Two Senile, Old White Guys Who Want to be President – Or Do They?
I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters. – Trumpus
This essay is not really about politics, except to the extent that politics reflects mythology. Our first responsibility as mythological thinkers is to cultivate discrimination, to take a step back and attempt to perceive the narratives that are being played out in our culture, how they circulate within our psyches, before we can begin to offer new ones. We must understand how we participate in those stories through our own unconscious acceptance of their primary themes. We must acknowledge how they have constrained our view of the world within narrow parameters of the possible.
And before we can engage effectively in the cutthroat world of politics, we must actively grieve how they have diminished our lives, because our constrained view of the world also means a restricted view of ourselves. It means that at some level we believe that we deserve no more than what these old men have to offer. It means that we have traded a moral, visceral, natural response to the world for a fragile sense of innocence. It means that we give our consent to perpetuating a world in which the father gods offer their children for sacrifice.
Within this world, Biden would be smart to refuse to debate Trumpus. If debates happen, consider that
Idealization says more about our own psychological projections than it does about the candidates. When, after one of these debates, you hear yourself say (about either candidate), “He seems like a nice enough guy; I just don’t agree with his positions,” know that the ritual has been successful. The “nice guy” has proven that he can play the role if called upon; he has passed the audition.
Who are these guys? What really drives them? Please, please don’t tell me that either of them is motivated at any level of consciousness by a sense of duty to the nation, by a desire to serve the people. To do so is to reveal your own insistence on American innocence. It is to reveal your addiction to the culture of celebrity, your willingness to project your own inner nobility onto an image of a person, not the person himself.
We absolutely will never know what either of these men actually thinks, except (see below) when they speak spontaneously. Otherwise, as I wrote above, anything spoken for the public by anyone at that level of power has been composed for them by professional speechwriters, carefully vetted in front of multiple focus groups, and edited precisely to fit the perceived needs of a very specific audience so as to manipulate its views.
That’s our baseline here. But we are also talking about two old men. Not too long ago, we would have called them very old, and today we have legitimate concerns about senility (the word is related to senator), just as we had, or should have had, with Ronald Reagan. Reagan, at least, even in his decline, could still read a script.
For four years liberals have been laughing (perhaps to keep from crying) at Trumpus’ gaffes and verbal mistakes. But for the past year, they’ve been cringing as Biden’s gaffes pile up, Fox News insists on his “cognitive decline,” and even Trumpus challenges Biden to take the cognition test that he himself had “aced.” Only in America. If you really need to be reminded, you can see Biden’s gaffes here, here or here.
Actually, it is the state of public discourse that has entered cognitive decline when the two major parties are each selling their candidate as the one who is less demented than the other guy. But I’m not that concerned; if I or you were on camera as often as they are, someone could easily compile similar (highly edited) comic videos about us. And Biden (sigh) is our guy. What interests me is the unconscious psychological strategies that their gaffes reveal.
Of course Trumpus is mad as a hatter, as countless psychiatrists argue. He is a malignant narcissist (see here and here and here); a sociopath; a psychopath who is a son of a sociopath and/or a sexual sadist who is utterly incapable of human concern and empathy.
After four, or six, or thirty years of watching this guy on TV, do these diagnoses still surprise you? Do you still react to his latest threat, lie, brag, insult or cruel decision by posting it to Facebook and sharing it – your surprise – with your friends. Well, of course we all do this; but consider that the subject of the sentence, “I can’t believe he said this new thing!” is myself and my own wounded innocence. The shock below the shock is really that Trumpus = Trump / us.
Of course, writes Alex Morris, merely having a mental illness wouldn’t necessarily disqualify Trumpus for the presidency. It doesn’t even make him that unusual:
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease found that 18 of the first 37 presidents met criteria for having a psychiatric disorder, from depression (24 percent) and anxiety (eight percent) to alcoholism (eight percent) and bipolar disorder (eight percent). Ten of them exhibited symptoms while in office, and one of those 10 was arguably our best president, Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from deep depression…
But despite our wounded innocence, we know that we are dealing with a special case. We know that he schemes constantly to feed his narcissism. We know that he gets deep pleasure by deliberately manipulating, insulting, cheating and stealing from and even hurting anyone and everyone he can get into his clutches. And we know that he’s been doing these things his entire life. And the lies: The WAPO claims that he made 19,127 false or misleading claims in 1,226 days. Clearly, he gets pleasure not from money but from what the money represents – cheating, conning, frightening and manipulating people. Psychologist John Gartner writes:
He enjoys ripping people off and humiliating people. He does this manically and gleefully… Trump is also a sexual sadist, who on some basic level enjoys and is aroused by watching people be afraid of him. In his mind, Trump is creating chaos and instability so that he can feel powerful…Professor of psychiatry and psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg called that phenomenon “omnipotent destructiveness.”…Trump is a master at getting negative attention, and the more people he can shock and upset, the better.
Psychoanalyzing public figures usually tells us more about ourselves than it does about them, but this time we need to go there. We may lie for perverse pleasure – or for some deeper reason. Psychoanalyst Lance Dodes suggests that Trumpus tells “two kinds of lies: the ones he tells others to scam them, and those he tells himself.”
That’s an interesting statement that may carry us to Trumpus’ core, and possibly to the core of American myth. I think this is critical: many insiders have leaked accounts of how he gets bored and constantly seeks to increase the level of risk. With each new tweet, press conference, dismissing of a regulatory bureaucrat, betrayal of a supporter or revelation of the latest scandal, he seems to be constantly upping the ante to see how much he can get away with, before – what? I won’t begin a list because it would take too long, and we’ve all been watching this, daily, for years now. We turn to our spouse and say: I can’t believe it! Just when we think we’ve seen it all, when he couldn’t possibly do or say anything worse – there he goes again.
