There's a powerful way to explain the rise of Donald Trump that most commentators have missed entirely or undervalued. The standard line describes Trump as a bizarre anomaly. Beginning as an improbable celebrity candidate, he has defied all the conventional rules of politics, which should have been fatal. Instead Trump has swept all before him on the Republican side. Possessing a "genius" for grabbing the limelight, he continues to dominate the scene in ways no previous politician ever has in modern times--so the conventional view goes.
But in reality Trump isn't bizarre or anomalous.
He stands for something universal, something right before our eyes. It's an aspect of the human psyche that we feel embarrassed and ashamed of, which makes it our collective secret. Going back a century in the field of depth psychology, the secret side of human nature acquired a special name: the shadow.
The shadow compounds all the dark impulses--hatred, aggression, sadism, selfishness, jealousy, resentment, sexual transgression--that are hidden out of sight.
The name originated with Carl Jung, but its basic origin came from Freud's insight that our psyches are dualistic, sharply divided between the conscious and unconscious. The rise of civilization is a tribute to how well we obey our conscious mind and suppress our unconscious side. But what hides in the shadows will out.
When it does, societies that look well-ordered and rational, fair and just, cultured and refined, suddenly erupt in horrible displays of everything they are not about: violence, prejudice, chaos, and ungovernable irrationality.
In fact, the tragic irony is that the worst eruptions of the shadow occur in societies that on the surface have the least to worry about. This explains why all of Europe, at the height of settled, civilized behavior, threw itself into the inferno of World War I.
If Trump is the latest expression of the shadow, he isn't a bizarre anomaly, which would be true if normal, rational values are your only standard of measure. Turn the coin over, making the unconscious your standard of measure, and he is absolutely typical. When the shadow breaks out, what's wrong is right. Being transgressive feels like a relief, because suddenly the collective psyche can gambol in forbidden fields.
When Trump indulges in rampant bad behavior and at the same time says to his riotous audiences, "This is fun, isn't it?" he's expressing in public our ashamed impulse to stop obeying the rules.
But the fun of world War I, which almost gleefully sent young men off to fight, quickly turned to horror, and the shadow closed an insidious trap. Once released, it is very hard to force the shadow back into its underground bunker.
The Republican party has kept the shadow on a slow simmer for decades, ever since Nixon discovered how to make hay form Southern racism, law-and-order aggression against minorities, and us-versus-them attitudes to the Vietnam anti-war movement.
In order to make themselves feel unashamed, the good people on the right found figureheads after Nixon who exuded respectability. The irony is that as with civilized societies that seem the least likely to allow the shadow to run free, the more benign a Reagan or Bush acted, the stronger the shadow became behind the facade.
Trump has stripped away the facade, intoxicated by the "fun" of letting his demons run and discovering to his surprise (much as Nixon did) that millions of people roared with approval. Yet by comparison, Nixon retained relative control over the forces he unleashed, while Trump may be riding a tiger-that part of the story has yet to play itself out.
If the shadow refuses to go back underground, which is always the case, what outcomes can we anticipate over the next six months?
The present situation finds us trapped between denial and disaster.
Denial is when you ignore the shadow; disaster is when you totally surrender to it.
Without being at either extreme, right now many Americans feel the unsettling symptom of being out of control. Trump glorifies being out of control, and until this outbreak runs its course-which no one can predict-he will remain immune to all the normal constraints.
What to do in the meantime?
A few things come to mind:
1. See Trumpism for what it is, a confrontation with the shadow.
2. Instead of demonizing him, acknowledge that the shadow is in everyone and always has been.
3. At the same time, realize that the shadow never wins in the end.
4. Find every opening to reinforce the value of returning to right and reason in your own life.
5. Don't fight the shadow with the shadow, which means not stooping to play by Trump's nihilistic rules--he will always be willing to go lower than you are willing to go.
America has been fortunate in our ability to let off steam and recognize that we have demons.
