Trump’s election & what it reveals about our collective Shadow
I am a French therapist & writer living in Berkeley, California. In the days following Donald Trump’s election, I was part of countless conversations about his startling victory. As you can imagine from my geographical location, they were a combination of shock, disbelief, sadness, pain, anger and anguish, along with countless question marks. I often found myself bringing a different perspective, rooted in my Jungian therapy background, my European upbringing (with both parents having fled totalitarian regimes), and my passion for ancient schools of wisdom such as Alchemy. Let me share some of those thoughts.
All along the campaign, as I was watching and hearing candidate Trump, I kept thinking of a simple law of the human psyche: whatever gets suppressed and repressed by our conscious, rational self, does not disappear. It simply gets stored in our unconscious, in the dark corners of our personality called “the Shadow”. It piles up, gathers steam and one day, with the right trigger, it can surface in often destructive ways. During the campaign, I kept seeing in Trump the embodiment of the collective shadow — meaning, he was channeling, amplifying, leveraging very powerful feelings and forces accumulated over many years, in large chunks of the population. And when someone does that, at large enough of a scale, he or she wins against all logic, all odds and all resistance.
This process has happened countless times in history, the most extreme forms being revolutions like the one in France in 1789 or in Russia in 1917. The most famous explanation of that historical phenomenon was Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s reading of Hitler’s ascension to power. Indeed, when the Austrian corporal was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933, many around the world were shocked and dismayed. How could a country, which had produced the finest philosophers, musicians, scientists and poets elect this crude man, harbinger of the most regressive and hateful ideas? Jung went beyond the usual political and socio-economic explanations, and argued as follows: for centuries, the intellect and pure rational thinking were exalted in Germany, while deep, pagan, wild forces kept being repressed and suppressed in the Shadow. They kept accumulating, gathering steam in the collective unconscious. And with the powerful trigger of World War One, as well as the devastating economic crisis of the twenties, the situation was ripe for a charismatic leader to embody those forces and come to power.
Since November 8th, countless political, social and economic explanations have been explored to explain Trump’s victory. Many to me are connected to this idea of forces lodged in the Shadow, expressed in a vote that surprised so many. Why do we need to look into irrational forces to understand it? Because there are too many “irrational” contradictions, blind spots and illogical facts in both Trump’s candidacy and in the way his voters explain their choice. He showed utter ignorance of basic historical and geopolitical facts, he praised far right conspiracy theorists, contradicted himself and lied constantly — yet a large percentage of educated, moderate Americans voted for him. He displayed misogyny of the crudest kind and turned out to be a proud sexual assaulter — yet a majority of white women voted for him. Out of the seven Biblical Deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envoy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) he is a modern incarnation of six — yet a huge percentage of devout Christians voted for him. And the list goes on. So to understand the “why” of it all, we need to look deeper, into the more obscure and unconscious corners of our collective hearts and minds, in what Jung called the human Shadow.
In 2016 America, what kind of forces are lodged in it? A vast combination for sure. Let me mention a few, and you will see how Trump’s campaign was entirely based on channeling those particular forces, amplifying them & leveraging them to manifest his own ambitions:
1/ The immense resentment against all rotten & manipulative forms of power in politics and finance in particular. The facts pointing to such a state are overwhelming — from the number of lobbyists per congressman, to the way almost no culprit for the 2008 financial debacle was indicted, to the lies that led to the Iraq war and countless other alarming realities. The revolt of the “simple people” against the elites is not a new theme, but it’s been fueled in America for years by very concrete and disturbing facts. The need for a “radical cleanse of the system” has been increasing over time. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party were attempts to push for it. They both failed. Frustrations simply kept piling up in the “collective Shadow”. Trump played masterfully on it, presenting himself as the independent outsider, who knows the system from inside, and can thus cleanse it to the core.
2/ The fear of the Other, the fear of uncertainty, the fear of the Feminine (i.e. not only of women, but rather of what the Feminine represents in both men and women — our feelings, our intuitions, our sensitivity etc.), which can translate into racism, homophobia, the objectification & abuse of women and so on. Those fears — which we all harbor in one way or another — got exacerbated in many citizens over the past few years with globalization, an African American president, gay marriage as law of the land, women’s empowerment, a shrinking white majority, a constant terror threat and so much more. A large number of Americans have been feeling they are “losing their country”, meaning one where white, middle and upper class, heterosexual, native-born men reign supreme. And — among others, with an ever-present layer of political correctness — those fears & frustrations remained largely unexpressed, un-channeled, hidden in the Shadow — yet so deeply and intensely felt.
