Trump’s paradox: a critique of ‘populism’

Trump is an irrational projection and knows it. That’s why he can do absolutely anything and get away with it. Taking back control is scapegoating and aggression.

Simon Tunderman
4 May 2017

The nasty parties. Nigel Farage speaks at a rally for Donald Trump in August, 2016. Gerald Herbert AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Do we understand Trump’s rise to power yet? In order to explain his surprising victory in the 2016 elections, experts on the left attribute much analytical weight to feelings of resentment among working class Americans. This resentment would emerge as a consequence of many Americans’ deteriorating socio-economic position in times of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘globalisation’. The people, so the story goes, have grown so dissatisfied with the American establishment that they were driven into the arms of a man who, for all his defects, managed to present himself as a Washington outsider and the saviour of the American dream.

On this account, popular resentment is the main explanation for right-wing populism. In response, social scientists have fired up their regression machines in order to calculate the correlation between socioeconomic variables and Trumpist sympathies. This approach is not necessarily wrong, as the precarious socio-economic position of many Americans undoubtedly plays a role in their voting behaviour. However, the problem is that it glosses over the main paradox of the recent US elections: Trump represents the very characteristics that supposedly gave rise to the feelings of popular resentment in the first place.

Trump’s paradox

This is especially clear in two cases. First, when Trump says he is going to make America great again, experts claim this resonates with people’s resentment because it promises to turn back the clock on economic globalisation and the outsourcing of Ameri- can jobs. At the same time, however, Trump symbolises these problems as no other: the owner of an international business empire, Trump is well-known to move his production lines overseas to save costs. We have all seen the pictures of Trump merchandise with a ‘made in China’ label. We have all seen the pictures of Trump merchandise with a ‘made in China’ label.

Second, when Trump promises to drain the swamp, experts explain the popular appeal of this claim with reference to the supposed feeling of powerlessness among ordinary people vis-à-vis the American political elite, which has cuddled up to the richest Americans. Yet here the paradox shows itself again. A billionaire businessman with many friends in the political establishment, Trump symbolises the very swamp he would sup- posedly drain. Haven’t we all seen the picture of Hillary, Bill, Melania, and Donald at the wedding of the latter two in 2005? Clearly, Trump’s paradoxical embodiment of the very causes of resentment which his victory supposedly tapped into poses a problem for social scientists.  

Popular resentment can only explain Trump’s rise to power on either one of two assumptions. The first option would be to assume that the people who vote for him out of resentment are too misinformed and ignorant to realise that Trump is, in fact, not on their side. This assumption of popular ignorance, which many social scientists would not seem to be very averse to, seems unrealistic. With the extensive media coverage of the US elections it would be quite hard for anyone to overlook the fact that Trump is, in fact, not Joe the Plumber. Also, the assumption of popular ignorance is morally problematic, because underestimating the intellectual capacities of the people so greatly makes it difficult to hold them accountable for subscribing to the politics of nationalism, racism, and sexism. This assumption of popular ignorance, which many social scientists would not seem to be very averse to, seems unrealistic.

For these reasons, I will argue that there is a second assumption that makes it possible to explain Trump as the outcome of popular resentment. This second option, then, is to assume that disenfranchised Americans know very well that Trump is not on their side, but vote for him anyway. In this case, the very interesting challenge for social scientists would be to analyse what this ‘anyway’ consists of.

Voting for him anyway: identification with an aggressor

This requires an approach that goes beyond the idea that there is a direct relation between popular resentment and right-wing populism. Rather, I will argue that an explanation for Trump’s paradox has to take seriously the mediating role of psychological mechanisms that may be very paradoxical in their own right. In other words, an irrational phenomenon such as Trump’s popular- ity among disenfranchised Americans may also require an ‘irrational’ explanation.

The question about Trump’s paradoxical popularity invites us to think about how people react when their way of social being is threatened. Psychoanalysis can be of assistance here. Anna Freud, in her essay Identification with the Aggressor, relates of a young boy who behaved abnormally in school, in the sense that he started twitching his face as soon as his teacher spoke to him. Upon closer inspection it appeared that the boy was not so much mocking as imitating the teacher, in order to deal with the latter’s reproaches. The analyst noticed that ‘the boy’s grimaces were simply a caricature of the angry expression of the teacher and that, when he had to face a scolding by the latter, he tried to master his anxiety by involuntarily imitating him’ (A. Freud 1993, 110).

