This blog is the beginning of a longer journey to try to understand ‘The Meaning of Trump’. This is not an attempt to give meaning to Donald Trump the individual, for Trump himself is not a very compelling or interesting person. I regard him as a savvy opportunist and populist, prepared to go to any lengths to dominate media interest, and delve to any depths to exploit political vulnerabilities without concern for individuals or groups beyond his own success.
What does interest me is to look at Trump as a social object to which so many people have coalesced around and to ask what specific psycho-social and political dynamics produced this ‘Trump object’ that so many people identified with, to enable him to win the Presidency. I am not denigrating his personality or ability, as a scholar of leadership I can see how it takes someone who is smart and with some charisma (however much we may dislike them) to pull this off. However, it is only when certain conditions are in play that any individual can harness and utilise the energy, anger, frustration and zeitgeist change to take advantage of these conditions.
Another way of asking what is the Meaning of Trump, is to think of him as a social symptom (a sinthome in Lacan’s terms) and to discern what Trump is a symptom of, and what this symptom signifies and reflects back to wider society. Trump in this sense is like a mirror reflecting back to ‘civilization its discontents’ to play with Freud’s book title.
I am currently working on a paper to explore these themes, and invite any thoughts and reflections from this blog.
Taking Trump as a social object and a symptom, I am exploring 3 possible meanings of Trump:
Firstly, that the meaning of Trump is:
- A New Authoritarian Settlement
By this I mean that the election of a ‘democratic-authoritarian’ to the White house, the high temple and global symbol of the ‘idea of Western democracy today,’ signifies a rupture in the political system in the west.
The authoritarian settlement is more complex than Trump and the other European right-wing populists and nationalists. They are a symptom of a wider authoritarian settlement that mostly goes unrecognized. His success is a product of two other strands of ‘soft’ authoritarianism that are implicit and hidden.
The first soft-form is liberal-progressive authoritarianism, that operates through a culture control that is most easily identified and seen in politically correct cultures. These are the people who supported Clinton, and hide their authoritarian tendencies under the rhetoric of equality and diversity. There is a genuine need to fight for progressive politics (which I personally identify with) but this fight can and has become distorted. This creates a perverse situation whereby the liberal-progressives at one level to fight for a fairer, more democratic and inclusive society, yet at the same time they impose an excessive level of culture control on many excluded others they look down upon. Clinton’s slip in the election to call these people ‘the deplorables’ revealed the true feelings towards those who experience this oppressive exclusion. Fighting for a better more equal society is progressive, using discourse, language and power to humiliate, bully and oppress those who aren’t in your ‘tribe’ is regressive and authoritarian. These PC ‘illiberal-liberal’ cultures impose their will on many who feel silenced, coerced and controlled. Free-speech has become limited, you are only free to speak if you know the coded language of the politically correct elites who impose their authoritarian culture control across college campuses and civic spaces. In a previous paper published before the election I pointed to the New Authoritarians (Western 2016) claiming that both Clinton and Trump were different leadership faces representing this new authoritarian settlement. Trump delights in being politically-incorrect, as he instantly emotional connects with and attracts the support of so many who feel oppressed under the weight of what he calls the ‘liberal elite’.
The second form of soft authoritarianism is a totalizing and hidden form that is imposed by neo-liberalism and the excessive rise of corporate power. The Regan-Thatcher political-economic project imposed Chicago school of economics has finally come to a shuddering halt. It has failed miserably. Their promised land of economic and civic wealth, that they believed would arrive through ‘free-trade, de-regulated markets and flexible working’ has finally been exposed as a complete failure. Global corporate power is authoritarian power, it imposes its neo-liberal will on the masses without any accountability or regard for the communities it exploits. Flexible working and the loss of so many skilled jobs to automation (that is only just beginning) means today’s work is precarious work for the majority of people. This means that employees always feel insecure, vulnerable and are therefore compliant to the culture control exerted by their companies. Catherine Casey (xxxxxx) describes these corporate employees as ‘capitulated selves’, unaware of their own subjugation. In my working life I coach and consult to leaders in many diverse sectors including international banks and corporations. My experience is that the global corporates, public sector and international aid organizations are filled with people who have been formed and conformed. We live in an amazing time where the potential for knowledge is learning is unlimited, where the discourse of free-thinking and free speech is dominant, yet we also live in very conformist times. What the Trump election signifies is that TINA is dead, i.e. the Thatcherite mantra ‘there is no alternative’ referencing that only neo-liberalism can deliver progress is over. Fukuyama’s famous essay ‘the end of history’ (xxxxx) claiming that after the cold war was won by the West and that history of ideas was finished as capitalism had triumphed, has itself found itself in the bin of history.
Trump is a product of this Authoritarian settlement and he is a symptom playing back to society its malaise. In many ways his form of angry authoritarianism, is a way of making the hidden authoritarianism of the liberals and corporates explicit.
One way of understanding the meaning of Trump is that he is a ‘return of the repressed’. He is returning a harsh and explicit form of democratic-authoritarianism to counter the hidden forms of authoritarianism that has oppressed so many for so long. Sadly, replacing soft authoritarianism with a harsher form does nothing to improve things in the short term. In the longer term, we can hope that by making the implicit explicit, the authoritarianism of Trump will create activists to challenge this and also to wake up and challenge the other forms that exist in their own tribes too.
