Most politically liberal and moderate Americans – and even many dyed-in-the-wool conservatives – were caught unawares by the success of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. Against all odds, he is now the Republican party’s Presidential candidate, pitted against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and a handful of candidates representing fringe political ideologies, such as the Libertarian and Green parties, who are probably destined to be “also rans”.
In this essay I will draw upon writings of Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1886-1960) to help explain the appeal of Trump’s candidacy. Her innovative thought addresses the role of our attempts to purge the mind of the paranoid anxieties that first appear in early infancy. Before we turn to an exposition of Kleinian theory, however, let us review Trump’s rise to become the controversial leader of the Republican party.
Trump’s unstoppable ascent to the position of the Republican presidential nominee took most Americans by surprise. When he announced his candidacy in 2015, few people thought it would go very far. The New York real estate tycoon and former tough-talking, no-nonsense star of the television show “The Apprentice” had no political experience whatsoever. He faced competition in the Republican primaries from a large field of well-qualified, experienced, and respected politicians, including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, candidates of Latino descent, either one of whom appeared likely to appeal to the conservative elements of the growing American Latino community and, more important, transform the image of Republican party from that of a bastion of white males to one that is accepting of diversity. Further, Trump’s platform was openly rejected by all past Republican presidents and numerous party insiders, all of whom characterized it as too extreme and divisive. Yet, against all expectations, Trump decimated his primary opponents, winning the hearts and minds of the still influential voting bloc of working and middle-class, high-school-educated white American males.
Trump’s interpersonal style is brash, aggressive, and vitriolic. He has been criticized by both Democrats and fellow Republicans for displaying marked intemperance and immoderation in his public statements. For example, throughout the primary campaign he regularly provoked, insulted, and taunted his opponents. Among Trump’s more bizarre jibes is his accusation that Senator Ted Cruz’s father was complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and his repeated snide references to the small size of Marco Rubio’s hands, an oblique reference to the old saw about hand size corresponding to that of the penis.
Trump’s political views are divisive in the extreme. Throughout the summer and into the fall of 2016 he laid out a populist agenda that many Americans found alarmingly schismatic, nativist, racist, and sexist. At the heart of this message is a darkly apocalyptic vision of America as in danger, besieged by hordes of menacing, lawless, and degenerate outsiders waiting at the gates, the loss of the influence and prestige of the working and middle-class, and the insidious demise of traditional cultural values. For example, he targeted undocumented Mexican migrants as rapists and drug-dealers, leeches seeking to exploit American generosity and occupy the jobs of its hard working middle-class citizens. His ambitious and probably unworkable solution to this problem is to build what he defines as an impenetrable wall along the US-Mexico border. A Trump administration would round up and deport eleven million undocumented migrants back to Mexico, a proposal even more impractical than the construction of a border wall. Trump’s suspicion toward Latinos seems to be boundless. For example, he famously (or infamously) insisted that a federal judge of Latino descent recuse himself from presiding over a court case involving claims by enrollees in the now-defunct Trump University that the school made deceptive claims about their post-graduation job prospects. Trump made his demand on the basis that no one of Latino heritage could fairly assess the facts of the case, as they should be assumed to be biased against a white business owner such as himself.
And then there are his diatribes against the Islamic faith. Trump tends to paints adherents of Islam with one brush, strongly implying that they are all potential terrorists driven by an ideology of hatred toward America. This sweeping characterization of all members of this faith as potential terrorists forms the basis for his plan to restore national security by suspending the immigration of all Muslims to our shores. This policy is completely unprecedented in our nation’s history: never before has anyone been denied entry to the US based solely on their commitment to a particular religion. Further, Trump suggests that law enforcement intensively monitor the activities of Muslims currently living in the US, on the premise that any Muslim may have ties to terrorist organizations. He has openly advocated a return to the use of torture as a technique for interrogating suspected Islamic radicals, including, as he puts it, “waterboarding and worse”. He has engaged in an extended tit-for-tat with a Muslim couple who appeared at the Democratic National Convention to speak about their enlisted son’s death in Iraq. The father cited their boy’s bravery and sacrifice as evidence of the patriotism of Muslim-Americans, and chided Trump for his contempt for their culture. Trump replied that he noticed that the wife said nothing during their time at the podium, and replied that perhaps she wasn’t allowed to speak, thus appealing to the stereotype that Muslim women are subservient and powerless appendages of their husbands. The wife quickly countered that she is free to say anything, as are all Muslim women, and that her silence was an expression of her grief. The outspoken New Yorker has questioned our commitment to our NATO alliances, and has openly voiced what many take to be an unholy admiration for the likes of the dictatorial Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un, whom he characterizes as no-nonsense rulers who have brought order and discipline to the unruly elements of their nations. The list of Trump’s missteps, gaffs, and expression of unsavory attitudes is extensive, and continues to grow at this writing.
Trump’s political rhetoric, which plays on themes of American vulnerability to attack from foreign elements, is rooted in his personal psychology. Nowhere is this more evident than in his statements to and about women. Hence, when journalist Megyn Kelly asked Trump at a primary debate if he thought that his seeming debasement of women had cost him the support of this voting bloc, Trump became angry and defensive, and complained that Kelly’s question was assaultive. Afterwards, Trump expressed his view that Kelly had ambushed him, and noted metaphorically that there was, as he put it, “blood coming out of her eyes and coming out of her whatever”, a thinly veiled reference to menstruation. Arguably, Trump’s sense of the nation as vulnerable to the intrusion of mendacious, destructive forces is an expression of his personal psychology writ large, with, in this instance, women and their supposedly hormone-driven aggressive behavior cast in the role of the dangerous element.
Though Trump has qualified some of his accusatory statements after the fact, not once has he apologized or expressed regret for having made them. Despite – or perhaps because of – his persistent habit of blurting out what many persons consider to be hate speech, he retains his popularity among a large sector of the voting public. Why? When queried about their readiness to overlook Trump’s gaffs and divisive, even cruel comments, these voters are often heard to say things like, “He says exactly what I’ve been thinking”, sometimes suggesting that they felt muzzled about expressing their views in what they perceive as an atmosphere of political correctness. Apparently, Trump is the mouthpiece for attitudes that are deeply-held and widespread, but which heretofore led an underground existence. How are we to understand their unquestioning devotion to a man whom even some of his supporters admit is seriously flawed, who cannot win the endorsements of many Republican party members, and whom his detractors call reckless, unfit, and a threat to democracy?
A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Trump’s Quest for a “Purified” Nation
I see Trump’s seemingly inexplicable appeal as due, in part, to his stance as a self-styled “purifier” of our collective unconscious image of America. His wish to purge what he deems lawless and threatening elements from our nation plays to a widespread nationalist fantasy of return to an “all good” experience of America. This is one scrubbed clean of the perceived stain of corrupting influences (and including, apparently, the literal stain of the female menstrual flow). This fantasy appeals to American nostalgia, the longing for an idealized past state of existence. Hence, Trump’s popularity is at least partly attributable to a fateful intersection of his personal psychology with certain subterranean ideas and values existing within our collective psyche. Of course, the notion of return to a simpler America is largely a fantasy: it is improbable that such an ideal state of being ever existed in America. The purified past to which Trump’s vision refers is arguably a collectively constructed narrative reflecting longing for an ideal state of being, one characterized by unity of purpose and confidence. However, there is little historical evidence that this rendition of the past exists outside of Norman Rockwell’s paintings.
