment; and form healthy sexual relationships.

When development tasks stall, a psychological vacuum emerges. These tasks were supposed to create healthy ways of navigating life. In their absence, we develop coping mechanisms to deal with the pain and emotional immaturity of arrested development.

The ‘false self’

This leads to the creation of what psychologist Donald Winnicott called the ‘false self’. It’s a psychologically frozen mask we present to the world as adults that contains and magnifies the coping mechanisms we developed to deal with toxic childhood environments.

Winnicott attributes the false self to ‘not good enough’ parenting. Due to excessive projection of parental fears and anxieties, the child replaces its natural behaviours with artificial ones to elicit a less painful response from its carers:

“Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being… through this false self, the infant builds up a false set of relationships, and by means of introjections even attains a show of being real.”

For all that he uses the @RealDonaldTrump Twitter handle, we’re not seeing the real Donald Trump. We’re seeing the false self that Trump developed in response to arrested development.

Donald Trump and arrested development

In Too Much and Never Enough, Trump’s niece Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, writes: “Donald directly experienced the ‘not enough’ in the loss of connection to his mother at a crucial development stage.” 

Following this abandonment, Trump experienced the ‘never enough’ from his father Fred, a “high-functioning sociopath” intolerant of failure. Donald developed a coping mechanism—winning at all costs—that became his adult modus operandi.

Donald Trump’s M.O. took him all the way to the White House. Confronted with defeat on 3 November 2020, Trump was predictably unable to do anything other than respond in the same way he has always responded: attack. 

The result was a slew of ‘long-shot’ lawsuits that have gradually been shot down, many of them by Republican administrators upholding the provisions of the U.S. constitution.

What’s strikingly noticeable isn’t that Trump is, emotionally, a very little boy wearing very big pants. It’s that few people seem to realise this. Not the Republican representatives who support him, nor his 88 million Twitter followers. Most of all those who mock him, rail against him, or are simply bewildered by his actions.

Boston College Law School professor Kent Greenfield commented on Trump’s failing strategy. “The depths of his petulance and narcissism continue to surprise me.” There’s nothing surprising about his “petulance and narcissism”. What’s surprising about Trump’s behaviour is that its origins in arrested development aren’t widely recognised.

Through a glass, darkly

The reason for this is simple. In hierarchical, patriarchal societies, everyone suffers from arrested development to some extent—not just Donald Trump. We all have a false self. Recognising Trump’s developmental issues requires us to recognise our own.

Through a glass, darkly, we can glimpse our own arrested development. Our own false self. Our own unhealthy coping mechanisms. We stay in denial about Trump’s woundedness in order to stay in denial about our own.

It’s much easier to focus on the pathetic denouement of the Trump administration than to look in the mirror he holds up to us all.

On 11 December the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Trump’s last great hope, a lawsuit by the State of Texas seeking to overturn the election result in several key states. The Supreme Court, split 6-3 between Republican and Democrat-leaning judges, voted 9-0 against. 

It remains to be seen how Donald Trump responds to this reality check. More importantly, how many people will realise that they, too, present a false self to the word—though not as extreme as Donald Trump.

Photo by Gage Skidmore on Wikimedia (Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)