What does it mean that Donald Trump believes he would not lose a single vote if he shot a man on 5th Avenue? Or that Mitch McConnell recently said he “can’t imagine anything Trump could do that would cause the Senate to remove him from office?” Or that Republican members of Congress are demeaning themselves with frantic, irrelevant arguments against overwhelming evidence of criminal behavior that put our national security at risk? When both his guilt and the severity of the offenses have been established beyond all reasonable doubt, it’s a fair bet Donald Trump’s base will simply forgive him, as they have done so many times already. A rational mind begs for explanation.
I understand the attraction of authoritarian leaders to people who feel frightened and/or impotent. I understand that Republican politicians are justifiably afraid to cross him. And we all know how bias confirmation can trap people into ways of thinking they cannot or will not change. But this passionate worship of Mr. Trump by almost 40% of the population, this blind loyalty to a man who is loyal to no one but himself, has a cult like feel that suggests something else is going on.
Let’s look on the dark side.
Oppression of Political Correctness
Conservatives have been complaining for some time about “political correctness,” which I have taken to mean they resent liberals pushing their notions of how people should think and behave on the whole of society. To be fair, liberals do push their progressive values, often while making disparaging assumptions about people who resist them. As social discourse across ideological lines has nearly collapsed, the problem of ignorant, inaccurate, and insulting assumptions about the intentions and values of “others” has worsened. Whether it’s gun control, rooting out implicit racial bias, freedom to live publicly one’s sexual identity, or just the merits of brie and red wine, liberals are seen and understandably resented by many conservatives as holier than thous trying to improve everyone around them!
It is within this cultural context that Trumpism has gained such power in America. Donald Trump is not just an “everyman” like George Bush, the average Joe everyone would enjoy having a beer with. He’s a deeply flawed character, an anti do-gooder who flaunts conventions and everything resembling political correctness. He stands strong for his weaknesses and unapologetic for his sinfulness. He steals, and cheats, and lies, and philanders. He’s rude, amoral, selfish, unpredictable, and inconsistent. He boldly embodies an array of qualities and characteristics Americans traditionally think of as bad, that we chastise ourselves for and teach our children never to do.
I suggest the gravitation of many to Donald Trump was more than a cry for attention from a neglected rural America. It was relief at someone naming things they thought were true, but didn’t feel they could say out loud, truths that sound politically incorrect.
It’s Hard to See Your Own Shadow.
All of us have what psychologist Carl Jung called a “shadow side,” unconscious thoughts, feelings, or inclinations that don’t fit with our personas or self-image. Often, though not necessarily, they are things we don’t approve of, things we might consider socially inappropriate or politically incorrect; things that might embarrass us to admit and that we’d rather ignore than acknowledge. We leave such things in the shadows of our unconscious where they remain mostly invisible to us.
Jung saw value in recognizing and owning our shadow qualities, both good and bad. He believed doing so would enable us to take responsibility for them, prevent them from leaking out as unconscious and unwanted influences on our behavior. Doing so, he encouraged, would make us more whole and stronger individuals.
Donald Trump is acting out other people’s shadows. Most, if not all, of us have elements of racism, greed, “inappropriate” sexual desires, envy, and even a little narcissism in us. The more we deny these shadowy feelings, the stronger they grow and more insistently they demand acknowledgment. Admiring Donald Trump lets people embrace their shadow vicariously. They project the attitudes and feelings they cannot accept within themselves onto this leader who happily carries them publicly, who thrives on the projections of others, happy to believe they prove how wonderful he is rather than what a perfect scapegoat he is for other people’s unacceptable feelings. People cheer him because he vindicates them, validates them. If the President can do and be these things, they can’t be so bad. If he’s OK, I’m OK.
Enlighten Public Policy
The rub lies in the difference between feelings and behavior. Our feelings are not wrong because they are unacceptable; feelings are what they are. They become socially unacceptable when they emerge as behaviors we don’t want defining our social and cultural norms…our lives. We really don’t want powerful men grabbing women’s genitals or cheating their business partners, no matter how strong the inclination, and we don’t want presidents to abuse the powers we grant them for running the country strictly for their own personal benefit. We can understand a person wanting to lie and cheat and steal. We can appreciate the temptations to use the powers of high office to punish critics, or to resist investigation, or to get more power for themselves; it’s all quite human. What’s wrong is turning those inclinations into behaviors, and those behaviors into virtues, or treating them as acceptable public policy.
Defending the dark and destructive inclinations of President Trump because we can relate to them, because we recognize similar desires in ourselves, and because we’re tired of being told to be politically correct, undermines our equally essential desire to be our best selves. While there is nothing wrong with acknowledging our leaders are human and can fail, we also want them to represent the best of us, to exemplify the ideals we want for our selves, our children, and our country.
The rules and norms of governance are established to provide some external discipline in case a leader’s internal discipline fails. They keep our all too human public officials from behaving badly while empowered with our public trust. We give them authority to govern and expect them to pursue their public responsibilities faithfully, on behalf of all of us.
Celebrating and protecting Donald Trump’s rejection of those obligations because it resonates with taboo inclinations within our selves creates a society that admires and encourages the basest rather than the most noble of our inclinations. It abandons the American project to be an inclusive nation of inventive, responsible, loving people governing ourselves by the rule of law.
We can and should understand how Donald Trump speaks for our shadow, and try harder to own the darkness in our own hearts; but our shadows should not be turned into a national model for public behavior. We should acknowledge our own weaknesses and build our own strength. We should acknowledge the truths about ourselves that make Donald Trump so powerful, and reject him as our leader.