In September of 2015, Judd Legum, editor-in-chief of Thinkprogress.org, offered a unique perspective on Donald Trump’s unexpected success to that point in the Republican primaries. Borrowing from French theorist Roland Barthes’ classic essay on profession wrestling – which argues that wrestling is a form of theatre, a spectacle that illustrates the themes of suffering, morality and justice – Legum pointed out that Barthes was playing a different game than his opponents. Succinctly, he observed,
"In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trumps decks them over the head with a metal chair."
Legum has offered some astute observations made possible by a set of theoretical tools of which most thinkers do not avail themselves. Theory, in short, still has a lot to teach us about what unfolds incomprehensibly before our eyes.
In that spirit, I would like to offer an insight that originates in the most misread of the great twentieth century thinkers, Sigmund Freud. It is only in the past two decades or so that Freud has enjoyed a kind of revival. More and more thinkers have come forward to defend Freudian positions, use his (especially later) theory to account for political and cultural developments, and continue the evolution of Freudian thought in ways that would likely have fascinated and troubled Freud himself.
And there is no better moment for Freud that the American post-primary season. Pundits and commentators still struggle to explain the Trump phenomenon. How does he appeal to so many? How does he speak the unspeakable and avoid consequences? How does adolescent vindictiveness hit its target so often? How does a disdain for the details of governance, history and economics present itself as strength? And, perhaps, most desperately, what is to be done? Freud has already offered us an answer, and he offered it in 1913, in one of his most daring and innovative works, Totem and Taboo
The argument of Totem and Taboo
is compelling although it is factually bizarre. Freud speculates that, at one time, in our prehistory, humans lived in small hordes of perhaps thirty to fifty people. The leader of this horde, what Freud calls the “primal father,” (and Freud’s successor, Jacques Lacan, called “The Father-of-Enjoyment”) was a powerful male, so powerful that none of his sons could hope to defeat him in one-on-one combat. This primal father exercised sexual rights over all the women in the horde, regardless of their relationship to him. His mother, daughters, sisters, were all directly accessible to him sexually. He was not restrained by the incest taboo (which, in this story, has not yet been set into place). His enjoyment, in short, was unlimited. Of course, this endless right to all women meant that his sons were restricted (by force) from any sexual relationship with the women of the horde. His motto was, in effect, “Everything for me. Nothing for you.” Clearly, this state of things contains its own undoing because it becomes clear to the sons that, even though none of them alone can defeat this monstrous father, they are strong enough to unseat him if they attack together. So they do. In an act of historic violence (historic in the sense of “making history,” quite literally) the sons kill the father and, in a ritual meal, eat his flesh. But now the sons are faced with a problem: how do they prevent another one of them from establishing himself as the new primal father and restricting access to the women? The solution is to establish the one rule upon which all civilization rests: the incest taboo. The blood relations – mothers, daughters, sisters, sometimes cousins – are marked as off limits. The family unit, from that moment on, must open itself to the community, to alliances, family mergers, dynasties. The family, in short, becomes the outlet to politics. Laws and punishments are established to guarantee compliance, but even more powerfully, the mechanism of guilt is set into the psyches of the members of the horde. Guilt, of course, is a much more powerful mechanism that law because laws can be evaded, but you can’t escape guilt without escaping yourself. And what is the voice of this guilt, the hard and merciless voice that keeps you in line and torments you for even imagining
transgression? Freud argues that it is the voice of the dead father himself, who returns from the grave to become the guarantor of the law. The dead father, it turns out, is even more powerful than the living one because you can kill the living one, but you can only obey the dead one.
I want to argue that the story of the primal father is the story of Donald Trump. The most important dimension of Trump, the one for which the current commentariat has no language, is the obscene enjoyment he embodies. The first hint that Trump had crossed into the realm of the father-of-enjoyment came around six months ago on The Daily Show when new host Trevor Noah introduced a segment that would come to be called “Don’t Forget: Donald Trump Wants to Bang his Daughter,” a segment in which Noah showed clips from The Howard Stern Show, The View, The Wendy Williams Show, and Rolling Stone magazine, clips in which Trump expressed a level of sexual interest in his daughter that often left his hosts at a loss for words: “Yeah she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married and, you know, her father…”
The primal father is, of course, a mythological type, not to be found in the real world. We can, however, find those who embody a similar kind of obscene enjoyment as the primal father. Donald Trump incarnates, like no politician before him, this dark enjoyment, and it is this very enjoyment that explains his appeal. We have an unfortunate tendency to look for reasonable political explanations for human behaviors that seem to defy reason (why, for example, do people vote against their own interests?). Trump voters, we reassure ourselves, are disenfranchised workers, white voters who have been seeing their political power dwindle for decades, people with a sense of having been economically wronged and who are looking for a redress of that wrong. But this analysis fails to take into account the defining feature of the Trump experience: the giddy contempt, the direct living out of the drive towards violence and rage, the carnivalesque suspension of personal and social restrictions. There is a kind of Dionysian laughter in Trump, a nihilistic guffaw as one heads towards the abyss. The Trump voter, in other words, is not one who has done a political analysis of his situation and seen in Trump a solution to his problems. He is, rather, an enthusiast, moved into a state of heightened stimulation and doing what he must to remain there.
