Politics and Primitive Mental Functioning

Sunday, February 5, 2017
Glendale, California

My Dear Readers,

You’ve heard of the idea of psychological defense mechanisms like denial, suppression, sublimation, or disavowal. Much like the idea of the body’s immune system, these unconscious coping strategies help people cope with stress originating internally or externally. When facing a minor surgery, for example, you might find it rarely entering your mind (denial), push it out of consciousness when it rushes in (suppression), distract yourself with work (sublimation) or ignore it as much as possible (disavowal). These types of defenses, and others like humor, are considered signs of emotional maturity. They help all of us deal with the typical stressors of life.

Less commonly discussed are the more primitive defense mechanisms known as splitting and projective identification. The former works by rendering the world simplistic. Splitting cuts the world into pieces, usually two. In other words, when splitting occurs, a person sees the world in black and white. He or she might suddenly transition from intense love to hatred of the same person. She or he might have sudden shifts in mood. Also, as you would expect, these persons tend to have instability in relationships, jobs, as well as in mood.

The idea of projective identification is closely related to splitting. It consists of projecting mental content into another person. For example, a person prone to using projective identification may feel as if anger they are experiencing is really coming from another party. In other words, rather than feeling angry, they fear this other party is angry at him or her. The projection part should make sense; think of the identification as describing the process through which the person identifies the other as containing their anger.

These primitive defensive styles are normal during infancy. Babies don’t know how to “use your words.” They will cry, say, and their caregiver (if a good one) will sense if they need a diaper change, food, or a nap. Such non-verbal communication, again, makes sense when emanating from an infant.

I proceed with caution here because psychologists are specifically prohibited (by professional ethics code) from making diagnostic statements about any party they have not personally examined. That disclaimer noted, I bring to your attention how much these primitive defensive styles appear to be utilized by President Trump. If you attend to his Tweets, for example, you’ll read how commonly persons or groups are characterized in terms of all good or all bad. You’ll see the idealization common in persons who display primitive mental functioning. One of the best recent examples was when Mr. Trump told a large audience, perhaps two or three weeks ago, that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way no one has been capable thus far. He suggests Jared, who has absolutely no government or diplomatic experience, would exceed exhaustive efforts by Hilary Clinton, John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, or any number of other government diplomats who have tried to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the past 75 years.

Wow! The President’s behaviors actual offer an excellent example of splitting (Mr. Kushner is so completely good) and projective identification (he has an amazing capability). If you have been following recent political events, particularly involving the Executive branch of the US government, you will see multiple examples of the use of splitting and projective identification.

Primitive defense mechanisms work poorly in our extremely complicated, globally connected world. Nuance, subtlety, diplomacy are called for, not idealization, devaluation, and impulsivity. Worse, these latter traits prove incredibly dangerous. How will Mr. Trump react, for example, to an immediately threatening situation, i.e. another nuclear test by North Korea, an invasion of an eastern European country by Russia, or a terrorist attack on US soil. Scary!

Personally, I have mixed feelings about globalization. On the one hand, it pains me to see Starbucks in even remote regions of China or India. I fear the individual character of nations will begin to diminish as a result of such capitalist imperialism. On the other hand, globalization will not be stopped. It allows for a level of interpersonal communication unthinkable even two decades ago. I could send an email to a relative in Siberia, or Tibet, or East Timor. The recent trend towards isolationalism and populism are ill-fated. We will have to work with globalization, not pretend it is not happening.

I hope this brief explanation helps you understand what may be most worrisome about the Trump administration. Whether a member of the democratic, republican, green, or other party, citizens need governmental leaders capable of complex, patient, and deliberate mental functioning. The immediate crisis involving immigration offers a prime example of primitive mental functioning. Mr. Trump impulsively signed an executive order making changes in basic immigration policies without consulting governmental attorneys, or even other members of his own cabinet, resulting in the types of detainments at airports, widespread chaos, and general fearfulness.

Some hope, and I consider myself an optimist, Mr. Trump will grow into the office, that it will mature him. Some fear, and books like The Making of Donald Trump confirm, that Mr. Trump displays a life-long propensity to use these primitive defense mechanisms. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, we await the absolute certitude that some kind of an international crisis will occur in the coming months, and we legitimately and rationally fear how our president will respond.

Stay tuned, and as the Taoists say, “honor the Tao.”

Submitted with trepidation on this cloudy Sunday afternoon,



Johnston, D. (2016). The making of Donald Trump. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Like this post? Subscribe to Psychoanalyzing Life.