Trump protests Seattle. Picture by Elaine Thompson AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Many of us who are still shocked by Trump’s unforeseen victory and struggle to understand how this happened, have been focusing our attention on the ideological flavour of Trump’s campaign and its appeal to the fears and base xenophobic instincts of the white US population. In particular, we have been hearing about the plight of the humiliated, underrepresented white lower middle class and the working poor – “white trash” – of whom there are many millions in middle America, yet who have been ignored and dismissed by the Republican and Democratic elites alike. This population is not educated or wealthy enough to matter in liberal/neoliberal America, nor can they easily be represented in the progressive lexicon as one of the designated oppressed groups in need of protection (such as people of colour, women and LGBTQs). The invisibility of this enormous population, their relative inability to make themselves a factor in US policy, became a ticking bomb.
But the analyses that I have read failed to focus on the profound idiosyncrasy of Trump’s own figure and the almost magical, fairy-tale quality of his success story – a story uniquely well-suited to ignite hope in people who have spent their lives losing one battle after another. According to the theory of the influential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, any actual historical father one might have can only seem omnipotent; in actuality, he is not, as he has been symbolically castrated by his own father. In other words, for any powerful man, there is someone out there who is even more powerful. Inability to realize that, insisting on viewing the father figure as truly uncastrated and omnipotent, and identifying with a figure thus seen, paves the way to madness. To enter as a subject into a patriarchal social order, one needs a father figure to grapple and identify with that that can help mediate between the protected symbiotic world of the nursery room and the wider social reality. This transition legitimately evokes resistance and is not easy for anyone, yet one’s basic sanity and functionality depends on it.
Having gotten away with lying, stealing and sexual violence, he appears not to be obligated to follow any law
Donald Trump, unlike many other highly powerful men, appears to not be in any way castrated. He has it all. He could fund his own election campaign. He did not truly need the Republican party in order to win – arguably, he could run as a Democrat or an independent, and still have won. Having gotten away with lying, stealing and sexual violence, he appears not to be obligated to follow any law, and his having, seemingly, no father who could put him in his place, makes him God-like or devil-like. Like Milton’s Satan, who proclaimed, “We know none before us, self-begotten, self-raised, with our own quickening power”, Trump appears to lack nothing and need no one. Whether it is the God or the Satan image we are more comfortable with in this context (Nitzsche’s Uebermensch could also be a good fit), clearly we are looking at a type of figure that has archetypal qualities, something qualitatively different from an ordinary mortal obeying the laws of nature and society. Identifying with such an extraordinarily powerful figure could feel profoundly reassuring, while at the same time assisting a slide into madness – a state in which one gradually comes to experience not only the idealized figure, but one’s own self as well as not lacking anything and not being bound by law. Adopting Trump as a father figure cannot help pave a way to the recognition of the existing social order, one in which one has to follow norms or be punished, speak in a logical, comprehensible and agreed-upon manner or be dismissed. Unlike a classical totalitarian leader, Trump does not come through as an ambassador of law and order. Internalizing his figure is synonymous with accepting a view of the world that is entirely idiosyncratic, not based on accepted logic or causality. It is a world of primal chaos, in which one is free to hit and grab whatever is within reach.
Crude idealizing fulfills a crucial psychological need – to develop a self, by first wrapping up partial, rudimentary self-representations around an internalized other perceived as solid enough to serve as a base that can hold them together, until the structure is strong enough to exist on its own. As Robert Jay Lifton demonstrates in his book The Protean Self, the condition of self-fragmentation is universal in contemporary America. Others, including Cushman (Constructing the Self, Constructing America), Zizek and Carlo Strenger, have addressed the difficulty contemporary subjects face developing unified selves, and the narcissistic vulnerability and neediness that ensue when the subject’s sense of self forever remains rudimentary. The ubiquity of the need for powerful idealization figures in this cultural climate cannot be overestimated, nor can the difficulty of undoing an idealization before it has fulfilled its psychological function.
Trump’s figure, like one of his megalomaniac towers, is both uniquely enticing and uniquely dangerous
Trump’s figure, like one of his megalomaniac towers, is both uniquely enticing and uniquely dangerous in this regard. His glamour and power, especially now that he has been elected the US president, seem near-infinite. He is the pharaoh. It is a fact that the frustrated white men are not the only ones enchanted by him – so are white women, and so are Latinos. We the activists and intellectuals think we know better, but lo and behold – we too struggle with our sense of lack and with our longings for a strong father. Can we be entirely immune to his charm? Can we not, even for a moment, be seduced into being reassured by our association with him? Have we not been hearing, on our left and right, from people who have previously struck us as sane, “Give him a chance, have an open mind, he might actually make a fine president, it might turn out fine”? Or esoteric rationalizations like, “This is going to be better for the Middle East”, “He will bring stability by improving US relations with Russia”, and so on? The people who say this are already hooked on Trump. Not because they are weak or stupid but because he is such a strong substance. He is like heroin – everyone offered a dose has a potential to become dependent. There is this Trump element we all lack in our systems, and who knows – we might even have endogenous Trump receptors. Perhaps there is already a research lab somewhere looking into this.
Even his countless flaws add to his charm. His vulgarity, boorishness, illogical thinking, dishonesty, lack of knowledge on any subject – all of these can appeal directly to our deepest insecurities, and our wish to believe that we can succeed – wait, not just succeed but become great! – despite these insecurities. Godlike as he seems in other regards, he is also all too human. His flaws make him a fitting candidate for what psychoanalyst Heintz Kohut named “twinship transference” – the desire to feel that the other is just like us. Don’t we, too, sometimes experience ourselves as lacking in knowledge, as not being able to think clearly enough, as not having it in us to do the right thing? Being able to both idealize and experience twinship can help strengthen one’s psychological bond with a parental figure. Paradoxically, the more flaws we discover, the more hopeful we can come to feel about our own prospects (and grateful to him for the hope he has given us), for if someone as dumb and ignorant as him could make it so high up, surely ourselves, being more intelligent, more diligent, more knowledgeable, more decent than him, could make a little something of ourselves?
The danger, of course, is that unlike an ethical psychotherapist who allows an idealization to be formed in order to help the patient eventually build his or her own adult self, Trump is out to exploit each and every one of us, to make us his slaves. Hence, we should stay on guard, pay attention to this disturbing psychological dynamic, and make an effort to track exactly how we are being manipulated and driven crazy. Contrary to what we would like to believe, uneducated, ignorant losers are not the only ones who have fallen for Trump or are yet to fall for him.