Paging Dr. Freud: Trump, Obama, and the American Psyche
Why the country that elected Obama may soon elect Trump
Posted Jun 06, 2016
One hears a lot these days about the surprising success of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Politicians, pundits, political scientists, pollsters, and myriad social commentators have offered their take on the story.
Psychologists, and those who enjoy training a psychological lens onto cultural events, have likewise sought to chime in on this intriguing story. Some have tried their hand at distal diagnosis, noting how the candidate manifests the telltale signs of narcissistic personality disorder: an outsized (huge) sense of self worth combined, paradoxically, with outsized sensitivity to any suggestion to the contrary. Trump, to be sure, is low hanging fruit in this regard. Still, the business of public diagnosis from afar is problematic, for several reasons.
First, those who diagnose Trump invariably use the diagnosis to ram and ridicule him. This, at least when coming from psychologists or mental health experts, is unfortunate. Those who are burdened with mental health challenges should not be shunned or shamed for their troubles. Least of all by those who’s job is to help them.
People, after all, are more than the sum of their diagnoses. And mental disorders need not necessarily prevent someone from doing competent work, contributing to the community, or pursuing their ambitions. Both Lincoln and Churchill struggled mightily with depression, but they were neither defeated nor defined by it. Moreover, a large measure of narcissism is probably a requirement, rather than a liability, for anyone thinking himself or herself worthy of running for president.
In addition, mental health professionals should not, as a matter of course, be in the business of making public diagnoses of non-consenting people they have never met and with whom they have not conducted a proper and thorough psychological assessment. Such attempts tend to cheapen the work of proper psychological assessment, which takes place in confidence, proceeds cautiously, and is forever fraught with doubt and ambiguity. This is particularly so when it comes to personality disorders, one of the most unreliable and least conceptually sound classification categories currently in use.
All this does not mean that our grasp of this election, and of politics in general, cannot benefit from psychological insight. Yet those who want to play “Analyze This” with politics and culture may be well advised to try a different tack. For example, instead of asking what a politician’s behavior or public persona says about them, we may inquire about what their behavior reveals about us. One mystery in this context is how the same electorate that elected President Obama now seems poised to elect Donald Trump.
A possible answer to this question, from a psychological perspective, involves reaching back to a classic Freudian formulation. According to Freud, human personality emerges from the dynamic interplay between three internal constructs. First is the id (“it” in German), which is our source of life energy. The newborn, for example, is all id. It embraces sensory pleasure and rejects pain. The id is aggressive and a-social. It wants what it wants now, in the raw, and in full.
The id is, quite literally, vital. However, since humans are herd animals who survive and thrive only by living in orderly groups, the id creates problems. A nation of ids would prove chaotic and discordant. If I want what you have and I grab it, then we have conflict. Conflict undermines cooperation and group cohesion, thus endangering survival.
To help corral the id’s unruly tendencies, the ego develops. The ego is our coherent sense of embodied identity, seeking to preserve itself. The ego wants to satisfy the id, but in ways that will not lead to its demise. The id is dumb to reality. The ego is wise to it. If the id walks into a store and sees a shiny object, it wants to grab it. But the ego says, “Wait until no one’s looking!”
This architecture represents a significant, but insufficient, improvement. A nation of ids and egos may avoid chaos, but would fall short of true productive cooperation. If you know I covet your stuff and will take it when you’re not looking, and I know the same about you, then we can’t trust each other. Both of us have to be on constant guard, and our energies are wasted on the standoff, rather than channelled into building a strong civilization.
Enter the super ego, our moral compass; the ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ function; right and wrong; should and shouldn’t. With the super ego, you know I will not steal your stuff (as my id desires) even when you’re not looking (as my ego proposes) because (says my super ego) stealing is wrong. And I know the same about you. Hence we can now both tend to the urgent business of pursuing the project of civilization.
By way of analogy, if you’re a car on the highway, then your id is the engine—it just wants to go. Your ego navigates around the other cars, avoiding accidents; your super ego obeys all the traffic laws.
Freud’s formulation is useful in that it essentially recasts the old nature vs. nurture debate in psychological terms. ‘Id’ is another term for ‘nature,’ our genetic program. ‘Super ego’ is another term for ‘nurture,’ the communal values we internalize from our parents and culture. Ego is self, our abiding sense of unique personhood and agency.