In the Great Depression bank robbers became folk heroes, but nobody suggested electing Bonnie and Clyde president. The rational constraints that allow for human evolution have been successful for millennia, as the higher brain became dominant over the lower brain. That dominance still holds good, no matter how close we flirt with the primitive areas of the mind.
Trump represents something authentic in human nature, and in troubled times he's the bad boy who becomes a folk hero. No one can predict if his Wrong=Right stance will carry him to the White House. The contest with our own shadow isn't over yet.
If Trumpism Is the Disease, What's the Cure?
The machinery of politics is geared up to defeat Donald Trump on the Democratic side, and there’s hope, after Trump revealed his propensity for self-destruction, that the Republicans will either abandon him or keep a safe distance. Enough condemnation has been directed at him to sink a dozen candidates, and his extended Teflon period may quickly draw to a close.
But the larger issue isn't Trump's viability as a candidate, troubling as that is, but the rise of the movement he represents. Every term of condemnation applied to him-bigoted, racist, sexist, xenophobic, authoritarian, mentally unbalanced-fuels the approval of his supporters.
A hopelessly divided, hostile electorate has become a diseased electorate.
That's the thing that should disturb us the most, because disease conditions need a cure or else they continue to fester.
To clarify the point, I think back to my early days in Boston as an underpaid medical resident with a young family to support. Like many in my situation, I moonlighted to make ends meet, working at a famous private clinic in the Boston area. My status was on the bottom rung, so I found myself doing workups on the entering patients. One day I did the physical for the leader of a huge labor union, a nationally known figure. To my alarm, he was overweight, a heavy drinker and smoker, and suffering from various symptoms, the most serious being his high blood pressure and bad heart.
I finished the exam and immediately rushed to my supervisor with the bad news.
He blanched, saying, "You didn't tell him any of these things, did you?"
I said no, and the supervising physician looked relieved.
"We don't want to let him know that anything is wrong," he said. "He's doing okay the way he is, and if he really knew what was wrong, it would probably kill him."
Those were the days, in the early Seventies, when medical ethics still considered it discretionary to tell a patient any grim news, but the net effect was that denial by the doctor led to ignorance by the patient.
The same, and worse, applies to a diseased electorate.
On both sides the racism, bigotry, greedy elitism, reactionary attitudes, and sheer malice that has been a feature of the far right for decades somehow became normalized.
A very sick patient was being coddled as if he was healthy.
In the case of the union leader, keeping him in the dark was done supposedly in his best interest.
The far right has been treated with denial out of fear and repugnance.
After "nice" Presidents like Reagan and George H. W. Bush deliberately fueled the festering malignancy of the far right, Southern racists, and religious fundamentalists, moral lines became hopelessly blurred for the vast majority of politicians running for office.
The fact that the most respectable Republicans in leadership positions endorsed Trump in the blink of an eye, despite his outrageous public statements, indicates how deeply dependent a dysfunctional party has become. Without their worst members, the party would sink, and the leadership knows it. If Trump performs in November so dismally that he takes down senators, congressmen, and governors, the fever may die down for a bit. But the underlying disease will continue to spread in all likelihood. The dark side of Reaganism and the two Bushes roared to the surface in reaction to our first Afro-American President, and Trump took the bit in his teeth in acts of fraud, trumpeting a birther cause there is almost no chance he believed in.
So we must keep our eyes on one goal, curing the American electorate.
This involves a series of steps that need to enter into political activity no matter how discouraging the situation looks:
- Stop normalizing extremism. Continue to speak truth to power and also to the public. In this regard, Bernie Sanders has shown the way.
- Find better candidates. At the local level all the way up to the Senate, the bad has driven out the good. Faced with the malice and scorched-earth tactics of the far right, good centrist and left-leaning candidates have abandoned the field, refusing to subject themselves to such extreme attacks. More good people need to follow the lead of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, holding their noses if they must but entering the fray anyway.
- Reeducate the voting public, especially among young people, about what civic virtue and rational political thinking actually are.
- Honestly confront the failings on the Democratic side, which Bernie Sanders has effectively exposed.