Based on similar observations in other children’s behaviour, Freud argued that identification with the aggressor is one of the defence mechanisms of the ego. It helps the ego to deal with the anxiety that arises when confronted with an overwhelming external threat from a source of authority, insofar as it transforms itself ‘from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat’ (ibid.). This is especially clear in those cases where children adopted the authority’s aggression and projected it onto another object or child who serves as a scapegoat.

At first sight, this psychoanalytical insight into the identification with the aggressor mechanism may seem far removed from anything political. But according to Freud, such defence mechanisms could be observed in many different social situations among people of all ages. As such, it can also be very helpful in explaining the paradoxical dynamics of contemporary politics. I will argue that it is possible to qualify the relationship between Trump and his electorate as a case of identification with the aggressor. The key lies in the paradox described above.

Ordinary Americans are confronted with stagnating wages, outsourcing of jobs, rising inequality, and a widening gap with the political establishment. To an important extent, this threat to working Americans’ socioeconomic position and their options for political participation stems from the changing conditions of an increasingly globalised political economy. This process is propelled forward by a class of rich entrepreneurs who make their money in global commodity chains and use that same money to gain political influence through party donations. Now, the crucial point is that when faced by this overwhelming threat, disenfranchised Americans may try to defend themselves by identifying with its source: multinational entrepreneurs represented by Donald Trump and his red power tie. Through identifying with Trump, ordinary Americans may assimilate the threat emanating from him, transforming their vulnerability into an aggressive stance. The result … is the strange spectacle of working class Americans, wearing those red Make America Great Again caps (made in China), going out to protest against raising the minimum wage, more restrictive banking regulations, and universal healthcare.

The result of this identification mechanism is the strange spectacle of working class Americans, wearing those red Make America Great Again caps (made in China), going out to protest against raising the minimum wage, more restrictive banking regulations, and universal healthcare. Identifying with Trump makes it possible for disenfranchised Americans to endure their socio-economic hardship insofar as they mimic his overpowering aggression towards their own interests, adopting the fantasy that getting in line with this aggression will solve America’s (and their) problems. Throw in a Mexican or Muslim scapegoat figure and you have all the ingredients for what psychoanalysts call utopian fantasy: the impossible idea of the restoration of a fullness of society (‘make America great again!’), dependent on the expulsion of the scapegoat (‘build that wall!’).

Demonstrating how psychic affect may overrule rational political reasoning, the identification with the aggressor mechanism helps to explain the riddle of working class Trump voters going against their own interests. However, the introduction of the scapegoat figure adds another dimension that clearly warns against casting Trump voters as the innocent and passive receiving end. As Sigmund Freud noted, the ego derives pleasure from turning a negative experience into an aggressive activity towards someone else (S. Freud 1975b, 227).

This is why Trump needs his Mexican wall and his Muslim ban: so that his supporters can have their revenge, not on him or his billionaire cabinet, but on the minority scapegoat. Insofar as they aim to subject Mexicans and Muslims to exclusion and disenfranchisement, Trump supporters transfer onto others the harm they experienced themselves.

The double character of identifying with Trump’s aggression now comes into stark relief. On the one hand, it is a mechanism to shield the ego from external threat and fend off anxiety-inducing experiences. On the other hand, it is also a source of pleasure insofar as Trump supporters can retaliate against a substitute object, the scapegoat. Crucially, as the notions of anxiety and pleasure suggest, this identification mechanism is not a rational process, but rather takes place on the unconscious level of affective investment. As is well known, the unconscious and the rational constitute different domains in psychoanalytical theory (S. Freud 1975a, 373). Identification and scapegoating are affective processes, so bound up with unconscious irrationality that rational political argumentation has no purchase on them. As such, they have not much to do with politics in the rational sense.

Trump’s immunity

This may explain why Trump’s popularity seems immune to exposing the inconsistency of his arguments. His supporters may know very well (rationally) that he is not really on their side, but unconsciously they rally behind him anyway because he offers an opportunity to structure their social being on the affective level. In the same way, they may know (rationally) that Mexicans and Muslims are not the real threat, but they insist on the idea of the threat because they are invested in it on an affective level. In other words, Trump’s popularity among a large part of disenfranchised Americans is based on affect not rational deliberation. This is most clearly attested by a recent poll which shows that the first 100 days of his presidency, which he largely spent golfing and creating scandal, did not negatively impact his popularity among his core supporters (Balz and Scott 2017).

