What we talk about when we talk about Trump
As anyone not living under a rock must know by now, Donald Trump is the Republican candidate for president. Depending on your perspective this is either a vital breath of fresh air in a stale and corrupt political process or a completely terrifying, if predictable, result of decades of irresponsible and bigoted right-wing rhetoric.
A huge part of The Donald’s success lies in his media appeal. When he entered the race, lo those many months ago, he was seen as a vanity candidate in it to promote his brand. The thought of “nominee Trump” or “President Trump” was laughable. But Donald Trump makes for good copy. (After all, here I am, writing about him too.) So he got lots of media coverage, became more and more popular…and one by one the other Republican contenders dropped out.
Not being from the US, I feel like I shouldn’t judge their political process. The Canadian political landscape is comparatively tame. Rob Ford’s dramatic and tawdry downfall notwithstanding, our scandals generally involve petty venality and corruption, and our system favours dull, grey-suited backroom players, more skilled at manipulating internal party procedure than public opinion. In my own lifetime the only PMs we’ve had who’ve had an ounce of charisma have been Chretien (who had a certain scrappy Shawinagan flair) and Justin Trudeau, who is the closest thing to a Kennedy we’ve got.* So when I have visceral reactions to American politics I try to sit back and think, is this just my Canadian snobbery (or sanctimoniousness) finding this all a bit crass? Or is something awful really going on?
One of the insights of psychoanalysis and group relations that has stuck with me most is this: emotional realities shape actual reality. In other words, nothing is more important than safeguarding the internal story that tells us what we need to hear about ourselves and the world and defends us psychically from overwhelming anxiety. Politics is nothing if not a struggle between narratives – a politician tells the public, the world is this way, if you elect me I will do this fix/reform/protect that, as opposed to that other guy/girl who is deluded/wrong/incompetent/out to get you/Satan incarnate. I don’t need to tell you what story Trump is telling. But what do the stories we tell about Trump (and by “we” I mean media creators, including people who write articles on the internet) tell about us?
Since much virtual and literal ink has been spilt on the subject, we have lots of data points to choose from. Some would have it that Donald Trump is mentally ill, or at the very least, personality-disordered. A Google search for “trump narcissist” returns around 789,000 results. Here are some of the more notable results.
Others focus on Trump’s followers, painting them either as bloodthirsty authoritarians or as a deluded segment of life’s losers, latching onto a successful figure to take away their feelings of inadequacy about their financial and social reversals, or they are just plain stupid. A refreshing minority of opinionators cite bigotry or ethnocentrism as the secret to Trump’s success.
True or untrue, these stories have the effect of “othering” Trump and his followers, allowing the presumably right-thinking liberal reader to believe that they have nothing in common with them. If Trump is a malignant narcissist, I can feel relieved and assured that I am not. If Trump’s followers are authoritarian dupes, vile bigots, or simply fools, I can sit back and relax, secure in the knowledge that I’m not slavish or prejudiced or stupid like them. It’s a powerful and comforting feeling, isn’t it?
But it comes at a price. Even here, where I’m writing about media narratives allowing a feeling of apartness and otherness, I’ve managed to remove myself from the discourse, as if I had no part in it myself. When I start putting myself back in, I start to feel that this comfortable dismissal of the common humanity of people I disagree with mirrors Trump’s campaign in a decidedly uncomfortable way. Just as Trump’s largely content-free campaign allows his followers to fill in the blanks with their projections, this pattern of story-telling allows media makers to see what they need to see in him, his followers, and his movement. The details vary, but the story is the same: Trump and his followers don’t count, they are not really “us”, they are a blip and don’t really matter in the grand scale of things.
Except as anyone who lives in Toronto can tell you, they are us and we can’t get away from that.
*My theory as to why this is: Canada, having a monarch, currently a mother (not a father), does not need its political leaders to be the site of a whole lot of valence (in psychoanalytic terms, the inherent “attractiveness or aversiveness of an event, object, or situation”). We don’t have to use our politicians as a place to dump our projections, we have a queen and mother for that. Unlike the US we are not by and large a society of demonstrative patriots, and the Queen and royal family more than fill our need to have someone to hold our needs and ‘good’ desires about ourselves and our country – regal, wealthy, historically ‘in power’ without the responsibility and guilt of wielding power. The US, in contrast, has nowhere to put its projections about themselves other than into politicians and celebrities, so has created a highly colourful, if volatile, political landscape. It’s also convenient for Canada to have the United States to act as our “other”, a place to project our ugly and violent desires, giving us a handy way to feel superior.