The Traumatic Structuring of the Trump Phenomenon
Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor
New York University
My exploration of the Trump phenomenon starts with the question of who his followers are. Support for Trump correlates with white ethnocentrism, racial resentment, resentment towards immigrants,1 and rejection of a value shift in American society that has been taking place since the 1960s—a revolution in sexual behavior; greater freedom in gender roles; greater tolerance of personal autonomy, personal expressiveness, and differences between people; and a turning away from traditional sources of authority, notably the church and the state.2 The Republican Party can be seen as in counterrevolution against these changes.3 Trump's support also to some degree correlates with lower educational levels.4
What is the common denominator? To a certain extent support for Trump, especially in the early months of his campaign, came largely from people who were essentially dispossessed,5 left behind, dislocated, unsupported by a changing society. They felt abandoned culturally, in terms of racial and demographic changes and changes in values that made their country feel increasingly alien to them; and they felt left out economically, much of this in the wake of the economic inequality and rapidly changing economic structures created by neoliberal capitalism, which also fed their sense of anxiety, insecurity, and dispossession.
This army of the dispossessed testifies to the failure of society to provide for its members’ emotional needs, whether such provisions come in the form of economic security or through society’s institutions with which people interact daily. Indeed, both cultural institutions and economic structures carry powerful symbolic emotional meaning. Eszter Salgó, in her book, Psychoanalytic Reflections on Politics, elaborates a psychoanalytic perspective on the emotional offerings a society must make available to its citizens, if it seeks to foster liberal democracy.6 The first is a mother function, equivalent to Winnicott's holding environment. This imparts a sense that people have a relatively secure place in society, and that their personal contributions to society and to political life are valued. Clearly, with so many people feeling shunted aside, American society’s mother function has been weak. The second of society’s essential emotional offerings is a father function, modeled on Lacan’s Name of the Father, or Law of the Father, that opposes people taking refuge in omnipotent fantasy solutions—“imaginary” solutions, in Lacanian language—and requires them to face difficult realities: limits and losses. Since both the mother and father functions meet people’s emotional needs, failure in either constitutes a form of emotional abandonment by society. And indeed, as I will describe in a moment, our society falls short in providing a father function as well as a mother function.
How do people not adequately welcomed and cared for by their society react? Psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi’s7 trauma theory gives us important answers to this question, and can illuminate people’s response to Trump.8 In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ferenczi developed a model of children’s response to intrafamilial abuse, in which the dynamic of identification with the aggressor plays a central role. Most basically, children’s need to feel they belong takes precedence over all their other needs. Feeling excluded and emotionally abandoned is traumatic. What children do when they feel this is to comply, to try to fit in and be “good,” so they can feel they belong.
Ferenczi proposed that trauma occurs in two phases. The first is the actual assault. Ferenczi felt that children can cope even with severe assaults without lasting damage if there is somebody to provide comfort and understanding. But very often, when children abused in their families seek comfort and help within the family, they are told: what are you talking about? It didn't happen like that. You’re making up stories, you wanted it, you deserved it; or they are fed some other story that invalidates their perceptions. Ferenczi called this, appropriately, hypocrisy. Hypocrisy gives the child the sense that she has been completely abandoned within the family at her moment of greatest need.
At that point, the child gives up any semblance of advocating or fighting for herself, and complies behaviorally with what's expected—tries to be the victim that the aggressors want— and also complies mentally, in terms of feeling, thinking, perceiving, and understanding things the way she’s “supposed to,” rather than according to her own personal experience. Mental compliance helps her play her role better. Very important here, critical thinking must be given up, because critical thinking—searching for one’s own perspective, rather than accepting things as defined by others—involves the potential of psychologically separating, while what is most urgent for the frightened child is to belong.9
Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, writing about developing the capacity to think for oneself, proposed that when a child expresses a “proto-thought,” and the mother can tolerate it and metabolize it, the child can then start to think it. But when the mother does not do this, “omniscience becomes a substitute for learning from experience by the aid of thoughts and thinking” and “substitutes for the discrimination between true and false the dictatorial affirmation that one thing is morally right and the other is morally wrong.”10 In other words, a child requires a benign and understanding environment—something akin to Salgó’s mother function, and precisely what the abused child, in Ferenczi’s understanding, lacks—in order to develop the capacity to think for herself.
On the larger scale, too, when a society does not accept someone for who she is, does not “hold” and appreciate and value her, the independent, critical thinking necessary for a healthy democratic society may give way to omnipotent fantasy, as I will discuss in a moment. American society, so enamored with the neoliberal value of hyper-personal responsibility, and with a correspondingly weak social safety net, lacks a strong, holding mother function.
In addition to behavioral and mental compliance, the identification-with-the-aggressor response importantly also includes the child taking upon herself the blame for the abuse she has suffered—feeling guilt and shame for what someone else did to her11,12,13—a kind of moral compliance. On the large scale, this instinctive reaction is explicitly encouraged in a neoliberal atmosphere that blames people for their misfortunes, however many cards have been stacked against them, and consequently offers precious little help to those who are not thriving—to the “losers,” in Trump’s lexicon.
