Americans have lost their minds. No, this is not my professional opinion, but you may quote me, if you must.
We have been subjected daily for the past several months (with many more to go; assuming, fates willing, that Trump would lose in November — something nobody should take for granted) to temper tantrums and psychodramas of one man’s profoundly disordered mind. That would typically be just fodder for comedy, but this man happens to be a serious contender for American presidency. Rather than see his pronouncements for the idiot’s tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing besides his personal pathology, Americans are drawn to him like powerless objects to a black hole — with the consequences easy to predict.
My German friend asks, anxiously, on the phone:
“Soo… about that Trump dude… what’s up with that?” (paraphrased) “You guys are not serious, are you…?”
I don’t know what to say. We are not serious, I don’t suppose. But yes, we are frighteningly, madly, deadly serious.
She sees what’s going on in her own country, yet she is more concerned with what’s happening in ours. She is not unusual in that. People all over the world watch the mass insanity enveloping our nation with astonishment and horror.
Nick Turse, writing about his recent trip to South Sudan, had to focus his article on the preoccupations of the locals with the craziness of the American election, demonstrated in the choice of someone so fundamentally ill-suited for presidential office as Trump. He wanted to write about the bloody hell they live in, but the Sudanese he met were more concerned with the rise of Trump in America.
It is easy to be incredulous: why would faraway people whose daily existence is marred by unspeakable violence, terror, and harrowing deprivations be preoccupied with Trump’s rise to power in America? My guess is because they know what it means all too well, better than many Americans. Their current suffering and the hell in which they live now is the direct result of leaders with Trump’s character defect coming to power in their countries, now and in the past. They also understand America’s influence on the world’s affairs and are able to see that someone like Trump is a danger to the world, and that includes them too.
A former neo-Nazi skinhead leader Christian Picciolini talked in this interview last week on Chicago Tonight about his recent trip to Europe, where he was repeatedly asked, Why Trump? I encourage you to watch that interview, it’s about 7 minutes long; this good man knows what he is talking about.
Sadly, far from being improbable, Trump’s candidacy has not only been entirely predictable but inevitable — and not just from the satellite point of view of political and economic development, but also from that of human psychological growth. The framework I have in mind in this instance is that of Jungian depth psychology, although other theories of human development apply as well.
Viewed through the lens of Jung’s ideas about human psyche, the boastful thug’s emergence on the American political stage can be considered a manifestation of the America’s shadow.
The shadow, in Jungian psychology, is the mostly unconscious part of our human psyche containing all of our repressed, and usually — though not exclusively — negative qualities. An extrovert’s personal shadow, for instance, will contain his or her repressed introvert, and vice versa.
The size and strength of our shadow, and its pull on our conscious functioning, depends on the stubbornness of its repression. So, for example, we can assume that a holier-than-thou person who, in his or her mind and outward presentation, is a walking paragon of all virtues and no vice, will have the shadow a size of Texas and as dark as a tar pit. That shadow consists of all the shortcomings and sins s/he must repress in order to maintain the (illusion of) pious facade. It will let itself be known, as shadow always does, in our virtuous paragon’s eager condemnations of the “imperfect” others or seemingly bizarre behaviors (e.g., committing little and incomprehensible transgressions — stealing small objects from friends, etc.). It will also come out, in creative and sometimes not so ways, in our dreams, fantasies, and projections. There are people whose nearly entire worldview is comprised of nothing but projections — they fall in the personality disordered category in the psychopathological and psychiatric literature and practice. Seeing and understanding their projections gives us a glimpse of their personal shadow.
Our shadow can also contain positive qualities, as in the case of a person whose outward persona is decidedly negative. The (positive) shadow of a cranky misanthrope, for example, can break through to the surface in a random act of kindness or an overwhelming — and uncharacteristic for him or her — feeling of compassion for another.
The shadow is thus the mostly unconscious container for the part of our psyche that has been repressed in order to cultivate, mostly consciously, our outward persona.
One of our developmental tasks as human beings, individually and collectively, is to integrate the contents of our shadow with our conscious life. This can be accomplished in various ways (through creativity or introspection, for example), and it must be done, in some measure at least, if we are to live a version of the self-aware, “examined” life.
America’s outward persona has been, since forever, that of a beacon of freedom and democracy, the force for good in the world, exceptional in its benevolence and other positive attributes (acceptance, tolerance, compassion, you name it). The obscenely — narcissistically even — grand size of that uber-positive, carefully cultivated image has been directly proportional to the depth and scope of destructive, evil machinations that America as the political power has exerted on the world, including its own people and starting with its own violent inception in the land of native Americans.