This begs yet another question: what is the basis of the enthrallment of many Americans to this fantasy of a redemptive return to a nostalgic vision of a purified America? The innovative theory of early childhood psychological development of Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1882-1960) suggest some answers. Klein studied the role of the infant’s adaptation to primitive anxieties in the formation of later adult attitudes and values. While her theory addresses the vicissitudes of individual development, it is easily (and not infrequently) applied to understanding the mass psychology of social movements.
Expanding upon some of the implications of Freudian theory, Klein inferred that the infant’s natural mental state is unintegrated, meaning that the flow of experience appears as discrete and unrelated moments, flashes of stimuli lacking synthesis. (To be clear, this construction of infant mentation is only possible from the standpoint of adult thinking; the infant isn’t aware of this discontinuity within his or her consciousness, as, paradoxically, the experience of existence as discontinuous is only possible from a more or less integrated subjectivity that is itself a center of continuity.) So, lacking the cognitive capacity to perceive different experiences of reality as transitory, as coming and going in succession like a “train” through awareness, Klein inferred that throughout the first two to three months of life the infant’s apprehension of reality is limited to the here-and-now, that is, minus the awareness of the present as simply a moment suspended in time between a past and a future. The infant psyche is trapped in an “eternal now”.
A consequence of this limitation is that the infant has no awareness of the phenomenon of change. Hence, while they last, experiences of frustration and gratification are perceived as unchanging, hence, all-consuming and unalterable. Because of this lack of reality-testing, moments of distress, and their opposite, pleasure, do not modify one another through the awareness that things may be – in fact, will inevitably be – transformed with the passage of time. For this reason, asserts Klein, the infant’s experience of, say, hunger generates overwhelming anxiety and frustration, an experience that seems to admit of no relief because, simply put, it is experienced as all that is, has ever been, and will ever be. This is an element constituting the “purity” of the infant’s earliest experiences, in the sense that at this developmental stage reality is encountered as unalloyed and unmodified. While absolutized “good” experiences provide something akin to ecstasy, the unqualified “badness” of competing experiences are subjectively unbearable for the immature psyche. Hence, for example, the demands of hunger are intolerable to the infant, leading to the inconsolable, panicked crying familiar to parents. Klein suggests that at these moments the infant is desperate to expunge this “all bad” experience from consciousness. Satisfaction ensues when the breast or bottle arrives, and the prior experience of reality as “all bad” is forgotten, replaced by one that is “all good”. Predictably, the infant seeks to maintain the euphoric serenity surrounding “all-good” experiences, says Klein, and so may be understood to be instinctively poised to maintain the state of psychic fragmentation with which he or she entered the world.
Klein describes all of the foregoing as reflecting a primal “splitting” of the primitive ego. (The term “ego” is a technical psychoanalytic term that Klein uses rather imprecisely to identify the seat of human subjectivity and, perhaps, a rudimentary form of agency. To be clear, the Kleinan use of the term is very different from the way in which it is used in common parlance, namely, to identify the center of rationality and will, as when we describe a person as having a “strong go”, or self-regard, or say that someone has a “big ego”). She draws certain conclusions about the impact of this ego-bifurcation upon the general nature of consciousness in the first months of life. One of her most original contributions to psychoanalysis comes in the form of a term she coined to summarize the infant’s fundamental stance or “position” toward reality at this earliest stage: the paranoid-schizoid position. Let us examine each of the two words in this hyphenated term, successively.
According to Klein, ego-splitting naturally creates a paranoid condition in the immature psyche, inasmuch as split-off, self-contained “all good” ego states are continually besieged by the dark and terrifying, “all bad” dimensions of the ego. She further suggests that the “all good” component of the ego apprehends itself as isolated and alone in the face of the dreaded assaults of “all bad” ego states, which constantly threaten to overwhelm the psyche with unbearable anxiety. The isolation of the “all good” dimensions of the ego are described by Klein as the result of a kind of withdrawal, a defensive “hiding” of one’s mind, as it were, from the feared intrusion of unbearably frustrating mental states, one that mimics the emotional aloofness and social isolation of the adult schizoid patient.
So far I have described the divided ego of infancy as a product of the response to frustrating and gratifying experiences of the external environment. However, the picture is more complex: the infantile ego is not only besieged by exasperating and enraging experiences of frustration by the outer world, but also by the press of innate instinctual forces, says Klein. These are the “drives”, first described by Freud, which most prominently include the sexual (those that propel the human toward loving, physically sensuous attachments and union) and the aggressive (those that press the organism toward mastery and conquest of the limitations of being, including those imposed by the relative helplessness of the infant psyche, through the exercise of goal-directed power). For reasons which shall become clear in a moment, Klein emphasized the importance for early development of the aggressive instincts, that is, those that impel the organism toward mastery of both the external environment and the interior, psychic sphere. Why this focus upon the innately aggressive qualities of human nature?
The answer lies in an innovative and, to some, controversial aspect of Klein’s view of the central importance of guilt in early development. Klein felt that the aspect of mind that Freud referred to as the superego, the repository of social norms and prosocial injunctions, develops very early in life, perhaps as early as two or three months. This contrasts dramatically with Freud’s thinking about this psychic structure, in that he postulated that the superego only develops and influences behavior about the fourth of fifth year. Freud saw the unfolding of the superego as corresponding to the child’s entry into what he called the Oedipal stage of development, a period of psychic growth dawning about the fourth year, and characterized by the expansion of sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and the growing awareness of aggressively competitive feelings with the same-sexed parent, who is viewed as a competitor. The superego becomes active at this same time due to the child’s unconscious, guilty anxiety about his or her increased desirousness and aggression, he said.
In contrast to Freud, Klein asserts that the child’s twin instinctual desire for attachment and the flowering of feelings of aggression are present in early infancy; hence, so too is the cruelly chastening superego, leading to the experience of guilt, one that is quite overwhelming to the infant’s nascent ego. (Among other things, the infant develops an intense and dreadful fantasy that he or she has, or will, injure and/or alienate the parent due to the extreme power of his or her anger and destructiveness.) Klein did not understand the eruption of sex and aggression at this early phase to be narrowly genital and competitive in nature. Rather, she believes, they derive from the “split” in the infant ego between “all good” and “all bad” experiences. The baby harbors a potent desire to cling to, and maintain gratifying, self-enhancing experiences, and is flooded with rage when this fantasy of perpetual nurturing is frustrated. The infant dreads eruptions of this rage response, and so further ego-splitting occurs, serving the self-protective function of allowing him or her to disavow this rage, and driving efforts to cling to subjectively “all good” states. Klein believes that at this stage the infant fears that his or her “bad” mental representations will “poison” or “spoil” those that are “good”. This fear serves to drive the infant to redouble efforts to maintain “purified” experiences of reality by maintaining the split between these states of mind.
The “splitting” operations just described result in the simultaneous bifurcation of the infant’s image of the mother into discretely “good” and “bad” components, a “good” maternal figure who gratifies, and a “bad” one who withholds and frustrates. This is accomplished through the infant’s projection of his or her mental contents, both good and bad, onto the mother figure. Klein assumes that this transformation of the mother into unsynthesized “good” and “bad” elements derives from his or her natural inability to form an integrated mental representation of the mother as a whole person. Rather, the child relates to her as a sort of collection of unintegrated “parts”, as it were. Klein suggests that the child’s experience of the maternal breast is the most representative of his or her overall emotional relation to her. Through projection, the infant develops two discrete experiences of the life-giving breast: one as “good” (gratifying), and leading the child to desire attachment, alternating with another that is “bad” (depriving), and causing episodes of rage that are extremely disruptive to the immature psyche. The infant hates and seeks to destroy the “bad” breast, and also begins to feel a similarly destructive rage toward the “good” breast due to its lack of constancy, as when it is withdrawn at the end of feeding time.
