Last time I took to outlining the limits of psychiatry, first in their own restraint in the Goldwater Rule, and then also their territorial limitation in their diagnostic tools and scope of practice. Where psychiatry ends, however, is where the prickly field of social and political psychology picks up. It turns out that psychiatry is not the great hope to save us from a paranoid megalomaniac with the nuclear codes. There is something far more useful than diagnosing Trump, for Trump does not exist in a vacuum. There is not a condition where we live a good, sane, innocent world that was usurped by a megalomaniac. Trump is not a virus from outer space. He is our virus, for we live in a society that paves the way for Trumpism. In an earlier post, I wrote about “Why we Deserve Trump,” because in Trump, we see our own culture through a glass darkly.
The Magical Helper
What does it mean to have a raging narcissist for a president? What does it mean for us? A narcissist thinks everything is about him. As a consequence, we all kind fall into a trap called counter-transference, and we indeed do make all the world about him. And the more we make the world about him, the more he thinks everything is about him. It’s a vicious cycle, a self-verifying feedback loop. It means that Trump takes up way too much of our time, and he kind of grows more and more as more energy is spent focusing on him. He absorbed the media, the Republican Party, Washington, and now the world. Our Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, late night comedy, the entire breathless 24 hour news cycle has been sucked into the Trump vortex.
Trump is engaged in political life precisely because he is a megalomaniac who needs constant attention. In a real sense, he uses politics as a kind of quest for meaning, a way to project his own fantasies in the world and remake it according to his “American carnage” version of reality. There seems to be no other reason for his involvement – it certainly isn’t out of higher calling or love of country. He only loves country, or capitalism, which is America’s other name, so far as it promotes himself. Bobby Jindal had him pegged – “he isn’t about anything, he doesn’t believe in anything. Trump believes in Trump.” And in this sense, he has been able to use the tools of capitalism, of self-promotion, branding, celebrity, and used populist rhetoric to form an alliance with his supporters, that is to say, the victims of predatory capitalism, whom he promised to help by associating them with his gilded image.
Journalist Max Blumenthal nailed this phenomena in his great book Republican Gomorrah. He was writing about Sarah Palin at the time, but she turned out to be the populist right’s harbinger of Trump. Blumenthal writes, “she was their magical helper, the God-fearing glamour girl who parachuted into their backwater town to live them from the drudgery of their lives, assuring them that they were “good people” (p 301). Trump now has the mantle of magical helper, packaged in the lingo of prosperity gospel and American hucksterism. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know anything or has no experience. In fact, it’s better that he isn’t an expert, because smart-talking experts are suspect in this anti-intellectual world. What is more important is that Trump feels like he knows what he’s talking about. Trump’s brand is associated with success in this country, the result of American ideology, where we ascribe magical powers to celebrity and wealth. When those well-heeled celebrities also promise a subtext of white nationalism, this becomes catnip for a society and economy transformed by global capitalism and multiculturalism desperately seeking its own form of justice, even if its promises are unrealistic, or if there is no real plan underneath the blustery performance. Trump uses his own brand then to associate it with a brand of American nationalism. So as Trump succeeds, America succeeds. When Trump gloats, America gloats. When Trump plays it up like he’s being victimized, he is saying America is victimized, and so forth. The most often stated compliment of his supporters is “he tells it like it is,” or “speaks to us.” Reporters marveled at when they interviewed Trump supporters and pointed out logical contradictions or facts, the supporters reacted as if they were personally offended. This is because they have identified with their champion Trump – “Trump is America, Trump is me. In Trump we trust.”
This is not specifically a racist statement, though that has something to do with it. The Nation ran an article claiming that the Trump success was mostly about racial, not economic anxieties, which is a bogus distinction. In capitalism, race and class, and therefore economics, are intertwined in complicated ways. In a world beset by rapid change, complexity, the perception that governments don’t work, is that in this perceived chaos, it is rather easy to fall in line with a tough talking strongman to whip the national family into shape. It’s the nation’s “wait ’til your father comes home,” moment. It’s the promise that in domestic issues, fatherly authoritarianism will sort out “what the hell is going on.”
Narcissism is kind of a paradoxical situation – one appears as though they are full of one’s self, but this activity is only defensive, not substantive. That is to say, the narcissist is suffering precisely from a lack of self, a paucity of selfhood. They don’t feel whole or complete and have very anxious and defensive strategies to get by. This wounding is something most people, frankly, do experience in their search for purpose. The magical helper promises to fulfill this wound with its destiny. To “Make America Great Again” means to heal this wound symbolically. Trump again and again appealed to the narcissistic wound, communicating “I represent the forgotten people” at the GOP Convention. The manna of MAGA was in the masses feeling touched, special, a part of an impassioned revolution that promised to repair the country.