Trump kept echoing them in countless ways — projecting the fear of the Other on Mexicans, illegal immigrants, terrorists etc.; embodying the fear of the Feminine and its usual counterpart, the abuse of women: his demeaning approach of women (or even his proud sexual harassment) resonated –if only unconsciously — with many who either think of women in this way, treat them in such ways, or simply wish they could do so.
3/ a human need for tribal identity and safety: for tens of thousands of years, we have fulfilled our core need for safety and nourishment (among others) through the belonging and identification with a particular “tribe” — with a clear sense of what is familiar and what is foreign, what is “us” and what is “them”. In psychological terms, this ensures our “inner child” (the vulnerable side in us, needing safety and love) gets security and nourishment. Yet, in the age of globalization, with blurry borders and international trade, in the digital age with its ethos of “humanity as a global village”, in the age of a lurking global terror threat, an existential angst has been accumulating in many people’s Shadow. When Trump promises to build a “wall”, it is such an obvious archetypal answer to this need for safety, for clear boundaries and separation between “us and the others”. When he celebrates the uneducated against the elites and relentlessly resorts to nativists themes he echoes the need to belong to a particular group and be proud of it. Above all, he is the “Father figure” who will take care of the people, and ensure their happiness and safety.
In countless ways, he is what Jung would call a “compensation” for Obama: when the President is a moderate man rooted in his intellect rather than in his guts, when he is in touch with his Feminine (and respectful of it), when he is striving for balance and tolerance, when he celebrates unity and embodies multiculturalism rather than tribal identity, the opposing regressive instincts keep accumulating in the Shadow. They then get projected on a man embodying supreme self-confident, fear-based, authoritarian, instinctive, tribal leadership. This projection of the Father figure on a strong leader has been a recurring phenomenon throughout cultures and history. It is happening these days all over the world from Russia to Hungary, China, Turkey, the Philippines and beyond. Trump is one more manifestation of it.
Trump also acts as a mirror of the most problematic traits of the American psyche such as narcissism (the “we are the greatest country in the world” mantra etc.), excessive consumerism, life reduced to the level of a reality show. All those trends have massive, destructive consequences in the Shadow (meanness and its corresponding pain, envy, egotism, frustration of “not having” and its corresponding anger, winning at all costs etc.). Trump epitomizes all those instincts and their Shadow counterpart in the fullest way.
What happens then, when so many intense elements of fear, frustration, anger & pain accumulate over many years in the collective unconscious? Carl Jung explained that if unprocessed for too long, they can become all-powerful and control a country, if channeled by the “right” person. Who would that be? Someone charismatic, savvy and ambitious enough, in tune with those forces, who can sense them, echo them and embody them. Then, he would ride a wave whose power and impact nobody can “logically” understand. And this is what happened with Trump. No reasoning or strategic polling or TV ads or brilliant debating or rational arguments could stop those deep collective forces. Because as decades of psychological studies have explained, the forces lodged in our unconscious are way stronger than any will of our ‘rational mind’.
When Shadow forces get projected on a leader who then has access to the largest surveillance apparatus in the world, the key to nuclear weapons, the potential to reshape the Supreme Court, the capability to wreak havoc in international relations and trade (and so much more), many worry, or even panic. Moreover, when the winner is the one who bullies, lies, demeans, doesn’t pay taxes, doesn’t honor contracts and promises, assaults women, is ignorant of the most basic historical and geopolitical facts, what kind of values can parents instill in their children? What is the incentive to study and work hard, to be ethical, to be fair, to be compassionate? What is the underlying message for all? “Be the bad guy to win”. And now the forces of hatred, bigotry and fear have legitimacy all the way into the White House. This is dangerous in ways one can barely fathom. But on the other hand, the opportunities lying in this new situation are immense.
For the Shadow forces to keep gathering steam is incredibly dangerous. It can explode and be destructive in cataclysmic ways. Now they are all in the open. Nobody can deny the continuing potency of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia in America. Nobody can deny the need for clearer identity, for belonging to a “tribe”, or the cry for a cleaner political and financial system. Like a lava flow, they are being exposed, they are seeing the light of day, they can interact with other forces, and thus there is an opportunity to integrate and transform them.
As Carl Jung said, “Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integrating our contraries”. Relegating in our collective Shadow the forces and instincts revealed by Trump’s success is unwise, dangerous and destructive. Integrating, processing & transforming them is an arduous, challenging, complex and lengthy process, but one with the highest rewards of growth, fulfillment and wholeness — for us individually, and for the nation as a whole.
How to do all this? To begin answering this essential question, I will resort to an ancient school of wisdom, called Alchemy — and this will be the topic of my next piece.