In Therapy As in Politics, Process Often Decides the Game
To understand Trump better, best to tend to process over content.
Posted Jun 16, 2018
One thing you learn doing psychotherapy is that more often than not, process is more consequential than content. The ‘how’ matters more than the ‘what.’ How you deal with stress is more important than what specific stressor you are facing. The fact that you yelled at John yesterday and at Jane today matters less than the fact that you mostly communicate by yelling. In the realm of therapy, research has identified several processes that contribute to change across approaches and problem areas.
For example, one such process common to many therapies is ‘consciousness raising’—illuminating, defining, naming, and exploring what was previously ill-defined, nameless, or hidden.
When psychoanalysts speak of “making the unconscious conscious,” when cognitive therapists talk about “discovering core beliefs,” when behavior therapists speak of “identifying reinforcement contingencies” what they are talking about is de facto consciousness raising.
This is why in therapy, much of the work centers on going underneath the content to the level of process, helping the client to shed faulty or ineffective processes and learn healthy and effective ones: how to think straight; how to ‘surf’ difficult emotions; how to communicate assertively and clearly; how to face fears, etc. In fact, the field of therapy as a whole is increasingly moving toward so-called ‘transdiagnostic’ approaches that target common underlying psychological processes (such as avoidance) rather than specific symptom constellations or diagnostic labels.
Sound processes tend to yield good results across multiple content areas. In the therapy room—as around the dinner table, as at the company’s conference room, as in the senate chambers, as in the oval office—sound decision making processes, for example, are not guaranteed to produce the right decision every time, but in the long run they will produce more good than bad decisions, resulting in sustained and increasing success. Likewise, unsound processes are not guaranteed to err every time, but in the long run errors are bound to prevail, thus degrading results.
Our current political times provide, among other things, a vivid illustration—a case study of sorts—in the matter. Currently, much of the debate surrounding president Trump is focused on the contents he produces—the tweets, the statements, the slights and brags. Both his supporters and detractors are constantly asking: Did you hear what Trump just said? Did you see what he just did? These are content concerns.
Content, of course, is not unimportant. Even if you your TV reception (process) is great, what you’re watching (content) still matters. Also, even if you’re good at learning (process), we can’t assume you know a lot about everything. Great knowledge in one content area does not guarantee such greatness in another.
More specifically, much of our preoccupation with presidential content owes to the fact that historically, such content mattered a lot, for two main reasons. First, the president’s voice is the voice of the nation. Presidential utterances embody national values and sentiments, and are a matter of official historical record. Thus we expect presidential content to be well reasoned, articulate, coherent, accurate, and inspirational. Indeed, we are alarmed if the content of presidential speech is sophomoric, callous, or nonsensical because it shows us, not just him, in a bad light.
Second, most past presidents in our modern era followed certain basic, if unwritten, norms of presidential decorum: project maturity; communicate responsibly; separate your family business from the business of the nation; advocate for democracy; rise to the occasion. Against a backdrop of shared processes, content differences become the focus of debate.
Things are different in the Trump presidency. For one, current presidential content, embodied best by his oft-sloppy, inaccurate, and impulsive tweets (“covfefe”) and rambling rally speeches, is often of poor quality. This, however, while disappointing, is not what’s uniquely consequential about Trump. We’ve had bumbling presidents before. Like content-poor psychotherapy, in which the true issues are never broached while self-congratulatory small talk presides, a content-poor presidency may be middling, uninspiring, and ineffective, but it is unlikely to prove catastrophic. Bad content is quite easy to improve on and to fix, much more so than bad process. Good TV shows (content) are easy to find, but that means nothing if you got lousy TV reception (process).
Indeed, the real threat posed by Trump does not reside in the controversial content, but in what he’s doing to the processes of American governance and culture. To assess this threat, it is useful to ignore the content of the presidential show he’s running and focus instead on how he runs the show—the processes his presidency relies on.
The first such process is undermining institutional integrity. He’s doing this mainly by, a) placing incompetent, blind loyalists instead of competent experts in key institutional and consulting positions; b) attacking the motives, and undermining the integrity, of those institutions that are not yet controlled by his loyalists.
To see why this is important, it is useful to remember that the biggest difference between the countries you would want to live in and those you wouldn’t (other than how they regard women's and minorities' rights) is in the integrity of their governing institutions. Responsible, fair, and competent institutions beget individual and social prosperity. Institutional corruption, graft, incompetence, and nepotism beget suffering and failure.