The dominance of entertainment culture, individualism, prosperity gospel and capitalism converge perfectly with Trump, who, like it or not, embodies the American Dream. Get yours, get ahead, use others. This is a character form this Randian culture cultivates with vulgar materialism and individualism. It has skepticism of government, ideas such as the public good or higher purpose. This is, really, the prominent ideology of late capitalism, it is precisely narcissistic in character. Anything that is unpleasant or self-contradictory, or complicated, it ignores or outsources or externalizes. It’s the Art of the Deal, a narcissist’s manual – never accept defeat, never lose, and if you lose, forget that you lost as quickly as possible to get back to winning. Get back to gathering attention from others. Put your name on everything, in big gold letters. A narcissist can be self-loathing, or in this case, vacillate between poles of puffed up grandiosity and self-loathing woe-is-me victim playing, blaming others for slander, lies, fake news, and being treated “so, so unfairly, ok?”
This grandiosity and victim playing vacillation, I claim, really fits nicely with right wing nationalism in America. The idea is that America is so so great, and it used to be much greater, but it’s not any more. It’s now been spoiled by “bad people who have treated it so so unfairly” – the liberals, the college educated, the big city elites, the media, Jews, Muslims, immigrants and Woodstock festival goers. Trump is a wealthy elite, yes, but as Sean Hannity called him, “a blue collar billionaire,” which is in some ways true, at least on the level of his persona. Trump was an outsider among New York elites, is uncultured, uncouth tongue, accentuated by his red Make America Great Again trucker hat, and gave populist America its voice. It wasn’t a rational choice. Reason of course, has nothing to do with it. It was purely a rageful protest against all the coastal elites and the establishment status quo.
The historical term, and the sociological term, for this phenomena suggest something more than mere narcissistic, it’s demagoguery. A demagogue means is a term for a populist rabble rouser who gains prominence by exploiting people’s fears and prejudices and is a shameless self-promoter. These figures were known in antiquity – figures like Cleon and Alcibiades of Athens. Demagogue refers to more than the individual leader, but implies a systematic feedback loop between leader and the mob with which he’s connected (see Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego). But without the crowd, the demagogue is powerless.
A psychiatrist named Dr. Joost Merloo wrote about how this kind of connection to the demagogue takes place. Merloo worked in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War, and wrote books with titles like Delusion and Mass Delusion and The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide and Brainwashing. Merloo writes:
If the complexity of a county’s political and economic apparatus makes the individual citizen feel powerless, confused and useless, if he has no sense of participation in the forces that govern daily life, or if he feels these forces to be so vast and confusing that he can no longer understand them, he will grasp at the totalitarian opportunity for belonging, for participation, for a simple formula that explains and rationalizes what is beyond his comprehension. And when the dictator has taken over finally, he transfers his own abnormal fantasies, his rage and anger, easility to his subjects. Their resentments feed his; his pseudo-strength encourages them. A mutual fortification of illusions takes place. The Rape of the Mind, p. 75
Concepts such as using the media to produce ready-made thoughts promote a Pavlovian machination of mass thought. People are mind-jacked, guided by the repetitive talking points of the corporate media product and their promoted champion. This is the kind of conditioning of the current media echo chambers with their pre-packaged rhetorical points to herd thought in mass culture. Cultures are vulnerable to this kind of ideological herding when their interiors are depleted by years of fiscal austerity, gutting the manufacturing base, outsourcing jobs overseas, or automation. Rates of addiction to opiates and meth have skyrocketed. Half of the country is poor or living paycheck to paycheck. Healthcare and education have worsened and have grown expensive at the same time.
America has spent the last sixteen years in very expensive and fruitless military adventures that have only seen extremism expand abroad, and it seems, at home. While these wars have not been fought on American soil, it is as if America’s interior has been ravaged by war. It is America that has crumbling infrastructure. It is America that needs a New Deal or a Marshall Plan. It is America that suffers fanaticism. Yet at the same time, we are being told that government isn’t able to solve the problems, that, as Reagan said, “government is the problem.” So the heartland continues to elect people who don’t believe in government, and when they go to Washington, basically sabotage government to fulfill the prophesy. This is how the kleptocratic state keeps rolling.
From Magical Healer to Heel
This magical helper phenomenon has more to do with emotions than reason, more to do with theatrics than logic. A few essayists have connected the semiotics of Roland Barthes’s essay Mythologies, where he compared the performance of wrestling to the sport of boxing, to Trump’s rhetoric and body language. The idea being that the Trump phenomena contradicted all the rules of American politics because he did not appeal to reasoned debate, or skill, or expertise, but to the passions as a performer. Judd Legum noted that Trump went by the standards of wrestling rather than boxing – he could not run on skill or experience, but could work a microphone to harass the opposition with passion. He writes, “It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. Where is no more problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.”
