The psychoanalysis of politicians like Donald Trump
by Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Peter Bruggen
Donald Trump’s extraordinary success represents a political paradox to many opponents who reject what they perceive as his extremist xenophobic, simplistic politics. Critics continue to be perplexed as to why the richest man to run for President, attracts such passionate support from the poorest white constituency.
Or are politicians like Donald Trump simply more astute psychologists than their rivals?
Jay Frankel, from the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, at New York University, and the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, has recently published a paper entitled ’The traumatic basis for the resurgence of right-wing politics among working Americans’.
He suggests that grasping the appeal of a candidate such as Donald Trump requires psychoanalysing the electorate’s relationship with him. What, internally, does he represent to them? Simple politics isn’t enough to account for all that Donald Trump symbolizes.
The more conventional interpretation for why an impoverished electorate poll for the super-rich is they also hope to ‘make it’. Politicians like Donald Trump represent an aspirational vote. Hence why a voter underclass, destined never to realise the ‘American Dream’, believes a billionaire, enjoying a lifestyle completely alien to their own, will indeed represent their interests when elected.
Jay Frankel points out, contrary to the national myth, intergenerational income mobility in the USA is worse than in most other developed countries. Maybe certain politicians, perhaps like Donald Trump, grasp that popular electoral appeal is often more about fantasy than reality.
It is notable, Jay Frankel writes, that the US is on track to become a “majority-minority” country, with non-Hispanic whites drifting into the minority in just 30 years. Perhaps this injects a sense of paranoia among swathes of the white population, a feeling rendered more acute by the election of a Black president.
This group may also feel abandoned by their own society because of the economic consequences of the recent recession. Both financial and cultural shifts lead this part of the electorate to have lost a sense of a secure place in their own nation. If you no longer feel you belong to your own country maybe this especially heightens paranoia and anxiety in a way that can be exploited by a canny candidate.
In particular, Jay Frankel believes that these various psychological forces combine to allow into the election the famous psychoanalytical concept of ‘Identification with the Aggressor’. It is this powerful unconscious force which may be driving underclass support for remote elites.
Fearful unease about survival and abandonment drive ‘Identification with the Aggressor’. Increased fears of a terrorist threat following the attacks of September 11th, 2001 have also been exploited by the political right, compounding a widespread sense of insecurity across the USA.
Jay Frankel contends that what happens in an abusive family may be analogous to what unfolds in an unjust harsh society.
‘Identification with the Aggressor’ might therefore resolve the paradox of why those who have been most economically dispossessed are often more likely to support political movements that appear to oppose their own economic interests.
The study, published in the academic journal ‘Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society’, was inspired by the recent sudden emergence of a new popular right-wing movement in US politics.
Jay Frankel examines news reports of a typical working class supporter of this kind of politics, and emphasises that often they had obtained financial support from federal funds, their children frequently benefitted from school meals paid for by the government, while close relatives would even have had major surgeries, courtesy of Medicare.
Yet such people would still be working for a ‘Tea Party’ candidate in their local congressional election, supporting politicians who promised to cut government spending.
Jay Frankel argues that in order to understand such self-defeating passion among working class Americans for right-wing politicians, psychology is required.
Psychoanalysts were surprised to discover, back in the 1930’s that victims of extreme familial child abuse would not react to their mistreatment with hatred or disgust, but instead would often willingly subordinate themselves to the will of the aggressor.
They would try to gratify the desires of the subjugator, and one theory to explain this paradox was that compliance to this extreme degree was necessary to survive an out-of-control adult who has power over them. This psychological mechanism allowed an abused child to cling to a sense of belonging to their family, even when the household has turned its back on them.
Left-wing journalists contend that supposedly narcissistic politicians like Donald Trump, apparently imbued with a sense of superiority, might even hate their impoverished supporters, and have nothing but disdain for them. This leaves the political left struggling to comprehend the passionate support these candidates attract.
Jay Frankel contends that it’s possible supporters of demagogues are even attracted to the hatred in their leaders because identifying with someone they perceive as commanding, gives them a feeling of power.
The rhetoric of some politicians, perhaps like Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, argues Jay Frankel, counters working people’s sense of dispossession and abandonment, by appealing to nationalist or ethnic-superiority fantasies. This white working-class group, feeling especially sore about their perception of being pushed out of their country, are now told they are the ‘Real Americans’, with exceptional entitlements, that they are specially deserving, and better, than some scapegoated group.
This message may be particularly psychologically seductive, providing a sensation of power that paradoxically renders it easier to submit to someone who will hurt you.
This process is referred to by Jay Frankel as ‘narcissistic compensation’, in his paper. The demagogue offers narcissistic fantasies, focused on belonging and specialness, compensating for the feelings of abandonment and self-doubt. This explains why underprivileged voters rush to sacrifice their actual economic interests, even as the demagogue pushes policies that only represent an elite.
The political left are missing the key emotional point if they are perplexed by how a billionaire they accuse of suffering from an overweening sense of superiority, can appeal to the poor who need to compensate for feelings of inferiority.
Jay Frankel contends that the psychological forces he is illuminating can be observed in people who have not been grossly abused because we all need to belong. Our group survival strategy makes us especially anxious about social exclusion. This means controlling psychological forces are unleashed when we feel threatened with dispossession, just like an abused child whose greatest fear becomes exclusion from the family.
Jay Frankel argues that ‘Identification with the Aggressor’ therefore appears a ubiquitous human response.
For example, Stanley Milgram’s notorious “electric shock” studies of obedience, where ordinary members of the public could be induced to administer life-threatening doses of electricity to an innocent subject under orders from a white-coated authority figure, could be accounted for by this mental mechanism.
Perhaps representatives like Donald Trump become popular because they make direct simple appeals to emotion, grasping that beneath the surface of many lives simmer fear and paranoia. Jay Frankel points out that the eminent US historian Richard Hofstadter, during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 conservative candidacy for President, first drew attention to a recurring paranoid element in right-wing North American politics.
This strand of paranoia, mistrust and suspicion seems to run from the 17th Century Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts, where many innocent people were executed, to the McCarthyism witch-hunts of the 1950’s, where thousands of Americans were aggressively pursued for being communist sympathizers, without respect for due process.
Paranoia represents powerful needs to find someone else to blame for our problems, and instead of addressing more complex causes, it’s easier and more satisfying emotionally to target groups who we can be induced to hate. At a deep mental level we almost seem to need enemies, and a certain kind of astute politician can exploit this.
The grave danger is this successful electoral strategy always ends in war and genocide – the inevitable need to eradicate the ‘out group’ completely, in order to rid the world of pure evil.
Jay Frankel quotes Hannah Arendt, an eminent Jewish historian and philosopher, who fled fascist Germany to settle in the USA, and who coined the famous phrase ‘banality of evil’, to account for the Holocaust and criminal actions of Nazis like Adolf Eichmann, whose trial she covered as a journalist in the early 1960’s.
Her investigations of leading fascist figures led her to conclude that malicious immoral acts in modern times are in fact performed neither by monsters nor by bureaucrats, but by ‘joiners’.
These ‘joiners’ are surprisingly ordinary folk who are lonely and alienated, so therefore needy of meaning in their lives.
This is why they give themselves so fully and unquestioningly to extremist movements.
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Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
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Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, is based on a unique UK police unit that really does protect Buckingham Palace from fixated obsessives. The psychological thriller poses the question: Is love the most dangerous emotion?