Idiocy of the Masses
President of the Lacan Salon
Look Who’s Back
The German blockbuster Look Who’s Back, based on a best seller novel by Timur Vermes, portrays Hitler waking up right from the past into modern Berlin. In this smart satirical film, a goodhearted journalist who discovers Hitler and introduces him to TV shows realizes, after a while, that what he had thought was a performance artist was indeed the fascist leader in person. Sawatzky, the journalist, confronts Hitler in this dialogue:1
SAWATZKY: You are a monster.
HITLER: Am I? Then you have to condemn those who elected this monster. SAWATZKY: Were they all monsters?
HITLER: No, they were ordinary people who chose to elect an extraordinary man and entrust the fate of the country to him. What do you want to do Sawatsky, ban elections?
Notwithstanding the vast differences between the contemporary masses that support Donald Trump and those who supported the National Socialist German party that brought Hitler to power, the Hitler of Look Who’s Back instantiates several aspects of the Trump phenomenon: a) that this barbarian could indeed be “democratically” elected as the next US president; b) that such dire scenario shows the dynamics at work between a charismatic leader (Trump) and the masses that supports him; and c) that there is a central performative aspect in Trump’s leadership.
Trump as a leader
We speak ad nauseam about Trump’s instigation of violence, his outrageous racist, sexist, anti-environmentalist statements, and his sheer lack of thought. But shouldn’t we turn our heads and look at what idiocy might be at play among the masses that support him? I will explain what I mean by idiocy as this term serves as a critical approach and not as an offence.
What type of mass?
Trump’s phenomenon is a psychological manifestation of the particular mass constituted by his followers. This mass’s libidinal investment on Donald Trump is an effect of a hypnotic-like suggestion that he, as a leader, exerts on his followers. As such, they follow him by means of an identificatory process of love.
In Group Psychology, Freud tries to link individual phenomena with social psychology and explores how the ego of the individual relates to a sense of belonging to a lineage, institution, or organized group. In this text of 1921, Freud differentiates two types of masses: those that are unorganized, spontaneous or natural masses in contrast with artificial, organized masses such as the church or the military.
Freud lists, following Le Bon, some characteristics of the masses, such as the diminishment of intellectual functioning—including criticism and moral consciousness—and the fact that, similar to daydreaming, the masses “think mainly with images.”2 These psychological characteristics of a group create a fertile space for fantasy to inflame.
Although masses can function without leadership, in Trump’s phenomenon he occupies the position of a leader, whose necessary attribution is prestige. In Lacanian terms, a leader is the subject who supposedly knows and its power resides in the libidinal investment bestowed by his followers, who sustain a fantasy that the leader loves each one of them.
The essence of a mass then consists in the libidinal bonding that occurs in a double process of identification: “A number of individuals ... have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal [ichideal] and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their egos.”3 In Freudian terms, the masses that follow Trump have fell in love with this man. The followers love the fact that they belong to such a herd and expect from him unconditional love, which we could translate here as people’s expectation that he will fight for their material conditions, bringing America back to its ideal, etc.
The masses and what binds them are a source of enormous power. Freud mentions that the mass has the ability to empower themselves and share a powerful enthusiasm in such a way that it gives the individual within a mass a sense that there are no impossible. Putting it that way, it is this type of energy, a luxurious force, that given certain circumstances can create revolutionary change. However, with leader Trump is not a revolution in the progressive sense what is in the horizon but rather an idiotic enjoyment.
Idiotic Enjoyment: Enjoying Vicariously Through an Imaginary Fantasy
The libidinal bond of the masses, as most imaginary love, is idiotic because it is trapped in an enjoyment of the individual’s own fixed narcissistic image reflected and therefore embodied in another: their leader Trump. Similarly to the way one enjoys celebrity gossip, the masses enjoy vicariously through the figure of their chosen leader. Frustrated and suffering the effects of years of dispossessing neoliberal practices, Trump’s supporters position him as an ideal, a compensatory image of themselves projected into a fantasized future. In such fantasy, Trump will reclaim on their behalf the lost ideal of the narcissistic national identity encoded in the patriotic motto: “make America great again” (#MAGA). By doing so, the masses hope that Trump will bring relief to their social-economic struggles and will restore a sense of self-worth.