(Trump has strong ties with WWE wrestling, as an investor, performer, and friend to the billionaire CEO Vince McMahon. He even named Linda McMahon, who’s been trying to break into politics for years, to head the small business counsel.)
An article from never-Trump conservative essayist Stephen L Miller in the National Review makes the case that it was wrestling that Trump found his true capacity is an actor. And the role that put him over the top is perhaps best described at the stock character of the heel in wrestling – a vain, arrogant, pompous blowhard. Kind of like the wrestling character played by the great Ric Flair. Or Gorgeous George. Or Kurt Angle. Or like the characters played by comic and performance artist Andy Kaufman, who ventured into wrestling playing a heel in a feud with Jerry “the King” Lawlor. Kaufman also appeared on the set of Taxi dressed as blowhard lounge singer and insult comic Tony Clifton. Newsweek even ran an article on the internet meme of speculation that Trump is actually a protracted Kaufman hoax.
The heel is the antagonist who breaks the rules, cheats, sabotages, and nastily takes advantage of his opponents outside the ring. In lucha libre wrestling, heels (rudo) are brawlers fighting with brute forces, often dressing up like devils or tricksters. Trump wears the same suite and tie every day, like portraying this character he invented. And he gets his crowd to boo, hiss, cheer and jeer, to chant “build the wall!” or “lock her up!” and carries on about “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary,” he turns his political opponents into wrestling characters, and brings what might have been reasoned debate to the level of vulgar theater. His opponents were caught flat footed while he stirred the nationalist id. They either never understood what was going on or were not prepared to meet him on the mat. (Remember, Rubio would try for a couple of days, insulting Trump’s hand size. Then he retreated from his very brief stint in the ring.)
What this breakdown of logic indicates is a full-throated embodiment of celebrity, television, and huckster culture. Mark Thompson’s book Enough Said charted the last few decades where all political speech has become more simplistic, driven by simplistic tropes of good versus evil and the crudity of populist speech from “death panels” to “lock her up” chants. This is not only red meat populist alarmism, nor the cliched “coarsening of dialog,” it signals something much grander – the full descent into a society of spectacle. Poltiical discourse has been declining for decades, but now it’s fully absorbed by the entertainment pathos. Trump’s own measuring stick for his fame or success is having good ratings, and the estimated three billion dollars worth of free air time he could whip up with Twitter and daily antics. As CBS big cheese Les Moonves said himself, “Trump may not be good for America, but he’s good for CBS.”
Demagogues and Demigorgons: The Upside Down
Because Trump at the same time embodies a social pathology and is himself pathological, we live in times that some have called uncharted waters. History it seems has entered into a new dimension. Scores of people are still so shocked by events that it seems the date 11/9 has ripped a hole in the fabric of social space. Culturally it is linked to a political twilight zone. Upset people are quick to point out not to “normalize Trump,” which signals the tenuous edge the social order teeters on. Protesters holding signs like “make Margaret Atwood fiction again,” and bookstores moving their post-apocalyptic fiction to current events, signal a rapidly shifting culture where reason and common sense seem to have been abandoned along with the dying of the old political order. We are living in what anthropologists like Victor Turner, author of The Ritual Process, would call a liminal zone where the social order is usurped, structure becomes anti-structure, where up becomes down, left becomes right, hello means goodbye, and so forth in a kind of grand inversion ceremony. This is the post-truth order, and the symbol of this order, the one to represent the pathology of the age is faux Trump populism.
History could well interpret Trump as the heel, the rudo, the trickster, the one who inverts reality, a force that casts all things into doubt, blending facts with alternative facts, and either himself, or through his surrogate smokescreens, flood the public with so much disinformation that it reaches a level beyond mere lying, but has become a purposeful cyclone of bullshitting, as Fareed Zakaria illustrated. Trumpism has skillfully confused and bewildered, mixing truth with conspiracy theories, trolling and innuendo that it’s hard to say which side Trump is on or what he really stands for.
But the Trump trickster phenomena implies more. Along with it, the entire political spectrum has fissures in its foundation. Previously I wrote about the function of Trump as a disjunctive president in terms of his historical role. Trump is not conscious of any of this, but is rather so identified with this archetypal role as a vulgarian, a version of Rabelaisian trickster presiding as the fool and foil of a broken political system. Hall, Goldstein and Ingram in their entry “The Hands of Donald Trump” in The Journal of Ethnographic Theory write:
His humor works because it includes vulgarity … He provides carnivalesque moments as he makes fun of other candidates, at their bodies, at their fluids, at their stiffness. Like Rabelais, Trump understands that crude humor has the power to bring down the princely classes – aka, the political establishment – as well as anyone who opposes him. He uses it to advance the “antipolitics politics” that has been building in the US public sphere since at least the early 1990s .. By reducing his opponents to bodily behaviors, Trump assumes the position of a Rabelaian clown, bringing down the old guard by exposing the grotesque …
So Trump becomes a bit of a Don Rickles, roasting the coastal elites, using humor to suspend social rules while becoming immune to traditional political critique. He blends the roles of stern father and rebellious child.