The second process, which is related to the first, is moving from a democratic to an authoritarian decision making ethos, replacing transparent, inclusive, systematic, consultative processes with narrow, top down, capricious, opaque ones. This is done in part by shunning consultation, compromise, and consensus-building as weaknesses. Trump does this also by sowing chaos and unpredictability: making conflicting statements, repeating bold-faced lies, keeping vague on details, abruptly changing plans, triangulating people and ‘splitting’—heaping praise one minute and scorn the next on the same individual or entity.
Such chaos works to further cement his power, because it’s harder to anticipate and prepare to counter the moves of an unpredictable foe, and because if everything is dependent on his whim, then he is, to quote him, “the only one that matters.”
The third, related, process is transgression, persistently going against laws, rules, and codes of conduct. To wit: presidents disclose their tax returns—don’t disclose your tax returns; presidents are supposed to keep above petty vengefulness—get pettier and more vengeful; presidents are not supposed to mix governing with personal business—keep your presidential and personal business mixed; presidents are supposed to live under the law—declare yourself the law; presidents are supposed to be knowledgeable—be ignorant; presidents are supposed to trust reason and expertise—trust only your gut; presidents are supposed to inspire—conspire; presidents are supposed to stand up to dictators—cozy up to dictators; etc.
The transgressive process itself is not without positive utility, particularly when used by those who lack power to protest injustice, cruelty, or corruption. Rosa Parks transgressed. Yet when used compulsively and selfishly by those in power, transgression becomes destructive. Such destructive transgression often appeals to people’s dark unconscious or suppressed desires. We all fantasize about breaking the rules, asserting power, freeing ourselves from the discontent inherent in civilized life’s demand that we behave well, delay gratification, manage our impulses, stand in line, etc. (a lot of the anger toward ‘political correctness’ emanates from this discontent); the transgressor embodies the expression of those suppressed desires for us, and hence becomes, in our minds, heroic. The destructive transgressor, in changing the game, also takes control over it, since the old rules no longer apply and the new rules are, well, his to dictate.
When a capricious, transgressive ruler has amassed all the power, it forces others to attend to his every caprice, which means he stays at the center of the news, which further reinforces his perceived power and importance.
There are reasons why tyrants and dictators—unlike democratically elected officials—work hard to have their images visible (and words audible) to citizens everywhere at all times. For one, we tend to regard as important and normal that which is ever-present. Second, we tend to obey authority more if it is close by. You slow down when you see that police car. When the police represent the law, they need to remain visible to assure obedience. When the ruler’s whim becomes law, then he must remain visible to that end.
Indeed, the three processes described above work in concert to shift the power center from the rule of law to the law of the ruler. When only the ruler’s whims matter, it means that objective, fair, just, impartial, reasoned, egalitarian, and systematic decision making processes—democracy’s core operating procedures—are left to whither on the vine.
This state of affairs—the place where predictability, fairness, and reason have no purchase—is disorienting. Thus we often come to behave before chaotic authoritarian power like we do before an unknowable God—we resort to worship, to superstition, to dread; we make up elaborate stories in an effort to find sense in nonsense; we pray and plead for favor, and when it fails to materialize, or when we are rebuked, we blame ourselves or our non-believer enemies, not the chaotic and cruel authority. The recent cult-like surrender of the Republican party to Trumpism is case in point.
This ultimately is Trumpism’s threat. The short-term contents of his reign are not as important in the final analysis as the long-term processes it manages to instill. What you’re addicted to matters, but not as much as the fact that you’re an addict. The man falling from the 40th floor may be quite intact as he passes the 20th floor on the way down. But, given the nature of the falling process, he’s not going to remain intact for long.
All presidents, by virtue of having great power, are dangerous. What makes Trump uniquely dangerous is the havoc he’s wreaking on our best governing and cultural processes—fair elections, fact-based communications, reasoned and empathetic civil discourse, respect for democratic institutions (putting the game before the player), scientific inquiry, knowledge acquisition, and a mind for long-term consequences.
If those processes are abandoned and destroyed, then whatever short-term popularity, prosperity, or foreign policy victories Trump happens to accrue will mean little down the road. By the time America is great again, it will no longer be America.