- Reach across the aisle in Congress. It looks impossible, but there is no other way.
- Appoint Supreme Court justices who will repudiate and reverse the judicial extremism of Justices Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Thomas. This can be done with centrist or even slightly right-leaning nominees.
- Clear out the Justice Department of right-wing Bush appointees, many with fundamentalist religious leanings above the rule of law. They have no place in the civil service.
- Vigorously litigate voter suppression laws and gerrymandering.
As we all know, Trumpism is an acute condition that can create panic and alarm, but it's the underlying chronic condition that must be treated, even though curing it may take decades. One isn't aiming for a perfect, altruistic, virtuous electorate.
American politics has always been heated and divisive.
A diverse society is successful when no voices are suppressed, even the loud and angry voices.
The repugnancy of Trumpism may have opened the way for change, but the responsibility for making sure it is positive change lies with us.
Can Trumpism Lead to a Better American Story?
We are living at a time when the story of America is changing, with nothing but more change on the horizon.
Therefore, we face a critical decision.
Should the new American story be born out of fear or hope?
The stark contrasts in the 2016 election make this choice inevitable.
One indelible human trait is the craving to turn our experiences into stories. These stories gather tags (now often called memes) that keep the story straight and allow people to agree about them.
"The greatest generation" is such a tag, supporting the story of the Allied victory in World War II, which is referred to as a "good war," another tag. Politics is many things, but one of the most important is a war between competing stories, and if your side comes up with the winning story, your victory can last far beyond one election cycle.
Donald Trump has been wildly erratic when it comes to actual ideas, policies, and positions, but he rode the crest of an immensely successful Republican story. So-called conservative "principles" are largely a collection of mythical storylines, and the tags that define them go back to the Nixon era.
We are all familiar with law and order, the silent majority, morning in America, "Government isn't the solution-it's the problem," "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev," clash of civilizations, "Guns don't kill people--people do,” and many other conservative memes.
So fervent is the craving for stories that the right wing clings to storylines that are totally false if your standard of truth is historical fact, accurate data, and pluralism. But rigidly clinging to our story is something we all do. By the same token, we become nervous and disturbed when our story starts to fray. The right plays upon fear very successfully at times of national anxiety, from Nixon's "pitiful helpless giant" to Bush’s "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” to Trump's "make America great again,” which plays upon the anxiety of national decline. Fear is a powerful motivator in the short term, even when it proves to be disastrously bad as a guide to action, as witness the Vietnam war and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It seems likely that Donald Trump has finally reached the end of his string and will self-destruct thanks to his total inability to control himself.
But the crisis surrounding the American story won't go away.
The benign revolt led by Bernie Sanders isn't comparable to the toxic revolt led by Trump.
Yet they share a refusal to go along with the American story we've been living with, and the fact that such a huge proportion of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction indicates how deep our confusion, frustration, and discontent have progressed.
It's a positive sign that right-wing coherence is falling apart, because the conservative storyline is freighted with too many malignant tendencies. That it serves to condone religious fundamentalism, Southern racism, the Tea Party, birthers, and Trump himself is reason enough to provoke a complete shakeup. The problems are less dire on the progressive side. Even though the right-wing smear machine dominates talk radio and has successfully turned the tags "liberal" and "progressive" into terms of disdain, the social reality-and historical truth-lies on the liberal side.
We owe democracy, liberty, the Constitution, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, cultural pluralism, immigration, and the impartial rule of law to a liberal storyline going back more than two centuries.
The problem for Hillary Clinton isn't as alarming as it looked in our worst nightmares, which saw Trumpism seizing the country, riding a tidal wave of discontent, and resulting in a chaotic, toxic political revolution.
But assuming that she is elected, Hillary must address the fact that the old liberal story is loosely sutured and coming apart.
Trump instigates fear about illegal immigrants, globalism, radical Islam, slow economic recovery, the rise of China, and home-grown terrorists, yet even without him, these are new memes that challenge the American story.