And it's not just gross child abuse that evokes identification with the aggressor, in all its manifestations. More subtle traumas, notably any situation that threatens social exclusion, also tend to evoke a similar response.14 We comply so that we can belong. The universal vulnerability to the trauma of social exclusion (albeit to varying degrees, based on personal history) suggests that identification with the aggressor can operate on a mass scale and play a significant role in sociopolitical life. The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Zimbardo and his colleagues,15 is a good example of how “normal” people selected from the general population are likely to comply with the social roles assigned to them, even against their own character, so they can fit in. People comply even when doing so means that their own actual interests are disregarded.
But people's reaction to trauma doesn’t stop at identification and compliance. Often, people seek refuge in omnipotent group fantasies (though the fantasies feel like reality, not fantasy) that offer an exciting, pressurized cover story that denies and compensates for their losses—the loss of feeling adequate, acceptable, and good, the loss of belonging. Such fantasies don’t simply restore the lost feelings; people now feel part of a special group—not losers but winners. These fantasies are anchored in paranoid hatred towards those who are different and seen as threats, manic superiority towards scapegoats, and aggressive, manic excitement.
A society that regulates its sense of security largely on the brittle basis of omnipotent fantasy fails in its father function—it offers its members an easy escape hatch from facing difficult facts of life and dealing with them realistically. By failing to mobilize people in building a more realistic basis for security, it neglects their true well-being, in both concrete and emotional terms. American society is such a society—a “culture of narcissism,”16 as Christopher Lasch termed it—where many social and political institutions reflect feel-good, escapist, narcissistic fantasies, rather than reality.
Importantly, these fantasies, despite their overheated rhetoric of triumph, power, aggression, and independence actually facilitate compliance with the leader and the group: one must buy in to the group’s norms, values, and ways of behaving, and give up one’s personal perceptions, critical thinking, and self-determination in order to feel part of the group fantasy.
So where does Trump fit in here? Applying Sheldon Bach’s concept,17 Trump appears to be an overinflated narcissist who (if one doesn’t look too closely) seems to have none of the insecurities that his followers are so aware of within themselves and are desperately trying to escape. In Lacanian terms he is the mirror they look into and see the self-sufficient baby they long to be. And certainly his aggressiveness, and his “screw you” attitude, are mistaken for the absence of anxiety or insecurity: nothing constrains me, nothing binds me, nothing scares me! I do what I want!
The aggressive excitement that Trump conveys through his persona and generates in his followers is very alluring to people who feel powerless; it effectively stifles their independent, critical thinking, thoughtfulness, and humility—and, it seems, his own. Trump appears to have no self-questioning, no self-reflection, no self-doubt. Indeed, his way of using language —“believe me, I’m telling you, I guarantee, OK?”—instructs people not to make their own observations or think for themselves. He speaks in the reassuring, thought-numbing voice of the omnipotent father, not of Salgó’s father function that requires people to face, accept, and think about hard realities, and ultimately to deal with them in an active, realistic way.
Trump takes the rejection of reality to the point of contempt for truth and facts. This apparently appeals to his followers, who seem unbothered by his contradictory statements, perhaps because they, too, don't want to be bound by facts—certainly not the facts of their own lives that undermine their security and self-esteem.
The shame element of identification with the aggressor is an important part of the dynamic of Trump’s appeal. We would expect the great many of Trump’s followers who fit the demographic of dispossession to feel the shame that naturally follows misfortune. Though they are the losers that Trump talks about, he doesn’t call them losers; he deflects that label onto “others.” But his continuous use of that word is likely to keep those images, and the accompanying self-doubts, alive in his followers. Trump himself appears devoid of shame, making him a magnet for identification for those who want a piece of that immunity. Fanning the flames of shame, while also deflecting it onto scapegoats and hawking the escape vehicle of exciting fantasies (through his rhetoric and his own embodiment of shamelessness) is a potent recipe for keeping his supporters excited, submissive, and loyal.
Finally, I want to say something about emotional truth. For people whose experience of dispossession, in whatever form, has been denied, suppressed, lied about, it feels imperative that their truth be known. The prototype here is the child who is abused, and then shocked to find herself faced with her parents’ self-serving hypocrisy about what happened to her—whose emotional truth is denied, with help from the child’s own frightened collusion. But some element of child’s truth refuses to be silenced by this traumatic emotional abandonment, and will make itself known—perhaps, as Ferenczi noted, in the form of apparently senseless defiance.18
The sociopolitical analogy of such hypocrisy is the selling of an ideology—coerced by threats of exclusion—that justifies the power of the privileged and blames society’s losers for their fate. Accepting an oppressive ideology—neoliberalism is currently the dominant one— requires people to stifle their authentic perceptions and critical thinking and the unsettling feelings these would give rise to. But, as with the mistreated child, some element of people’s real experience breaks free—most likely, their rage at being pushed aside and left behind. This is the bedrock on which Trump bonds with his followers, perhaps especially through his own sense of injured resentment and rage—the one realm of experience he does seem to share with them—and his refusal to back off from these feelings. For these followers, holding fast to the truth of their emotional experience—empowered by the example of their defiant hero—dwarfs the reality of facts seen as fed to them by people who don’t seem to grasp or value what they have been through.
