The Mass Psychology of Trumpism
Old and New Myths
Associate Professor of Philosophy, The New School for Social Research
First published on Public Seminar.
Having spent quite some time studying the philosophy of political myth and, in particular, of fascist narratives, I could not but perceive something troubling in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again!”
Every word is important. Let us explore each one by one.
“America”: The term clearly points to the idea of a nation, of a spiritual entity that is different from the state apparatus and from the immanent series of bodies composing the citizenry of the United States. A lot of Trump’s rhetoric points precisely to this separation: “Making The United States Great Again!” would have included all those people who currently reside within it, acknowledging the diversity of its racial and ethnic composition. Yet, by speaking of “America,” the slogan clearly refers to a further entity, a mythical nation, that is at the same time linked but also distinct from the state, its territory, and the sum of bodies currently inhabiting it.
If we listen to Trump’s speech and propaganda, it is not difficult to detect a few features of this supposed nation. For instance, Trump consistently speaks of the United States as if all the people within it belonged to the middle class. This effect is accomplished by presenting specifically middle-class problems as if they were universal: how to make US airports look as nice as those in Singapore and Abu-Dhabi is a good example. Needless to say, one has to be fairly well-off even to perceive the aesthetics of airports as a problem. Yet, by speaking as if, he manages feed into the desire for social mobility, so that the middle class become this mythical space where everybody is invited to be. At the same time, by targeting immigrants, Trump implicitly suggests they do not belong here, that they are different. As such, a divide is created between the individuals who currently reside within the United States and those who belong to a mythical and far more ancestral “America” (although that myth conveniently stops short of recognizing the indigenous ancestors of this land).
“Again”: this is the most important word in the entire slogan. Had it been “Make America Great!” the sentence would have amounted to the usual invitation to greatness, which is not fascist per se. On the contrary, what is typical of fascism is the precise combination of nationalism with the mythologem of “greatness-decline-rebirth”: this narrative plot enables to single out those who are the perceived cause of the decline, target them as guilty and thus channel and fuel hostility toward them. Fascism adds to this plot the systematic use of violence through its state apparatus. As such, fascism fundamentally relies on xenophobia and racism precisely because its founding narrative of “greatness and decline” is predicated upon a scapegoat mechanism: it incites degrees of explicit hostility and violence toward the Others — the establishment politicians who corrupt the system, to begin with the Democratic party, the Mexican immigrants who steal our jobs, the Chinese who win the global competition, the Muslim immigrants, in sum, all those Others who are responsible for the decline.
“Make”: this imperative verb is the pivot in the call for identification. Trump repeatedly suggested that he is the only one who can fix the situation. His success as a businessman and the incendiary and exaggerated tone of his rhetoric are all meant to instill a sense of exceptionality. Here lies the appeal of identifying with the charismatic leader: “only you can vote for me” is the other side of “only I can fix this”. The invitation to “make” is thus an invitation to be part of this exceptional movement, of this unique effort to fix things, to restore what has been lost, what the devil people took away from us.
In this sense, there is not much difference between Trump’s political myth and the myth of the decline and rebirth that sustains ISIS propaganda: the latter also relies on the idea of the infidel, the kafir evil people who have initiated the decline and should thus be eliminated in the name of a re-birth of the nation. Notice, however, how this identification with the image of the leader is not the general populist identification: precisely owing to its insistence on “again,” its emphasis on those responsible for the decline, it is a populist form of identification that opens the door to fascism, with its call to both symbolic and actual violence.
“Great”: it is noteworthy that, in the original slogan, this modifier is followed by an exclamation mark. The latter reinforces the sense of vertical identification, of a greatness going upward. Throughout the campaign, a lot of emphasis was given to this language of greatness and its corresponding language of size. The apparent frivolity of the ongoing discussion regarding the size of Trump’s hands served precisely to underlie the notion that everything else could be great, as great as the size of Trump’s tower, which is both the epitome of his phallic rhetoric and of his corporate power. It is around it that both supporters and protesters gather.
The myth of the nation, the “greatness-decline-rebirth” narrative, the call for identification with the leader, and the rhetoric of greatness, all show significant continuity with the mass psychology of the past: such is a very traditional form of identification with a leader who exhibits exceptionality, phallic grandeur, and great power. It suggests a form of incorporation within a mythical political body, where the face of its leader is the head of the body, and where the individual bodies are subsumed in a vertical movement upward. In that sense, Trump’s rhetoric can also rely on a much longer history of a vertical cephalic form of identification — a story that goes at least as far back as the appearance of the sovereign state. It displays the power of what I have elsewhere called the imaginal appeal of the modern state.