Presidents are in a unique position to guide a new narrative.
President Obama recognized this in Ronald Reagan, even though Obama himself has largely been stymied by the right wing to bring about many of the changes he wanted. Beyond electing an Afro-American to the Presidency, which was a huge change in our story, other shifts on the liberal side, such as supporting democracy in the Middle East, establishing national health care, and normalizing relations with Russia are successes that still haven’t found full national acceptance.
So the question remains:
Will the new American story be written out of fear or hope?
The times are never settled; the unknown is always upon us.
What matters isn't how rich a country is or how dominant its armies are, but whether the national spirit is discouraged or confident, forward or backward looking, progressive or reactionary.
Stories are the underpinning of psychology, and what the American psyche needs more than ever is self-awareness. If nothing else positive comes from with his run for the Presidency except wake people up so that we can re-examine ourselves, Trump will have done one good thing.
If Trumpism Is Here to Stay, What Does That Tell Us?
As Donald Trump's campaigning becomes more unruly-some might say unhinged-the likelihood of him reaching the White House diminishes by the day. But Trumpism is a different story. The ingredients that go into Trumpism fall into the category Freud dubbed the psychopathology of everyday life. To use a broad brush, Freud saw human nature as a war of suppression that is never won, while the possibility of becoming a free, rational, productive person was never achieved. In other words, the psychopathology of everyday life must be considered a constant despite our aspirations and ideals.
It's a gloomy view of human nature but one that Trump's ascension underscored.
He has no impulse control. He follows the dictates of appetite and ego without regard for others. In the face of problems that require patience and reason, he gets restless and impatient at best and reckless at worst. If we look in the mirror, we can see ourselves in this pattern of behavior, but it belonged, in normal people, to childhood.
As adults we take sides in the war of suppression, choosing either to become mature, which means being in control of our Trump side, or letting our demons run, which is pure Trumpism.
The real problem is that even the best societies will never extirpate Trumpism, because our divided selves contain anger, resentment, selfishness, anxiety, and aggression.
To the extent that we let these feelings get the better of us, we participate in the psychopathology of everyday life. Trumpism considers this a desirable way to live, but that's a rich man's folly. He can bankrupt a casino after running it into the ground and walk away whistling. The workers he laid off can't do the same.
We find ourselves witnessing a revolt of the resentful led by the very type of person they have every right to resent, but that's how unreason works-it is detached from reasonableness.
In social psychology, it's well known that if you give someone all the proof needed to show that their viewpoint is factually incorrect, such as showing a supporter of the Iraq War the pattern of mistakes, bad decisions, and untruth surrounding that conflict, they come away more stubborn in their original support. Trump doubles down on his most toxic behavior-attacking the judge, retweeting an anti-Semitic posting, praising Saddam Hussein-for the same reason. The more he is rationally shown the error of his ways, the more vehemently he will cling to his irrationality.
The worst news, if we look to the future, is that the right wing has endorsed and encouraged the psychopathology of everyday life. Society’s dead weight of bigots, racists, sexists, xenophobes, and religious fundamentalists forms the so-called base on the right, when to any rational, normal person they reflect the negative aspects of human nature that should never be encouraged. As a result, there has been a through-the-looking-glass morality on the right for decades, which praised those who adhere to conservative "values" when they were actually signs of psychological abnormality.
If a society is lucky, the eruptions of everyday psychopathology are containable; when societies run off the rails, full-blown chaos is set loose. If current trends hold, America will have dodged the bullet this time. Reasonable people are rejecting Trump en masse. But it would be even better if Trumpism could be healed rather than rejected and suppressed. This is where the aspirational side of human nature enters the picture, for we aren't steam boilers running on a pressure gauge. We are creatures capable of continuous evolution to a higher level of consciousness.
That's what Trumpism challenges in the long run, a state of consciousness that can adapt to changing conditions and evolve.
The changing conditions are no mystery:
ISIS, globalism, hacking, cyberterror, lone wolves, climate change.
These tags ae shorthand for an emerging new world.