Klein hypothesizes that the infant experiences excruciating guilt and paranoia over this destructiveness, fearing not only that he or she will eradicate the “good” breast in a pique of fury, but also that such rageful outbursts will provoke retaliation by the maternal figure. (Here we might note that Klein implies that the infant has some rudimentary sense that the “good” and “bad” breasts are living, intentional entities, capable of feeling injury and therefore capable of responding vengefully.) So, consistent with the logic of the paranoid-schizoid position, the baby lives in a state of fearful withdrawal, alone in the face of the double dangers of his or her own destructive fantasies from within, and the dread of retaliation for these coming from without.
A self-defeating and ever-expanding cycle of paranoia develops from the child’s constant projection of mental contents onto the mother. As has been noted, the baby’s attempt to purge and cleanse the mind of bad mental representations transforms the image of the mother into one that is menacing, bent on revenge against the infant who has caused it pain. But the maternal imago that has been malevolently transformed by projections becomes a new object of dread for the infant. This is so because this new, more threatening maternal image is absorbed back into the infant’s mind as an object of experience, albeit one that is distorted by the projective defense. Klein refers to this process as introjection. The introjected menacing mother image fills the child with additional intolerable dread that must again be expunged from consciousness by once more projecting it back onto this figure. However, doing so only exacerbates the problem, as it simply increases the mother figure’s vengefulness in the child’s mind. So, through a self-reinforcing cycle of repetitive, alternating projection and introjection, the baby’s dread and persecutory anxiety grows steadily and unstoppably.
Here I should also add another important reason that the child seeks to retrieve his or her projections of “bad” mental contents once they have been projected onto the mother. Specifically, though the experience of his or her aggressive instincts is quite disruptive to the child, and the original motive force for purging them from the mind via projection, the child eventually wants to retract these projections, “retrieve” them from the mother figure, as it were, and reintroject their contents. Why? Because, no matter how “bad” they may seem, they nevertheless are a vital part of his or her psychic economy. This being so, the child experiences him or herself as psychically “emptied out” and lifeless without these elements of his or her mind. But wait…there’s more. Klein further hypothesized that, in addition to wanting to feel psychically “alive” again, the child wants to retrieve and reincorporate the aggressive drives because he or she begins to feel uncontrollable envy toward the maternal figure, who the child construes as having stolen these vital psychic contents from his or her mind. Or, to be more exact, the child in this situation seems to have a crude sense of having been deprived of some life-giving, elemental dimension of his or her subjectivity. Given that from birth the infant has some rudimentary awareness of existing in the presence of other living entities upon which he or she depends (that is, the infant is aware of being a subjectivity in the presence of other subjectivities) he or she naturally assumes that these entities have taken possession of an aspect of his or her experience.
To get back to the main point: having described the result of the infant’s projection of bad experiences onto the mothering-one, Klein also considers the consequence of the projection of good mental contents onto this same figure. Obviously, projecting good subjective states onto the mother distorts her nature just as surely as does projecting negative mental elements, though in this case the mother is transformed, not into a malevolent figure, but into an idealized, “all good” – that is, all-gratifying and all-powerful – figure. However, like the “bad breast”, so also the “good breast” becomes an object of envy for the child. This is because, as with the process of projecting aggressive or “bad” internal states outward, here too the child has emptied him or herself of a vital dimension of self-experience, which he or she now experiences as having been somehow pilfered by the “good breast”. The child quite literally feels emptied of positive emotions, and concludes that the maternal breast has stolen a valued aspect of his or her subjectivity. This fills the immature psyche with burning envy toward the “good breast”, envy which flows from his or her sense that it enjoys an idealized, pleasurable and gratifying experience, while he or she feels inwardly impoverished by comparison, hence, also degraded and inferior. Paranoia and schizoid withdrawal increases as the child feels anxiety at the destructiveness of his or her envy, and the potential for retaliation by the idealized maternal breast.
In light of the above, it hardly needs to be said that Klein sees infancy as anything but the innocent and happy time portrayed in the popular imagination. I suspect that this may be why Kleinian theory has received a mostly lukewarm reception among psychoanalysts, despite the fact that there are occasional attempts within the profession to revive and reapply her ideas. Like most people, psychoanalysts are enamored by popular images of infant attachment as a unidimensionally loving occurrence, without the stain of things like infant rage, hate, and envy. And readers of this essay may feel likewise. Additionally, like many psychoanalysts, readers may feel that many of Klein’s conclusions about infant mental states are a real stretch. For example, how is it that typically mature, generous, and thoughtful adults can grow from the seething cauldrons of aggression that Klein describes as characteristic of infancy? After all, aren’t most people quite able to moderate their feelings of anger toward others and live with a more or less balanced view of the human situation, reconciled to the inevitable frustrations of life with others? Is it really possible that such good adjustment can evolve from the abyss of rage and longing of which Klein speaks?
Well, yes, it is true that most adults are usually able to exercise moderation in their attitudes and actions when frustrated by others. However, all of us can probably recall moments when we struggled with uncontrollably one-sided hatred of someone by whom we felt betrayed or deprived of love. This most frequently happens following the unhappy end of a love affair. Gone are both the memories of the pleasant moments and good times that we experienced with this person, replaced by astonishingly – sometimes bizarrely – one-sided feelings of hate and loathing. The one whom we once thought of in balanced terms, as largely “good” with some occasionally irksome qualities, or as a mostly decent human being whom we never expected to be perfect, is suddenly experienced as completely contemptible, a “bitch”, “loser” or worse. The ex-lover’s previous positive interactions with us are mentally reinterpreted along paranoid-schizoid lines, as being the sullied and impure expressions of deceptiveness or dishonesty.
The degree to which one’s interpretation of reality can be undermined by paranoid-schizoid psychological process can be truly amazing. Hence, many individuals in a painful break up begin to wonder aloud if their loved one was cheating all the while. States of infantile paranoiac suspicion and its persecutory anxieties are revived. What was really happening on those business trips to Cincinnati? Why did he/she have so many Facebook “friends” of the opposite sex? Like the Kleinian infant, we cannot accurately or fairly recall the past with this individual and allow it to modify our all-consuming anger; we are utterly possessed by the current hatred we feel, and are trapped in an “eternal now” as surely as any tantruming baby. Over time, of course, most of us are able to put things back into perspective and move on with our lives, sadder and (sometimes) wiser. However, I suggest that the intensity of the psychic state just described, while usually temporary, provides plausible evidence (if not proof exactly) for the accuracy of Klein’s views. They are acute regressive episodes, in which we are overtaken by the uncanny power of unconscious splitting operations and the existence of an infantile capacity for one-sided experiences of hate to which we may have previously thought we were immune. That said, if Klein is right, these affective states are permanent, albeit usually repressed features of the subterranean topography of our minds.
But the question remains: how is it possible that the usually moderate and fair-minded adult personality matures from such an arguably abysmal beginning? Simply put, it is only through dependable and empathic mothering that the child transcends the horrors of early infancy. Specifically, Klein posits that the progression beyond primitive splitting of the ego begins as soon as several months of age. Through the experience of attuned maternal care and the maturation of the cognitive abilities, the baby’s tolerance for frustration grows as he or she becomes aware of the inevitability of relief from “all bad” states, such as hunger. As development proceeds, continued positive experiences of frustration relief at the hands of caretakers are supplemented by the baby’s maturing locomotor skills, which allow him or her to independently manipulate reality in the service of facilitating instinctual satisfaction.