Now, the identification and scapegoating mechanism as witnessed in the case of Trump is of course nothing new. Sartre came across something very similar in his classical account of anti-Semitism. According to Sartre, anti-Semites are ‘afraid to discover that the world is badly made’. They know that their anti-Semitic statements are ‘empty and contestable’ but they nonetheless hold on to their anti-Semitic ‘passion’, because this allows them to see themselves ‘as forming an indissoluble unity’ with their country as a whole. Sartre’s account thus also points out the twin combination of identification with a larger authority on the one hand, and minority scapegoating on the other. This combination, whether in the historical case of anti-Semitism or currently with Trump, is so persistent because it gives the threatened ego a sense of pleasure and belonging – at the expense of someone else (Sartre 1946, 166 -170).

A critical view of populism

It now becomes clear that, in contrast to the classical resentment approach, a psychoanalytic approach results in a more critical view of Trump voters. The resentment explanation understands support for Trump as a direct function of people’s deteriorating socio- economic position, and it can only do so by assuming their ignorance as to their own interests as well as to Trump’s politics. As such, the resentment approach comes close to the classical Marxist definition of ideology, which excuses the people on account of their naïve consciousness, saying, ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Žižek 1989, 24). However, as I argued above, rationally they may know very well what they do, but they do it anyway because of the affective pleasure they derive from identifying with Trump and copying his aggression towards scapegoats.

In a way, then, the resentment approach depoliticises the role Trump supporters play in upholding the politics of nationalism, racism, and sexism. Of course, this raises the question how far to pursue this critique of the right-wing populist electorate. Sartre was quite radical in this regard. He argued that anti-Semitism is a choice for those who are too afraid to face the challenges of living in an ever-changing modern society, and seek refuge in the sham certainties of obeying leaders and hating minorities (Sartre 1946, 177). Since he calls it a choice, Sartre holds each individual fully accountable for their antisemitism. I would argue that this perspective is too radical for the psychoanalytic account of Trumpism outlined above. The existentialist topos of individual choice is not compatible with the conclusion that the paradoxical alliance between Trump and the disenfranchised elec- torate emerges on the unconscious affective level.

The irony of the psychoanalytical explanation of Trump’s paradox is thus that it is paradoxical in itself. On the one hand, it opens up the possibility for a critical dialogue with the right-wing electorate because it doesn’t assume that the people are ignorant about politics and their own interests. On the other hand, however, it seems to render such a political dialogue superfluous because the psychoanalytic account displaces the fundamental locus of political association to the level of the unconscious.

The question, then, is what this means for social scientists interested in the critique of right-wing populism. It is probably not realistic to demand that social scientists become trained psychotherapists in addition to their normal jobs. But it would be a start to give up the search for the one variable that might rationally explain right-wing populism, and instead acknowledge that affect, the unconscious, and thereby psychoanalysis are fundamental to understanding the sometimes perplexing dynamics of contemporary politics (Laclau 2005, 101). If nothing else, psychoanalysis helps to explain how the structural environment of politics and the economy feeds into people’s voting behaviour.

At the same time, however, the focus on affective processes in politics should not distract from the task to continue the critical investigation of the dynamics of inequality, precarisation, and disempowerment. The psychoanalytic perspective on right-wing populism laid out here is not meant to replace the critique of political economy. Rather, the two perspectives go hand in hand. If nothing else, psychoanalysis helps to explain how the structural environment of politics and the economy feeds into people’s voting behaviour. As such, this combined critique should point out the irrational structural inequalities of the current political economy itself, of which Trump is of course only a symptom, not a cause. All the more reason to make sure that a genuine left-wing alternative emerges. Bernie 2020, anyone?



Balz, Dan, and Clement Scott. 2017, April 23. “Nearing 100 Days, Trump’s Approval at Record Lows but His Base Is Holding.” Washington Post.

Freud, Anna. 1993. “Identification with the Aggressor.” In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London: Karnac Books, 109–21.

Freud, Sigmund. 1975a. “Die Verneinung.” In Psychologie des Unbewußten. Studienausgabe Band III, eds. Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela Richards, James Strachey, and Ilse Grubrich-Simitis. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 371–78.

———. 1975b. “Jenseits des Lustprinzips.” In Psychologie des Unbewußten. Studienausgabe Band III, eds. Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela Richards, James Strachey, and Ilse Grubrich-Simitis. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 213–72.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1946. “Portrait of the Antisemite.Partisan Review 13(2): 163–78.

Stavrakakis, Yannis. 2014. “Debt Society: Psychosocial Aspects of the (Greek) Crisis.” In The Psychosocial and Organization Studies. Affect at Work, eds. Kate Kenny and Marianna Fotaki. Basingstoke: Palgrave

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Žižek, Slavoj. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London/New York: Verso.

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