Bach, S. (1994). The Language of Perversion and the Language of Love. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.
Bell, D. (1962). "The dispossessed." In: D. Bell (ed.) The Radical Right. 3rd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, pp. 1-45.
Bion, W.R. (1962). "The psycho-analytic study of thinking." International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 43:306-310.
Edsall, T. (2016). "How many people support Trump but don’t want to admit It?" New York Times, May 11.
Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/opinion/campaign-stops/how-many-people-support-trump-b ut-dont-want-to-admit-it.html
Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1943). "The repression and the return of bad objects." In: Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, 1952, London: Tavistock, pp. 59-81.
Ferenczi, S. (1933). "Confusion of tongues between adults and the child: The language of tenderness and of passion." International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 1949, 30: 225-230.
Frankel, J. (2002). "Exploring Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: Its role in trauma, everyday life, and the therapeutic relationship." Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1): 101-140.
Frankel, J. (2015a). "The persistent sense of being bad: The moral dimension of identification with the aggressor." In: The Legacy of Sandor Ferenczi: From Ghost to Ancestor (A. Harris & S. Kuchuck, eds.), New York: Routledge, pp. 204-222.
Frankel, J. (2015b). "The traumatic basis for the resurgence of right-wing politics among working Americans." Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 20(4): 359-378.
Frankel, J. (in press). "Psychological enslavement through identification with the aggressor." In: Sándor Ferenczi and Contemporary Psychoanalytic Traditions, A. Dimitrijevic, G. Cassullo, and J. Frankel (eds.). London: Karnac.
Haney, C., Banks, W.C. and Zimbardo, P.G. (1973). "A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison." Naval Research Review, 30:4-17.
Kerr, J.C. (2016). "Trump overwhelmingly leads rivals in support from less educated Americans." The Rundown, blog. PBS Newshour, April 3.
Link: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/trump-overwhelmingly-leads-rivals-in-support-from-less -educated-americans/
Lasch, C. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism. New York: Norton.
Lesthaeghe, R., and Neidert L. (2016). Second demographic transition. University of Michigan: Michigan Population Studies Center.
Salgó, E. (2014). Psychoanalytic Reflections on Politics: Fatherlands in Mothers’ Hands. New York: Routledge.
1 Thomas B. Edsall, “How Many People Support Trump but Don’t Want to Admit It?” New York Times, 11 May 2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/11/opinion/campaign-stops/how-many-people-support-trump-but-dont-want-to-admi t-it.html>.
2 Ron Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert, Second Demographic Transition, University of Michigan: Michigan Population Studies Center, 2016 <https://sdt.psc.isr.umich.edu>.
3 Edsall, How Many People.
4 Jennifer C. Kerr, “Trump overwhelmingly leads rivals in support from less educated Americans,” The Rundown, blog, PBS Newshour, 3 April 2016, <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/trump-overwhelmingly-leads-rivals-in-support-from-less-educated-americans/>.
5 Daniel Bell, “The Dispossessed,” in: D. Bell (ed.) The Radical Right, 3rd ed. (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1962) 1-45.
6 Eszter Salgó, Psychoanalytic Reflections on Politics: Fatherlands in Mothers’ Hands (New York: Routledge, 2014) 190.
7 Jay Frankel, “Psychological enslavement through identification with the aggressor,” in: Sándor Ferenczi and Contemporary Psychoanalytic Traditions, A. Dimitrijevic, G. Cassullo, and J. Frankel (eds.) (London: Karnac) <http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/2012/03/17/psychological-enslavement-understood-through-ferenczis-concept-o f-identification-with-the-aggressor-with-jay-frankel-at-nyfs-3/>.
8 Jay Frankel, “The traumatic basis for the resurgence of right-wing politics among working Americans,” Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 20:359, doi:10.1057/pcs.2015.53, 2015.
9 Frankel, Psychological enslavement
10 W.R. Bion, “The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 43:306-310, 1962.
11 Sándor Ferenczi, “Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child—“The Language of Tenderness and of Passion,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 30:225-230, 1949.
12 W.R.D. Fairbairn, “The repression and the return of bad objects,” Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality (London: Tavistock, 1952) 59-81.
13 Jay Frankel, “The Persistent Sense of Being Bad: The Moral Dimension of Identification with the Aggressor,” The Legacy of Sandor Ferenczi: From Ghost to Ancestor, A. Harris & S. Kuchuck, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2015) 204-222.
14 Jay Frankel, “Exploring Ferenczi’s Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1):101-139, 2002.
15 Craig Haney, Curtis Banks, Phillip Zimbardo, “A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison,” Naval Research Reviews, 30:4-17, 1973.
16 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979)
17 Sheldon Bach, The Language of Perversion and the Language of Love (Northvale: Aronson, 1994).
18 Ferenczi, Confusion of Tongues.