Apes, Us, and Trump
Managing the psychic collision between the cultured and the primal.
Posted Apr 16, 2018
Recently in the early evening of a rainy day, I went to the zoo here in Seattle with my two-year-old son. The place was dead quiet except for the exotic sounds coming through the trees along the forested pathways connecting the various animal enclosures. It felt like we were the only humans there.
My son loves the orangutans and we went to check them out. Only a sheet of plexiglass separates the human area from the apes, and when we got there one of the orangutans, a middle-aged female, had her forehead up against the plexiglass, looking out with her bright, wide eyes. Of course, we put our heads up against the glass as well and we stared into each other's eyes for a good couple of minutes, our faces an inch apart. She seemed as enthralled and delighted as we were. The hair on the back of my neck stands up even now as I recall it.
Of course, at the time I thought the obvious thing: Oh, how human she is! But even more affecting was the converse: Oh, what an ape I am! I’d completely forgotten. That morning I’d been working on my taxes.
We noticed than at the other end of the large enclosure another orangutan – a young adult male – going bananas. He seemed perhaps to be playing, but he was wildly mimicking something aggressive, throwing his arms up and down, stomping around, tossing huge piles of hay into the air and all over his own head. I was struck by the power and ease of his movements. They seemed random, but they were not a mess. In that sense they reminded me of the grain in wood or the pattern of clouds; the ancient Chinese called it li, the deep order of things found in the essence of the natural world.
As I delighted in the ape’s ape-ness, I noticed then that I actually started to salivate. I could feel within my body a certain craving: a craving to go precisely apeshit. It was an energy bubbling in my core and in my arms and legs. I wanted to stomp around and flail about wildly, an expression of aggression perhaps, but a playful one, ultimately at that moment a harmless one; an expression most of all of my aliveness, of my power. And as soon as I noticed that drive I noticed a perfectly countervailing overlay that said: “Stop!” It was the voice of my superego, my psychic overlord, the voice of Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not that commanded me to stay in my lane, to be a civilized person, and to keep my body composed and still.
At the point of contact—the point of collision - of these two forces I could feel a great tension, a somatic frustration, a particular form of anxiety; and in that moment I could feel how hard it was to be a modern person, how much unconscious effort it took to stay so civilized, to hew so constantly to this rather modern invention of composure at all times.
Evidence of this frustration abounds. We see what happens when we become more anonymous and feel less tethered to a constructed sense of accountability and fear of social repercussion. Look at the road rage apparent on our highways, or the degree of nastiness that so often emerges on internet forums like Reddit. These are places where quite commonly folks throw off the bridle of civilization and become rather primal.
Or consider the millions of people who consider Donald Trump to be a heroic figure. There have been many different lenses used to understand this phenomenon, and standing there outside the orangutan enclosure, I felt that I had stumbled upon another one. Here was a man who possessed the gold-leafed signifiers of civilized ascension, and yet had figured out a way to act like an animal and get away with it. He could grab whatever or whomever he wanted; he could express his rage without the need for rationality or fear of social repercussion. He had somehow found a way to slough off the yoke of civilization, while somehow still winning the game of it.
Support for Trump commonly and persuasively has been understood in part as arising from the clash of cultures, middle America’s backlash against a shaming coastal elite. And yet there at the zoo, I saw Trump support as arising not just from a clash of cultures, but the clash of culture and our primal drives themselves.
In that sense, the politics of our day is an expression of the intra-personal dilemma I see playing out every day in my consulting room: what do I do with my primal impulses? What do I do with the parts of myself that are aggressive, destructive, lustful, selfish, pleasure-seeking? How do these parts fit into the demands placed on me by my civilized relationships? My role in the world? My sense of myself as a decent person?
I find that many people are plagued with - and tortured by - a quite distorted notion of what being a decent person entails. How far upstream must our goodness reach? That is, is it enough merely to behave decently? Or must we be decent in our thoughts and impulses as well?
I would assert that as primates, our decency can only go so far upstream. That is, by definition of what it is to be a homo sapien, we contain within ourselves natural and healthy impulses that have nothing to do with being loving sponsors of perpetual harmony. Just as we have evolved to affiliate closely, to protect and love and cooperate, we also have drives that have been naturally selected over the eons for their powers to promote aggressively the interest and need of the self. In a healthy person, these drives may be felt quite powerfully.
If we are to be effective participants in this social experience, we would do well to make space for the primal impulses that are part and parcel of the human organism. How else can our conscious, mature self-be fully empowered to choose how we will behave in the face of all our drives? I am hardly the first therapist to notice the clear correlation between the repression of impulses and the tendency to destructively act them out. And yet the implied or explicit admonition to eradicate our primal impulses comes from so many corners of our present self-help culture. Anyone who has been to an American yoga class or American Buddhist dharma talk is likely to hear the injunction to “move towards the light,” not merely in our treatment of each other, but within the depths of our hearts. And while I agree that we might cultivate the internal experience of love through such practices, that love will always and forever sit alongside another aspect of what it is to be a person, an animal aspect inextricably woven into what it is that we are.