The writers and performers of Saturday Night Live have offered some of the most incisive and widely seen political commentary of the 2016 presidential campaign. This past weekend, some Trump observers expressed surprise when the president-elect couldn’t stop himself from tweeting his reaction to a SNL skit in which he couldn’t stop himself from tweeting. They shouldn’t have been surprised; Trump’s tweets are best understood as originating from a primitive psychic space beyond the reaches of a restraining self-consciousness.
By continuing to tweet Trump consciously lets everyone know exactly how thin-skinned he can be. Some say his tweets are strategic, aimed at keeping us from noting both his reactionary cabinet appointments and the recount movement afoot in PA, WI, and MI. To me, he confirms his severely compromised attention span, keeping alive previous questions about his ability to read or process information other than reactively. We see a conflation of the Wizard of Oz – he is the man behind the curtain scaring us while hiding how infantile he actually feels – and Shelley’s poem about the cruel king Ozymandias, which I paraphrased in June of this year. Here are the actual last lines from that poem:
“’Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Let’s hope that President Trump won’t have to triumph over his feeling like a hurt and angry child by wreaking havoc and destruction on our own country and on the world.
There is no need, however, to look on LaVern Baker’s Mighty works and despair. Here is a link to enjoy:
When Melania Trump said that she was staying put in New York after her husband’s inauguration I was curious about what that said about their marriage. And then the astute Tony Perram suggested the following whimsical narrative:
On December 10, 1936, King Edward VIII submitted his abdication, which was accepted by Parliament the next day. He had been told he could not marry the twice-divorced American woman, Mrs. Wallace Simpson, and remain monarch.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of Edward’s romantic and heart-felt (and cowardly) resignation, his words ring in our ears: “You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Melania Trump’s being foreign born will not keep her from becoming First Lady. But she will not join her husband in the White House because she has chosen to remain in the tower with their son Barron.
On December 11, 2016, I hope Trump tweet the following: “You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry this HUGE burden of responsibility without the help and support of the woman I love. I will continue to tweet, however, if that is enough for the American People – and it might well be enough, given how I was elected by mandate.”
This is a romantic fantasy, despite some phrasing less elegant than Edward’s well-chosen words, that sadly is more unrealistic than many of Trump’s statements over the past 16 months.
In his 1965 book Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, French philosopher Michele Foucault described how society treated the mentally ill since the French Revolution. Forces of reason and liberty required the isolation of madness, of people who society declared insane partly because passion disorganized their thinking. Governments felt they couldn’t function while madmen remained in view. Many were sent off on ships to roam the Atlantic.
By 1900 a more humane approach to the insane had evolved. Various kinds of therapy tried to bring them back into society. But as that process took place, society itself got madder and western civilization seemed to split apart. We had World War I, the rise of fascism and communism, World War II, and the atom bomb. We had scientific progress at the same time, and an ability to tolerate or accommodate various paradoxes. Atoms for Peace grew out of Hiroshima, for example.
There was still separation of the “crazy” from the “sane”, but people became increasingly aware that the insane had pockets of reason and seemingly sane people weren’t only reasonable.
Madness IN Civilization
As Madness became more folded into civilization it was defined as cultural differences between groups. For example, to evangelicals, gay marriage is unnatural and crazy. To Breitbart, Hillary Clinton is a danger to democracy. To Democrats, the Tea Party is a fringe group. To Republicans, the Tea Party threatens their re-election unless they support it. It becomes hard to point the finger at others you think are illogical or too passionate without calling them “mad”. Twenty years ago, someone walking down the street talking to himself was considered psychotic because he was talking to voices in his head. Now he most likely is talking to someone else on his cell phone – to voices in his ear.
I wrote this in August and somehow – maybe I was on holiday – never published it, or at least cannot find it on my blog. It sure resonates after Tuesday (November 8), so I’m publishing it now. It is unchanged, save for removing a reference to Donald Trump as Fred Trump’s Icarus (the mythic son of Daedalus whose wings of wax melted when he flew too close to the sun). I’m actually gobstruck reading it, and only wish I’d sent it to the DNC when it was written.