If every mass of loving followers is potentially idiotic by virtue of enjoyment through the reflection of their own narcissistic ideal image—for example, those who supported Trudeau as a new leader in Canada or the Greeks who supported the libertarian ideals of Syriza—and since images have an undeniable positive vitality as well, what makes idiocy problematic? The problem resides, I suggest, in lacking symbolic elements that sustain the viability of such promised fantasy. The idiocy is problematic when there is nothing else but the shell of an image. Trump’s poverty of thought and ideas is appalling. His strategy—all performative as part of his tradition in the showbiz —is merely spectacular and imaginary, suggesting to the masses, via a potent identification, that his very own successes and status will change the material conditions of those impoverished and resented peoples who support him. Trump gains sympathies by portraying himself as a wealthy yet approachable “common guy” who is “real” and can speak like every man. Following Baudrillard, Trump’s image, however, is oppressing and violent because it pretends that the Real (the discrepant realities of him and his followers) have disappeared. Trump’s image, as any other psychic self-image aspiring subjective assertion, is on its own necessarily condemned to disappear with “the blow, the pressure of reality.”4 The political agency lies somewhere else, beyond the image.
The mass as a drive
I suggest that the masses stand for the Freudian drive, a powerful vital source, as a force embodied by the millions that could possibly be revolutionary, provided that a progressive political ideology indeed existed. Instead, Trump’s poverty of thought keeps his own effect at the level of suggestion. His leadership produces an affective discharge, an idle cathartic purge that could indeed disrupt the establishment, yet that leadership brings no significant change but an involution to less civilized forms of politics.
Dolar says that the “disruptive nature” of the drive of the masses requires a representation and an act.5 In Trump’s case, his lack of ideas and cynicism sustains precariously both aspects, leading to nothing else but what Žižek calls “the return of public vulgarity, a debasement of the social sphere”6 or to what Chomsky, in reference to Trump’s lack of environmental consciousness, states as an “almost a death knell for the human species.”7 Trump with his powerful yet empty persuasive strategy prevents any political agency or any emergence of class consciousness in his followers, and as such it contributes to the weakening of the symbolic law. In other words, Trump entices the return of the dead father of the horde8 who promises to orchestrate panem et circenses (bread and circuses).
The Declining of Symbolic Law, the Return of the Repressed, and Towards Reviving the Primordial Father
Trump’s central rhetorical elements rely heavily on a resource that I will call “naked truths”. Different from the usual politician, Trump speaks a language that people can relate to, full of affect and character but with few ideas and feeble rational evidence. In other words, Trump’s rhetorical strategy relies, as Ian Angus recounts Aristotelian rhetoric,9 in his abundant ethos (his celebrity status), and pathos (putting the audience in a redemptive frame of mind), alongside an absolute poverty of logos (no proof is given to sustain his arguments).
Trumps’ appeal could also stem from the fact that he offers a cathartic release and legitimization of socially unaccepted and therefore unvoiced human tendencies that might be present in all of us as a fantasy or as private shameful thoughts, such as racism, sexism, etc. Those tendencies coincide with the conservative ideology of the masses, who respond enthusiastically to such ideological interpellation.
Once voiced, those tendencies corrode the symbolic order. It is by giving “way first in words and then little by little in substance too”10 that the ethical standpoints of human dignity and equality erode. The emergence of those psychical elements, condemned to repression in the social sphere, emerge now out in the public (for instance, where Trump calls to “stop political correctness”). Thus, we observe an unbridling of drives, indeed the return of the repressed, but there are no rational or progressive agencies to profit from this driving potential force towards any improvement of the social sphere. The main issue of Trump’s unfiltered speech is not really that it opposes political correctness but that such verbal unleashing corresponds to what Marcuse would call repressive desublimation, a conformist mechanism where the liberation of some repressions unleash a quick happy satisfaction “without room for conscious development, [so that] it may become the instinctual reservoir for a new fascist way of life and death.”11
Although Hillary Clinton is another scary option for the US presidency, I am more concerned that Trump, in his rise of power, has already foreshadowed the establishment of a police state (fascistoid as Jerry Zaslove calls it). He has promised to persecute illegal “Mexicans, Muslims, etc.”; the building of a wall and militarization of the south border; and the unashamed public legitimization of torture practices (water boarding), which he openly endorsed following the Brussels terrorists attacks of last March. Had he been in power there and then, he would have had no problem (an agitator, nod to Samir Gandesha) to start a witch-hunt of potential terrorists by interrogating Muslims, their families or the neighbours who might “not turn them in.”12
If there is something that the Freudian unconscious teaches us, is the impossibility of fully resolving the tensions between the individual and the other, which is the field of the socio-political. The perpetual Unbehagen, the discontent in civilization, is a secondary layer of a complexity already present at the individual level with an already built-in otherness at the core of the self. We are in a perpetual dialectic between the image of ourselves misrecognized and alienated in the other. Equally, we are in a perpetual dialectic with regard to our desire and the desire of the Other.
