America’s political psyche has regressed from a mature state of cooperation between the Republican and Democratic Parties during President Clinton’s administration, to the hateful uncompromising gridlock of today’s congressional stalemate on the major issues facing the country, what Senator John McCain recently denigrated as “tribal politics.” The egocentric interests of each tribe take precedence over America’s greater good. Psychologically, this reflects the primitive defense of splitting, in which each Party perceives the other in terms of black and white, good and evil, “My way or the highway.” Other symptoms include the degradation of reason, ethics and morality, especially by President Trump and his administration.
What has caused this regression in America’s politics?
The reasons are probably multifold, such as frustration with the slow growth of our economy, the fear of terrorist attacks after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but I believe the main determinant has been an insidious xenophobic reaction to the expanding multicultural complexion of American society. So long as white, Christian, heterosexual male culture was the American majority, the “otherness” of minorities could be varyingly tolerated. But when Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, Muslims, etc., began living in more and more previously all-white hamlets in American society, combined with the traumatic effects of the 9/11 Arab terrorist attacks against our country, a self-protective “white-lash” festered and surged. Barack Hussein Obama, the first black president, was arguably the last straw, auguring the death knell for white male hegemony.
In my opinion, this existential threat to white America precipitated a regression from mature political intercourse to hateful tribal grid-lock. President Trump vicariously expressed the seething nativist longing to make America “white” again. When your tribe is endangered, emotional loyalty triumphs over reason and morality. It’s “My family, right or wrong!” not “Let’s understand each other and work out our differences.” Identity politics reigns, and the “Other” becomes the enemy.
The fear of “Others” is endemic to the human psyche from birth. According to Sigmund Freud, the baby begins life in a state of primary narcissism, in which it experiences everything as part of its self. The first experience of “otherness” is aversive and threatens the baby’s psychic survival. This happens when the baby is thrust from the womb’s protective refuge and is bombarded by external stimuli. Gradually, the baby senses its vital dependency on mother, its first human “Other,” and through its experience of her protective caretaking, identifies with her and other family members. But strangers then become the threatening “Other” until the child comes to know and empathize with them. And this fear and defensive hatred of “Others” has a ripple effect, extending to people of other neighborhoods, religions, races, nations, and political persuasions.
When one’s survival feels threatened by strangers with different appearances, languages and mores, one can unconsciously regress to the primordial fear of the “Other” and self-protective rage. President Trump expresses this rage at his rallies, especially with his demand to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, his Muslim travel ban and his new proposal to cut legal immigration by 50% through giving English speaking, job-ready applicants preferred entry. Although his nationwide approval ratings have dipped to 33%, according to recent polls, each of his white male tribes would vote for him today, not just his 35% working class base. Certainly, white male blue collar rust belt workers will vote for him to bring their jobs back and for his stance against outsourcing, his anti-immigration policies and his outsider rage against the political establishment that has forsaken them. But his tribal support also includes, albeit ambivalently, Republican moderate and libertarian conservatives, Christian evangelicals and Catholics. Many conservatives, for example, can’t stand his egocentric, reprehensible character and his “bromance” with Putin, but believe that he will fight for lower taxes, deregulation, anti-climate change, smaller government, anti-immigration legislation, as well as appoint socially conservative federal judges and justices like Neal Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court. Christian Evangelicals and Catholics find Trump morally repugnant. Yet they will vote against their religious values in order to advance their Christian conservative agendas.
The late Dr. Leo Rangell, President Emeritus of the International Psychoanalytical Association, in his book, “The Mind of Watergate” about the Nixon impeachment scandal, called this refusal by a president and his supporters to tell right from wrong, a “compromise of integrity,” an unscrupulous political strategy in which the end justifies the means.
After Obama’s presidency and with the hated specter of President Hillary Clinton on the immediate horizon, these white male tribes voted for a lying, misogynistic, racist, egocentric businessman/salesman who exploitatively molded his political agenda to please them. This reminds me of Chance, the simple gardener in the movie, “Being There,” who so impressed important people, including the President of the United States, as they projected their deepest wishes onto his blank, unresponsive face, that they called him Chauncey, a more distinguished name. At the movie’s end, we see Chance walking on water. Trump’s tribal supporters projected their dreams onto him. But unlike Chance, a simple, innocent person, Trump transmogrified himself into an authoritarian savior who promised to give them everything they desired.
In this regressed political climate, will Trump ultimately walk on water, like Chance, or will he sink and drown the hopes of his tribal followers? Surprisingly, Trump’s outlandish favoritism toward Russia is beginning to unite the Democrats and Republicans against him, as reflected in their passage of veto-proof sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. But regardless of whether Trump succeeds or fails, it is important to realize that his administration is merely a regressive glitch in the long arc of American history. Multiculturalism is destined to represent the majority of Americans in the future. And as diverse Americans increasingly empathize and identify with the “Other” and xenophobia fades into obscurity, America’s political psyche will regain its capacities for reason, ethics and compromise. The question is, when?