It’s also strikingly perfect that his name, in addition to being a brand synonymous with American hucksterism, alt-right champion and part-time curse word, (the name itself becoming a blunt instrument, weaponized, somehow indicating a violent inversion of social reality the way his supporters scream his name at rallies – “Trump!” – somehow taking the place of “fuck you!”) also means a trump card, as if he himself is the joker and conveys a special power to survive win against all odds, usually through underhanded means. For supporters, the trump card is magical helper, his name an apotropaic charm to ward off evil. To others, he’s a dirty trick, the early Republican debates asking if Trump was a comic book villain. Little wonder, for the man has has his name associated with games of chance for decades.
Because Trump is pathological, the entire political order is as well, a black hole sucking in both parties into the upside down. His untruth dialectically manifests all untruths on all sides. It seems the only field the post-truth president is met is with a post-truth resistance, which comes in the form of constant pressure from the destroyed Democratic Party, the media and the deep state. This effort is spearheaded by increasingly hysterical paranoiacs from Rachel Maddow, who is beginning to sound like the left’s Alex Jones. Critics on the left (like Brett Easton Ellis, Glenn Greenwald, Jimmy Dore, Chris Hedges, Thomas Frank), and right (Roger Stone, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones) both point out that the neoliberal elites, the corporate Clintoncrat establishment have too entered into a mass delusion fed by their incredulity, their inability to understand the populist right’s anger, and epistemologically insulated by their New York Times coastal elite bubble. They were outwitted by the Mercer’s better analytics and data mining. The corporate media, Chuck Todd, Five Thirty-Eight’s Nate Silver and RealClearPolitics all could not predict the Trump victory. But instead of a deep dive examining the loss, wondering why Clinton didn’t even go to Wisconsin, instead of reaching out to the working classes, listening to the grassroots and understanding voter malcontents, they are doubling down on the policies and platform that made them lose, anchored by neoliberal corporate Democrats Tom Perez, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Instead of a 2016 autopsy, they’ve entered into their own post-truth irrational hall of smoke and mirrors manifesting in the barrage of spy movie innuendo and Manchurian Candidate suspicion, back to 1964 liberal paranoia.
Trump has been quick to point out that he’s part of a witch hunt. Of course, in a post truth era, where up is down, where liars can sometimes tell the truth, who’s to know? Vladamir Putin says that America is in the grip of political schizophrenia, which is how America was during the Cold War. Considering our history of McCarthyism, the Red Scare, the Lavender Scare, and our historical russophobia; now renewed in Cold War 2.0, and our alarmist social media age that turns any innuendo into a full blown conflagration, Putin may well be correct. This is what happens in the upside down post truth world. And whatever happens at the end of all these investigations and innuendo, I can wager that we will know less at the end of it than at the beginning. In the end, the truth won’t even matter.
In the end, who suffers but the same people? The poor, the middle class, those fighting for the dignity to be free and healthy. Those fighting for equal rights and protections under the law. These are rational social concerns too often sidetracked by tribalism, reactivity, mass-media-driven hysteria, and the red-state blue-state corporatist trap. Will there ever again be a president who isn’t some kind of wealthy celebrity? Will there again be room for reason or truth? Will people find within themselves the will unplug from their news service product and read?
This is the form the end of the empire takes, the nadir of a spectacle society that is very American. In his book Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, Neal Gabler makes the case that this really is the pure form of American democracy. It doesn’t take the form of reasoned debate. Americans prefer entertainment. We’re an empire of entertainment and idiocracy of illusion where pathos has usurped logos; lizard brains plugged into the television matrix, an entire society mediated by its godlike power. Will there ever again be a non-celebrity president? Or shall we prepare for the campaigns of Oprah and Clooney? Has wrestling finally triumphed?
Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte would take the wrestling metaphor literally. The tech industry millionaire and full time hotheaded Trumpublican representing Montana and “aggressive Christianity,” on the eve of his special election, literally body slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. His supporters blamed the Lügenpresse, said he had it coming. True to wrestling form, it’s a bit perfect: the millionaire jock goes on a ‘roid rage, gives a milquetoast reporter a wedgie and stuffs him in the locker. What a loser!