For every bombastic proclamation about America’s exceptional virtue, we can — and should, if we aspired to integrate our collective shadow through self-critical introspection — find examples of our equally exceptional vice, domestically and abroad. If we were to do this (as we should), soon enough our collective self-image would become more closely aligned with reality, and our opinion of ourselves more humble, enabling meaningful change and growth.
This particular task, however, has been actively avoided in and by America. Humility and self-reflection are distinctly un-American and contraindicated in a capitalist / consumerist society. So rather than promote critical introspection on the individual and collective scale, our powers-that-be — political and cultural — insist on cultivating America’s blameless and spectacular image, entrenching its one-sided narcissistic persona in ways that are both grotesque and devastating, given the painful reality this persona is meant to obscure.
The laws of psychological hydraulics (yes, it is a thing) demand that suppressed and repressed emotions and motivations contained in our shadow be expressed or otherwise dealt with (sublimated, for example); if not, the growing pressure that comes from keeping them completely under wraps may lead to dramatic, possibly catastrophic, events (e.g., eruptions of violence, mental breakdowns, etc.). That’s one way in which the raw, unharnessed power of the too-long-ignored shadow can manifest itself. When the distance between the overblown narcissistic persona and its unacknowledged shadow becomes too great, some sort of a break is but inevitable.
It is impossible to say whether we are, collectively, at such a breaking point, but if we elect Trump as our president we may get there sooner than later. That is because Trump embodies all the elements of the American shadow that have been forever repressed — in the minds of most Americans — yet in plain view of outside observers: greed; selfishness; intolerance; fear and hatred of “the other;” arrogance and the compulsive need to “win” and dominate; violence; emotional primitivism; contempt or utter disregard for values; immorality; and stark raving stupidity — and that’s when he is coherent — his occasional moments of lucid and correct observations notwithstanding.
Like a true messenger and catalyst of the shadowy forces, he does so unabashedly (of course) and without a smidgen of self-awareness, leading the growing flock of his followers — which may soon become, reluctantly, the entire nation — straight into an abyss where the unavoidable confrontation with our collective shadow awaits. Absurdly enough, but also entirely predictably for someone oblivious to the shadow and its influences, he does so while promising to Make America Great Again! As if we did not have enough of this fake narcissistic greatness he boastfully and outwardly offers, while unconsciously projecting a near guarantee of our annihilation.
To be entirely accurate, we could avoid such a dramatic and possibly devastating confrontation by electing a humble, self-aware, and thoughtful candidate who is willing to work at trying to stop our self-destructive gallop by introducing ideas and policies that promote peace, equality, and justice. But given that this won’t happen, as we have just officially dispensed with that candidate, we are doomed to reckon with our shadow in ways that are going to be painful and difficult, and maybe not very effective or safe, no matter who wins in November.
The shadow’s lessons, particularly if we persistently ignore and/or deny its existence, are always painful and difficult. But we must experience them in order to learn — just talking about them does not work.
And those experiences are by necessity dark — conflicts, crises, and disintegration of a varying depth and scope. They teach us invaluable lessons about ourselves and life in general: on the deadly toxicity of our primitive strivings (for power and self-aggrandizement, for example); on the destructive nature of our hubris and self love; on the futility of our frantic efforts to keep darkness and death at bay; and, overwhelmingly, on the tragedy inherent in our existence. These are the lessons that America has been avoiding with all its might, which is one reason why it has persisted in its destructive politics at home and abroad.
That difficult learning process is potentially positive, however, since it is one of purification and clarification. As we are forced to examine and dismantle (not necessarily in this order) the wrong ways in which we lived our lives, we learn to see more clearly what remains and what matters.
Time will tell whether America’s confrontation with its shadow, catalyzed by Mr. Shadow Extraordinaire himself, will be transformative in positive ways. There is no guarantee of growth. In individuals, the outcome of this process depends on the person’s overall character structure, their emotional, moral, and intellectual strengths, but also on the quality of their social support — the presence of other people willing to respond with patience, compassion, and care. It also depends on those mysterious factors we call fate.
As a country, we may or may not have much of that genuine external social support, having alienated a good portion of the world — although its transactional and pragmatic versions may still exist, should we need them. We do have plenty of inner strengths to draw upon, however, if we know where to look.