Warning: You May Feel Empathy For Donald Trump After Reading This
How the death of his brother—and the role of addiction—contributed to the president we have today
Donald Trump has never touched alcohol, puffed a joint, or even smoked a cigarette. Surprised? I was too when I first found out.
Yet the origins of that straight-edge lifestyle may explain every infuriating, bizarre, and unhealthy manifestation of his oversized personality—much more so than the stream of armchair diagnoses trickling down your news feed.
To some, he’s an unrepentant narcissist. To others, he’s an antisocial sociopath. Some have even gone so far as to suggest he’s living with the late stage degenerative effects of syphilis or early onset dementia. Despite the 1974 instatement of the Goldwater Rule making it “unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person,” there are more than a few mental health professionals who’ve publicly entertained what’s so deeply wrong with the leader of the free world.
But there’s one explanation I haven’t seen yet: One that helps us truly grasp how his mind works, and (stay with me here) maybe even helps us find some empathy. If you really want to understand Trump’s contradictions—from his combative, yet people-pleasing manner to a superhero complex with a weakness for constant affirmation—“The Donald” narrative has to be flipped from one focused on lavish greed to one of desperately unfulfilled need.
Trump’s older brother Fred Jr. died tragically of complications from alcoholism at the age of 43 in 1981 when Donald was just 35. Trump has said that Freddy’s lifelong habit of drinking and subsequent years of decline had a “profound impact” on his personality. I’d argue it shaped the inner turmoil feeding his worldview: deep insecurities, brutal, codependent relationships, and an insatiable need for approval;
Simply put, Donald Trump is an untreated Al-Anon.
Wait—what’s an “Al-Anon”?
Back in 1951, Lois Wilson was at a crossroads. Her husband Bill had found a solution for his crippling drinking problem and also risen to national acclaim as the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. While “Bill W”’s success with AA was (and still is) a life-saving achievement, the reality for Lois and others like her was more complicated. While her husband flourished, she still carried the trauma from his years of emotionally abusive behavior. Lois herself was not an alcoholic, so making another appearance at her husband’s AA meetings wasn't helping her pain. What’s more, she said being forced to listen to a room full of heavy drinkers tell war stories risked triggering even more resentment.
Wanting to “strive for her own personal growth” Lois soon founded Al-Anon, an organization dedicated to offering, “a program of recovery for the families and friends of alcoholics.” Al-Anon meetings are independent, but they lean heavily on the AA model, including an emphasis on sharing personal stories as a primary form of support and following the The Twelve Steps as outlined in Bill W’s Big Book.
No individuals are alike, of course, but there are some defining traits of an untreated Al-Anon:
- Masking low self-esteem (“I’ve never had problems with self-esteem.”)
- Overestimating agency and control (“Only I can fix it.”)
- Denying healthy feelings for fear of being vulnerable (“I haven’t cried since I was a baby.”)
- Outsized displays of unprovoked anger (“I could say, ‘Oh I’m not angry.’ I’m very angry.”)
As a longtime member of a Twelve-Step group. I’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours in the shared company of people recovering from substance abuse and addictive behaviors, many of whom attend Al-Anon meetings. When I first saw Trump talk about his brother’s death, I’d never heard him speak with such obvious sincerity and vulnerability in his voice — before quickly veering into another rage-filled talking point. It hit me instantly: This man belongs in Al-Anon.
At Twelve-Step meetings, members are asked to avoid discussing “outside issues” (politics, religion, etc.) and instead are asked to focus on their recovery. But, in the aftermath of the election, every meeting I attended began and ended with someone compulsively venting about how the election had affected them personally. It was clear the president-elect had invaded the psyche of us all, maybe none more so than those who share his hidden pain. Privately, I began pointing out to a few friends in recovery that they actually have something specific in common with our new president: He doesn’t drink or do drugs, and he watched a beloved family member slowly kill himself through addiction. The unfolding displays of horrific disbelief followed by reluctant empathy was something I’ll never forget.
“When I heard he was a teetotaler I thought ‘Of course,’” says Dr. Greg Cason, a behavioral psychologist in Los Angeles.
Cason says research has shown that both alcoholics and defiant straight edges often exhibit the same personality disorders stemming from trauma. “They typically had abusive, authoritarian parents,” Cason says. “Whether or not they attempted to treat that with substance, the root symptoms remain the same.” While one brother turned to drinking and the other abstained in response, they were both taking extreme measures to avoid dealing with underlying issues like narcissistic tendencies and impulse control.
