Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

The Curse of Power

Be careful what you wish for.

Posted Nov 11, 2016

This is a strange moment. With the election decided now, thousands of voters have been marching to protest the new president-elect. He has reacted by tweeting, “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” 

What’s wrong with this picture?

Psychologically, the nation is experiencing cognitive dissonance. In part the protesters are disturbed because their candidate, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral tally. In the campaign, each side attacked the other’s values with unprecedented vehemence. The losing side is bound to be disappointed, even discomfited.

But the tweet is symptomatic of what is distressing the protesters, especially the young. For one thing, the tweet accuses them of being “professional” agitators—hired guns. While the accusation is unrealistic, the deeper problem is that it indicates that the new president is not thinking psychologically. He is not curious about the opponents’ motives or his own. After all, until his unexpected victory Mr Trump was lambasting the election as “rigged” and threatening not to accept the results. Rather than “very open and successful,” he complained that the election was controlled by a conspiracy that was victimizing him.

The new tweet signals fear and anger that victory hasn’t brought the victor agreement let alone adulation. It’s “unfair.” The victor still hasn’t truly won. His tweet reveals that he's still in campaign mode, fighting as if for his life. If the opposition is merely “professional,” then presumably they have no personal feelings or convictions. The term harks back to segregationists’ complaints that civil rights demonstrators were “outside agitators.” That is, insiders have no option but to repel the aliens.

The note of grievance in the tweet resonates with the fear and anger Mr. Trump excited in his campaign themes. The nation is decaying, a dark conspiracy menaces, and he alone can save us. This rescue from death had a hysterical edge that showed not only in the candidate’s repeated claims of unusual power, but in the sense of victimization that surfaced when he was afraid of losing.

To understand the quality of his fear, compare it to the famous line of another president-elect, who said in the crisis of the Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” The words warn that anxiety is ”unreasoning” and paralyzing—and since the man was paralyzed by polio, he knew what he was talking about.

The man’s words are striking because they reveal his insight into the inner lives of frightened and angry Americans, and also into himself. And the words show empathy as well as curiosity. The leader identifies with his listeners, because he understands that “we” are under stress and need to reason together.

Contrast this compassionate psychology with the tweet.

The new president-elect is also under stress. His fear and anger are personal as a tweet is personal. His anxiety may come from having made unrealistic promises to get elected. Suddenly he is accountable. If he can't deliver, his followers may turn against him. The anxiety may also be stirred up by guilt. Having been so contemptuous toward women, minorities, and immigrants, accusing them of sensational crimes, the president-elect may fear they will retaliate rather than admire his success.

The unreasoning nature of fear is an issue when a leader has not presented and explained policies. Cameras recorded Mr. Trump’s rallies howling for red meat at the mention of “enemies.” But justifiable anger is harder to sort out.  Some of his followers have been badly served by the “elites” they rightly fear and detest. The Democratic National Committee and GOP leaders have long favored lobbyists and financiers over the working poor.

Yet it is unclear if a real estate tycoon with a string of business failures will be able to make good on the anger his campaign depended on. Even if he is wholly in sympathy with the plight of neglected poor whites, he must worry that his party, now in control of government, has been famous for distracting poor whites with hot-button social issues while relentlessly blocking organized labor, minimum wage, unemployment and medical insurance, and other initiatives.

Trump supporters have argued that he didn’t “really” mean the hostility he harped on in his campaign. But group psychology warns all of us not to ignore history. When leaders whipped up fury over Communism and terrorism, angry voters marched into the shameful slaughter and waste of the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq.

We’ll see if anger gets voters what they want this time.