So how does one stop this force of nature? How does one bring critical thinking, political acumen, persuasive rhetoric to bear on the primal father? The answer, of course, is that one does not. The primal father is not to be defeated in single combat (and indeed, anyone capable to beating the primal father in single combat would pose an even greater risk to the social body than the primal father himself).
Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud; 6 May 1856 - 23 September 1939, was an Austrian neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis. |
Freud has already shown us the way out of this dilemma. We need to remember that the primal father’s absolute enjoyment is built on depriving others of any enjoyment at all. The sons rise against their father, not in the name of justice, fairness or equality, but in the name of their own enjoyment. And after they have defeated the primal father, their enjoyment can only be (to some extent) guaranteed if they are willing to accept some restrictions on it, if they are willing to accept a mere modicum of enjoyment (as opposed to the unlimited enjoyment claimed by the now-dead father) as the price for living with others. So there will be two characteristics to the resistance to Trump. It is now clear that this resistance will not come from the Republican party itself (and since Trump is acting out enjoyments to which the Republican party has been susceptible at least since the moment of the Southern Strategy, it seems unlikely that they will be able to muster an effective attack on Trump) but from the electorate as a whole.
The resistance will be a two-pronged attack. On the one hand, it will argue in the name of collective enjoyment, the pleasures of democracy, of freedom, of living together. What are these pleasures? They are the standard ones that we all recognize: the ability to love who we will love, the ability to pool our talents to create things, the giddy pleasure of being able to imagine an interesting and happy future, the ability to take a breath and know that your community – your city, your state, your country – has your back. The pleasures of democracy are both communal and personal, and Trump will likely come to be seen as an obstacle to communities working together and to individuals living their own lives in their own way.
The second prong of the attack is what has always been the darker side of this drama: guilt, shame, opprobrium. As Freud knew and argued (not only in Totem and Taboo
, but in the equally provocative Civilization and its Discontents
), the price of living among other people is that our impulses must be constrained. We must reach what Freud called the “great cultural achievement” of instinctual renunciation. The immediate acting out of our wishes must be constrained to dreams, fiction (note, for example, the unconstrained acting out of violent impulses in video games) and dark fantasies. It is not, mind you, that we must wait for Trump to feel shame or guilt (just as the sons in the primal horde do not wait for the father to lay down his power voluntarily). He will not. We must feel it for him. We must experience the moral humiliation that overtakes us when we consider Trump. In a sense, Trump has chosen the absolute worst time to present himself to the American public, a time when we have become highly attuned, even overly attuned, to offense. The bubble of the Republican party protected him in the primaries, but he is about to run into the buzz saw of a culture that has (or at least loves perform) zero tolerance for racism, sexism and homophobia. The media will not be able to give Trump a free ride because the furious resistance to Trump will become the kind of dramatic scenario that the media feeds on. The conflict-bias of the media will not be able to resist the ritualistic destruction that we are about to see unfold.
Trump rally violence
Protesters were removed as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke during a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 9, 2016 | Photo: Gerry Broome, AP | Donald Trump, Rally, Protest, Violence, Campaign, President, 2016,
And in a twist on Freud’s myth – a story in which only the sons rise up to resist the father – the new myth we can create in the twenty-first century will tell of how the women of the horde, themselves sick of being the target for the monstrous enjoyment of the father, sick of having their own enjoyment ignored and quashed, join the sons to overthrown the father, which will usher in a period in which we all need to negotiate the rules by which we live, rules that will balance spontaneity with the desire to minimize harm (and indeed, what else have we all been doing in recent years than figuring out how to live together). It will not be easy, but we will come out of these (loud, angry, dramatic, tearful) negotiations with a more workable community.
So this is how Donald Trump ends. We do not allow him to steal the materials of happiness from us. We accept the burden and the anxieties of adulthood and we turn in disdain from those ugly pleasures that come from our fear and our impotent rage. Freud knew that the primal father can only hold sway before history begins. Once we have accepted the work of history – the building of a world together, the compromise of our impulses, the slow progress of political evolution coupled with the courage to break suddenly with the past – the primal father has no more place among us.