Cason shocked his colleagues in late 2016 when he gave the keynote address to the Lesbian and Gay Psychotherapy Association. It was just days after the 2016 election and Cason focused his remarks on how and why his colleagues must empathize with Trump voters. His argument was built around what he calls deep psychological wounds that have hit middle-aged, lower-income, white men without college degrees in recent years, creating a connective tissue between them and the billionaire real estate mogul. “I looked at a map showing where the most severe trends of addiction and suicide rates were spiking across the country,” Cason said. “They were all Trump states.”
However, when it comes to Trump himself, Cason doesn’t hesitate to speak more critically, saying Trump exhibits many of the common traits of a narcissist. Though he doesn’t attempt to formally diagnose Trump, he says new research argues that people like Trump exhibiting those traits weren’t necessarily born that way. Instead, it’s possible their emotional development was stunted after a traumatic, life-changing event. “If you see him as an 8-year-old boy, it’s very clear,” says Cason. “He thinks the world revolves around him, and he hasn't learned to master his basic emotions. These behaviors (narcissism, codependent traits and maybe even psychopathy) were passed along from his domineering father, escalated by his brother’s drinking, and aided by his family’s abundant financial resources.
What Trump’s childhood reveals
“I want to thank my brother, my late brother, Fred. What a fantastic guy. I learned so much from Fred. Taught me more than just about anybody. Just probably about even with my father, a fantastic guy. So I want to thank Fred. He’s up there and he’s looking down also.”
Donald Trump was—and always will be—his father’s second son. Fred Trump Sr. was a domineering bully who never acknowledged the success of his attention-seeking son. By the time Donald became “The Donald” and plastered the family name all over Manhattan high-rises and Atlantic City casinos, Fred was suffering from dementia and unable to convey the affirmation Trump so desperately craved.
Fred Jr., Trump’s older brother, was supposed to be the true heir to the family dynasty. Tall, handsome, stylish, and funny, Fred Jr. carried himself with the natural grace that Donald has spent decades poorly trying to emulate. “He was a great guy, a handsome person. He was the life of the party. He was a fantastic guy, but he got stuck on alcohol,” Trump said in an interview during the campaign. He was so seemingly smooth that when he walked away from the family business, it was to become an airline pilot, something Trump would later bitterly dismiss as being “like a bus driver in the sky.” But Fred Jr. also carried the disease of addiction. When he rejected taking his place by his father's side, his relationship with Donald became strained. As Michael D’Antonio, author of Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, said in a recent interview: “Instead of becoming nicer because he observed his brother’s fine qualities, Donald became tougher. Instead of becoming more trusting, I think Donald became more paranoid.”
What happens to untreated Al-Anons like Trump
There’s a saying in Twelve-Step fellowships like Al-Anon that your disease isn’t cured, it’s in the other room doing push ups. The implication being that someone who doesn’t address their behavioral challenges will not only fail to get better, but will actually get worse over time.
The early days of Trump's presidency show not someone at the height of narcissistic control, but someone on the perilous verge of collapse.
Comparing nearly 40 years of Trump television interviews is like watching a melting sulfurous candle. In 1980 a 33-year-old Trump uses many of the same rhetorical techniques he does today but his conversational tone is steady, measured and often thoughtful. Eight years later, Trump talks to Oprah Winfrey about trade policy and world powers like China. It’s closer to his bombastic style of today, but he’s still offering more nuanced takes and even praising Democrats like Jesse Jackson. By the time we get to 2005’s leaked Access Hollywood audio we’re in the company of the unhinged Trump. Even if you don’t believe Trump committed actual acts of sexual assault, it’s clear he’s willing to boast about such acts in order to desperately seek the approval of someone else, anyone else. Even Billy Bush.
We can’t know if Trump has ever considered getting help after his brother’s death, but it’s statistically unlikely. Al-Anon doesn’t keep hard numbers, but its membership is reportedly 85 percent female. That doesn’t mean men like Trump wouldn’t be welcomed there. In fact, if he was serious about changing his behavior, it might just be the perfect place for him to drastically change his relationships with others, especially women.
“All of the worst parts of his personality would actually become assets if he worked on them,” Jess A., an Al-Anon member, told me, explaining in the Twelve-Step philosophy all “defects of character” are actually positive traits when brought down to the right size. “He’d fit right in.”
Calling Donald Trump an untreated Al-Anon isn't a joke meant to ridicule him. It’s a way to finally understand his behaviors and how other people, sometimes for good, but more often not, continue to manipulate him.
It’s a way to move beyond the cries of racism, sexism, or undiagnosed mental illness that makes us feel better in the moment, but does nothing to change our reality.
I’m not writing this to get Trump into treatment. A cry for help for a man unwilling and incapable of asking for help himself accomplishes nothing. I wrote it because it helped me understand where I believe he’s coming from, and maybe it will help you, too. This isn’t for him, it’s for us.
If his presidency doesn’t end with impeachment or resignation, it should start with an intervention.
Illustration by Emily Lin
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