Real movement beyond the early paranoid-schizoid split within the psyche is evident by about eighteen months of age. Over time, the infant’s experience of dependable caretaking allows him or her to introject positive mental representations self and other. Because of this, by the toddler years the normally adjusted child is more able to practice self-soothing at times when he or she feels deprived, frustrated, or disappointed. The previous feelings of being persecuted by unrelenting states of rage and guilt over his or her destructiveness are quickly becoming relics of the past, as the child experiences the relief of finally becoming somewhat more able to put moments of frustration into perspective. That is, the child becomes more able to access an awareness of time: he or she is no longer trapped in an “eternal now”, but can more confidently recall that the future will bring about relief from present unhappiness, this thanks to the mother’s previous dependability in supplying solace during instances of overwhelming distress. The child is on the road toward knowing that bad experiences will pass, at that one only need exercise patience. This allows the toddler to be increasingly free of dependence on the mothering-one to help him or her tolerate “bad” mental states. Further, the child’s increased capacity for self-regulation allows him or her to be more physically and psychologically separate from her, as evident in the new desire to play alone for periods of time. The child’s enhanced ability to practice self-soothing allows him or her to transcend the belief that persecutory mental states are catastrophic because unending, but can be attenuated by retrieving comforting positive memories from memory.
Klein states that at this time the child experiences the genesis of the capacity for ambivalence. Specifically, he or she no longer needs to rely so exclusively on splitting experiences of self and other into “all good” and “all bad”, but begins to internalize awareness that self and other are admixtures of both, that is, that all people are at times gratifying and at other times frustrating. Among other things, this allows the child to see the mothering figure in more integrated terms, as someone who provides both pleasurable and unpleasurable moments, and hence as simultaneously “good” and “bad” in nature. Therefore, the child becomes more tolerant of the mother’s occasional failures to offer “good” experiences; he or she can exercise more patience when thwarted by the caretaker, knowing that with the passing of time the mothering-one will again show their “good” (gratifying) side. The good breast/bad breast dichotomy of early life begins to be replaced by a growing sense that they are actually one. This is related to the child’s capacity to move beyond the experience of the mother as an unintegrated collection of impersonal “parts”, such as a gratifying and frustrating breast, as he or she starts to grasp that mother is a whole human being with a more or less well-defined personality. That is, the infant’s increased integrative capacity allows for more leeway to see reality as a whole, including the psychological reality of the mother, and hence to be more reconciled to the fact that this same figure is alternately gratifying and depriving. A result of this development is that the child begins to progress beyond the need for a “pure” and unsullied experience of this figure.
Related to this, at this stage the child is less likely to manage persecutory anxiety related to the fear of retaliation by the mother by defensive splitting of the ego and projection of its elements outward. Rather, feeling less threatened by primitive fears of a vengeful caretaker, the child becomes somewhat more capable of practicing what Klein calls reparative gestures toward her, such as attempts to comfort a mother in distress by, say, offering her a hug or a favorite toy. With the development of more sophisticated language skills, the child begins to say things like “I’m sorry”, and to otherwise demonstrate realistic remorse at moments when he or she has indulged difficult or angry behavior. This is accompanied by exponential grow the ability to show gratitude to the mother. Enhanced awareness that the mother is a vulnerable living being, and not merely an extension of his or her desires, leads to the toddler’s heightened sensitivity that his or actions can cause her sadness, upset, and frustration. His or her attempts to repair damage to the mothering-one and their relationship caused by aggressive outbursts signal the arrival of the rudiments of the capacity of empathy and concern. Finally, the toddler experiences greater integration of the heretofore divided aspects of his or her subjectivity, and so is more able to withdraw projections of various dimensions of the mind onto the mother. Withdrawal of the “all good” aspects of self quell envy, making these psychic elements available to the toddler for incorporation into his or her psychic structure. This, in turn, contributes to further developments in the establishment of a coherent and dependable sense of self-esteem, one that is prevented from becoming unrealistically grandiose because it is newly balanced and modified by the child’s growing awareness that he or she is a synthesis of “good” and “bad” wishes and agendas, that is, a whole object to him or herself. This leads to increased moderation and temperance in he child’s behavior: the temper tantrums of earlier months decrease in frequency and intensity, as the child begins to grasp that a purely satisfying experience of life is not possible. At this time, the child is less driven by the need to purge his or her mind of frustrating, “bad” experiences and qualities, as he or she enjoys a greater capacity to accept and integrate these into a picture of him or herself as a whole being.
The appearance and consolidation of the more integrated ego states just described ushers the child into what Klein calls the depressive position. She chose this term to highlight the normal feeling of melancholy that the child of eighteen months or so starts to experience as they develop a more unified understanding of themselves and others. This enhanced acquaintance with the inherently disappointing aspects of reality yields more subdued emotional states, expressed in the child’s tendency to spend longer periods of time in silence, and a tendency to become tearful and clingy for no apparent reason. However, with the increased capacity to relate to the world realistically comes greater skill at managing life independently. So, for example, the child is also able to spend more time alone in quiet play at this time. He or she does not display the same need to be constantly with the mothering one, though the child often returns to her for brief periods of what has been called “emotional refueling” before again retreating into solitary play.
Overall, the child in the depressive position is on the road to developing a progressively more sophisticated understanding of reality, including the psychological realities of self and others, as containing both satisfying and frustrating attributes, that is, as being simultaneously “good” and “bad”. Seeing the world in this light has a sobering effect on the child, and so he or she loses some of the exuberance of the earlier months. However, what the child gains is the capacity for ambivalence, a mental quality that is essential for adaptation to reality and the creation of an optimally happy life in a far-from-perfect world.
A Kleinian Interpretation of Trump’s Appeal
Klein’s theory of early emotional development strikes me as an excellent venue through which to analyze and explain the character and appeal of Donald Trump’s candidacy, which, after all, is largely an expression of his personality writ large…as student activists and feminists of the late 1960’s were known to say, “The personal is political”. The surprising allure of his positions means that Trump’s personal psychology seems to have dovetailed with the private needs, frustrations, and anxieities of huge numbers of Americans. His supporters, who often enthusiastically assert that Trump openly speaks what they privately feel, are drawn to him precisely because he serves as a mouthpiece for certain unvoiced dimensions of their minds. Following Klein’s lead, I suggest that these followers readily identify with Trump because of his fearless channeling of the unconscious paranoid-schizoid anxieties that are woven into the psyche’s substrate.
Let us explore this idea further. Trump’s absolutist rhetoric implicitly challenges and rejects the moderated, reflective, and compromising stance of most other politicians, which he denounces as timid and passive, and/or as indicators of having “sold out” to dangerous ideologies. As Klein notes, in the depressive phase of development it is the acceptance of life’s limitations that yields the qualities of moderation, reflection, and a willingness to compromise. Hence, we may infer that Trump’s bombast, including his tendency to dramatically frame national problems and their solutions in “either-or” terms, is essentially a rejection of the achievements of the depressive position. Millions of Americans, who are perhaps suffering economic hardship or simply harbor generalized feelings of suspicion toward what they believe is an imposing and threatening elite social power structure, are transfixed by the seeming simplicity and forthrightness of Trump’s diatribes. They believe that he has identified the enemies and corrupting ideologies that have infected our country. They do not see his alarmist speech as immoderate, but as an appropriate response to situations that they believe are immoderately bad. His supporters relate to the dramatic aura of dread and urgency with which Trump defines the supposedly toxic forces among us and at our doors, and so they eagerly accept the radical and draconian policies that he proposes as countermeasures to these influences as being simply commonsensical, appropriate because of the direness of the threat.
