The Psychology of the Political Trickster

For nearly a year, I’ve thought that a psychologist should be at the elbow of every journalist writing about Donald Trump, if only to help them better understand the blather that comes out of that man’s mouth. The blather sounds very much like a test version of Carl Jung’s Word Association Test, which demonstrates that subjects don’t have conscious control over their responses. This test would later form the basis for the lie detector test.

I am not a psychologist. However, I have studied Jungian/archetypal psychology for twenty-five years and think that this arm of psychology, where the unconscious, cultural complexes and archetypal forces figure prominently, could provide a helpful perspective to the current political conversation.

Chiron Publications, located in North Carolina, must have been reading my mind because it recently published “A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump,” a compilation of essays by more than a dozen writers, most of whom are Jungian analysts or operate from a Jungian perspective.

The book represents a tricky proposition. As therapists the writers can’t really diagnose public figures at a distance. This restriction had its inception fifty years ago when Senator Barry Goldwater, whom some considered a little unhinged and racially insensitive, was running for President. A magazine editor sent a survey to members of the American Psychiatric Association, asking their opinion of whether Goldwater was fit to be President. About half of the 2,417 respondents thought Goldwater unfit to assume the high office. Those who responded labeled the Senator as impulsive, paranoid, lunatic, neurotic and psychotic. Goldwater took his case to the Supreme Court and won $1 in compensatory damages. Justice Hugo Black dissented: “The public has an unqualified right to have the character and fitness of anyone who aspires to the Presidency held up for the closest scrutiny.”

“A Clear and Present Danger” provides a very good discussion of what would be known as the Goldwater Rule, which spells out the psychiatric rules of the road. When a personal examination has not been performed, a general discussion of psychiatric topics is best. As far as I can tell, the book’s contributors do their best to stay within the cultural and thematic referents while making clear that Donald Trump in his own words has encouraged psychological scrutiny because many of his remarks seem so un-psychological, unconscious and narcissistic.

This book, with its focus on narcissism in fairy tales, nationalistic movements, fascism and the like, is written and edited for the general reader and I thoroughly recommend it. Here I want to focus on the Trickster archetype, which might help explain Trump’s rise, his treatment by the media, his outrageous and contradictory statements, his penchant for lying and the like. Trump’s snarl words, his bully words, and his vulgar refrains seem to flow directly from that angry pit called his Personal Unconscious.

But the way Trump impacts public discourse suggests that the pull is deeper and archetypal. For this insight I found Thomas Patrick Lavin, PhD, a Jungian psychologist practicing in Illinois, especially helpful. In his essay “The Trump Phenomena” Lavin asks rhetorically, “Do we Americans need to become conscious of the god of war energy (Wotan) behind Donald Trump just as Jung saw Wotan behind Hitler?” Referring to Hitler, Jung wrote that the most impressive thing about the Wotan furor in Germany was that one man, who was obviously possessed, had infected an entire nation. Jung asked, “Can a man who is furious infuriate a whole nation?” Lavin suggests we are seeing hints of this “state of possession” in the Trump rise, not dissimilar to the underlying archetypal pattern that Jung saw in the streets of Berlin in 1937.

I think that Lavin is more persuasive in his discussion of the shocking, outlandish Trickster archetype “that is doing all it can to capture our attention — no matter how zany, freaky, and bizarre the attention-getting word or behavior might seem.” The Trickster archetype, familiar to us through myths, fairy tales and assorted legends, is also quite predictable. He promises to heal, to make things great again, to perform magic, to raise the dead, all these services for the common good even while the Trickster might be playing malicious jokes on his followers.

Lavin reminds us that the Trickster sells the impossible, the great illusion, but only if he is in charge. The Trickster is always a one-person show. He’s deceptive, a con man and an expert in assigning blame. Things are never his fault. He rarely says he is sorry, feels little guilt, and is not ashamed. The Trickster tries to be in control most of the time. He does not own his own shadow, the nasty, inferior part of himself. Rather, he projects his shadow side on other people, calling them crooked, evil, losers, midgets and the like. Lavin suggests that this quality is likely why demagogues are so popular among disenfranchised groups: “they blame others for any darkness.”

Tricksters seem at their best when people are in conflict and trauma, whether on a national or local level. Lavin writes that “Those supporting a Trickster are more interested in images than issues.” In Jungian terms, a Trickster would need a huge persona to cover up the personal and collective unconscious which are his dark and shadow parts. The Trickster doesn’t traffic in specifics. It’s enough for him to say great things are waiting around the corner.

Jung called the Trickster a “faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level.” In writing about the dangers of the nuclear age, Jung reminds us that the conflagration that broke out in Germany was the outcome of psychic conditions that are universal. “The situation is about the same as if a small boy of six had been given a bag of dynamite for a birthday present. We are not one hundred percent convinced by his assurance that no calamity will happen.”

Lavin asks rhetorically, “Dare we give the little boy a bag of dynamite by electing him? Nukes are not toys to be entrusted to a narcissistic leader.”

Though uneven at times, “A Clear and Present Danger” provides a remarkably prescient look at American culture and politics from a Jungian perspective. I don’t know whether Donald Trump is psychotic, a term that finds increasing currency in the media, but I’m confident that the man is a spitting image of the Trickster archetype right down to his shoes. He is a walking job description for the Trickster archetype.

In my opinion, the real reason that the media has been largely unable to pin Trump down is that much of his behavior is primal, unconscious and fed by archetypal forces.

Fortunately, “A Clear and Present Danger” provides a unique archetypal lens through which to view Donald Trump and presidential politics. We can no longer use the excuse that the man is just being “politically incorrect.”

That’s not it. The man is largely unconscious, dangerous and quite capable of tapping into the archetypal fantasies of a bored six-year-old holding a bag of birthday dynamite.

I’m in the Justice Hugo Black camp regarding absolute transparency during a Presidential election.