Fantasies of Entitlement

There’s an old civil rights slogan: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The slogan of the Trump base might be: He is the one we were waiting for. And they will continue to wait, now even after he has left office, even after a second impeachment, and even if the Senate votes to convict and prevent him from office again. They will continue to wait and clamor for someone who will restore what was supposed to be theirs: the American dream promised to descendants of the Europeans who came to America, white America.

The Trump base is not going away. In psychoanalytic terms, it remains gripped by a fantasy of white entitlement, an identity of being those who are truly deserving. They are beset by paranoia that enemies have stolen what they deserve.

This identity is largely unconscious, anxious, and unstable, a defense against a more primordial anxiety of having no real or rightful place in the world. One need not be a member of a white supremacist organizations to have an identification with whiteness and all its connotations. But most of those enticed by it are white.

Unlike historically rich ethnic or religious identities—whether Italian or Nigerian, Jewish or Muslim, whiteness is not really an identity at all. It is an epiphenomenon and legacy of colonialism, something shared by colonialists and constructed in opposition to those colonized.

White identity is guilt-ridden and fragile to its core; but it has through American history been the ticket to membership, inclusion, and citizenship. And now in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that ticket is being called out for being a fraud. It will no longer get you to the front of the line. You will need to wait your turn like everyone else.

Many in the Trump base deny they are racists, but there is ample evidence of their unconscious belief and primordial anxieties. Look at the symptoms.

During the election season, every single time Trump or one of his surrogates was asked about racial injustice, they immediately associated to Antifa. This is a symptom of the large-group identification and its childish defenses, including a paranoia that someone is out to destroy them.

Other symptoms need no psychoanalytic interpretation: the gallows at the morning rally on January 6, the Confederate Flag brought in to the US Capitol, the t-shirts emblazoned with racist and genocidal slogans.

Those enticed by a fantasy of white identity, whether consciously or not, are enraged at being denied the entitlement that should come from being the ones who made America great. For the fantasy of entitlement to stay alive, it needs someone who might fulfill the fantasy. Trump was their man. But without him they will find someone or something else.

A fantasy of white entitlement also thrives by identifying enemies to blame for  robbing them of what they deserve. Conspiracy theories readily supply these, from the Deep State trying to undermine Trump to those largely black urban populations stealing the election.

What is to be done? Certainly, closing down online venues for conspiracy theories and misinformation helps. But so long as the root of the problem persists, no amount of “fact-checkers” will set things straight. No account of Trump’s tens of thousands of lies will unsettle his followers’ certitude that Trump (or whoever comes next) is their savior. Those caught up in these extreme defenses will find whatever “facts” fit their delusions.

To get to the root of the problem, we need to address the fundamental anxieties at work. For those white folks who have been left out of the global neoliberal economy, there is the anxiety of being in unmoored in the world. For those white folks who are profiting from neoliberal economies, there is an unconscious anxiety that whatever place they have was ill-gotten.

We need to embark a new collective founding of our country. This will include public policies that address the ways in which a neoliberal global economy is in fact robbing many of a decent life. A new founding will also include what each of us can do in our day-to-day lives, asking our neighbors and kin caught up in conspiracy theories, rage, and paranoia: How are you doing? Is everything alright? We can and should create spaces for everyone to reckon with guilt and responsibility, build relationships across differences, and share their grief and worry about the country.

In the end, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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