In all this we see that Trump is a master at reanimating the paranoid-schizoid perception of frustrating events as “all bad”. His lack of subtlety and nuance in approaching other ideologies and cultures is related to this dynamic. Hence, for example, in this paranoid-schizoid manner of considering the world, Muslims are not viewed as they are, namely, a diverse group of individuals with very different levels of commitment to their faith, and uniquely individual attitudes toward America. Rather, they are described as uniformly all worthy of suspicion, since it is assumed that they are likely to harbor more or less identically negative, perhaps hateful attitudes toward us. True, Trump does not assert this in so many words, and even gives occasional lip service to the notion that some Muslims may be friendly toward our nation. However, it is extremely difficult to explain his proposed policy of banning all Muslims, without exception, from our shores if we do not also infer that he views all members of this human group as somehow influenced by, or familiar with an ethos of violent hatred of America, even if they may not foment this hatred personally. The provocative message here is that this entire human community is at least potentially “guilty by association”, hence, that each Muslim is an object of fear.
Following the recent mass murder committed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, by a self-styled Muslim-American follower of ISIS, Trump remarked that, in his words, “someone (in the Muslim community) knows who did this”, implying that all members of the Muslim community are at least knowledgeable about the identities of the dangerously radicalized among them. Such a statement assumes that all Muslims run in exactly the same circles, hence, that all of them at least potentially know of the terrorists in their midst. This is an assertion serving to heighten Americans’ paranoia about the entire Muslim community. Therefore, true to the logic of the paranoid-schizoid position, Trump’s rhetoric entices his supporters to perceive Muslims in undifferentiated terms, with each Muslim existing in some troubling relation to an “all bad”, that is, threatening religious value system that is a danger to the nation. A simple analogy may drive home the point. An individual points out to a neighbor a member of an identifiable racial or ethnic group and says that that person is known to live in the vicinity of criminal gangs, and has even been known to shop at the same grocery store frequented by the gangsters. The neighbor then feels heightened suspicion toward the person in question, not because any concrete or convincing evidence has been offered to warrant suspiciousness, but simply because it has been implied that living in the vicinity of criminals is an indicator that one is perhaps also a criminal. The psychological logic of Trump’s statements about Muslims proceeds similarly, working to activate his followers’ innate self-protective instincts by suggesting meaningful connections between logically unrelated facts.
Trump has expressed similar attitudes about illegal Mexican immigrants, suggesting, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, that their ranks are filled with rapists, murderers, and drug runners. His rather dubious plan to round up and deport eleven million illegal Mexican immigrants and simultaneously deny access to all other, future illegal immigrants by erecting a wall derives from the same dread of being overrun by dangerous and corrupting elements as his plan to ban Muslims from our shores. From a Kleinian perspective, these exclusionary policies are based on the wish to purge the country of those deemed to be a threat. This, in turn, is an expression of the wish to create and maintain an “all good” experience of both the self and the world: as with the young child who cannot yet form or maintain an integrated view of reality, the “bad” elements of the self, including feelings of being thwarted and frustrated by the vicissitudes of life, are projected outward, onto the environment. Once expelled, in fantasy, from the self, these disintegrated elements of mind require constant, vigilant monitoring, in the interest of self-protection. That is, the portions of subjectivity that are, in fantasy, “purged” from the self then take up existence in the outer world as paranoid objects, and are viewed with contempt and fear by the infant. This accounts, in part, for the young child’s extreme ruthlessness toward those persons in his or her world who have been selected to be the containers of these dis-integrated affective states: for example, his or her treatment of the mother can be quite unrestrained in its rage when he or she is overwhelmed by hunger or another discomfort. In this instance the mother is experienced as purely “bad” (recall here Klein’s theory of the “bad breast”, which is related to the experience of the frustrating aspects of the mother figure). This being so, the young child treats the frustrating, paranoid object with a hatred the purity of which is unmatched by anything in adulthood, with the possible exception of certain adult paranoid psychotic states. In this case, we might see the infant flail angrily during feeding time, and/or biting the mother’s breast or bottle.
You may have already guessed where I am taking this argument: arguably, Donald Trump’s paranoid withdrawal from certain threatening “others” is a thinly disguised version of the aforementioned infant paranoid-schizoid mental state. Further, the ruthless manner in which he feels free to treat these “bad” objects – bringing back, as he puts it, “waterboarding and worse”, and insulting the mother of a Muslim-American soldier by implying that she is devoid of independent thoughts – is remarkable by any measure. Trump’s uncontained disdain for those who oppose his worldview is also expressed in the insults he hurls at political opponents. For example, he demeans Marco Rubio as “little Marco”, and attempts to symbolically castrate him in public; and Hillary Clinton is not simply someone with whom he disagrees, but a “liar” and, as of the end of August 2016, a “bigot”. The latter insult replays a pattern in Trump’s rhetoric of attempting to injure others with the same kinds of words and/or behaviors that he believes, correctly or not, was originally directed at him. Specifically, for months Clinton has characterized Trump’s worldview as bigoted, and now he returns exactly the same insult. And earlier this year Trump initially refused to endorse House Speaker Republican Paul Ryan’s bid for reelection to his seat, thus inflicting upon Ryan the same treatment that Ryan dished out to Trump when he hesitated to endorse Trump’s candidacy due to the recklessness of his speech.
Freud refers to the above, “tit-for-tat” behavior as reflecting the “Talion Law” of “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”, that is, a retaliation authorized by law, in which the punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the injury initially suffered. Freud conceived of this variety of moral reasoning as characteristic of more primitive mental states. From a Kleinian perspective, Trump’s reliance on the “Talion Law”, particularly upon its ethos of revenge, is a telltale sign of the operation of the paranoiac and schizoid anxieties of early childhood. Klein’s theorizing about this matter is rather weighty and complex, but well worth the effort to grasp. To summarize it as succinctly as possible: Klein thinks that any unusually provocative behavior, whatever a person’s age, represents (a) an attempt to discharge unwanted, intolerable mental states from the self, (b) an attempt to, in fantasy, “deposit” these into another psyche for “safekeeping”, as it were, (c) an attempt to communicate the experience of the troubling mental state to another by stirring up the similar feelings in him or her, and (d) influence or apply interactional pressure to the other person to respond in a manner that restores the feeling of being understood and cared for. Following Klein’s lead, other psychoanalysts have coined the rather dense term “projective identification” to describe this form of communication. This moniker simply means that first the “bad” mental state is projected outward, onto another individual, who “holds” it for the individual, metaphorically speaking, enabling him or her to maintain some form of contact with this now-disowned aspect of self, as noted above.
Now, bear in mind that the interpersonal process just described is quite subtle, and difficult to clearly or easily identify, even by seasoned analysts. This is especially true when one is the recipient of a projective identification, as these potent interpersonal forces take the recipient’s ego by storm; one minute all feels normal while engaging with an individual, and the next one is beset by uncanny feelings of fear, anger, etc. Further obstructing easy identification of this process is the fact that people who operate from a largely paranoid-schizoid vision of the world often seem quite confident about their manner of treating others. They are not in the least critically self-observant of their “take” of reality, which often causes others to feel that perhaps it is they who don’t see things realistically.