When viewed side by side, the similarity between the head of Hobbes’s Leviathan and Trump’s various headshots is striking. Not by chance did the image of the Leviathan depicted on the frontispiece of the 1651 edition prove to be the most successful and famous book cover of Western political philosophy. That image does not simply reflect the circulation of affects within a sovereign state, as culminating into the upward movement of its composing bodies — the people literally walking into the head of the state, as if the latter were a vacuum-cleaner of political affects. It is also an invitation to make the movement happen, to join it.
The persistence of a vertical political identification with the leader (whether the president, the head of the state, or the prime minister) shows how pervasive the imaginal appeal of a sovereign state remains. Here, it is worth remembering that “sovereign” literally meanssuperiorem non recognoscens, that is, a power that does not recognize any other power on earth as superior to itself. Hobbes tried to suggest this understanding by putting on the head of the Leviathan the following quotation from the book of Job: “Non est potestas super terram quae comparetur ei” [there is no power on earth that is comparable to him]. We are now so used to this rhetoric that we can no longer perceive what a great novelty in the history of political forms it represented. Before that time, only God could have been said to be sovereign.
The attachment to this vertical form of identification with the head of the state, which came well before Trumpism was invented, also explains the feeling of mourning that many people who did not vote for Trump felt after the election. If you lose a political battle, you may experience a sense of defeat, anger, or a complex combination of the two. But the language of mourning on the side of those who lost as well as the candle burning and walking (enacted in the public marches and protests) are typical mourning rituals, which point to the loss of a love object. Mourning needs rituals because it needs to repeat the celebration of the loss of an object one has identified with — and in the case of those who voted for Hillary Clinton, the loss of the possibility of continuing to identify with her as the head of the political body. But when it comes to the reduction of politics to identificatory mechanisms, Trump is such a better candidate. In comparison to the mythical significance of “Make America Great Again!”, Clinton’s slogans “I am With Her” or “Stronger together” cannot but appear as very ineffective.
In that respect, it is not an exaggeration to state that Trump had won well before the election, precisely because, with his campaign, he had managed to fuel this feeling of identification with the figure of the leader, in general, and with himself as the only viable candidate, in particular. Hence, the fact that the whole campaign was so focused on the two personalities (their past histories, their present emails, or their sexual habits), as opposed to decisively political issues of everyday concerns (child care, health care, and redistribution of wealth, to name only a few).
This also explains, in my view, the eruption of the language of love that we have witnessed in a lot of the anti-Trump protests that began immediately after November 8, 2016, as well as the pervasive feeling of melancholia. The very fact that people feel the need to tell each other they love them, and that they do so by declaring a process of mourning, clearly shows that the political battle has been transposed into identificatory terms. And, symptomatically, among the slogans that circulated most in the protests were slogans such as “Not my president” and “Love trumps hate.” For instance, “Not my president” was the motto that accompanied the Facebook call for the very successful protest that began in Union Square on November 12th. But one does not have to be a psychoanalyst to see that by negating “Not my president” one is at the same time affirming the love for an imaginal president.
Even more symptomatic is the slogan “Love trumps hate.” For starters, why use this language of love? I have been to many political demonstrations in my life, but I have rarely encountered such an explicit and recurrent insistence on the language of love. Besides the presence of such a language, which is not a universal of political campaigns, what is most troubling is the ambivalence of the slogan: “love” can be read as the subject, “trumps” as the verb, and “hate” as the object. But when walking the streets, the way I did on the morning of November 12, and hearing “love trumps hate” repeated over and over again, one can also hear “love” as a verb, and “Trump’s hate” as an object. As soon as I entered Union Square, and walked through the groups that were gathering in preparation, and saw the slogan written “Love Trumps Hate,” with an emphasis on love, I remember asking myself in confusion whether it was an anti-Trump or a pro-Trump demonstration.
Equally ambivalent was the slogan “Fuck Trump,” which circulated in the same demonstration. When I heard it on the street, my first reaction was to tell myself: “Uhm…maybe not.” Another example of a self-defeating slogan was the: “When they go low, we go high.” The latter seems to express the desire for and thus reinforcement of the feeling of a vertical identification with power and the head. Far from being a weapon to combat Trump’s power, this slogan is yet another means to reinforce the very psychology of cephalic identification with the leader upon which its power rests.
In sum, behind all the talk about the necessary mourning process, as well as behind the fear for what Trump may do in the future, one cannot but detect the persistent desire for what he has already done: push the terms of the political battle toward an identificatory dynamic with the leader.