According to Freud, the id and the super ego are often at odds due to their differing natures and agendas. The id is chaos; the super ego is order. The id is impulsive. The super ego is cerebral. The id is infantile. The super ego is parental. The id is hedonistic. The super ego is moralistic. The id is visceral and concrete. The super ego is conceptual and abstract. The id offers instant, full gratification, but the price is social chaos and danger. The super ego offers social order, but at the price of delayed, partial and watered down gratifications. Standing in line is fair, but it’s never fun. That’s why, Freud argued, civilization inevitably brings about discontent. We are all a bit restless all the time, because we have to follow the restrictive rules of society rather than the urgent pull of our primal appetites.
Throughout our days we manage this inherent tension with varying degrees of success. Sometimes we find a lost wallet in the street and return it to its owner—a victory for our super ego. Other times we raid the cookie jar in a post-midnight binge—a win for the id.
All the while our ego labors, in Freud’s words, to serve three masters. It tries to gratify the id in ways that work in the real world and are also acceptable to the super ego. If we tune in to our internal landscape, we may glimpse this dynamic tension in the ambivalence that marks our own commerce with the world. Take the event of war. To your id, war is exciting: Awesome explosions, raw mayhem, the ecstasy of vanquishing enemies and taking their toys. Wars, after all, have not been fought throughout history only because they were effective or just. They were (and are) fought because they are thrilling. Your super ego laments war unless it can be morally justified and honorably executed. Your ego cares mostly that you win and survive.
Freud, of course, discussed this personality structure in the context of the individual person. However, the same formulation may be applied to culture itself. After all, culture is made in the image of the human individuals who make it up, just as the concerns of humanity’s various Gods—their emotions, motivations, and preoccupations—bear a striking resemblance to those of the humans who make them up.
Tellingly, cultures and civilizations are often described in human terms. They rise and fall. They live and die. They face outside enemies and internal strife. They change or fail to change. They grow ambitious, pursue goals, and become corrupt. They develop a certain character.
Thus, if we extend Freud’s personality formulation to the workings of culture, we can see how Trump and Obama represent parts of a dynamic, coherent whole.
Obama’s election, in this reading, was the victory of America’s super ego. In electing Obama, America did the ‘right thing’ by its sense of itself as a morally righteous society. Not coincidentally, Obama’s public persona embodies super ego qualities: He is parental, cautious, measured, aware, reflective, and reasoned. If nothing else, Obama and his administration have remained remarkably clean in the moral sense, free of scandal and corruption. His persona is tethered to abstract principles rather than prurient passions. For example, if we think of Obama and women, we think women’s rights, not women’s breasts.
America reveled for a while in this victory of our civilized self. We congratulated ourselves, and felt good about what Obama’s election meant about us. How it reflected back to us a picture of ourselves as good people in the moral sense. The fact that a black man was elected president in America demonstrated, if nothing else, that this is a culture that values justice and fairness, and is willing to atone for old sins.
Yet, as Freud would have predicted, this very victory would inevitably stir much discontent in the other part of America’s psyche—our dark id underbelly, the cauldron of suppressed primal desires, ever-chafing against the super ego’s high-minded demands that we empathize with the ‘other,’ share our wealth, work for the future, mind our manners, and maintain our cool.
Enter the Donald, a spectacular embodiment of America’s id: A flailing tantrum of fleshy energy, unbothered by the norms of civility, the demands of reality, or a concern for the feelings of others. Trump’s ascent constitutes what Freud referred to as “the return of the repressed,” an eruption of bottled-up primal urges. His railing against political correctness, for example, is id incarnate: you don’t have to watch your tongue. You can speak before you think. Trump’s energy is appetitive and phallic. Behold those towers, the “down there” references, the juicy steaks, the naked greed and swirling violent intimations. Trump’s persona is tethered to prurient passions rather than abstract principles. If we think of Trump and women, we think women’s breasts, not women’s rights.
Trump’s underlying message is id freedom, liberation from the constraints of civilized conversation, commerce, and consciousness. It’s a resonant message, because civilization is hard work. Tolerance for others who are different than us is hard work. Moral empathy is hard work. Delaying gratification is hard work. The fantasy of shaking loose of these constraints lurks deep in the soul of each of us, and so it lurks deep in the soul of the culture.
In this analysis, Trump’s success is not due to something unique to his supporters, or specific to our times—a new malaise inflicting the body politic. Rather, his ascent is due to a dynamic that is inherent in the deep psychic architecture of humanity. Both Trump and Obama are in all of us. They are us.
This morning we found the wallet in the street and returned it to its owner (even though we could have used the extra cash). But now it‘s past midnight; we’re spent and vaguely restless (because good deeds don’t pay the rent). Did someone mention cookies?