The cry that Donald Trump repeats at every rally — “Let’s Make American Great Again” — taps into a dual wager: (1) that those who imagine themselves as the dominant and quintessential “American” people need not mourn the loss of their presumed dominance at home and abroad and (2) that those who are undermining the old status quo can be undone, thrown out, excised from the body politic, making possible an ideal and perfect state. Those who will not mourn their losses nor tarry with indeterminacy, uncertainty, and democracy demand a politics of black and white and good and evil; and they presume that those who oppose them are the enemies of all things perfect and true.
This wager has been going on for decades if not millennia and is likely a large part of what made Reaganism and neoliberalism possible. All the ostensible reasons for taking down the welfare state had subterranean motives of demonizing the poor, the dark, the queer. Even the most belligerent and conservative politicians cloaked their ulterior motives with reasons, however illogical, e.g. Reagan’s mantra that a rising tide lifts all boats. (It didn’t take a Ph.D. to point out that if one didn’t have a boat, one was sunk.) But they did at least pretend to trade in reasons. And people who shared their ulterior views could vote for them and support their policies as reasonable affairs. We all said we dreamt of freedom and equality for all, even if we had different ideas about how this could be achieved.
But now there is Trump, who dispenses with all the niceties and gets to the truth — or what many imagine to be the truth — who says out loud what was never said on a national stage in the modern era, even by people who believed it. Here are few samples from recent rallies:
“Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico?”
“Get out of here, get out of here. Get out.”
“We’ve become weak; we’ve become weak.”
“Our country has to toughen up folks. These people are bringing us down. … These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea. They contribute nothing, nothing.”
“Get him out. Go home to mommy. Go home and get a job. I tell you these are not good people, folks ….These are not the people that made our country great. But we’re going to make it great again… These are the people that are destroying our country. Get him out.”
The Trump phenomenon taps into a deeper political problem, not in just the U.S. but in multi-cultural polities throughout the world: a lack of public and shared means for working through ambiguity and loss, for coming to understand the strangers in our midst, that is, for moving from a paranoid-schizoid politics to what we might call a Kleinian depressive position. Psychoanalytic theory, including Freud’s tantalizing but undeveloped concept of working through, offers a doorway out of this mess. The iconic scene is the analytic space: patient on the couch, analyst behind, and the analytic third to their dyad where Manichaean divides can transform into shades of grey; where projected demons can be taken back and metabolized; where the adolescent selves we all are at one time or another might grow up and realize the world is not made of saints and sinners but of complex and imperfect people; and most importantly that there are no perfect solutions that will solve all our troubles.
The task now is how to take this micro-politics to a macro level, how to move to a politics of mourning and working though. How to see people different from us not as threats but opportunities to open up new worlds and possibilities.
Trump slams shut any such door. Maybe he needs to get himself out of here — or at least get off the stage.