Yet, this is not just a repetition of the old. Trump’s political myth does not simply reproduce the old; it also adds new elements. To begin, the motto “Make America Great Again!” is emblazoned on red baseball caps. Not only that: Trump has often been shown wearing one of those caps when dressed more casually.
It is typical of fascism to rely on little men, who can also appear as one of us, and thus facilitate the identification process. But why baseball caps and this register of sport, game, and competition? For those who are resident aliens like myself, sport is often told to be the “big” American thing, something that distinguishes this nation from others. When I found myself walking in an empty New York a couple of months ago, wondering whether something bad had happened, I had to learn it was Super Bowl night. And when I asked in astonishment why even our neighbors who are not into sports would be glued to the television that night, I remember distinctively being told: “Welcome to America.”
So the reference to sports and baseball caps clearly points to this “America,” this mythical entity that is different from the state apparatus itself, but it also points to a marriage between nationalism and the language of competition that is typical of neoliberalism. This brings us back to the specifically neoliberal mythical narrative that Trump, as well as Trump’s corporate power, embodies. His motivational speeches, his sport metaphors, the “us” versus “them” in the global economic competition all point to the need to reinforce the team spirit.
A good example of how neoliberalism and fascism can merge is given by the advertisement for a new TV series called “Incorporated,” which, in some sort of irony of life, is announced as coming this November. For a few weeks now, we have been able to contemplate its advertisement on the New York subway.
If the image of the advertisement, with its hand and body language, does not speak enough, I strongly suggest watching the trailer . The latter tells the story of the corporation, defined as this mother that will feed you, dress you, give value to your human capital, asking only for your “loyalty” in exchange. How far this request for loyalty will go is left to the future to find out, but the very idea of being “in-corporated” by the “corporation” shows, in the exaggerated form of a fiction, the truth of an unprecedented marriage. Interesting enough, the first episode of the series, which is now available online, is titled “Vertical mobility.”
More that the Big Daddy figure of past fascism, feeding on archaic fantasies of fear and protection, Trump presents himself as the ideal team coach, a bit daddy, but also a bit mommy, the parental figure who has been going through the very same game you are now facing and knows therefore how best to navigate you through it. There is a lot of old in this new form of populism, but there is also a lot of new: the identification with the protective paternal figure, who will keep the evil people out of the motherland, but also the maternal figure who will feed you and train you to be a good team player.
In synthesis, the identificatory process on which Trump’s success rests does not simply replicate the same type of political incorporation that we see exemplified by the cover of Hobbes’s Leviathan. In the case of Trump, we witness a form of in-corporation that is imbued with the neoliberal ethos of the corporation, and which is symbolized by his corporate power and tower. As such, he perfectly fits the spirit of neoliberal capitalism with its combination and paternal and maternal elements: I will feed you, make you grow, and train you to be a good player in life, precisely like any good team coach. This is the fundamental message and secret of the psychological appeal of Trump’s political myth. Trump managed to present himself as the perfect neoliberal team coach, the leader who is also one of us and who can value and enhance your human capital.
Hence also the consequent capacity to put together two impossible promises in his political campaign. Many noticed that the promise to cut taxes could not go together with that of big investment in infrastructure and the creation of new jobs. Nobody knows better than Trump that you need a lot of money to build bridges, and that by investing in financial markets, it is not so much new jobs that are created, but rather more financial wealth for the rich. Yet, as we have seen over and over again in the past, the mythical appeal can all too easily trumpany logical coherence.
How far this combination of neoliberal corporative ethos coupled with a fascist politics of incorporation can go is too early to say. Reliance on the typically fascist myth of the “greatness-decline-rebirth” seems to have unleashed a worrying degree of violence, both symbolic and physical, directed toward the others. For the time being, this aggression seems to be taking the form of a neoliberalized do-it-yourself violence, where small groups, or even individuals, target their enemies. Whether this violence will become fully integrated into the state system, in the way it was with Mussolini-type fascism, or whether it will follow the more neoliberal version of a Silvio Berlusconi, is difficult to ascertain.
At the moment of writing, numerous episodes of racist violence are erupting on the streets. On November 12, while anti-Trump protesters flocked Union Square, the doors of some New School undergraduate dorms just blocks away were vandalized with swastika signs. The very fact that a university known for its diverse community — and which began as the “university in exile” where many Jewish intellectuals found their homes during a time of Nazi persecution — has been the site of such symbolic violence is a very worrying sign.
More than the policies Trump may or may not put forth, the electoral promises he may or may not fulfill, what I find most troubling is the legitimation provided to this unleashed racist violence that seems to be under way. I am not sure where the mass psychology of Trumpism will lead this country, with its marriage of fascism and neoliberalism. But what is pretty clear to me is that this is going to be an ugly place.