- Libidinal politics have displaced rational-emotional politics
Trump is a product of libidinal politics triumphing over rational politics. Today’s ‘networked society is a disruptive society’. Digitalisation, new technologies and social media disrupt huge businesses, it has disrupted dictators in the Arab Spring, digital finance disrupted the whole finance system leading to the 2008 crash, and now it has disrupted normative politics in the USA. When 40% of Americans gain their news from Facebook, the rules of the game have changed. The huge financial advantage and mobilisation of activists in the Clinton machine couldn’t overturn the power of social media that favoured Trump’s approach. Trump is a product of libidinal politics – his campaign fed off the libidinal energy that flowed from those who loved him and from those who railed against him. Every time he pressed the libidinal button he triggered responses in mainstream and new media. Love admiration, aggression, anger and hatred flowed to him and energised his campaign. Those who hated him and got angry, and at the same time took great pleasure in their hatred and rage and self-righteousness. Lacan the French psychoanalyst theorises ‘jouissance’ which is a particular form of unconscious enjoyment that derives pleasure from displeasure. The Guardian and New York Times delighted in expressing their displeasure of Trump, educated liberals enjoyed their highbrow stance looking down on the deplorables – and Trump fed of their libidinal energy just as much as he did off his admiring supporters. Their excessive enjoyment (plus de jouir in Lacanian terms) was surplus to the task of defeating Trump. When people ‘enjoy too much’ they move to regressive positions and get distracted from the real work and underpinning values they fight for.
The meaning of Trump in this context is that libidinal politics wins over rational politics in today’s network society. This changes the political landscape for years to come. Tapping into emotions in politics is not new, but the network society changes the co-ordinates of how emotions go viral, and how people feed each other’s passions that by-pass reason and ‘truth politics’. Facebook became renamed as fakebook as the algorithms entrapped people in ways of thinking that provided excessive pleasure to reinforce their mindsets. If you looked up Trump, you got more and more Trump, which reinforced your initial thinking. Libidinal politics don’t have to be base or regressive as used by Trump, but they cannot be ignored, or pushed into second place, as the Democrats found out. All the rules have changed.
- The Triumph of melancholia, and the failure to mourn the loss of empire
Freud’s famous paper mourning and melancholia shows how melancholia occurs when a lost object is not properly mourned. He writes: “in mourning, time is needed for the command of reality-testing to be carried out in detail…when this work has been accomplished the ego will have succeeded in freeing its libido from the lost object.”
Without mourning, the ego cannot free itself from the lost object and continues to over-identify with it. Melancholy describes this state and Trump’s identification with the lost object – ‘The American Dream’ – and his constant references to making America Great again, was a classic melancholic response to the end of empire. Freud goes on to observe the way melancholia has a manic side to it, which is another way to avoid facing the reality of the lost object, and I think this describes Trump’s rallies very aptly.
When a great nation is so divided internally, when it imprisons so many of its young black men, when whole regions are inflicted with unemployment and endemic drug abuse, when healthcare and basic welfare is severely limited or withdrawn, and when it has a military might that massively overpowers any other nation, yet it loses all its recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Putin dominates the agenda in Syria and Ukraine, one can clearly point to the demise of empire. To renew and regenerate, the nation needs first to face the reality principle and mourn the loss of the American Dream and the empire it had. Without this mourning, melancholia will dominate the political agenda: Democrats claiming things are not so bad and there is a bright future, Trump claiming he can magically cure all ills. Together they both create the imaginary fantasy that recovering what has been lost is possible. This undermines the potential of discovering something new and building a different way forward.
Trump’s campaign was one of ‘paranoid nolstagia’ i.e. paranoid about the ‘bad other’ stealing the America’s enjoyment and nostalgic about recreating a fantasy utopian past where industrial jobs can return on mass, globalisation can be reversed, and walls can be built to exclude the bad other (Mexican’s and Muslims).
The Meaning of Trump is that his election signifies that the world has radically changed. To draw again on Lacan, Trump is a point-de-capiton (a quilting point). This quilting point fixes things just enough for action to be taken, when all is in flux. Trump is a quilting point that held together the multiple and fluid causes of the discontents. He outed the authoritarianism of the liberal elites, and of the global powers – and offered instead surplus authority in their place. He championed melancholia, and manically laughed in the face of mourning, refusing to face the loss of the American Dream and its empire. He offered the people a fantasy instead, and many liked it. And he adapted quicker than all those around him to the new reality that it is libidinal politics that wins elections in the 21st century. The Meaning of Trump is that he is a symptom of these social and political changes, he plays back to society it’s excess. His politics, are the politics of excess. He offers surplus authority, excessive libidinal energy, and surplus enjoyment (melancholic mania) in the face of great loss.
About the Author
CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching www.analyticnetwork.com
Dr Simon Western is President-Elect at the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO) www.ispso.org
Adjunct Professor at University College Dublin.
He has authored two books with Sage publishers: Leadership a critical text 2nd Ed (Western 2013) http://amzn.to/1RYvzC2
Coaching and Mentoring a critical text, http://amzn.to/1Zhpzd and he regularly blogs and writes on Academia.edu
For further readin
Autonomist Leadership in Leaderless Movement https://www.academia.edu/11240946/Autonomist_leadership_in_leaderless_movements_anarchists_leading_the_way
Blog The Politics of Enjoyment
Other Blogs and on-line Papers