TRUMP’S AMERICA; AMERICA’S TRUMP
We love him because he gives us permission to beat our chests and feel strong, feel validated, feel that we should be heard – and deserve to be heard.
He inspires the voiceless, gives them more than hope – he gives them purpose as people that will contribute to making America “great again.”
We can identify with his huge erections that pierce the sky. We can identify with his swagger and confidence. We can identify with his public ease dismissing naysayers and liberal elite loudmouths. We appreciate his pride as self-respect, rather than arrogance ascribed to him by critics. We admire his resilience, as he tweets out his outrage whenever he feels mocked or discounted.
Despite being a one-percenter, Trump feels like a man of the people. His Bronx accent is reminiscent of New Yorkers from all walks of life, not just the rich elite.
It is easy to mock others, and Trump remains the expert. He mocked most of his Republican rivals during the 2016 primaries, and destroyed them. We all remember nicknames like “Low Energy Bush” and “Little Marco”. But what those on the left don’t see is that their mocking of Trump is an ineffective mirroring of his schoolboy taunts. Ineffective because it is not born of aggression and a desire to destroy, but rather results from anxiety and a sense of helplessness because he is so hard to confront directly. We end up being a caricature of the very person we are trying to discredit.
I wonder if this Wednesday morning, 9 November 2016, some Trump voters woke up and said, “What have we done?” Much of our nation has behaved as if it were on a long bender fueled by passionate hatred of the powers that be. Donald Trump provided all the food they needed, with his hatred of Crooked Hillary and relentless attacks on the lying media. The bender Trump provoked differs from the typical drunken alcoholic binge portrayed by Ray Milland in the classic movie “Lost Weekend.”
This was different, as much of America has been drunk with anger and fear, and not with beer. That dangerous state of mass inebriation culminated last night with the election of Donald Trump as our 45th President. For many, ecstatic feelings will persist – perhaps for some time to come. Millions of Americans expressed their righteous anger at insensitive elites and dysfunctional congress; anger that our leaders are stupid and often get taken advantage of in trade negotiations; anger that Muslims and other refugees are pouring into our country to do us harm; contempt toward all women ranging from kissable to too fat to grope. The list goes on.
Comedienne singer Katie Goodman wrote a song called “I drunk-dialed Obama”, in which she tells the President both that she loves him and is still worried about his use of drones in the Middle East. I think many people have drunk-dialed Donald Trump by voting for him – hoping that their votes will satisfy a need to express their rage and simultaneously bring them relief from their long-standing economic and white-centered frustration.
But it’s the morning after for the rest of us today – those stunned by Trump’s victory over our would-be first woman president. And that’s not all – we are stunned by the victory of a man who remains as willfully ignorant as he is certain about the world. The woman he defeated has encyclopedic knowledge of that world informed by years of experience. For us it is actually the “mourning” after.
While we mourn and blame others and ourselves for our American tragedy, Trump voters must eventually look at themselves in the mirror and exclaim, “what have we done?” They elected a man who denies climate change, who will take away their health insurance, who will break whatever international treaty he doesn’t like, and who has his fingers on the nuclear button. They elected a man who they know deep-down is unstable and impulsive. They’ve seen how thin-skinned he is, demanding revenge for any hurt real or imagined.
Like the shocked British voters who approved leaving the common market while knowing little of what “Brexit” meant, many Trump voters – after their dancing in the street stops – will start to feel the same way. They will want a redo. They will want an undo.
But they can’t take back their vote. Rather, what they did will remind them that voting in anger feels good for only one night or a while longer. Eventually they will discover that when anger replaces thought, growth and progress cease to exist.
Why voters are anxious about a Trump presidency:
There have been many articles and observations about voter anxiety that is escalating as November 8th approaches.
What is hard to articulate for most people is why they are so scared. Clearly, many are aware that something crazy is going on. Not only is this election different from any other, one candidate is also different from any other in US history. Donald Trump has no experience whatsoever in political life. Donald Trump says whatever comes to mind unless handcuffed to a teleprompter by Kellyanne Conway. Donald Trump mocks others. Donald Trump whips up his crowds into frenzies of hate. Donald Trump proposes a ban on Muslims. Donald Trump is corrupt – as a landlord, as the founder of a fictitious university, and as a liar about taxes and investments.
