Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Seduced by Abandon

Do-or-die style in politics (updated)

Posted Aug 22, 2016

The airwaves are rife with explanations of Donald Trump’s unconventional rise to political prominence. Rather than debate whether the billionaire is a populist savior or a demagogue, let’s explore his remarkable use of a technique that resonates widely in America: berserk style and the psychology of abandon.

Trump isn’t just outspoken: he attacks conventions. The usual rules of political behavior, he implies, cover up dishonesty and incompetence. The idea is that like business regulations, conventional rules of civility strangle real life. Trump takes the role of gifted outsider who attacks phony rules to “make America great again.” 

To sweep away rules such as the Constitution would be treason, so Trump has to finesse his revolution at every step. He would replace “politically correct” rules with authentic “values.” When challenged, he “walks back” even outrageous claims. 

For voters “fed up” with the status quo, then, Trump has devised an edgy style that promises a do-or-die attack on decay without serious risk. What is this style?

Vikings were famous for headlong “berserk” rage. If you go berserk or run amok, you abandon the inhibitions of your conventional self (and your armor), and attack with do-or-die ferocity that can seem superhuman. In the berserk state a soldier or a rampage killer pumps up emergency physiology to cow opponents and overcome ordinary fears and sympathies, enabling them to kill blindly. 

A voter in Hazard, KY recognizes the aggression when he says: "“Trump’s going to get us killed, probably! But I’ll vote for him anyway" because economically depressed coal country needs a do-or-die leader presumably committed to kamikaze policy rather than to compromise or surrender. Several times Trump has teased that his opponent's bodyguards should give up their weapons, and that the insinuated result would be her assassination.  This is threat display: a signal that meant to intimidate "enemies" and make "undecideds" identify with him in order to avoid his aggression.

Abandon can be devastating, but it may also promise access to powerful resources just beyond everyday consciousness. In the berserk state that uncanny force comes openly into play. Rampage shooters usually kill in a state of desperate, trancelike abandon. Commanding the world’s attention, driven by cold rage, they feel superhuman. Athletes and musicians experience abandon constructively as being “in the zone.”

The experience is closer than you think. In everyday speech you can “go for broke,” "go rogue," or “go ballistic'” "freak” or “flip” out,  “lose it," go “haywire” or “fly off the handle” or off your predictable rocker. In love and war “anything goes,” with “no holds barred.”  Slang reveals the violent fantasies implied. In a “winner take all” competition the athlete with the “killer instinct” triumphs. You can be “wildly” successful or “shop till you drop,” and spend "like there's no tomorrow." An “explosive” new idea can "blow your mind.”

But abandon is not only an experience: it’s also an idea about experience. When ads (“Let yourself go”) or TV thrillers use the idea of abandon to arouse a response, abandon has become a style. This is berserk style. It pumps up headlong arousal while subtly maintaining control. This makes it a popular tool for manipulating others.

And Donald Trump? For better or worse, he’s a master of berserk style. He is famous for going “over the top” in his aggression and wealth. Because his insults sometimes backfire, critics may interpret his hostility as genuine abandon. In fact, for his followers, Trump “rage” functions like rant radio and TV thrillers to turn depressive flight into rousing fight—and a happy ending.  

He boasts about his use of violence. “There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.” He can manage a poisonous dictator such as Vladimir Putin. Nuclear weapons hold no terror for him. Before the cameras he makes a studied "tough" face with his jaw and mouth set, because he isn't merely competing: he combats enemies such as President Obama, secretly a Muslim and supporter of terrorism. 

“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves.” To such absolute berserk claims he then adds qualifying style. Why does he have such power? Because he has been an insider and operates on the edge: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

A do-or-die attitude can be a threat display. It may intimidate opponents and evade a fight. In The Art of the Deal, his many bankruptcies, and his lawsuits, Trump has used intimidation to “settle” disputes in his favor. The berserker's reckless daring signals no-compromise: I'd rather die than give in. Opponents may cave in rather risk that fury.

But remember: berserk style creates the impression of suicidal fury. Threat display gambles that the enemy will back down. Look closely and you find berserk style usually includes an escape for the berserker. Trump, for example, is already insinuating that he cannot lose: his opponents' have corrupted the ballot box.  He wants his personal "volunteers" to police the polls. This implies vigilante mentality and taking the law into your own hands and would undermine US law. Like many absolute dictators in history, he behaves as if he is so special that the prospect of his defeat—his end—would justify extreme measures.

The core idea, again, is that going all-out—abandon—liberates exceptional resources. That can make you feel untouchable: a feeling reinforced when unworthy people around you go down. For better or worse, the berserker is above law. This is why the mentality may lead to messianic fantasy. I am your voice, and I alone can save you. 

A berserk soldier risks everything hoping to survive. Ultimately abandon is a desperate appetite for more life.  For Trump, appetite means wealth and rich tastes. But nothing is more important than his rich potency: “it really doesn’t matter what the media write [i.e., criticism] as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.” Melania Trump’s 90s-era nude cheesecake photos are a conventional scandal, but berserk style turns them into a fearless ad for the billionaire husband’s fabulous sex life. He can imagine dating his attractive daughter Ivanka. Potentially he is the sultan, the stud, whose harem has captured all women. He is the emperor of all fertility.

The dream that everyone envies Trump fuels the messianic quality of his hyperbole. Rather than be the citizens’ representative, “I am your voice.” He has the berserkers’ superhuman determination, but also he has the magic of more life. He has dared death and survived. Follow him, obey him, and you too will enjoy more life.

The idea of abandon enables us to recognize themes that connect Trump to some basic features of American culture.  Since WWII, the nation has built up history’s most expensive military, using “shock and awe” threat display to give muscle to its globalized business. Trump’s boasts echo neocon puffery about “the American century” and the propaganda of greatness. Boom-bust financialization and the Ponzi recklessness of the Wall Street collapse of 2007-09 echo Trump-style bankruptcy deals in which banks forgave some of his debt because he was "too big to fail." The American mania for guns has a berserk quality, as does the militarization of policing.  For all our censorious prudery, Americans manipulate sexuality in advertising and porn as Trump does. Since appetites for survival and for more life go together, we shouldn’t be surprised to find guns and money at the center of Trump’s political persona. 

In the primary campaign, news media fawned over Trump’s use of defiant abandon. Now the news has turned critical, and sees the circus daredevil as a clown. But the circus isn’t just coming to town.

It’s already here and selling tickets.

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For a broader picture, see the Psychology of Abandon (Leveller's Press, 2015).

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