The Savior, the Devil, and Donald Trump

How archetypal images of Devil or Savior can appear in the same person.

Posted Jan 15, 2021

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the second part of a two-part posting. To read Part 1, click here

At the same time, we human beings are eternally hoping and waiting for someone to save us from our existential predicament, and we tend to project these hopes onto some celebrity, leader, guru, teacher, therapist, etc. Psychologically speaking, consciously or unconsciously, we all seek a savior, a messiah.

This archetypal tendency can be seen as an expression of what existential therapist Irvin Yalom refers to as the universal hope for an "ultimate rescuer": an omnipotent force or being that unconditionally loves and protects us from the vagaries and vicissitudes of existence in ways similar to those of a good parent. Someone who will rescue us from the burden of our existential aloneness, freedom, and responsibility. Relieve our existential suffering. Belief in and blind allegiance to such a messiah figure allows us to slough off our freedom and personal responsibility, placing it instead into the hands of the savior. It is a way of staving off our sense of despair, helplessness, powerlessness, and hopelessness. It also permits us to feel better about ourselves by dint of the chosen association with the grandiosity and power of the messianic authority, becoming a kind of vicarious narcissistic defense mechanism

So how can one person be perceived by others in such diametrically opposite ways? In the exceedingly controversial person of President Donald Trump, we are witnessing both of these primitive projections--good and evil--at work. Such unconscious projections go beyond cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, but contribute significantly to the so-called halo or horns effect.

They stem not as much from the persona or narrative presented to us by someone like Trump as from more archetypal, deeply universal and innate images or ideas we hold regarding good and evil. Think of cinematic characters like Darth Vader in Star Wars, and his opposite, Luke Skywalker.

Or consider, for example, the character called the Joker in the story of Batman, chillingly portrayed by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight Rises (2008). (See my prior post.)  Batman's crazed and cruel counterpoint, his nemesis, his antithesis, the Joker, has completely given in to his shadow. He has embraced evil: the sadistic infliction of suffering on society.

The Joker revels in creating chaos. Breaking rules. Flaunting his power. He has no core values, no rules, no morals, no scruples, no empathy, no compassion, no guilt feelings, and no conscience. He seeks only self-satisfying destructiveness via violence, which serves as an evil expression of his anger, rage, resentment, hatred, and hostility toward others and the world. The Joker has been taken over or possessed by the daimonic or shadow; fallen victim to and driven by his darkest demons. We witness the Joker's slow descent into madness and violent nihilism masterfully portrayed in actor Joaquin Phoenix's fine performance in the recent (2019) film, Joker. The Joker is the evil Mr. Hyde to Batman's good Dr. Jekyll, to cite another classic literary example of good and evil.  But as he himself suggests, the Joker and Batman need each other, because they represent two eternally conflicting and counterbalancing, opposite sides of human potentiality: moral vs. immoral, constructive vs. destructive, good vs. evil. Together they comprise a whole human being and the whole of life. One would not exist without the other. No shadow, no light. And vice-versa. In Jungian terms, we could say that the Joker represents the heroic and good Batman's archetypal shadow: the innate capacity for radical evil which exists in each and every one of us. Including Donald Trump.

This sort of projection is amplified immensely by the person who occupies the exalted position of President of the United States. He or she, because of the position of tremendous power and status held, becomes the object of personal and collective projections, both positive and negative. The President is revered and respected by some, and despised and demonized by others, depending on their nationality, politics, point of view, and personal psychodynamics. This phenomenon is common in psychotherapy, where we call it transference. And it occurs naturally in many other settings in which someone is perceived to be in a position of power and authority. 

Many Americans see Trump as their savior. Someone who shares their profound frustration and rage, and has the vast power, wealth, and influence to speak for them and voice their grievances. They are frustrated, angry, and disillusioned. (See my 1996 book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic for more on the personal and collective problem of anger.) And because of this, they are willing to follow him down into the bowels of hell if that's what it takes to keep him--and, by proxy, themselves--in power. As Trump himself once said, he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and not lose any followers. He was right.