But those things, while bad enough, are not enough to cause the degree of anxiety many are experiencing. Some authors note that conflicting feelings about hate lead to fear and anxiety. I agree.
Still, what remains unspoken – except as asides by the occasional pundit or critic – is that Trump activates psychotic anxieties in the entire electorate. The psychotic anxieties he activates in his followers are similar to his own, and eventually require expressions of rage to express and manage them. Thus we see attacks on Muslims, increased purchases of guns, vicious and sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton, expelling people perceived as protesters because they have black skin, and attacking the media. All these are felt to be solutions to unbearable fears lurking inside Trump’s flock.
We all have psychotic anxieties – deep down. They stem from early fears of the dark, of night terrors when we were two. In some instances the anxieties originate when parents have abused their children. As adults we can understand some of those anxieties. For instance, we are familiar with walking into a large parking lot and forgetting where we parked our car. Then anxiety and even disorientation sets in as we begin to imagine our car was stolen or towed. This anxiety is paranoid and hopefully temporary. But it is familiar. The term psychotic anxiety is used descriptively, not diagnostically, since eliminating the triggers of triggers paranoid thinking usually brings relief. But while experienced, the anxiety is overwhelming.
Trump plays into that anxiety. And now those who oppose Trump become afraid that too many Americans support his unrealistic solutions to their profound anxieties – wall themselves off from the world to be safe from attack; expel all brown-skinned people; tear down government regulations; feel free to say any hateful thought that comes to mind. All these are attempts to manage psychotic anxiety.
Trump’s behavior can activate otherwise repressed fears in the rest of us. We see this process clearly after Trump’s groping comments. Women who had repressed their own experiences from years earlier suddenly were bombarded with painful memories. Trump’s impulsive and aggressive behavior reminds them of men from their own pasts.
As a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has never examined Trump I must say that he shows too many psychotic features to ignore. And it’s dangerous to avoid defining those features, because those who worry about a Trump presidency feel they are the crazy ones. After all, the news media treats him as a normal person, even though they mention most of his outlandish behavior before moving on to poll numbers and other matters.
So, here are some clues about psychotic elements that are present in and expressed openly by Donald Trump:
He presents a preponderance of destructive impulses so great that even the impulses to love are suffused by them and turned to sadism. We see this in his attacks on women, immigrants, the handicapped, Muslims (even the Gold Star Khan family), and – of course – on his opponent he calls “Crooked Hillary.”
He also shows a hatred of external reality, which, as Freud pointed out, is extended to all aspects of the psyche that make for awareness of it. He makes up stories to fit his fantasies, and never checks them for veracity. He simply says he will deport 11 million immigrants or build a giant wall without thinking twice about reality. He denies the reality of his destructiveness – a complete denial of reality and responsibility that is also psychotic.
He also hates internal reality and all that makes for awareness of it. He has said repeatedly that he never looks at himself in the mirror, and one can see that when looking into his vacant eyes during a speech. He refuses any and all introspection, ultimately blinding himself to his inner world. This hatred of his own psychic truths makes it impossible for him to feel empathy for others, or to take responsibility for his actions.
He evokes psychotic reactions in his followers. One further characteristic of psychosis is an unremitting dread of immanent annihilation. His entire group seems ready to impeach or even kill Hillary if she wins. His repeated insisting that the election is rigged also stimulates paranoid fears in others.
In the consulting room, one characteristic of psychotic functioning is when a patient immediately develops an intense set of feelings about the therapist – an intense attachment whose thinness (the patient barely knows the therapist) is of marked contrast to the tenacity with which it is maintained. This intense attachment stems from a need for comfort and safety, protecting against deep inarticulate fears of annihilation.
Trump’s interactions with his followers stimulate a psychotic fervor that expresses most of the above features. And it is that fervor that scares many in the electorate who don’t want their own potential psychotic and heretofore well-repressed anxieties to boil over into broad daylight. We see someone who is psychotic being supported and loved and admired by numerous people who must therefore also be psychotic. Who can we trust?
