THE BLOG
05/24/2016 04:02 pm ET Updated May 24, 2017

American Id: Freud on Trump

Mike Segar / Reuters

The spectacular eruption of Donald Trump into America's labile political landscape has not been matched by the ability of political commentators to clarify it. One reason is that we lack a broad understanding of what in the twentieth century was called "mass psychology," meaning the role that unconscious irrational emotion and fantasy plays in politics. Another is that we lack a way of thinking about American society and politics that can encompass mass psychology. Is it possible to read Freud historically in a way that can illuminate the Trump phenomenon?

A first step is to recall the history and evolution of mass psychology. The first important work of mass psychology, Gustave Le Bon's 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, sought to show how credulous the masses were, how easily rumors, false prophets, and irrational fears or passions misled the multitude. This work created the template for mass psychology: a conservative putdown of the supposedly mindless masses. In the same era that The Crowd appeared, American Progressives created the ideal of the independent, non-partisan, well-informed voter, an ideal that helped middle-class women win the vote in 1920, and that still inspires such figures as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton today. The two have gone together ever since. Whether acknowledged or not, much "progressive" commentary draws on the language Le Bon created to dismiss Trump's supporters as credulous and irrational.

By contrast, political Freudianism, exemplified in America by the early Walter Lippmann, rejected both conservatism and progressivism, asking instead what psychological forces propelled the masses into populist and xenophobic directions. This approach gives us our opening for understanding Trump analytically: what desires, impulses and fantasies excluded from mainstream politics find a home among his followers? How, in other words, have we, the rational mainstream, given rise to Trump?

The next step is to find a way to talk about the role of the unconscious in society. Here, let us start with the individual mind. According to the Freudian theory of id, ego and superego, the mind is not a unity, but has parts that speak in different voices, pursue different agendas, and clash amongst themselves, even as they also work together. Suppose, by analogy, we think of the American people as having a collective psyche of sorts. In that case, we could see Trump as having emerged from our collective id, the part of the unconscious that is the fount of the instincts, and that expresses itself impulsively and without the mediation of reason.

Their origin in unconscious id processes is what gives Trump's remarks their undeniable sense of authenticity-- their truth-effect. It also explains their unpredictability, their forcefulness, and the way they disrupt and outrage common sense and decency. Trump's critics argue that he seems thoughtless and unreflective but that is precisely the source of his power. The impression Trump conveys of being out of control-- but also uncontrollable-- is better seen as a force emanating from the collective American id than as the babblings of an individual.

This view gains further force when we consider it in relation to the official, progressive, anti-Trump narrative about American politics. According to that story, American government is all about fairness and rational control, enacted by careful, evidence-oriented professionals, epitomized by the Hamlet-like sitting President. Vast numbers of Americans now reject this narrative, at least in their unconscious, as suggested, among other things, by the popularity of the TV series, House of Cards (not coincidentally based on the Clintons)-- which portrays politicians, especially at the highest level, as ruthless nihilists who care only about power and only for themselves. Trump speaks to deep-rooted internal prejudices rooted in the id, when he boasts, "I know and work with all the toughest operators in the world of high-stakes global finance. These are hard-driving, vicious cutthroat financial killers, the kind of people who leave blood all over the boardroom table and fight to the bitter end to gain maximum advantage."

To say that Trump's appeal is at the level of the id is to say that it is infantile; it comes from a part of the mind supposedly left behind in the course of development. Its infantile character is also the key to Trump's off-noted narcissism, which paradoxically leads him to portray himself as the protector of the nation. Trump is in good part a child who continually murmurs to himself, "I can love myself; I am so like my father." In this regard, one may liken Trump to earlier dictators, such as Mussolini and Hitler, who inspired much of Freud's insight into popular longings for authority and protection.

Like those predecessors, Trump manipulates the mass media to project himself as a powerful father figure to an enthralled nation. Like them, he promises security by strengthening borders, drawing a clear line between inside and outside, verging on the racism that even in Freud's day was understood as the analogue to the fascist crowd. Like them, and like his father, he is unusually comfortable with aggression, as when he told a city official who denied him a tax abatement: "I want you to know that I am a very rich and powerful person in this town and there is a reason I got that way. I will never forget what you did." Like them, he projects absolute self-confidence, is totally vague as to future plans, and expresses contempt for the governing elites. But there is an important difference between Trump and these dictators. Trump is defiant, derisive and hostile but, in contrast to his predecessors, especially Hitler, there is very little hatred in him. Trump's narcissism is of the warm, embarrassingly infantile sort, as when he boasts of the size of his penis, and not of the cold, pathological sort, characterized by envy. An example of his ability to convey hostility in a disarmingly child-like manner is his remark on Hillary's bathroom break during a Democratic debate: "Where did she go? ...I know where she went; it's disgusting....Don't say it, it's disgusting, let's not talk." In regressing to a childish stance, Trump simultaneously awakens primitive fears of pollution and cross-border contamination.