The individual who operates from a paranoid-schizoid vision of reality may appear to be utterly self-confident about the accuracy of their vision of reality (as is often the case with Trump), and as completely independent of the need for agreement with, much less approval by others. However, the truth is that he or she is actually unconsciously quite tied to others opinions about, and behaviors toward him. This is due to the incomplete, hence fragile state of the ego at the paranoid-schizoid stage of development. The person ruled by paranoid-schizoid anxieties does not, indeed, cannot experience ambivalence, and so often comes across as unusually, even incredibly self-certain about issues that naturally give others reason to pause and reconsider the evidence. Such bouyant self-assuredness can create doubt in others, who begin to wonder if perhaps their own more cautious and uncertain view represents some defect in reality testing. However, the self-doubt that the paranoid-schizoid person creates in others through their superficial self-assurance is merely the result of a projective identification: the paranoid-schizoid person’s ego fragility and associated self-doubt is unconsciously “passed on” to the other through interactional pressure. The recipient of this potent projection takes it in via introjection, and hence falls prey to the unpleasant, disavowed aspects of the paranoid-schizoid person’s mind, suddenly and unexpectedly. At this point, the recipient of the projection may scratch their head and wonder aloud, “Am I the crazy one here?”.
The individual who regresses to the paranoid-schizoid stage, perhaps under the pressure of some interpersonal disappointment or other frustration, relives the young child’s psychological dependence upon the maternal ego (in its mental representation as the “good breast”) to bolster and support his or her sense of self. In this regressed state the mental self-representation is porous, permeable, and extremely dependent on the maternal object (or her symbolic equivalent), hence highly reactive to any real or perceived frustrating, emotionally “unattuned” aspects of her behavior. It is when she seems to lack such attunement that she appears in the child’s mind in her incarnation as the “bad/frustrating breast”.
In such an interpersonal situation, the young child or adult possessed by paranoid-schizoid anxieties instinctively resorts to actions so as to communicate his or her distress to the maternal figure and so restore the experience of the “good” breast. The child does so through such behaviors as crying, screaming, and/or flailing about; the adult beset by these same primitive anxieties more typically becomes defensive, argumentative, and/or provocative, sometimes to the point of cruelty. Despite their superficial differences, both child and adult share the same motivation in this situation: to communicate a state of distress by acting in such a way as to induce these same feelings in the mothering-one or her symbolic equivalent, giving her a small “dose” of their experience, so as to bring her behavior back into the mode of support and compliance upon which the child or adult is dependent
Children frequently use projective identification to convey difficult emotional states and apply interpersonal pressure to their caretakers to respond with concern. For this we typically forgive them, in light of our empathic grasp of their limitations in the capacity to practice emotional self-regulation. In contrast, it is usually the case that adults who rely heavily on projective identification to communicate troubling aspects of their emotional lives end up driving away the very love and concern that they need to feel empathically “mirrored”. As we all know, most other adults will only indulge being provoked and sniped at so much by a peer before they withdraw in helpless despair or anger. Trump’s notorious inability to put frustrating interpersonal encounters into perspective speaks to the underlying fragility of the paranoid-schizoid position. This profound psychic vulnerability is evident in Trump’s childlike inconsolability in the face of criticism and/or challenges that he respond to what most consider to be reasonable questions about his candidacy, and his often ruthless retaliatory responses to those by whom he feels censured, correctly or not.
Another characteristic of Trump’s interpersonal style is his notable grandiosity. From a Kleinian perspective, such ego inflation follows naturally as the child, in fantasy, purges the mind of “bad”, frustrating experiences by projecting them outward, onto others. Relocating the source of “bad” experiences outside of one’s mind leaves the individual in a euphoric state, one characterized by a sense of invulnerability and unlimited goodness (albeit one that is easily disrupted by the demands of reality). This would seem to explain Trump’s statement that he is so ardently loved by his supporters that, as he put it, “I could murder fifty people on 5th Avenue and get away with it.” It may also illuminate an unconscious meaning of Trump’s enthusiastic vow to “make America great again”; from a Kleinian perspective, this slogan appeals to the paranoid-schizoid quest to return to an “all-good”, pre-ambivalent and euphoric experience of the world. In all this we see yet further expressions of the splitting of the ego that is the hallmark of the paranoid-schizoid position.
As of this writing, Trump’s campaign staff are showing real concern about the negative effects of their candidate’s vitriol on his polling numbers. As a result, they have undertaken what some have called an “intervention” of the kind enacted by the family and/or friends of self-destructive alcoholics. These staff members seek to alert Trump to the alienating effects of his free-wheeling, unrestrained comments on voters. Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks, thought endearing and “genuine” by his die-hard fans, do not play well to larger, more representative cross-sections of Americans. These voters actually value courtesy, restraint, and temperance, and are not impressed by “genuine” self-expression that is genuinely crude and/or hateful. So, faced with falling poll numbers, Trump staffers have insisted to their boss that he adopt and stick to the use of prepared scripts in his speeches in the interest of reigning in his habit of introducing impromptu, divisive remarks into his addresses. as well as to simply keep him “on message”, rather than perpetually being seduced by the allure of angry forays into persecutory themes. Trump has apparently agreed to this policy, at least in principle, despite his earlier characterization of a scripted approach as “boring”. So at the time of this writing he is likely to be seen reading from teleprompters and written materials at rallies. However, even now he continues to have difficulty confining himself to prepared remarks, and continues to deviate from this structured approach by hurling unrehearsed barbs and jabs at selected targets in the course of his presentations, to the delight of his core constituency and the despair of his campaign staff
At the heart of Trump’s handlers’ anxiety about his diatribes is their awareness that his remarks convey to many voters a troubling lack of concern for other people. As Klein notes, the capacity for concern is the great achievement of the resolution of paranoid-schizoid anxieties and the entry into the depressive position. As noted earlier, she asserts that at this time the young child begins to understand that the maternal figure is a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being, rather than simply a depersonalized extension of his or her wishes. The child in the depressive position, faced with this nascent realization of the limitations of the mothering one’s humanity, begins to feel the birth of the capacity for empathy and concern for her, and, by extension, others. This represents the start of the young child’s capacity for entry into the human community, one which is supported by the abilities for mutuality, tolerance, and concern that first appear in Klein’s depressive position. From a Kleinian perspective, Trump’s advisors are attempting to corral the paranoid-schizoid elements in their nominee’s personality by enforcing reliance on external structural guides, such as the use of prepared remarks that, it is hoped, will at least lessen the possibility of an untemepered or cruel remark making its way into the address.
Telling in terms of Trumps’ emotional development is the fact that it is this same use of external structures to contain certain behaviors that are the treatment of choice for individuals suffering from severe personality disorders, as seen on psychiatric hospital inpatient units, for example. For such persons, the routine and rules of the inpatient unit helps contain their impulsive and self-destructive proclivity to action, providing a supplemental environmental support that compensates for their lack of internal self-regulation and concern for others.
So, in summary, Trump’s handlers are desperately trying to repackage their candidate as someone who is in fact capable of empathy, concern and temperance, the latter quality being what most Americans consider reflects an appropriately “Presidential” quality of personality, one that their candidate has sorely lacked throughout his campaign. It is doubtful that any one of these handlers feels that they are actually influencing the personal style of their candidate by these superficial accommodations. Rather, I suspect that the goal is to place restraints on Trump’s tendency to rant impulsively sufficient to create the illusion of someone with empathy and sober self-restraint, or, in Kleinian terms, someone who has successfully negotiated the paranoid-schizoid persecutory anxieties of infancy.