But others see him as one of the most evil, narcissistic, Machiavellian and dangerous men in the world today. They too are right. But both are radically polarized perceptions of the same person. In reality, Donald Trump is merely a man. He is neither devil nor messiah, but, like all human beings, an amalgamation of both good and evil, positive and negative, creative and destructive traits. He is not totally devoid of goodness, not pure evil. Even the most evil psychopaths, serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Dennis Rader, or Edmund Kemper, for instance, despite their disgusting and depraved evil deeds, still have some residual human capacity for goodness and creativity

But, in these matters, it is always a question of balance, or the lack thereof. For instance, there are certain personality types--such as the pathological narcissist, the psychopath, or what I call the "psychopathic narcissist" (see my prior post)-- that tend much more predominantly toward evil deeds than good ones, are characterized by a proclivity toward destructiveness rather than creativity.

They are usually high-functioning and successful, but exceedingly selfish, impulsive, reckless, and emotionally childish in the extreme. With little to no conscience. They are convincing and conniving con artists. These individuals feel entitled to manipulate other people's lives for their own entertainment and ego gratification. They can be charming and charismatic, but incredibly cruel, callous, and sadistic, taking no responsibility for their hurtful actions. Without empathy. Their exaggerated feelings of superiority and self-confidence serve to conceal their core insecurity. For they were profoundly traumatized during childhood or adolescence psychologically. 

And, when re-wounded emotionally, say by losing a close Presidential election, criticized or rejected. can become enraged and obsessed with  unremitting fantasies of revenge and retaliation, and, in some cases, act out such fantasies. Their talionic narcissistic rage and petulance knows no bounds, is unrelenting, and irrational.  And, therefore, extremely dangerous. 

Due to the underlying feelings of inferiority and lack of some sense of self, their fragile ego and compensatory inflated or grandiose view of themselves must be protected and defended at any cost. In order to do this, they engage, like all human beings to some degree, in self-deception, denying consensual reality if required. (See my prior post.)  When such self-deception and distortion of reality becomes chronic and extreme, they can begin to believe their own distorted perceptions of the world. Whether Mr. Trump truly believes what he says regarding the election, or says it to manipulate his supporters to do his bidding remains to be seen. But his supporters certainly seem convinced based on what they've been repeatedly told by the President. This begs the question: Is he deliberately lying, or deluded?

There are those in the media, including mental health professionals, that are now more frequently and freely using the technical term delusional to describe the recently defeated President's claims. Could they be correct? And, if so, can someone be said to be lying when they make statements which they absolutely believe to be true? In some cases, under stress, psychotic symptoms such as paranoid delusions can develop or be exacerbated. Delusions are, by definition, fixed, irrational beliefs or convictions which are not amenable to rational disputation and at odds with consensual reality.  In some situations, others--those in the immediate orbit or staunch supporters of such a disturbed individual--can also become delusional temporarily, to some extent adopting and espousing the same patently irrational beliefs. This fascinating phenomenon, known as shared delusional disorder, often occurs in cults, with cult members sharing the delusional beliefs of deranged leaders like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and others.

Once a person, including a leader, has crossed over the line from neurosis to psychosis, for, by definition, a delusion is a psychotic rather than neurotic symptom, that person has now become debilitated or disabled by a severe mental disorder, and may no longer be able to continue to perform or discharge their job responsibilities safely, efficiently and effectively. Their reality testing--which is different than neurocognitive functioning per se--has been significantly impaired.

Clinically speaking, in the presence of such psychotic and other symptoms, that person may need to be voluntarily or involuntarily psychiatrically hospitalized, possibly started on psychotropic medication, and/or removed from the workplace to protect others and themselves from harm. But, in most cases, this typically requires the individual to be thoroughly evaluated face-to-face by a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist qualified to do so. (See my prior post.) When this sort of clinical intervention fails to occur, for whatever reason, including refusal by the afflicted person themselves, the psychotic symptoms and resulting erratic, impulsive, irrational or bizarre behaviors can escalate, with evil deeds and tragic consequences sometimes ensuing.