Freud On Trumpism

In an attempt to understand the “Trump Phenomenon,” by which I do not refer to the man himself but to the growing numbers of people who swallow his swill and are ready to take up arms and blindly follow him anywhere he leads, I begin with a section of one of my earlier posts on Freud’s attempts to understand violence.

Freud was convinced that humans develop a conscience, or what he called the “super-ego,” as a result of repression. Parents say “no” to the child and the child represses his natural urges toward aggression and destruction. Thus, what we call “civilization,” in the form of parental and societal repression, thwarts the natural instincts common to us all and they are turned inwards toward the self and become what we call a bad conscience. We feel bad about doing those things we were told not to do as we grow up.

When the restraints of civilization are loosened, as they are in a permissive society, the aggressive instincts turn outward again in the form of violence toward others. Given the fact that, thanks in large measure to a misreading of Freud, ours is an increasingly permissive society where we rarely say “no,” we can expect to see increasing levels of violence. We no longer turn the aggressive instincts toward ourselves in the form of a bad conscience, we turn them loose on others in the form of rage and violent actions: we let it “all hang out.” When guns are readily available, as they are in this society, this can easily take the form of an increase in what we call “gun-deaths.” Couple the lack of repression with a growing sense of powerlessness among people [who see others as obstacles to be overcome and are] used to getting their way as children and we can begin to understand why violence is on the rise in this country.

I should begin by saying that this post, “Freud On Violence,” was written several years ago and still remains the most popular post I have written, drawing the major portion of my “hits” each week, even now. I am unable to explain it, but there it is. In any event, I do think Freud can help us understand why Donald Trump is so popular. In a word, Trump embodies the permissive society. He promises his followers a world without restraint. He empowers people who are frustrated by their seeming impotence in an overcrowded society that inhibits the free activities of people who have no idea what the word “no” means.

Given that violence is an expression of aggressive instincts encouraged by a permissive society, and given that Donald Trump embodies this permissiveness (given his unfettered hatred and fear-mongering, his outspoken condemnation of all things and peoples that seem to interfere with free action), it is not difficult to see why many people are drawn to him. These folks want to live in a world in which they can do all those things they have been told they can do as children — which is to say, whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. He is anti-establishment in the sense that he is opposed to any sort of restraint on the baser instincts that are at the core of our essential human being. Thus he speaks for those many who feel the strong urge to express themselves in outward violence, who lack a super-ego, or conscience, and who find civilized society confining and repressive.

Ortega y Gasset once said that “civilization is before all the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, a barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account.” What this involves, I take it, is tolerance for others, all others. And it involves a willingness to avoid doing things and saying things that might hurt others no matter how strongly we feel the urge. The alternative is Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

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10 thoughts on “Freud On Trumpism

  1. Responsibility and accountability are lacking in this wanna-be-leader. He sets a scene for violence and then steps back surprised it occurs saying it is not my fault. He demonizes groups of people, then acts surprised and offended when they push back. He lies often and with greater regularity than any other candidate and without remorse. He argues like a child and does not want anyone asking him questions – there is a reason as he does not have serious answers. And, he wants license to say anything, yet his greatest weakness is his thin-skin – he can dish it but cannot take it, just the guy you want with a finger on nuclear weapons. I can only think of one other candidate who may be worse and that is Ted Cruz because he believes his own BS and is the most unliked senator on Congress.

  2. I hadn’t really thought of this explanation, but it makes a great deal of sense (not that it is an encouraging note for Americans) I wonder what we will all think of this episode once it is past.

  3. What role do you think organised religion had in all this? It seems to me that all the “Thou shalt nots….” reinforced social conscience, and our increasing rejection of religion has something to do with the increasingly violent society. From the viewpoint of one outside the USA the Trump phenomenon looks terrifying.

    • Excellent question! I do think the demise of organized religion has contributed to the permissiveness of this society. In the past religion stood for authority and as Freud mentions, authority is essential for the development of the super ego. The family and the church have lost their hold in modern culture and the schools are now supposed to take up the slack — which they cannot do, especially since they are now committed to the self-esteem nonsense that simply reinforces the notion that the young have that they deserve to have everything they want when they want it. I could go on, but this may be a topic for another day. I just mention Nietzsche’s profound comment at the end of the nineteenth century that “God is dead.” He is and we are feeling the repercussions. (Note: please don’t confuse the popular religions with the real thing: they demand nothing of their parishioners!)

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