And where does all this leave us? It leaves us with a choice of freaking out or spending the next few days working in a swing state to help repudiate insanity.
Most of us are familiar with the classic movie “On the Waterfront,” especially when Marlon Brando shouted, “I could have been a contender.” Maybe he could have been one, and his character certainly lived his life out with that imaginary but palpable chip on his shoulder.
His reckless thinking kept him from being in the center of his own life, always lamenting something from his past – real or imagined. It’s one thing to see this in a film. It’s another thing to hear feelings like these in my consulting room. In my psychoanalytic practice many people use the “if only” prologue to whatever pain they wish they never had to endure, to whatever chance they feel they should have taken, or to whatever injury the regret having done to others.
We hear this all the time – if only someone bought a painting twenty years ago, or held on to a piece of land, etc. But those “if only” statements represent a kind of pathological nostalgia used to protect the speaker from having to face whatever his current situation requires. Harm is done, but usually to the self-deluded speaker alone – though from time to time to the spouse or children also suffer. Generally those feelings mask depression and run the risk of undermining genuine perception of present-day reality.
We are also familiar with counterfactuals about someone else, especially as wishes to avoid the pain of guilt or loss. Parents have lamented their blind support for presidents LBJ in Vietnam or for George W Bush in Iraq, feeling that agony of what-ifs: what if I told my son the Vietnam War was unjust, or begged my daughter to move to Canada and avoid serving in Iraq?
But what Donald Trump said to George Stephanopoulos about Captain Khan was not simply insensitive, or driven by absurd fantasy. It was genuinely sadistic, and compounded the hurt he previously inflicted on Captain Khan’s parents. Trump is out of touch with others – we all know that from how he mocks a handicapped reporter, how he dehumanizes the women he gropes and the Muslims he deplores. But what most people don’t see is that he has absolutely no self-knowledge, something that is a pre-requisite for genuine empathy.
Instead, Trump is driven to go to any length to avoid apologizing or acknowledging wrongdoing. He refuses to take responsibility for harming anyone. So whenever he is put on the spot he tries to find a way to evade self-confrontation.
Self-awareness is rarely pleasant, especially when having to face harm inflicted willfully or unwittingly on others. But it is also necessary for psychic growth and the ability to love. Trump used counterfactual arguments to evade that responsibility. For him, growth remains stunted genuine empathy impossible.
There is a complex link between avoiding responsibility and harming others. But the grieving person feels the pain like a blow to the solar plexus. Captain Khan’s father said that what Trump did in that interview was the cruelest thing a person could do to grieving parents. I agree.
When I heard that account I felt the mini-Trump inside me come alive, probably because his rampant destructiveness is so hard to confront directly. I tried to control that feeling for a few days, but find I cannot. So here is my counterfactual rejoinder to Donald: Your brother Fred Jr. would not have died from alcoholism if I had been his brother – not the overbearing and destructively competitive brother that you were.
I only wish I could always be like Michelle Obama who says, “When they go low, we go high.” Most of the time I manage, but not this time.
Ever since George W Bush was asked to assess his presidency he quipped that the only time he looks in the mirror is when he “combs his hair in the morning.” Recently Donald Trump said he is not introspective. He cares about winning, fighting, and not losing.
Over time it has become obvious that Republicans have a prerequisite to run for President. They must eschew introspection. Reacting replaces thinking, as taking time to think is a sign of weakness. Not only that, thinking risks having to confront one’s own ideas or behaviors.
Bush couldn’t name any mistake he made during his first term; his mind went blank when a reporter asked about it in 2004. Trump’s approach is even more refined, and I don’t think any of his 16 primary opponents was much different. Although recently Rubio, Cruz, Carson, and Speaker Ryan criticized Trump for groping women, they soon reiterated their support for his candidacy. So much for thought process or self-examination.
How, then, do we discover what Trump actually thinks? How do his statements reflect his covert feelings? It’s actually not that difficult: whenever he attacks others he’s describing himself.