The most recent permutations of this attempt to portray Trump as a more reasonable and empathic person is his brief trip to Mexico, where he attempted to undo the damage to his candidacy caused by his vitriolic attacks on undocumented Mexican immigrants, and his visits to African-American churches and gatherings designed to convey a new, “kinder and gentler” persona to this community, about whom he has shown no interest or empathy for many months. That is to say, Trump’s advisors are scrambling to convince the American public that their man does possess the emotional maturity, particularly the capacities for moderation and empathic emotional dialogue, that is necessary to meaningfully participate in the human community.
However, the actual nature of Trump’s personality seems to always find a way to express itself, as when during his recent Mexican trip he attempted to repair his abysmal relations with this nation by suggesting in a non-specific way that he “loves” the Mexican people (implying, I suppose, that merely being loved by Donald Trump should be more than sufficient to cause those subject to his wrathful remarks to forgive and forget), and that he employs many Mexican-Americans in his various business ventures. Clearly, he was oblivious to the condescension in these comments, which are arguably expressions of the profound narcissism and grandiosity of the paranoid-schizoid position, in which the child can only understand the significance of others’ roles in his or her life by magically incorporating them as appendages into an idealized, “all-good” mental representation of him or herself.
Obviously, Trump’s advisors earnestly seek to have their candidate make reparative gestures, to use Klein’s term, to those that he has injured. However, it seems that their efforts may be doomed to failure, given the Republican nominee’s intransigent allegiance to the logic of the paranoid-schizoid position. And, of course, let us not forget the fact that, despite all of his overtures to those that he has continually demeaned over the last year – most notably Muslims, Mexicans, and women – Trump has yet to once say to anyone the two words that Klein says are the surest sign of having entered into the depressive position: “I’m sorry”.
So, all that said, let’s consider a more serious potential consequence of ceding the Presidency to someone lacking in moderation, the capacity for ambivalence, and empathy. The possibilities for social and political division under the leadership of such a person are so many that they probably deserve their own essay. Here I will address only one of these, an outcome with perhaps the most seriously destructive social consequences. It is one with psychological roots in what I have earlier described as Trump’s nativism, specifically, his enthrallment to a vision of a “purified” America. This is Trump’s notion of a nostalgic return to a nation cleansed of subversive elements, and so restored to the “great” state that he insists was lost due, in part, to the introduction of foreigners into America’s social fabric. Here I want to explore some of the more disturbingly undemocratic possibilities of allowing such an agenda to find a place in national policy. Doing so illustrates the practical applicability of applying psychological personality theories, such as Klein’s, to the analysis of social and political movements and their figureheads.
Let us recall that among the main characteristics Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position is an overwhelming sense of persecutory anxiety. While the infant experiences him or herself as tormented by external forces, Klein suggests that this sense of persecution is due largely to their inability to form and maintain an integrated experience of their own inner world, some of which is subjectively bad due to environmental frustration and the seemingly ominous nature of their destructive instincts. The infant seeks to free him or herself from this situation by projecting the intolerable, “bad” elements of self outward, onto the mothering figure. However, in so doing, the child inadvertently creates the vision of the depriving and sinister bad maternal object. Further splitting of the mental image of this figure into “bad” (depriving and sinister) and “good” (gratifying and nurturing) elements ensues, as the infant tries to quell paranoid anxieties related to the bad maternal figure by creating the illusion of an “all good” caretaking object, one uncontaminated by aggression. Herein lies the basis for much of what will later become the phenomenon of adult nostalgia: the nostalgic adult looks back in time, and, under the influence of unconscious longings for an “all good” experience of existence, imagines a time in which he or she was a happier and more innocent being, untouched by the complexities of life, and more or less at peace in an environment that is free from the stain of dread, anger, and frustration.
It is to this, developmentally early vision of reality that Trump’s nativism appeals. Derived from the logic of the paranoid-schizoid position, it is a vision of life that sees the present life as spoiled and sullied by unempathic bad objects conceived to be “out there”, in the environment, their origins in the individual’s psyche having long ago undergone repression and/or dissociation. The nostalgic individual imagines and seeks a return to an idealized “golden era”, when it is imagined that one’s experience of society was pure and simple.
Now, we all like to take trips down memory lane, and doing so is often necessary as a break from the disappointments of adult life. However, the adult who is continually subjected to disillusionment may unwittingly give up on life in this world, and cling fervently to a hoped-for return to a lost, Eden-like state. It is here that we find an important cause of certain messianic social movements: when large numbers of people experience repeated blows to their sense of effectiveness and mastery of the world, they may begin to seek, en masse, for a powerful, often charismatic figure to deliver them from this unhappy state, and return them to an idealized earlier state of gratification from which they imagine they were cast out.
One of many dangers in this perspective is that it refutes the inevitable paradoxes and complexities of life in the real world. Hence, such movements are often anti-intellectual to the point that anyone who tries to inject a note of caution or reflection into its messianic agenda is viewed with suspicion, as perhaps an overly cerebral or cowardly “spoiler” of a truly revolutionary and inspired counterassault on the disappointments of reality. Related to this, such movements tend to overvalue and even idealize a leader’s strong emotional conviction as providing the necessary and sufficient criteria to warrant one’s allegiance. For this reason, its members tend to see a charismatic figurehead’s emotion-filled hyperbole, not as a sign of self-indulgent grandiosity, or a lack of expertise or competence in the real world, but as evidence of his or her forthrightness and genuineness. For this reason, such charismatic individuals are often excused from the requirement to speak logically, show an intellectual understanding of the issues at hand, and make decisions in an appropriately tentative way. Rather, affect carries the day; the raw emotive power of the leader’s speech alone becomes reason enough to swear devotion to him or her. We may infer that the adherents of such a leader have fallen into an idealizing relationship to this figure’s apparent sense of freedom from the bouts of indecision, need to weigh different arguments, and pressure to moderate the intensity of deeply-felt commitments that support any successful group social or political undertaking. Such an individual has seemingly thrown off the chains of the Kleinian depressive position, with its nagging guilt and injunctions to consider the effect of one’s actions on others.
The Social Context of Trump’s Populism
A number of factors have laid the groundwork for growth of a populist political movement such as Trump’s. Some of these are economic: the US is currently on a slow recovery course from a devastating recession in 2008. While economic indicators are generally hopeful, the fact remains that millions of working-class Americans have yet to recover from the economic maelstrom of this event. Such individuals are understandably angry, feeling that they followed all the rules, and trusted their government to protect them from hardship by adequately regulating financial institutions, only to find that playing by the rules goes unrewarded, and that no such government oversight of financial institutions existed, thus creating the conditions for a collapse of the markets.
Dovetailing with the financial pressures on the working-class is the demise of a predominantly white, that is, Northern European Protestant America. The racial composition of the nation is changing drastically, with Hispanics now poised to become the dominant American ethnic group. The election of an African-American, Barack Obama, to the Presidency in 2008 was a cause for celebration to many Americans, but, for others, a cause for fear and resentment related to the loss of the familiar paternal white males that have presided over the nation since its birth. For those attached to the notion of an unchanging American social order, this transformation in values and agendas could not be more relentless or disorienting: the creation of a national health care system (stirring fears of menacing “big government” intrusion into private life), the legalization of gay marriage, the waning of laws against the possession and use of marijuana, and the resurgence of an active African-American civil rights movement have acted in unison to compound many white Americans’ sense that they no longer recognize the nation into which they were born. And in the background of all this are the traumatic events of September 11, 2001, from which I daresay the nation has still not recovered, due, in part, to the many ensuing years of threats of assault by self-described “Islamic” jihadists.