Thus, between the psychic and the social we find an interstitial space, and Dolar asserts that “its crack, its fissure, its impossibility, its untying [is what] presents an opening for the political.”13 I suggest that the Trump phenomenon should ask the masses who support him, rephrasing what Foucault asks in his preface to the Anti-Oedipus of Deleuze and Guattari: “How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism? How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior?”14
Angus, I. (2016, July 4). "The Contribution of Discourse Theory and Rhetorical Analysis to the study of Political Ideologies: The Examples of Multiculturalism and Environmentalism." Vancouver, BC, Canada. Retrieved 07 2016, from file:///C:/Users/Hilda/Downloads/Political %20Ideologies %20Paper.pdf
Baudrillard, J. (2004). "Violence of the Image." European Graduate School. Public Lectures. Saas- Fee, Switzerland, Europe. Retrieved 03 29, 2016
Chomsky, N. (2016, May 20). "Almost a death knell for the human species." The Guardian. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/20/noam-chomsky-on- donald-trump-almost-a-death-knell-for-the-human-species
Dolar, M. (n.d.). "Freud and the Political." Mariborchan. Maribor, Slovenia, Europe. Retrieved 04 22, 2016, from http://mariborchan.si/text/articles/mladen-dolar/freud-and-the-political/
Foucault, M. (2009). "Preface." In F. G. Gilles Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (pp. xi-xiv). London: Penguin.
Freud, S. (1973). "Group psychology and analysis of the ego" (1921). In S. Freud, & J. T. Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol 18 (pp. 65-143). London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1973). "Totem and Taboo" (1912). In S. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol XIII (pp. 1-161). London: Hogarth.
Marcuse, H. (2010). One dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advance industrial society (1964). Chicago: Alexander Street Press LLC.
Trump, D. (2016, March 22). "Donald Trump reacts to Brussels attack." CNN's Breaking News. (W. Blitzer, Interviewer)
Wnendt, D. (Director). (2015). Look who's back [Motion Picture].
Žižek, S. (2016, February 12). "The return of public vulgarity." Newsweek. Retrieved 03 16, 2016, from http://www.newsweek.com/return-public-vulgarity-4256
1 Look Who’s Back, dir. David Wnendt, perf. Lars Rudolph and Thomas Thieme, Blu-Ray, 2015.
2 Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego” (1921) in S. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol XVIII (London: Hogarth, 1973) 77.
3 Freud, Group Psychology, 116
4 Jean Baudrillard, “Violence of the Image,” Lectures, The European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland, 2004, March 29, 2016 <http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard/lectures>.
5 Mladen Dolar, “Freud and the Political,” Theory & Event, vol. 12, iss. 3 (The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2009).
6 Slavoj Žižek, “The return of public vulgarity,” Newsweek, February 12, 2016, March 16, 2016 <http://www.newsweek.com/return-public-vulgarity-4256>.
7 Noam Chomsky, “Noam Chomsky on Donald Trump: 'Almost a death knell for the human species',” The Guardian, May 20, 2016, May 25, 2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/20/noam-chomsky-on-donald-trump-almost-a-death- knell-for-the-human-species>.
8 Sigmund Freud, “Totem and Taboo” (1912) in S. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol XIII, (London: Hogarth, 1973).
9 Angus, I. (2016, July 4). The Contribution of Discourse Theory and Rhetorical Analysis to the study of Political Ideologies: The Examples of Multiculturalism and Environmentalism. Vancouver, BC, Canada. Retrieved 07 2016, from file:///C:/Users/Hilda/Downloads/Political%20Ideologies %20Paper.pdf
10 Freud, Group Psychology, 95
11 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advance Industrial Society, (Chicago: Alexander Street Press LLC, 2010) 77.
12 Donald Trump, “Donald Trump reacts to Brussels attack,” CNN (Wolf Blitzer, interviewer) March 22, 2016 <http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/22/politics/donald-trump-brussels-2016-reaction/index.html>
13 Dolar 2009
14 Michel Foucault, Preface in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (London: Penguin, 2009) xiii.