Can we adapt ourselves to it, solve the biggest problems, contain what must be contained, remain free in our own country, and promote a better life around the world?
Or do we surrender to Trumpism, even though our rational nature knows that to do so means disaster?
A great deal depends on our decision as a country, but even more on our decision as individuals, because it's the individual who sides with the psychopathology of everyday life or doesn't. If enough of us stop engaging Trumpism with a recoil of revulsion and turn our attention instead to restoring normality-which President Obama has dedicated eight years to-America has a chance of returning to its best aspirational identity.
How to Make Sure That Trumpism Never Returns
The problem isn't Donald Trump but Trumpism - many commentators feel safe enough to utter these words. What made them feel unsafe over the past year, despite the toxic extremism that Trump the man represented, was timidity. Someone posing as a strong man, capable of viciously demolishing his political enemies, posed a potential threat to anyone who spoke out against him. But now more people have found a way, even a growing handful of Republican politicians, to denounce him.
There's a collective sigh of relief that Trump has become his own worst enemy, but relief isn't the same as feeling safe, much less immune. America hasn't seen the last of Trumpism until remedies against its return are undertaken seriously. As a physician sees it, we are past the prevention stage, past the first signs of disorder, and well into rampant symptoms that threaten a full-blown outbreak. In a word, Trumpism has become a persistent virus, and although it fuels a sense of self-righteousness to blame the long line of Republican presidents going back to Nixon who planted the seeds of Trumpism, we can't afford that luxury.
To compress Trumpism into its essential ingredients, they are actually a batch of stubborn illusions that have been turned into a belief system, as follows:
— The illusion that anyone "not like us" is inferior, bad, lazy, and dangerous. From this illusion springs a belief in us-versus-them thinking.
— The illusion of racial superiority. From this illusion springs overt and covert racism.
— The illusion of absolute patriotism, or "my country right or wrong." From this illusion springs xenophobia.
— The illusion that violence works. From this illusion springs a belief that war accomplishes more good things than bad.
— The illusion of egotism. From this illusion springs the belief that only "I, me, and mine" actually count.
The list could go on, and there are commentators who focus on such things as sexism, income inequality, immigration, and fear of globalism. Trumpism has many arms, no doubt. But I think it is best viewed as a psychological state that permits the welling up of our darkest impulses. Until the country's collective psychology stops being tainted by fear, anger, and resentment, Trumpism will continue on the metastasized negativity that the far right cannot survive without.
President Obama followed the course of being the adult in the room, which Hillary Clinton is continuing. But if we consider the 16 other Republican candidates for President that didn't get nominated, each exhibits some form of Trumpism-lite. In private, even a gentlemanly Mitt Romney, assuming he wasn't being taped, expressed an appalling disdain for the average American. The current crop of right-wing candidates fester in a party where the majority of Republicans believe that Obama is a practicing Muslim.
This implies that being the adult in the room is too passive.
Hatred must be countered with activism, and activism begins with each of us examining our own attitudes and beliefs:
— We must respond to toxic emotions with rational solutions.
— We must be brave about standing up and speaking our truth.
— We must stop secretly agreeing in the blandishments of us-versus-them thinking.
— We must do our civic duty to put the country back on a sound moral basis.
— We must renounce violence not just in others, but in our own hearts as well.
I know that these sound like moralistic steps, but as David Brooks has been pointing out in the New York Times, the basic objection to Trump is a moral one, and our society has become timid, self-conscious, embarrassed, or indifferent to public morality. As a result, so-called "conservative values" have taken us through the looking glass into a landscape where the worst among us cloak themselves as the best and most moral.
It seems set in stone that elected officials on the local, state, and Congressional level will refuse to budge from toxic positions that get voters to turn out. But this is largely because the bad have driven out the good. Moderate and progressive candidates shun the opportunity to run for office because of their distaste for an opposition that, as Trump demonstrates, uses scorched-earth tactics as a normal way of conducting politics. But there is no other remedy other than good people stepping up once more.