I propose two bookmarks that define his MOA. The first is the infamous boast at the beginning of his campaign on January 23rd, 2016:
They say I have the most loyal people — did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.
He got away with that because, as Selena Zito wrote, “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
The second occurred 3½ years later. On July 24th, 2019 Robert Mueller told Congress that the Justice Department has long argued that a sitting president can’t be indicted, and therefore he was declining to indict Trumpus for either obstruction of justice or campaign finance violations. James Risen writes:
…Most people who survive that kind of legal threat would lie low, at least for a while, and try to get back to some level of normalcy. But Trump is a habitual criminal, and his reaction to escaping Mueller’s investigation was to go on yet another crime spree…
From that frying pan, Trumpus leaped into the fire, calling the president of Ukraine, asking him to work with Rudy Giuliani and William Barr to help them manufacture lies about Joe Biden and his son Hunter (more on Hunter later), and clearly offering financial incentives. When the news came out, Adam Schiff, a broken clock who is right twice a day, tweeted, “The transcript of the call reads like a classic mob shakedown.”
No surprises here. The only reason I mention this particular outrage is that it occurred the very next day after Mueller’s testimony.
Trumpus knew perfectly well that intelligence spooks listen in to all his calls. I suggest that – at some level – he knew that this conversation would soon be made public, he was quite deliberately pushing the envelope of provocation and self-incrimination. I imagine his internal logic like this: Well, they refused to catch me last time; maybe this will get their attention. He was – and is – asking to get caught, and he still has the re-election campaign (Goddess protect us) to up the ante further.
What is he really doing? Yes, he’s America’s premier con man. But look inside every huckster or shyster and you’ll find a low-level trickster, a rebellious adolescent provoking his parents, older brother or teachers by repeatedly transgressing some rule or agreement of social decorum, just, so he thinks, to get a rise out of them.
Or consider a slightly older male “leaving rubber” in his flashy, red sports car, daring the cops. You know the color – I call it “bust me red.” Isn’t he hoping to get caught and have clear limits set on his behavior? Here are some more troubling examples, two from life, one from art and one from mythology:
In 1946 at the scene of one of his crimes, the serial killer William Heirens scrawled these words on a mirror: For heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.
In 1993 a young girl named Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered in a case that would lead to California’s “Three Strikes” law. The culprit was a multiple offender named Richard Allen Davis. I mention him because a study of his life reveals a pattern. Each time he was released from prison he quickly went on to commit worse behavior, until he enacted the ultimate crime of child murder. It was almost as if each of his actions had been a cry for attention: For heaven’s sake catch me. Until you pay attention, I will continue to up the ante.
Francisco Goya’s great painting Saturn Devouring his Son depicts the primordial murder of the children which I have argued is the mythic narrative at the core of western civilization (for background, I write about it here). Jay Scott Morgan describes it:
The image is ineffaceable: the cannibal god on bended knees, engulfed in darkness; the mad haunted eyes and black-blooded mouth; the rending fingers, threaded with blood, and the ravaged figure in their grasp…Cover the right side of the face, and we see a Titan caught in the act, defying anyone to stop him, the bulging left eye staring wildly at some unseen witness to his savagery, his piratical coarseness heightened by the sharp vertical lines of the eyebrow, crossed like the stitches of a scar. Cover his left eye, and we are confronted by a being in pain, the dark pupil gazing down in horror at his own uncontrolled murderousness, the eyebrow curved upwards like an inverted question mark, as if he were asking, “Why am I compelled to do this?”
…the painting still evokes in me an interior terror, a sense of isolation, loneliness, grief–this god on his knees, tearing apart his own child, enshrouded in a blackness that is like a psychic tar, clinging to me, clinging me to him, to a drama of primal murderousness, so that now I seem to be participant as well as viewer. I look upon him, and I am implicated in the crime.
A final example comes from Euripides’ play The Bacchae. The boy-king Pentheus reveals (to us, not to himself) his unconscious motivation when he orders his henchmen to find Dionysus and arrest him:
Go, someone, this instant,
to the place where this prophet prophesies.
Pry it up with crowbars, heave it over, upside down;
demolish everything you see…
That will provoke him more than anything.
As I write in Chapter Five of my book,
“Provoke” (from vocare, to call) is marvelously appropriate. At some level Pentheus can choose. He can invoke or evoke his own Dionysian nature, or he can innocently project it outwards, provoking its expression somewhere else.
Yes, on one level Trumpus certainly gets temporary satisfaction from cheating, stealing, hurting and antagonizing his social and intellectual betters. It’s temporary because, like all addictive strategies, it gives no nourishment for the soul and must be repeated continuously. I have no doubt that consciously he says and does these things for these amoral reasons.
But on another level (a moral level), with all the upping of the ante, isn’t he actually proclaiming, I can’t stand myself! Someone please catch me, stop me, punish me before I do something really awful! I don’t want to do this any longer! Get me out of here!
Perhaps, as Alex Henderson remarks of Trumpus’ deluge of ‘incredibly self-damaging actions’ “People are starting to question if he’s ‘actively trying to win anymore.”
Is it possible that – for his entire life – he’s just been asking for help? Conventional psychology might see his behavior patterns as indicating self-hatred. But, as depth psychologist Robert Moore argued, if we look closely at grandiosity, we often discover that just below it lies depression, and that the path toward healing involves puncturing the grandiosity so as to allow the deeper wounds to emerge into the light and be cleansed. From this perspective, everything he does is actually part of an unconscious teleological drive toward self-knowledge. Like Pentheus, he is asking, with increasing desperation (in ritual terms) for initiation. In that sense, he really does speak for all of us.