Viewing Trump as an emanation from a collective unconscious also helps explain another intrinsic aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the extraordinary passion and even hysteria of his liberal and progressive critics. Whereas Trump gives voice to the repressed suspicions, sarcasms and resentments of the id, his critics speak for the country's superego. Like the id, the superego is itself an unconscious residue of infancy, but it differs in how it manifests itself. Whereas the id intrudes into consciousness in such forms as impulses, fantasies and neurotic symptoms, the superego intrudes in the form of commands, categorical imperatives, dos and don'ts, shame, fears of punishment and humiliating anxieties, all of which escape the constraints of logical thought. Since there is no repressed id without a repressing, criticizing, correcting agency, Trump's critics are also his enablers. It is telling, therefore that Hillary Clinton, Trump's almost-certain opponent in the general election, often gives the impression of being a schoolmistress.

In America, the collective superego is rooted in a deep sense of chosenness and inner perfection, which goes back to the Puritans but became intensely gendered in Jacksonian era. In that period the cult of true womanhood emerged as a counterweight to the supposedly "male" harshness of the market economy. Elite women allied with disestablished ministers created new codes of behavior and speech. Manners, so notably lacking in Trump, became linked to the stigmatization of the male brute. That figure, often figured in the collective well of American fantasy as a Black man or a foreigner, has now been reborn as Trump. The codes of speech and behavior that emanate from the American superego have also shaped our political traditions. After the Civil War, pragmatism- the only original American philosophy-- merged with the cult of women to promote moderation, avoidance of "ideology," bipartisanship, and the supposedly uniquely American gift for compromise. Not just Hillary Clinton but Barack Obama is an exemplary representative of this superego-based, Progressive-era formed, mode of social control. Trump is their clear antithesis.
Progressivism, despite its strong feminist component, represents an elite ideology, always subject to disruption from below. Its leading contemporary version, which gave Trump his first real opening, is political correctness. Progressives think of political correctness as an unpleasant but necessary effort to clean up racist, misogynist and otherwise invidious discourse. It is undeniably that but it is also more. As the outlook of the elites, who were the true victors of the upheavals of the sixties, political correctness is meritocratic but not egalitarian. Its sexual side insists not only that women be respected, but also that male sexuality is inherently predatory. Its cultural side insists not only on respect for the sciences of evolution and climate, but also that much of the country is composed of backward ignoramuses. Its political side not only idealizes cosmopolitan, international, trade-oriented values, but also scorns Americans who are local and provincial. The anti-egalitarian ethos of today's progressives, with its unconscious gendered legacy, is the perfect target for Trump's authoritarian-populist leveling.

Seeking to describe the exclusive-- male, bourgeois, white-- rationality that underpinned early attempts at self-government, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called attention to "the public sphere." Today's public sphere differs in several respects. On the one hand, it is genuinely a mass arena, in which the two sexes, all races, and all classes can participate. On the other hand, it is anything but rational. Its noisy clamor is but the roiled surface of a deep ocean, within which insistent drives clash, insistent needs demand and buried memories haunt.

If this is the case, if id and superego forces today drive today's political argumentation and even elections, where, we may ask, is the ego? Again, lets go back to Freud. For him, the ego was a still, small voice within the mind, hard to discern among the thundering claims of the unconscious, but characterized by persistence and, above all, reason. In Freud's view, the ego draws its energies from the id-- a form of autonomy that Freud likened to a rider on a horse-- and ideally turns the unthinking, automatic superego into self-reflective convictions. From that point of view, America has no ego today. But the closest approximation may be Bernie Sanders, since in his campaign the powerful id forces currently propelling Trump find a rational exponent, while the superego is turned from meritocratic superiority toward equality.

Eli Zaretsky is the author of Political Freud (Columbia University Press, 2016)