What's needed in the end isn't a moral crusade, which only inflames the opposition to more intense levels of abuse, as witness Trump's completely unpunished habit of doubling down on his vitriolic rhetoric. Morality returns naturally when people have expanded awareness. We are living in an era where outside threats, real or imaginary, have caused our collective consciousness to contract. If this wasn't so, there would be no secret Trump admirers falling for the illusion that all we need is a strong male to fix this mess.
Expanded consciousness begins at home. Each of us must find the core in ourselves where being truthful, strong, tolerant, compassionate, and at peace comes naturally. This level exists in everyone, and when we arrive there, the toxic illusions of Trumpism have no more power over us.
Donald Trump and the Looking-Glass War
More than one observer has remarked that the tactics of the Trump campaign, which misses no opportunity to turn the truth upside down, have taken us to a crossroads. The tightening race indicates that millions of Americans are willing to overlook Trump's insults, misinformation, evasions, outright lies, exaggerations, and character assassination. What is referred to as the "normalizing" of Trump, the steady assimilation of new outrages day by day, is a strange phenomenon. It partly goes back to some positive characteristics that American democracy is known for, such as toleration of extreme views and a willingness to redeem outliers from "normal" society.
There are also some questionable American qualities at work, such as our history of ornery politics and a fascination with celebrity that permits bad characters to be given a pass simply because they are famous in the tabloids. Into this mix, however, must be added a troubling American trait, the passive willingness to let wrong turn into right. This trait has been steadily cultivated by the right wing going back at least as far as Nixon's Southern strategy, which told racists that they were acceptable to the GOP, a fact that still pertains. Ronald Reagan normalized the fringe values that Republican respectability had once rejected. In an effort to expand their white male base, successive Republican candidates welcomed in the religious right, gun nuts, conspiracy theorists, birthers, and the ultra-patriotic fringe with their xenophobic belief in "my country, right or wrong" and "love it or leave it."
It took Trump, however, to plunge us into a looking-glass war, where we are forced to see ourselves starkly and to take a stand.
W. B. Yeats's warning from the early 20th century applies to our own times when he wrote:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction,
while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Yeats faced the horrors of world war and rising totalitarianism, and we live in a different era.
But Trumpism touts wrong as right with passionate intensity, while countless people who should see him for what he is lack all conviction to counter him.
The looking-glass war is a contest taking place in collective consciousness.
According to a fact-based view of reality, the U.S. is not in imminent danger from terrorism on a mass scale; we are a prosperous, growing economy; our military strength far surpasses any other nation; immigrants are a positive force in our pluralistic society, not a gang of criminals and freeloaders. But facts aren't the same as consciousness, and the wrong-is-right strategy that the Republicans have fostered for decades is rising to claim what is due to it. Because they owe their political survival to the very values that Trumpism expresses in exaggerated form, few Republicans are safe enough, or courageous enough, to speak out against him, and the prospect that this grotesque caricature of a candidate may actually win the Presidency has actually had the opposite effect. It has made estranged Republicans "come home," as they say, which means the embrace of shameless, shameful values as if they are acceptable. Sadly, 95% of Trump supporters are eager to vote for him, as opposed to 80% of Hillary supporters.
Nothing I'm saying is news to anyone who has been paying attention to the campaign so far, and now we are in the hands of an electorate where convinced supporters of Trump and Clinton are not going to budge, leaving the final decision to "low information voters," as they are politely known. They are actually the politically indifferent, and if they cast a middle-finger vote in the same spirit as Brexit, the worst of American values will prevail.
I'm not writing this to spread gloom, alarm, or fear.
Collective consciousness holds up a mirror to the truth, and in the end there is no arguing against reality, wherever it takes us. My only point is to underline that all of us are reflected in the mirror as individuals. If anyone fails to stand up, stops speaking the truth, stays at home on Election Day, or votes out of spite and resentment against Clinton, the reflection that results from such feeble lack of conviction will be very dark. It will show each of us things about ourselves we don't have to see.