Nativism flourishes in nations whose citizens have suffered profound disillusionments. In this circumstance many people seek out a self-assured figure like Trump to restore their sense of pride in themselves and the nation. As noted above, such leaders often resurrect the idea of a lost “golden era” of security and safety to which disillusioned followers can return. This return to an allegedly simpler and happier time is accomplished by cleansing society of the corrupt influences that the messianic leader identifies as having ushered in the state of social decline. Once under the spell of a wish to “purify” the social order, many people are prone to support political agendas that single out ethnic, racial, and/or religious groups as the cause of their unhappiness. In Kleinian terms, once having “purged” the self by projecting the intolerably negative aspects of our inner worlds onto these social groups, we experience them as malevolent and threatening. Hence, these persecutory “invaders”must continually monitored and controlled, we believe. This paranoid-schizoid stance toward these groups is potentially insidious, in that it can easily evolve into a rationale for ruthless violence against them.
Seen in this light, Trump’s assertion that trespassing hordes of illegal Mexican immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens and introducing crime into our streets, his plan to round up and deport millions of undocumented Mexicans, his pronouncement that Muslim-Americans should be closely monitored for ties to terrorist groups, and his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country solely on the basis of their religion, are not merely hyperbolic rants. Rather, these are exactly the kinds of accusations that fascist leaders level against certain sectors of their societies, and which often allow them to rise to positions of leadership. Like Trump, fascist figureheads often attract a following because they promise to return a society to an imagined former state of grandeur. This goal is accomplished by expelling or otherwise “purifying” the social order of these inferior elements, often through shockingly inhumane methods. Arguably, in this phenomenon we see Klein’s theory of the splitting of the ego writ large, with the desire to reestablish a decontaminated, grandiose, “all good” ego identity playing out on a collective scale.
Trump and Fascist Ideology
Personally, I am not of the mind that Trump’s populism can become as dangerously toxic as, say, the fascism of Hitler or Mussolini during the 1930’s and 40’s. I hold this opinion for several reasons. First, our nation has had a generally positive experience welcoming vast numbers of immigrants from different racial, ethnic, religious, and sociocultural backgrounds, and incorporating them into the social order as full-fledged members of the American social milieu. I remain optimistic that this successful experience of participatory democracy will serve as a dependable bulwark against any movement that might demonize one or more subgroups as unfit to share in the American dream. (Obviously, there have been periods of time in which various subgroups have been subject to discrimination and even brutal violence at the hands of dominant American ruling classes. However, it seems that the long arc of our nation’s history bends toward justice, an aspect of which is the eventual inclusion of newcomers into the American social fabric.)
Second, our nation has never suffered the kind of devastating collective disillusionment that typically sets the stage for an upsurge of the nativist resentments driving fascist social movements. Such profound disillusionment seems to be a necessary ingredient for the unfolding of a fascism that is pure, unrestrained, and ultimately toxic. For example, Germans’ experience of their country’s socioeconomic collapse following their humiliating defeat in the first world war created fertile ground for the growth of Hitler’s National Socialist party during the 1930’s. Thankfully, the U.S. has never suffered the kind of total socioeconomic devastation necessary to facilitate the growth of a fascism as virulent as Nazism.
That said, one cannot help but notice that Trump’s populist rhetoric shares troubling similarities with the fascist vision of a “purified” social order, one restored to an imaginary former state of glory by the expulsion of what are deemed inferior elements, be these sociocultural, religious, racial, and/or ethnic. For example, Hitler became the leader of Germany in a free and democratic election, a position he achieved largely on the strength of promises to return the nation to an idealized earlier state of prestige, strength, and unity of purpose. It is disturbing to consider that Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” appeals to this same vision of returning to a former, illusory time of innocence and unalloyed group solidarity, the “good old days” depicted in Norman Rockwell’s paintings. As history teaches us, the quest to resurrect a fantasied period of wholesomeness is often the breeding ground for outbreaks of genocide, the result of entire populations succumbing to primitive paranoiac anxieties that malevolent members dwell among them. Hitlers’ genocidal fury toward the Jews was fueled in large part by such a paranoiac vision of reality; his “final solution” sought to return Germany to an imagined state of racial purity that featured in its now threatened cultural superiority. In this way, the misty-eyed wistfulness with which Nazism portrayed its mythic past coincided with the barbarity of its program to purge the nation of Jews, prompting analyst C.G. Jung to suggest that, in his words, “sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality”.
The posters on the left are from Nazi Germany of the 1930s. As noted above, Germany was ripe for the outbreak of fascism following its humiliating defeat in the first world war. With its economy devastated and millions of Germans suffering financial ruin, many were only too happy to support the National Socialist parties’ grandiose, neo-Wagnerian celebration of raw power as the new measure of values. Starting from the top, the first two posters clearly portray the fascist idealization of racial purity, namely, the idealized “cleansed” self of Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position. The chiseled, marble-white figures in these posters make unsubtle reference to the ancient Germanic lore of the Teutonic warrior classes. As such, they suggest the prospect of a return to an idealized ancient time, when the Germanic peoples were supposed to have lived simply, communing with the amoral spiritual forces of nature. This is a narrative evoking a mythical earlier era, one in which the noble spirit of the Aryan warrior and its ethos of “might makes right” thrived, prior to the emergence of what Nazism saw as the unnatural and soul-crippling moral constraints of modernity, such as the democratic doctrines of the equality of all people, tolerance for diverse views, and the rejection of the notion of a privileged, “spiritually superior” aristocratic elite.
The third poster exemplifies Nazi scapegoating of Jews, the ethnic group onto which Germans projected blame for Germany’s sufferings. Hence, for example, the nation’s socioeconomic collapse following the first world war was ascribed to the influence of unsavory and traitorous Jewish social influences, represented in the poster by the outsized accusing finger, expressing the verdict of the German people against the greedy Jewish power broker. Capitalizing on historical strains of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s rhetoric served to recast German Jew as a racially inferior clique whose presence sullied and degraded what he proclaimed was the inherent superiority of the German people. From a Kleinian perspective, this may be understood as Nazism’s proscription for cleansing and purifying the national group identity, mastering collective narcissistic injury by splitting off unbearable collective feelings of inferiority and projecting these onto the Jewish populace. In this way, Jews acted as the carriers of Germany’s disowned self-contempt, a defensive splitting of the German “group ego” serving to revive the grandiose experience of collective virtuosity that Klein identified as characteristic of infant mental states.
It seems untenable to suggest that Trump’s nativism is cast in the same mold as that of the Nazis. However, it is unsettling to consider that his admiration for authoritarian rulers such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung-In is reminiscent of Hitler’s idealization of the iron-fisted and despotic conquerors from its past.
Melanie Klein’s theory of development offers new ways to think about, not only the dynamics of individual psychological development, but the manner in which these same dynamics are expressed on the level of society. America is currently in a state of tremendous social transformation, as the old ruling class order of white males is challenged by the exponential growth of Hispanic immigrants, and the expanding presence of women, Blacks, and homosexuals in our social discourse. Such transformative moments sometimes may herald the appearance of a new, more tolerant and inclusive social order. However, they also tend to arouse the ire of the dominant social class, who invariably resist any change that might remove them from the privileged position of social power that they have always enjoyed. Trump’s political aspirations may be the last gasp of a passing social order, one attempting to maintain the status quo. Kleinian theory alerts us to the unconscious sources of power structures, an understanding of which may embolden us to analyze them intelligently while avoiding their seductions.