Here are some examples: Trump slams Clinton for taking time off to attend an Adele concert. Translation: I shouldn’t be taking time off to promote my Trump International hotel in Washington DC. (In fact, he blasted Hillary as he cut the ribbon.)
His criticism of Biden: “You know when he’s a tough guy. It’s when he’s standing behind the microphone by himself.” Translation: “You know when I’m a tough guy. It’s when I’m standing here alone behind a microphone and mocking Biden for acting tough.
Trump twice criticized Obamacare today: “It’s killing our businesses; it’s killing our small businesses; it’s killing individuals.” Translation: I’m killing my businesses (reservations at my properties are down and some hotels are contemplating removing my name from their marquee); I’m killing small businesses (my steak business and tie-manufacturing business are also hurting); I’m killing myself in this campaign.
Then he said, “All my employees are having a tremendous problem with Obamacare.” Translation: “None of my employees is having trouble with Obamacare because they don’t use it. Instead, I am having a tremendous problem with its success.”
This is what we see: when Trump is not scaring us with the prospect of his finger resting on the nuclear trigger, he is offering a vivid self-portrait based on his defensive delineations of others. He in effect continues to describe himself when he thinks he’s attacking others. Our leaders are losers, he says. We know now more than ever who the real loser is.
America’s confidence in its electoral integrity will overshadow the shadow Donald Trump tried to cast over it at Debate III. Many of those watching suddenly froze, as if on a ship trapped in dangerous icy waters – like the Titanic about to go down or the Mariner’s ship in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Our democracy – our ship of state – has always been kept safe by the Constitution, the rule of law, and an electoral system that guarantees peaceful transfer of power. But there has also been a spirit, an amorphous pride, which has kept our ship moving forward despite the inevitable storms of history. And that spirit – something beyond patriotism – leaves most of us feeling lucky and optimistic.
Coleridge’s epic poem – published over two hundred years ago – chronicles a journey that parallels our belief in democracy. Like the metaphoric albatross did in Coleridge’s poem, our faith protects our ship of state as it sails on through dangerous international and domestic waters. It helps the ship break through and “split” apart dangerous icy waters. That hovering bird gave those sailors their needed confidence to survive. That is, until the Ancient Mariner shot and killed it with his crossbow.
Our own national bird, the Bald Eagle, has a similar unconscious function today, and Donald Trump is making a concerted effort to become our Ancient Mariner. He took aim at America’s democratic spirit when Obama defeated Romney in 2012, claiming that Obama was illegitimate because he wasn’t born in the US.
As the presidential election approaches, Trump intensified his destructive rhetoric – screaming that our election is “rigged.” He keeps trying to kill the albatross/eagle, but so far has been unsuccessful. Chris Wallace twice gave him the opportunity to lay down his verbal crossbow but he didn’t. He refused to say he would not try to kill the creature that embodies our nation’s unique place on earth.
Hit or miss, the consequences of his murderous rage against democracy will affect us beyond November 8. Unlike Coleridge’s mariner, Trump won’t be able to kill our bird, our majestic bald eagle. His screams that the “system is rigged” will neither bring us down nor curse our vibrant and resilient nation as it navigates treacherous waters. His hatred of losing and his need to blame everyone but himself will be his downfall. And it will be up to the good sailors of our ship of state to drown his threats of violence.
The dead albatross hung on the mariner’s neck for the remainder of the voyage. While I think Trump will not be thus burdened, since he is virtually incapable of experiencing guilt, the GOP may suffer from bits of that albatross for years to come.
Since 2009 the entire Republican Party refused to accept having a black president. Trump gave voice to that refusal, loud enough to paralyze his 16 primary opponents. What he said aloud was what his fellow “sailors” felt in private: How could a black man be allowed to captain of our ship of state? And, starting next year, how can we elect a woman to do the same thing?
Our ship’s rigging is rigged, but the election is not.
The poem Churchill read to FDR in 1940 – when he asked for America’s help to defeat Hitler – is most apt:
“Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Hangs breathless on thy fate!”
All decent citizens were horrified by Trump’s demagoguery, as Churchill was by Hitler’s.
And yet we sail on.